Professional Development Instead of Grad School

If you are looking for further education but are not sure enrolling in graduate school is the answer right now, an option is to pursue professional development instead of grad school. These workshops are offered by technical assistance providers, foundations, and community groups. These workshops are typically a single training or session to develop a specific skill set or knowledge base, external to your local academic community.

Benefits of taking workshops

Taking professional development workshops as needed has manifold benefits. It saves you time compared to enrolling in a course, certification, or graduate degree program, because workshops typically meet once for a few hours, and any homework you walk away with is yours to create and complete. You probably won’t get a grade for finishing workshops, but you will acquire the knowledge.

At a workshop, not only is the information you’ll pick up practical, but it’s also likely to be community-specific. For example if the workshop is about marketing, you might get ideas for marketing your programs in the local media, leads on local graphic designers whom you could work to design materials, and so on. Your facilitator will have developed or chosen your materials, and you’re not likely to be working from a textbook. Often workshops have a hands-on practice component, which allows you to try out a new skill under the guidance of your instructor before having to perfect the skill on the job. For example, a workshop on conflict resolution might involve role-playing a mediation in which you could practice getting the two conflicted parties to come to some kind of solution.

Because you would be taking the workshops with other professionals who are looking for the same type of information or skills as you, community workshops are useful for networking. You’ll meet people you can learn from and who can learn from you in return. Meeting only once for a few hours does not give you the extended time, however, to build relationships with workshop classmates. You’ll have to be intentional about following up with new contacts.

The best workshops include highly relevant, practical information. Good facilitators include “take aways”—new ways of doing things that you can implement as soon as you get back in the office. The workshop format typically does not lend itself to the exploration of theory, but if that is important to you, ask the facilitator to recommend books you can find later at the library.

Finally, if you are in a career transition or looking to play a new role at work (for example, you’d like to begin writing grants in addition to your work as program manager), taking professional development workshops demonstrate your interest in and commitment to build new, necessary skills. Having the right workshops in your dossier may help you make the case for the transition.

Compared to enrolling in a university course, a certification program, or a graduate degree program, attending workshops now and again as needed is certainly less expensive overall, requires less of a commitment of your time, and is more immediately applicable to your community and possibly your career goals.

Who offers professional development workshops?

Management support or technical assistance organizations that focus on supporting nonprofit professionals offer workshops on a range of topics. These workshops may focus on such issues as administering budgets, using new technology, and being a more effective manager of staff and volunteers. To find a support organization near you, see the sidebar at right.

Similarly, local foundations often organize professional development workshops that are open to organizations they fund as well as organizations they don’t currently fund. To find out about these workshops, you could start by finding local foundations in your area and searching their websites.

The local chapter of an appropriate professional association in your field might offer conferences or regular meetings with guest speakers on relevant topics. Regional and national associations typically have annual meetings with workshops as well.

Finding local courses

These articles also discuss the process of communicating your experience and abilities to the admissions team:

  • The Nonprofit FAQ’s list of management support organizations, alphabetical by state (A-M) and (N-Z)
  • See Idealist’s list of professional associations
  • See a list of professional associations from The Nonprofit FAQ

Another place to find regular professional development gatherings is with community groups that meet regularly, like foreign language conversation groups in your community, alumni groups of AmeriCorps and Teach For America, and Toastmasters (an association that helps people develop public speaking and leadership skills). Often the public library will offer lunch-time speaker series and other community events, which you can inquire about at the information desk. Finally, Whole Foods Market and other community-minded businesses offer workshops on a variety of topics including professional development.

Professional associations, foundations, and other groups that offer professional development opportunities may hold workshops the old-fashioned way: in a room where you meet people face-to-face, converse, and even eat refreshments! Other times these groups may hold the workshops via a web connection and conference call—as a “webinar.” Webinars are often easier to access (you don’t have to leave your home or office), and typically feature a speaker who narrates a Powerpoint presentation and may invite participation from workshop attendees over the phone or by instant messaging. You may learn to prefer one type of workshop over the others.

Where to find workshops and community groups

Besides the specific organizations listed above, many others all over the world post their events, including workshops, on If you don’t already get email alerts from Idealist about events coming up in your city, go to your control panel and edit your email alert options. If you are not a member of Idealist yet, please join us (it’s free!).

Most communities have some kind of listserv these days to keep the nonprofit community in touch. The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network is a national association with local chapters that often host an active listserv. Similarly, weekly or daily newspapers often feature community calendars. If you don’t know where workshops are advertised in your community, ask for leads at your local nonprofit association, at work, or during a volunteer activity. Someone will know.


If you seek skills and information relevant to your work, and you do not need a degree, certification, or a semester-long course to acquire them, you might find what you need by taking a professional development workshop through a local organization every once in a while. Workshops save time and money, offer relevant information, and give you a chance to network and practice your new skill.