Can My Graduate Degree Be in a Different Field than My Undergraduate Major?

grad school different

Written by Jared Goff

At the age of 18 or 19 years old, knowing what is just the right major in order to find that meaningful and fulfilling job to last a lifetime is for many an unreasonable expectation. According to the best study, 30% of all undergraduates change majors within the first three years of enrollment.

Around 10% of undergraduates change majors more than once. It’s hard to know how a future career is going to look before you’ve had a chance to get a feel for it.

For many, graduate studies are based upon and rooted in the same field (and oftentimes the very same specialization) as a person’s undergraduate studies. However, sometimes people take a different direction after they’ve already earned their degree and want to pursue graduate studies in a field different from their undergraduate major.

If you are one of these people, this article is for you! It provides answers to some common questions for those looking to enter graduate studies outside their undergraduate education.

For additional information, see: 20 High Paying Jobs That Require A Master’s Degree

Some main points to watch out for

overlapping degrees

Know the extent of overlap between your undergraduate education and potential fields of graduate studies. While any changes in educational direction from undergraduate to graduate studies make a seamless transition unlikely, there are degrees of similarity between fields.

The amount of overlap will both make any transition smoother and will help decrease possible gaps in graduate studies preparation that will require filling to successfully complete a graduate degree in an area different from your undergraduate studies.

In another FAQ we listed the four main fields of academic study as:

  • Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Formal Sciences
  • Natural Sciences
  • Professions and Applied Sciences

Although there is a great deal of diversity within each of these main fields, being aware of how your undergraduate degree fits one of these areas in comparison to your desired graduate degree will help you gain an idea of your prospects as a graduate student.

Admittedly, these distinctions aren’t perfect guides. For example, medicine and jurisprudence are both professions, and there isn’t a great deal of overlap between them in terms of formal schooling. So, you’ll need to inquire a little more deeply to determine if and how close your undergraduate degree corresponds to your graduate interests.

Some rules of thumb can be established on the basis of the above breakdown.

  • The transition to a different field of graduate studies within the humanities and social sciences will usually be quite smooth

A common basis in history, language arts, literature, rooted in a common interest in the dynamics of individual, social, and cultural dynamics and development gives all disciplines across the humanities and social science a general basis.

Each discipline, it is true, will have its own special focus, methodology, and inflection. However, switching from, say, an undergraduate degree in history, to graduate studies in philosophy, will be less of a leap than switching from a formal science such as physics to graduate work in German literature and vice versa. The last example brings up an important qualification.

Languages are very specific and labor-intensive. Thus, to move into a graduate language program from another educational background, even in the humanities, would be difficult apart from knowledge of the language gained through other means than formal college-level studies.

  • Within the formal sciences and natural sciences, there is flexibility for cross-over. Prerequisites specific to the new graduate degree program will most likely be needed either for acceptance or full status in the program.

The general basis across most undergraduate scientific fields that include advanced mathematics and at least an introduction to physics and chemistry makes moving from one area of academic study to another quite possible. However, in terms of specialized knowledge, there can be a greater distance between fields in the natural sciences.

Whether you making within formal or natural science or transitioning from one general area of science to another, there may be specific prerequisites that must be fulfilled. A common basis in academic rigor and the application of the scientific method brings these different areas of study together.

  • The graduate options, potential careers, and needed undergraduate education vary widely when it come to professions and applied sciences. Hence, this category is too inclusive of a wide range of fields to offer too much precision.

Most often a professional or an applied science graduate program will not exactly correspond to an undergraduate degree program. However, as in the case will many of the other crossovers, it is common for undergraduate study to correspond to the graduate program.

For example, entry into a J.D. (Doctor of Jurisprudence) graduate, professional degree program to become a lawyer will be preceded by preparation in the humanities and social sciences. Admission to an M.D. program, in turn, will be based in part on an undergraduate degree in formal, natural, or applied sciences.

Examinations

graduate exam or test

There are currently several examinations that either measure potential graduate students’ readiness within a given general area or field of study, or their readiness for taking on graduate studies in a specific professional field such as medicine, law, or business. Not every graduate or professional program will require a corresponding graduate exam or test. However, most reputable programs will require one of these examinations as part of the application process.

Often, but not always, graduate programs will require an undergraduate degree in the same or related field. In the absence of this necessary undergraduate degree, admission can be granted on a full or conditional basis. In these circumstances conditional, pending the completion of prerequisites for the program.

An excellent score on the related Graduate School Readiness exam will help admissions boards vote in favor of acceptance for students shifting to a graduate program that is different from their undergraduate preparation.

There are four main graduate tests:

  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)
  • Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

The GRE is the most widely accepted and most commonly taken graduate exam. It has three main areas in which it tests students’ readiness for graduate studies:

  • Verbal Reasoning,
  • Quantitative Analysis,
  • Analytical Writing.

Although there are specific tests designed for applicants to Law School or Business School in both fields acceptance of the GRE is increasing.

The GMAT is the most widely accepted admissions test for MBA programs. Over 200,000 new MBA applicants take this test every year. Unlike some of the other graduate tests, the GMAT allows for the text to be taken online. The GMAT tests in four main areas:

  • Analytical Writing,
  • Integrated Reasoning,
  • Quantitative Reasoning,
  • Verbal Reasoning.

The LSAT is designed to test readiness for law school in the U.S. and Canada as well as an increasing number of additional countries. The skills evaluated are specifically designed to test an applicant’s readiness for the first year of law school. The test has two parts:

  • Multiple-choice exam, testing reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning;
  • LSAT writing.

This test is the only one of its kind that is accepted by all ABA-accredited (American Bar Association) law schools. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the test can be taken online and remotely.

The MCAT is the final graduate test that needs to be included in a list of this such as this. It is designed to help determine an applicant’s readiness for the rigors of medical school and/or other fields of medicine. Almost all U.S. and Canadian medical colleges require scores from the MCAT.

The MCAT is divided into four areas of testing:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

Look at Admission Requirements and Talk with Advisors

college admissions requirements

Admissions processes and requirements are fairly standard across the different areas of graduate studies and have a common basis. In terms of a common basis, an undergraduate degree is required to be admitted to a graduate program, regardless of the area of study. (This, too, has exceptions. Some graduate programs will allow work/life experience to count towards admission.)

Often graduate programs will require a degree in the same field or a related field. However, especially in the humanities and certain professional degree programs, applicants with degrees in other fields will be accepted. In these situations, a good GRE or LSAT school is a must to help convince admissions representatives that aren’t quite sure about your preparation.

When students are accepted with a degree in a different field than the graduate program to which they’re applying, the college or university department will require prerequisite courses to be taken or challenged to either be admitted full standing in the program or to begin coursework in the degree program itself.

Each institution will have different standards and ways in which they are willing to work with applicants. So, if you’re not a “perfect” fit for a degree program that can check all the boxes, just realize that it never hurts to ask admissions counselors at your schools of choice about other criteria that you can use to show your readiness for their graduate program.

Certifications and Life/Work Experience

certifications work experience

In some professional as well as well applied science graduate programs, such as certain medical fields and business, work experience can help you qualify for admittance to a master’s level or doctoral level degree program. In these fields, competency is clearly manifested through long-term success and the respect of colleagues this brings.

So, you may have a BS in Earth Science, for example, but took a job in the business sector, found you were good at it and stuck around. Now, several years down the road opportunities for advancement are arising and threatening to pass you by because you don’t have an MBA. You may think not having a degree already in the field would make admittance into an MBA program impossible or at best very unlikely.

Before you settle for non-advancement, study for and do well on the GRE and/or GMAT and speak with admissions representatives about considering work experience.

Prerequisites and Additional Courses

prerequisites and additional courses

A final consideration if you’re wanting to make a switch in fields from undergraduate to graduate studies is to be willing, if you’ve already graduated, to take remedial and/or prerequisite courses as a condition for admittance to your desired graduate program.

Are you not yet graduated, but are too far into your degree to change majors? Do you see yourself shifting educational gears by entering graduate studies in a different field there is another important consideration? If this describes you, look at the prerequisite courses in the graduate degree you’d like to enter.

Think about taking courses that match up with these prerequisites as electives. Even if your degree is in a different field, these courses will be on your transcript. Admissions boards will see them!

Key questions to ask yourself when thinking about changing fields in graduate school

changing fields in grad school
  • Is changing fields going to improve my quality of life, self-worth, and/or career prospects?
  • Do I need to go to graduate school or to earn a degree to meet my goals?
  • Will certifications and/or work and life experience suffice in my career?
  • Is the cost of earning a graduate degree going to be overcome by the value of the education, increase income, and better opportunities?
  • Is now the right time to make the move to graduate studies in a field different from your undergraduate degree?

READ: 20 Honest Reasons NOT To Attend Graduate School

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor