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Top Degrees for a Career in Social Justice

Being passionate about inspiring change is important for a career in social justice, but you’ll need more than drive in your personal toolkit. Learn how having the right degree can equip you with the skills and techniques to make a positive impact on your community and the world.

Author: Kathleen Curtis
Editor: STEPS Staff
Reviewer: Tori Ford

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You’ve probably heard “social justice” used a lot in recent years. Between network news and social media, the term has become something of a buzzword, but what exactly does it mean? Simply put, social justice refers to the belief that every person, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, or socioeconomic status, deserves equal access to all the rights and opportunities enjoyed by others. It’s an ambitious goal to achieve, but there are a variety of avenues one can take to begin to make a difference.

If you want to enter the fight for equality for all, you’re not alone. In fact, a study by the Harvard Business Review found that 90% of people said they would take a lower salary if it meant having a career that helps others. From teachers and lawyers to social workers and healthcare professionals, a career in social justice can take many forms. Deciding which degree makes sense for your social justice aspirations is the first step on the road to change. Keep reading to discover which degrees can prepare you to fight for justice and get expert advice on how you can increase your impact.

Access to Quality Education

A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that those with higher education levels typically live longer. However, students from low-income families and those who experience social discrimination are less likely to finish high school or pursue higher education—a gap that could possibly shorten their lives. Ensuring from the earliest age that students have equal access to quality education is one of the most important things we as a society can do to improve our country’s overall health and prosperity. Here are of the best degrees to pursue if you’re passionate about education for all.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Homelessness & Housing Insecurity

Almost half a million Americans experienced homelessness in America in 2022, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The rate varies widely across the country, with 93 of every 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia and 4 of every 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in Mississippi. This issue affects individuals of every age, gender, ethnicity, and religion. Helping house homeless individuals and creating housing security changes the trajectory of countless lives. You’ll make a difference by working in advocacy, resource management, temporary housing, or transitional services. These degrees can help you on your road to helping others.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Poverty and Income Gap

The percentage of Americans facing poverty had been inching downward in the five years before COVID-19 hit. While final reports on how the pandemic will affect the number of Americans living below the poverty line are still forthcoming, early studies show an increase. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sets poverty guidelines each year. The last few decades have also shown a shrinking middle class and growing upper and lower classes. If you’re serious about lessening the poverty and income gap, enrolling in one of these degree programs can be a smart first step.

Discrimination and Racism

When looking at the numbers, there’s no denying America has a problem with discrimination and racism. Black students are far more likely to receive disciplinary measures in their schools when compared to white peers. Similarly, 88% of the individuals New York City police stopped in 2018 were Black or Latinx. Discrimination and racism have long roots in the U.S., requiring dedicated professionals who understand what it will take to fight for civil rights extending to all people, regardless of their skin color or where they come from. Below are just a few of the educational paths you can take to help put an end to discrimination and racism.

Degrees That Make a Difference

LGBTQ+ Rights

While LGBTQ+ individuals gained the right to marry in 2015 and President Biden recently repealed the ban on transgender military members, there is still much work to be done in ensuring those who identify outside heterosexuality enjoy the same rights as others, avoid discrimination, and aren’t victims of violence. Many LGBTQ+ people experience far higher levels of harassment, bullying, and violence, creating the need for professionals who fight for their rights, address mental health concerns, and ensure continued advancement in equality. If you want to become one of these valued professionals, these degrees can help you get there.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Domestic Violence

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey published by the Centers for Disease Control found that one out of every four women and one out of every seven men experience severe physical violence from an intimate partner at some point in their lives. In 2020, The New York Times reported domestic violence was on the rise due to COVID-19. Addressing the realities of violent crimes committed by romantic partners requires the work of professionals in many different fields, meaning you can use a variety of talents and skill sets to help keep people safe. Below are some degrees that can help you make an impact in domestic violence.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Climate Change

Climate change concerns can take many forms, ranging from a warming planet, a proliferation of more diseases and viruses, higher carbon dioxide concentrations, and increased emissions. Opportunities for making a difference are varied, with some climate warriors focusing on the scientific side of things and others working on topics such as emergency preparedness for natural disasters, raising awareness, and fighting for better laws and policies. Positions exist in governmental, nonprofit, and private companies, making this a very versatile career path. If your passion lies in ensuring our planet is hospitable for generations to come, enrolling in one of the degree programs below can be a great start.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Healthcare Access

Healthcare access presents many problems in America, ranging from the high cost of services and lack of insurance coverage to culturally insensitive care and lack of hospitals in rural areas. A report from the Centers for Disease Control found that 8.3% of adult Americans do not receive needed medical care due to prohibitive costs. In 2018, 27.5 million people lacked health insurance coverage. While a complicated, multifaceted problem, there are many ways to be involved in helping every person, regardless of age, income, race, or location, gain access to necessary medical care and preventative services. These degrees can place you at the forefront of the fight for quality healthcare access for all.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Refugees & Immigrants

Because the president decides how many refugees and immigrants can enter the U.S. each year, numbers fluctuate as presidential administrations change. Former President Trump significantly reduced these numbers, while President Biden plans to expand admissions. Refugees flee their homes due to persecution, civil unrest, and other threats. Immigrants move for opportunities to better their own lives and the lives of their families. Whether you want to act as an interpreter for newly settled refugees, handle immigration cases in the legal system, or connect newcomers with services that can help them feel more at home, many opportunities exist to assist those new to the nation and these degrees can help you get started.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Voting Rights

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did much to erase voting discrimination, those determined to limit the voice of every American from being heard have found workarounds. From gerrymandering to disenfranchisement, many people don’t vote because it’s too purposefully confusing or hard to do. In the most recent presidential election, only 61% of those eligible actually voted. Out of 35 democratic nations, America ranks 26th in voting participation. Whether you want to encourage young people to make their vote count, fight against voter fraud disinformation, or keep the public informed on their rights, this dynamic area requires professionals from many different fields of expertise. Pursuing one of the degrees below can be a great way to start making a difference.

Degrees That Make a Difference

Insight from the Expert

Tori Ford

Tori Ford is the founder and CEO of Medical Herstory, an international, youth-led nonprofit eliminating sexism, shame, and stigma from health experiences through medical education, patient advocacy, and undoing stigma. She holds a Master of Philosophy in Health, Medicine, and Society from the University of Cambridge and a Bachelor of Arts in Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies from McGill University. She is an outspoken sexual health advocate who is passionate about empowering and educating others. Her work has been recognized by the University of Cambridge Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Award and the McGill Scarlet Key award for her enduring gender health advocacy.

Q: If someone wants to work in a social-justice-focused career, what can they do while still in school to achieve this goal?

A: I would highly recommend seeking out majors that speak to you! I completed a B.A. in Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies from McGill University and then an MPhil in Health, Medicine, and Society from the University of Cambridge. In both these degrees, I was able to explore social inequities from a historical, sociological, and practical perspective. If you’re already majoring in another topic, there are still ways to educate yourself. Taking electives on social justice topics or writing a research paper on the topics that you are passionate about are great ways to learn more. I would recommend signing up for newsletters and following social media pages of social justice groups and organizations at your school; they often will have free events and workshops.

Q: What should students expect when working in these fields? What might surprise them?

A: Social justice work is extremely fulfilling but very hard. The issues we are tackling are big and you can doubt if you’re making a difference. But the more you stick with it, the more you’ll see your direct impact!

Q: What are your best tips for breaking into social justice fields and finding work?

A: Don’t be afraid to approach people! I highly recommend reaching out to people whose careers you admire and meeting them. I recommend checking out social media for pages that share your passions and figuring out what specific aspect of social justice speaks to you.

Q: What role do internships and volunteering play in securing work after graduating?

A: Internships and volunteering are amazing ways to gain practical experience! Medical Herstory has over 70 volunteers across 20 universities and 7 countries. Even as the founder of Medical Herstory, I still intern with other female founders! It’s such an enriching experience and extremely valuable.