Can You Go to Graduate School for a Different Major?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

The short answer is yes, but applying to grad school for a different subject than what you studied as an undergrad often requires explaining your pivot. Learn more.

[Featured image] A young Asian woman sits outside with her laptop. She gazes off in the distance.

Yes, you can go to graduate school for a different subject than what you earned your bachelor’s degree in. While some students pursue a master’s degree in order to deepen their knowledge about a subject, others use grad school to pivot to something related—or entirely new.  

In this article, we’ll go over some important distinctions between undergraduate and graduate programs when you’re interested in studying a new area and how to strengthen your application when you’re applying with a different background. 

Pursuing a new specialty in graduate school 

Education tends to be complementary, meaning that learning about one subject can often impact what you know about something else. At the undergrad level, you see this when students choose college majors and minors. For instance, a student interested in game development may major in computer science and minor in English to supplement their technical knowledge with information about story craft and narrative.  

It can help to approach graduate school in a similar fashion by choosing a subject that complements what you learned during your bachelor’s degree program. But you can also choose something completely unrelated if you’ve developed a new interest and wish to either pursue a career in it or learn more about it. 

Differences in applying: Grad vs. undergrad 

Graduate programs operate a bit differently than undergraduate programs. As an undergraduate, you likely applied to a college or university, and when it came time to select your college major—usually after you’ve finished your general education requirements—you either declared one or applied to majors that choose a select number of students, such as tends to happen for nursing, computer science, and business majors. 

As a potential graduate student, you’ll instead apply directly to programs or departments at a college or university. That’s because master’s degrees emphasize specialized knowledge, meaning that you’ll declare your intent to study a specific area when you apply. 

It’s worth noting that even within that larger area, there will be opportunities to narrow your focus. For instance, a computer science master’s degree student can often choose from one of several concentrations, such as systems and networking, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, or security.  

Course prerequisites 

While many graduate programs tend to welcome applicants from different backgrounds, they may still require that you have fulfilled certain prerequisites, such as completing specific coursework or showing prior knowledge. 

Some programs may expect you to have taken and passed courses that will be relevant to your graduate studies, while others may simply state that you should have some background in relevant subjects. For example, when you’re interested in earning a master’s degree in data science, some programs want proof that you’ve taken calculus, linear algebra, and other math courses that will be important as you begin a graduate program. 

Learn more: How to Get a Master’s Degree

Choosing a new subject for grad school

“Fit” is a word you’ll come across often when you’re interested in earning your master’s degree. Graduate admissions committees evaluate each applicant on the potential fit they will add to a program. For this reason, coming into a program with a different background can be a unique strength. 

At the same time, you’ll want to make sure that you research graduate programs that will be a good fit for you. Take into account what you want to learn, and as you look at different programs, pay close attention to: 

  • Curriculum: The courses you take in a graduate program are important and worth spending time reviewing. Many graduate programs will list the coursework you’re expected to take. Look over that curriculum to make sure it aligns with what you’re hoping to get out of the degree. If not, you may want to research other programs—or other areas. 

  • Outcomes: Many graduate programs will detail student outcomes, including the kinds of jobs they’ve been able to pursue and the salaries they command. Take a look at those outcomes to get a sense of whether they align with your goals in pursuing a graduate degree. 

  • Learning modality: There are many in-person and online graduate programs available nowadays. Because many master’s students tend to be slightly older or working either part-time or full-time, how you learn will be an important thing to reflect upon. Would you benefit from the structure of an in-person class? Or do you require more flexibility, such as what you can get from an asynchronous class

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

You are Currently on slide 1

How to strengthen your grad school application when you’re choosing a new field

As we mentioned, you will apply directly to a specific department or program when you’re ready to apply to graduate school. When you have a different background than the area you’re applying to—or in which you earned your bachelor’s—there are two primary ways to strengthen the materials you submit as part of your application: 

Letter of intent

When you apply to graduate school, you’ll submit a letter of intent (sometimes called a personal statement). In this document, you’ll want to talk about what you’ve done in the lead-up to graduate school, be it academic or professional, why you’re interested in attending that particular program, why you want to study the area you’ve chosen, and what you hope to get out of the program. 

Your letter will also provide you with the space to go into more detail about studying a different subject than your college major. In your letter, spend time discussing: 

  • What led you to become interested in the area: A personal statement is a great time to tell your story, and that can include how you became interested in this new area and why you want to study it at the master’s level.  

  • Anything you’ve done to build on that interest: More than becoming interested, have you done anything—like completing a certificate course or internship—that shows you’ve developed some experience or skills that would make you a stronger graduate student? Even if you haven’t done anything pertaining to this new area, what have you done that might be transferable? For example, perhaps your college major helped you hone certain technical skills that you can highlight.  

  • What you hope to get out of studying that area: As we mentioned, programs want to make sure you will be a good fit. When you explain your goals in pursuing a master’s degree in this new area, it can help an admissions committee understand what you would add to their program. 

Graduate school resume

If you’ve taken the time to complete additional coursework on your own, earn a professional certificate, or intern with a company that works in the field—to name just a few possibilities—make sure to incorporate those details on your graduate school resume.

If a program requires certain coursework prereqs, your grad school resume is also a great space to show that you’ve fulfilled them underneath the education section.

Learn more on Coursera

On Coursera, you’ll find graduate programs from esteemed university partners that offer performance-based admission. That means you don’t need to submit a formal application, but can instead demonstrate your abilities in a subject by taking and passing three pathway courses. Get started in a course today to see if it’s a good fit. 

An infographic that says: A university degree built for you. From respected institutions with world-class faculty. Enjoy flexible scheduling and self-paced coursework. Priced below $20,000 USD

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.