A North Central College learning about dispute resolution with a professor.

What is Dispute Resolution?

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Jan 19, 2023

What is Dispute Resolution?

Conflict. It may not be the most pleasant part of everyday life, but it’s often present. From arguments with loved ones to disagreements with your boss, conflict shows up in various forms.

In many cases, conflict is healthy. It’s an essential part of building relationships, and most of the time, it’s easily resolved. However, sometimes two parties need a hand to settle their differences. That’s where dispute resolution comes in.

Dispute resolution is the process of helping citizens or corporations settle their differences. But what is dispute resolution as a career path? And how do you land a job in the field? In this short guide, we’ll explore what dispute resolution is, how you can study it, and where it can take you.

Dispute Resolution, Explained

In general, the term “dispute resolution” refers to all official settlements of conflict—up to and including going to court.

In practice, most people use the term to mean “alternative dispute resolution,” or ADR. ADR takes an approach to conflict resolution that helps the two parties stay out of court, avoiding the potential for long trials and hefty legal fees by agreeing on an issue that suits both sides.

There are several different types of dispute resolution professionals, including:

  • Negotiators
  • Mediators
  • Arbitrators

Perhaps most importantly, these professionals offer a nonbinary alternative to the judicial system. While judges choose a winner and a loser, ADR can be more nuanced, allowing each party to feel satisfied with the results.

Studying Dispute Resolution

As a dispute resolution professional, you’ll need to excel in navigating conflict. But that’s not the only prerequisite.

As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes, you’ll generally need a bachelor’s degree to work in conflict resolution. While any major could apply, some degrees are more relevant to the role of a mediator or negotiator, such as:

  • Business
  • Psychology
  • Pre-law

It may also be helpful to complete a dispute resolution program at a post-secondary institution. These specialized programs can give you classroom knowledge and real-world experience to help you in your dispute resolution career.

Careers in Dispute Resolution

If you want to work as a neutral third party and resolve disputes, you have a few career options.


Negotiation is the first step of the dispute resolution process; in fact, in some ways, negotiators aim to avoid conflict altogether. Before arguments become heated (or even before they begin), negotiators work with both sides to draft an agreement that keeps everyone happy.

Most negotiators work in corporate settings, helping to write contracts or come up with the terms of a merger that satisfies both parties. However, some negotiators also work in the civil sphere to resolve disputes between neighbors or spouses.


Mediation is a step up from negotiation. If you are interested in how to be a mediator, keep reading to know more about the job's responsibilities. 

Mediators work closely with both sides of a dispute, bringing them together to help them come to a consensus and settlement. Unlike negotiation, which can be preemptive, a mediation program is employed once a dispute arises.

A mediator’s decision is not usually legally binding. In other words, if one or both parties dislike the terms of the proposed agreement, they can look to other forms of dispute resolution.

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What is an arbitrator? Arbitration is the highest form of the alternative dispute resolution process. Arbitrators bring both sides of a conflict together to listen to each side of the story, then make a judgment call. In some cases, arbitration is legally required, based on pre-existing clauses established by one a company; in others, the parties decide to pursue it on their own.

The primary difference between an arbitrator and a mediator is that an arbitrator’s decision is usually legally binding. Because of this difference, arbitrators are generally more experienced ADR professionals; many are retired judges or attorneys.


Of course, lawyers are also part of the dispute resolution field, albeit in a more high-profile position. Lawyers defend their clients' side of the dispute in court, representing their clients in front of a judge or jury.

Unlike professionals in the above positions, lawyers need a law degree to practice. Law degrees are advanced degrees that first require the completion of an undergraduate program, such as pre-law.

How to Start a Career in Dispute Resolution

With a relevant bachelor’s degree and an optional (but recommended) dispute resolution program under your belt, you can begin applying to dispute resolution jobs. With that said, many positions also require several years of work experience in related fields. For example, if you hope to resolve disputes in a corporate context, you may need to spend a few years at a firm to understand the ins and outs of the corporate world.

An advanced degree may also help open more doors. Aside from a law degree, other beneficial options for future ADR professionals include a master’s in:

  • Dispute resolution
  • Counseling
  • Management
  • Philosophy

Finally, dispute resolution professionals often need to train under a veteran arbitrator before they can work independently, according to the BLS.

Discover Dispute Resolution For Yourself

Overall, dispute resolution is a fascinating field that allows you to stop arguments in their tracks and find compromises that work for everyone. If the idea of the ADR process fascinates you, you may want to look into a dispute resolution program that will teach you the on-the-job skills you’ll need.

To best prepare for a long career in dispute resolution, try to seek out schools that offer real-world, hands-on education—schools like North Central College. When you have the chance to help resolve actual conflicts before you’ve even graduated, you’ll already have a leg up when looking for jobs.

Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 12 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.



U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, April 18). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved August 21, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/arbitrators-mediators-and-conciliators.htm