Which is for you: MPA, MPA/ID, or PhD?

Note: This post is a bit out of date and MPA/ID focused, and I updated it October 2013.

Students often ask me about the MPA/ID program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a course I completed about six years ago, before going on to do an economics PhD. (For those who are unfamiliar, the program is similar to a standard Master’s in Public Administration, but with a heavy emphasis on international development–hence the “ID”–and on advanced economic analysis.)

The most common question I receive is “should I do the ID program?”– a question that is usually shorthand for: “Is it better than an MPA?”, “Is the math too hard?” and “Is it a substitute for a PhD in economics?”

I polled some classmates, and jot down their thoughts (and mine) below. A number of more recent IDs read this blog, and I encourage them to comment as well.

The short story: whether an ID-focused program is right for you depends largely on you. The ID is probably ideal if you want to work in a large development institution, but still very good if you plan to work in another field of development. If you don’t get in, or you fear the math, don’t despair; it is a simple thing to create your own ID program at whatever graduate school you land. I have many, many friends who did an MPA at Harvard or elsewhere who are doing incredible work.

Is it a substitute for a PhD? Not if you want to be a researcher, in my opinion. But for a professional career in international development the ID is probably the superior option. Should you consider doing the ID program before a PhD? Yes but mostly no, a point I return to at the end (and also discuss here).

First, let me summarize a number of the pros and cons of Harvard’s ID program. Let’s start with the (copious) pros:

  • Job placement has been outstanding, especially if you are interested in working for one of the IFIs (international financial institutions like the World Bank or IADB). The ID brand is exceptionally strong there. I think this is a reflection of great screening and selection of students, but also a superb network and a terrific environment and teaching.
  • The class is likely to be more diverse and international than any other program you will find. The new perspectives this offered in and out of the classroom were real and meaningful.
  • Your professors are in this game because they care about changing the world. A lot. Most academics are passionate and generous people. The MPA/ID faculty devote their lives to making better policy for poor people, and seldom lose focus of that.
  • Your professors are well-informed, opinionated, influential, funny, and contrary. They will challenge orthodoxies and make you think differently than when you came in the door. That is why the program is not simply a screening device for prospective employers.
  • You will be pushed intellectually in a way that my friends in MPA programs were not. An MPA may push you in other ways, but the ID program was undoubtedly more intellectually intense and intimidating, primarily because of the economic theory. (Note that this is not universally agreed upon as a pro.)
  • A classmate who later attended a PhD at another Ivy lamented the absence of other professional schools there. One of the advantages of Harvard is the presence of a public health, business, law and education school with superb courses. Another classmate was most pleased to have access to faculty at Harvard and MIT, and also Tufts, BU, BC, …
  • From a classmate now working in private finance, “I feel very comfortable in gliding between hardcore finance and public policy and sometimes the line dividing them is very fine, and those are the times when you value your MPA/ID lessons. I guess once my international workload picks up, where institutions cannot be taken for granted, MPA/ID learning would prove invaluable. I may not remember the maths but ideas are still very fresh in my mind.”
  • The Kennedy school has a non-stop set of prominent speakers, often every day. I saw 25 current or former heads of state speak in my first year alone. Of course, you get to enjoy this from every program.
  • One classmate suggests that the program is a superb entry point into the international development world and the US job market for anyone coming from overseas, especially because of the high proportion of non-Americans in the class.
  • Program Director Carol Finney will become your second mom.
  • From another classmate, my favorite pro: “To find a brilliant spouse.” I think you could probably do that from an MPA, of course. And I found my brilliant spouse in the slowest Internet cafe in Nairobi, which goes to show you just can’t plan these things.

Now, some cons I’ve experienced or heard from classmates (sorry, Carol!):

  • From a classmate now working in the humanitarian field, the program really doesn’t prepare you for fieldwork and grassroots development work (prepare even in the theoretical sense–naturally you will only get field experience in the field). This lack of micro focus was my experience as well. At least at the time I was there, the faculty was dominated by eminent development macroeconomists, and there were few field economists doing applied micro work. Thus when I arrived at Berkeley I knew little about microeconomic development–a field that would later become my life and love. The applied micro focus may be better now, especially with people like Rohini Pande around, but I’d like to hear from more recent IDs on this point.
  • There appears to be less placement into the US government, UN, and humanitarian agencies, and the network feels smaller there. I’m told the ID “brand name” has not carried that far, even within USAID and MCC. There is a beeline to the IFIs, however.
  • If you don’t want or need PhD-level economic theory, then maybe you don’t want or need PhD-level economic theory. An MPA might be a better choice. I have a close friend who created her own ID-focused MPA, with a foreign policy and aid focus, and is now quite senior at the State Department. But (as someone noted in the pros) you may find the math is good for you in the long run.
  • You have almost no course flexibility in the first year, and it is not until your second year that you can branch out and begin meeting non-ID people, even at the Kennedy School. This was my experience, and I’m an extrovert by nature.
  • The career services group seems to be universally derided. I have no personal experience with it, however, since I went straight into academia.
  • Another classmate reminds me that the program was expensive. Some other schools (e.g. Woodrow Wilson at Princeton) are essentially free for the majority of students. I still have Cdn$60k in debt, for instance, which is no small burden (and I had a half-scholarship). I just try not to think about it, especially since I now earn US dollars and the Canadian dollar has appreciated almost 50 percent since I borrowed. Is it selfish and impersonal for me to secretly hope that Canada’s natural resources and industry dry up in the next year?
  • It’s not yet clear if there is a glass ceiling for IDs in professional economics positions, especially where PhDs have historically dominated. In World Bank operational jobs, my sense is that there is no ceiling so far, and in fact IDs have been doing exceptionally well. In more research-y jobs (think impact evaluation or tasks requiring advanced statistical analysis) I think the glass ceiling has already become clear in a handful of places. A couple of friends have bumped their heads against that ceiling already. But these jobs are probably a very small fraction of the total. Outside the professional research positions, I think an ID will get you further ahead than behind.

Now, to the PhD questions. Is the ID a substitute for a PhD? A precursor? My answer is weakly “no” to both points, but it is better if I explain.

The best reason to get a PhD is if you want to be a professional researcher. Some would go even further, and say that a PhD is appropriate only if you want to take a position as an assistant professor. Dani Rodrik has blogged this opinion (and he is the Director of the ID program). My sense, however, is that a PhD is also right for people who want to do institutional research as well–statistics for the World Bank or census bureaus, impact evaluation for MCC or the Poverty Action Lab, and probably senior macroeconomic policy at places like the Fed or IMF.

Is the course work similar? The microeconomic and macroeconomic course sequence were very close to what I covered in the PhD program at Berkeley (although the general equilibrium training was weak the year I did the ID). In contrast, the PhD econometrics coursework was orders of magnitude more advanced. If your goal is applied statistical analysis, a PhD may be a better option.

For all other development careers, I would endorse the ID program with gusto. Yes, a PhD program has its benefits, but the opportunity cost in terms of alternative experience (and foregone earnings!) is enormous. A PhD makes you a one-trick pony. An MPA or MPA/ID plus three or four years of work experience makes you a handy jack of all development trades.

Should you do both? That’s what I did, and that’s what Dani did too. Many of my classmates have gone on to PhDs as well. In general, however, if you are pretty sure you want to do research and you can get into a top PhD program, then go straight there. An MPA or ID will be a pleasant detour, and will inform your work and research, but better just to get the PhD done. Fast.

If you hesitate between practice and research, an MPA or ID program is terrific. It helped me, Dani, and many others sort out our priorities. The program also gave me the breadth and field experience that was of great benefit in my own PhD (although it meant I was the old man of the class). In my case, it also gave me the training and credibility I needed to get into a top PhD (although I could have done that with an economics MA, I suppose).

If you do go the PhD direction, see my post on how to get a PhD and save the world.

Former IDers: comment away. This will be a much more helpful post to future inquisitors if you applaud me, harass me, or tell your story and experience.

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UPDATE: Marshall Jevons (that can’t be his real name) lists other excellent ID programs.

Also, Dani responds here. As I hoped, he notes that the ID program’s focus on micro development has increased.

And as for whether long posts are good for my career, well, everyone needs a hobby. I do appreciate the concern, and it might be warranted. I’ll make my the-blog-is-not-a-career-death-move-and-might-even-help-tenure argument another time. The short answer: every single thing I’ve ever done in academia that people have liked has begun with conventional economists (Dani is not one of these) telling me it’s not a smart move. I like to follow my instincts and, as I mentioned above, do what I love. It’s an experiment. I’ll let you know how it works out in, oh, about seven years.

Hopefully on this blog.