The problem with graduate degrees in international affairs and development?

Well placed angst from a current development MA:

I question the international development system, and perhaps, academia’s role in perpetrating that system.

We are trained to think like short term consultants.Everything is project/program based. We are trained to measure everything through statistics, through case studies. A project seems to be measured as “successful” if you get it funded by a donor, not if it is actually needed or feasible. My mock assignments usually have something to do with making recommendations to some company wanting to do a project in another country or a government in a developing country. Are we learning how to make a living in telling developing countries what to do? Where are the assignments on how to observe and listen to communities?

I don’t really know if we are trained to question the prevailing system. After all my program is a pre-professional program, and we are here because we want to be hired into the system, right?

And back to the issue of learning how to make money in telling poor people how to live their lives…one thing that is peculiar to me is the lack of culture/history classes we are required to take. I can take courses on writing security memos in Africa, but yet, I’m hard pressed to find African history or language courses? Area studies is generally considered to be a “waste of time” at my school. Many people just opt to specialize in “harder concentrations”. How effective is drafting policies when you don’t have a sense of a people’s culture, their religion, their language, their way of life?

My two cents:

First, these are exactly the right questions we should ask ourselves. If you work in international politics or development and do not have an intellectual and existential crisis every year, then something is wrong.

Second, if it’s any consolation, grad school is one of the few opportunities you will ever have to get technical skills. You probably need the discipline of coursework and exams to learn statistics or epidemiology or financial management or pick-your-technical-topic. Grad school, meanwhile, is a terrible place to learn Uzbek or Swahili. So harder concentrations pay off.

But grad school should also be a place to learn about big ideas, and to think beyond the next project. Most schools have professors or courses that explore and question the fundamental ideas behind development and the global economy. These courses might be in the departments and not in the public administration schools, but they are usually there. Small cozy seminars where you read thick books can be best.

If your school doesn’t offer these, or crowds your schedule with too many other things, my best and only advice is to do what public administration students should be able to do best: agitate and lobby.

Prospective students, meanwhile, should make sure they are not getting into a program that is too much public MBA and too little intellectual exploration.

If you are looking for a Master’s degree with intense research methods training as well as content specialization, consider the MACRM program here at UChicago’s Harris Public Policy. I accept 1-2 students a year to work with.

Related, some previous posts on using grad school to save the world, why you shouldn’t lose hope in the midst of grad school, and ten things I tell undergraduates, that are arguably just as useful for MA students.

h/t @hofrench