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

44 thoughts on “The problem with graduate degrees in international affairs and development?

  1. I was lucky to visit an university, that has a long tradition in peace studies. For me the best part about my MA was not the technical stuff (arguably, we had to little of that), but the constant challenge to question the status quo of the systems (development, security) we were studying.

    I think if you really want to change stuff (even in a little way), you need to do more than just write winning proposals. You need to question the fundamentals of the system you work in and a good grad school should teach you how to do this.

  2. Have you looked at the Grobocopatel model? Moat of the articles are in Spanish and I could not judge how well the farmers are integrated in their programs.

  3. As a recent postgraduate student (I just received an MSc in Development Studies) I would have to advise people to look closely at their course outlines before they apply or enroll in a postgrad qualification in this field. Many of my colleagues have similarly programme/project based qualifications to your disgruntled MA writer above, but my own course did ask the bigger questions we need to keep asking. Our first module on development theory (from the Washington Consensus to post-developmentalism) left our entire class thoroughly disillusioned with the entire development agenda, and heavily critiquing all that development academia was presenting us with. I completely agree therefore with your statement that ‘Prospective students, meanwhile, should make sure they are not getting into a program that is too much public MBA and too little intellectual exploration.’

  4. I’m not convinced that grad school is a terrible place to learn a language. I’m working on a project in Tanzania, where I spent a month this summer, terribly disappointed at my ability to pick up Swahili on-the-go. I’ll be back there next summer as well, so I’m spending a year in a Swahili course at my university. Knowing that I will be working in Tanzania with rural farmers who speak little English creates a serious incentive to master this language. Of course, to be fair, I’m taking Swahili on top of a heavy course load in Applied Economics. So, clearly I agree that grad school is where you gain serious technical skills. The point is, its really up to me (you?) to take the initiative to learn the history and language; those courses won’t be required.

  5. Thanks so much for this response. First off, I realize that going to school for “development” is an interesting venture when the term itself is so broad. I have people at my school concentrating on topics ranging from finance policy to human rights to security policy to urban studies. Everyone is approaching development from various perspectives. I realize that the 2 year period for most MA programs is a short time to really delve into issues of interest while also having to fulfill some sort of core. As to your point about gaining skills, internships are also a good way of gaining skills and applying them in a real world context. I chose to take a language (Swahili) because where else would I have the chance or the time to learn from a native speaker? My program is not as intellectually deep as many would like because of the heavy core we have to fulfill. But again, my program is a pre-professional program designed to prepare us for the “real world” of international development. It is doing a pretty good job of placing us into the international development system.And that is what is frightening to me. Short term thinking, a propensity to dump ideas and projects on communities that neither ask for nor need them, and accountability towards donors rather than people. Its been heartening to hear of other programs and other students’ experiences.

  6. what i dont understand is this:

    if the communities don/t need the project, why will the donors grant the money? isnt part of the process building a case for the project?

  7. Another aspect to this, of course, is that many people will be taking out enormous loans to fund their professional degrees. So even if students are given the most inclusive, progressive, horizon-expanding education you can give, they may have to take a soul-crushing, narrowly focused program job just so they can pay back the debt. (According to Columbia’s SIPA website, the median loan debt for graduates is $66,400!)

    It’s worth reminding people you don’t need an expensive degree to get involved in worthwhile, meaningful work — in fact, by putting yourself in debt for the next, say, 30 years of your life you’re going to constrain your professional choices a great deal.

    It might be better, and infinitely more rewarding, to go to Tanzania and start volunteering/interning for that cool NGO you like, a chance you’ll probably not have after you graduate from your professional degree. Most probably aren’t going to graduate school because they have a passion for statistics or econometrics.

  8. Guys, in my experience the problem with most newly minted development MAs is not that they don’t question things enough- it’s that they don’t realize how little they actually know.

    Yes, there are people who will change the world of development with their big, bold ideas, but unfortunately chances are you aren’t one of them.

    If you want to change the world of development, you’ll have to work very hard to gain influence in a very narrow corner of it, then continue to work hard to nudge that corner in a direction that you believe it should be going in. The good news is, there are thousands of people out there right now who are doing exactly this, and you can be one of them. The bad news is, it involves reading a lot of documents and it’s not nearly as fun as being able to tell everyone else how wrong they are.

  9. I agree with Peter D. Check out Clark University by the way- I had the complete opposite experience there, and almost wish that I had spent a little less time talking about Foucault and a little more on excel. Karen, here’s an example of a course I think you’d like (based on your blog): “Beyond Victims and Guardian Angels: Third World Women, Gender, and Development”.

  10. I have been working in development for a while now and I must say I suffer an existential crisis, sometimes once a month!! I also feel very strongly that schools should really stop offering “Developmental Economics” and “Developmental Studies” at the undergraduate level. In India, over the last 5 years many of our colleges seem to have been bitten by this bug and are offering courses with these titles which does tremendous disservice to students. The students who emerge from these courses are either terribly cocky about their skills and join NGOs with an evangelical zeal or are confused and not sure what hit them for 3 years.

  11. I’m with you, Chris. I went to grad school for an international development degree to learn technical skills, get a better sense of how the international development (ID) industry works, and see the bigger ID picture. But before all that, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer doing economic and community development, which gave me a hands on, community first, ground up perspective that I could bring to the classroom. I don’t think ID degrees are where you learn ID. They are where you better understand and enhance it.

  12. Interesting read. I am currently finishing up a program which is NOT focused on the technical aspects of development. We focus a lot on cross-cultural practices, learning about the history of development in different regions, and good old critical thinking about development issues. We don’t do proposals or things of the sort as assignments. Although I wish there were more of an emphasis on practical experience, I do enjoy the fact that we explore development with anthropological lense. If you are interested, the program is St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. The school has a MA in International Relations with a focus in International Development.

  13. Do you think it would help International Development(MA) Students to take 1 or 2 GIS courses at the undergraduate level if they are not included in the graduate program?

  14. hey…. i have completed my intermediate in commerce..so i want to do bs(hons) in international relations… so is it good for me?? and will it help me in future…?? and what are the jobs required after completing bs(hons) in international relaions….

  15. Just let me tell you that I believe there must be critical examination to any subject we study, and also it’s important to know better the culture, the ideas, the religion, the sociology of other countries, that’s why we’re internationalists!!! that’s why we studied International relations for!!! So begin to study sociology from european authors. and not only keep with statistics, there’s a world beyond that!! and the guy who talked about the grobopacotel is just another sucessful agrobusiness but is not the answer to the food security.

  16. Hi,

    Please I Hot you can help me out, I am a psychology student from Peru; I was wondering if with my major I can get into a competitive master program in international relations. I hope so, I do really want to direct my career into international organizations, such as UN or so. I have experience empowering youth in my country working with congressmen, former presidents and students from different universities around the world, to encourage youth to take an active role in today’s policy Analysis. Please I hope you can clear this doubt out. Thank you so much for the support.

  17. Hi Carlo,
    I’d like to get into touch. We have similar career goals and interests and I can offer some advice. Also, I may be heading to Peru this summer for a research study or internship.
    Thanks!

  18. Hi Aine, congrats for taking swahili language course when next in Tanzania link up with the danish volunteer training center in Usa River Arusha for advanced language courses for international development workers. Also link up with students at University of Oklohoma, Michigan State Univerity and St Thomas University they will share their insights on swahili language learning experience in Tanzania.

  19. Hello Guys
    I really appreciate for some of your comments as i am looking forward to do Masters in international development but i have researched widely and saw it really need a lot of research and experience.so anybody coming to Kenya communicate to me as am ready to volunteer and also help in language barrier especially [email protected]

  20. 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”

    Geography is the answer and its ingnorantly pushed aside in todays world. How can you know people unless you know where they live and how they lived??? I did my undergrad in Geography and my grad studies in Political Science…. almost for the exact reasons of this post.

  21. I’m from a developing country and study development. It was interesting to read this because I realized how different we study development precisely because we actually grew up in a developing country. We have few courses on how to work within the system and loads of courses on questioning the system and figuring out alternatives. A whole lot of our professors actually despise the WB, IMF etc because it’s mostly dictated by the west. I think getting more exposure on how the developing world thinks will help graduates in the developed world.

  22. I love all of these comments- and the post, of course. I’m a U.S. citizen, currently serving in the Peace Corps. I have decided to go back to school for a Master’s in something- probably statistics or M&E (thoughts on this??) – to get a job in I/Health. But I have also come across a great (it seems) program at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Of course only “accredited” schools are in the US. Any thoughts on getting a graduate degree from a school outside the U.S.? Thank you in advanced!

  23. Hello, I am down to study international relations and Spanish next year, but am considering changing to international development and Spanish, is there much of a difference between the two and is one or the other seen as softer? For a career I would like to work in international development but am not sure which course is better for me to achieve this

  24. Hi, I’m Josh, a student of psychology in Nigeria. I too would love to delve into International Relations for my Masters degree program next year but I keep getting discouraged by some people in that department. I’ve gotten answers like, ”It’s not a lucrative field”, ” The job opportunities in that field are dwindling” etc. I would really love some advice. My areas of interest are the Middle East and the Intelligence services

  25. I would also appreciate some suggestions on good universities in the US that offer a degree in Inter.Rel with a rich course content

  26. I think it is good to be well rounded and understand other culture’s history(Africa,Asia,Middle east,etc) & geography which is lacking in pre-college courses.American education is very Western Eurocentric.
    With that being said, I still regret going for a M.S. In global affairs at NYU. I should have invested my money in business school but discovered this interest as I was wrapping up the program. I just applied to a one year business program in International business and entrepreneurship in the UK where the tuition is much cheaper. I think I was more attracted to the NYU brand more than anything else. I will admit the career resources and connections in other school departments are plentiful. I just wish I spent that year and seven months studying something more useful.
    By the end of the program, I did not want to work for a nonprofit or the UN, but big business until I could start my own business. Taking a entry legal job position in a international media company for now. Being forgiven for student loans after 10 years of nonprofit work sounds alluring at first but then I realize I will spend a decade(all of my 30’s) paying back the U.S. Government(forget a baby,car,buying a home).

  27. I would like to put a word in for community development programs. These are the ones (few and far between) that are in fact focused on how to listen and learn and work with communities in spite of larger political/economic realities, with a lesser focus on making changes at these higher levels. For those who have lived/worked overseas and whose passion really is intertwined with the people, you may have a sense that what is really working is on the ground (rather than imposed globally) and requires both hard skills (project management, funding, evaluation) and the soft skills of learning how to listen (true research). I just finished my MA in International Community Development at Northwest University in Kirkland, WA, and highly recommend it; I now work for their new online version of the program, as my passion lies in making such programs more attainable to those actually in the field. There are a few other similar programs out there, so this isn’t just a plug for my program :) but a word of encouragement for those who aren’t actually feeling that hopeful about their ability to make a difference through economic policy work… There is a lot of value in starting from the local context, and whether you are from that context or not, there is value in being prepared for that.

  28. Very informative discussion. I have liked it. I want to enroll for this particular programme, and i have a background in journalism. My main driver to study international development is the hope to find reasons why my continent, Africa remains stunted despite all sorts of efforts. I think my capabilities are limited in doing a thorough critique of the prevailing systems in place.

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  30. Hi,
    I came across this post while searching for articles on why one should study International Relations. I feel like i am having a major existential crisis, I have a Masters in Computer Science and over 5 Years of professional experience as a software engineer but am now looking to completely change my field. I have received an offer of admission to a Masters degree in International Relations. I feel like I don’t know what I am getting myself into and am constantly overwhelmed by the huge gaps in my knowledge when I read books related to the subject. Added to this, given that I have zero background in the social sciences/humanities, I am feeling a little intimidated. I do find the subject incredibly interesting but I am afraid that mere intellectual curiosity may not be the best reason to take up such an intense course especially when I am so unsure of the opportunities one can expect on completion of the degree. I guess what I am asking is, what are the realistic opportunities after doing a Masters in International Relations and also some insights on key requirements for success in this course. Thanks in advance! sorry about the long post!

  31. Hey Sue!

    We are both on the same boat. Petroleum engineer looking to change my field. I strongly recommend you to take the online course “The Age of Sustainable Development” on Coursera. It is offered by Columbia University and it’s for free. I think it gives you a broad idea about international development. I don’t know myself what I am getting into, but I feel so passionate about the topic that I have decided to give it a try. After long life is too short to not try.

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  34. I don’t live in Chicago but what do you think about Columbia University
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