A couple months ago I attended a CGD event,“Development Education in U.S. Universities: What’s New & What’s Missing”. I’ve been sitting on these notes for a while, and given that most M.A. development program deadlines are right around the corner (some have even already passed), I thought now would be a good time to share!
My notes from the panel discussion:
David Lindauer (Wellesley College)
- Author of “Economics of Development” textbook and teaches development primarily to undergraduates (18-22 year olds)
- Said it’s really striking how little students know about the world, e.g. few students know that Accra is in Ghana and Dhaka is in Bangladesh
- At the beginning of each undergraduate class he asks students what they think needs to be done in order to reduce poverty. The top answers from students are typically: provide people with education, increase foreign aid and expand microfinance. As Lindauer pointed out, this is all supply-side economics, the notion that we should be giving the poor more of something.
- Students need basic tool set which they don’t have – e.g. when to use PPP, understanding the poverty line…he asked, why are development tools alien to U.S. economic majors? Simple! Because they are studying economics in the U.S. they learn examples relevant to the U.S. context! ex) if they were to study high marginal tax rates in the U.S. they’ll read an oped from Greg Mankiw and learn what it means if the Bush tax cuts expire…what they do not learn is that high marginal tax rates encourage growth of informal sector in e.g. Latin America and individuals there responded by evading taxes, not by working less.
- World is changing fast. He said that “the lines are starting to blur” – when he published the first edition of his textbook in 1993, 50% of world population lived in low income countries; today this figure is ~10%. Shows that there are huge implications for what M.A. development students need to be learning.
- Stories of development are similar to ones we hear in the West e.g. Lancet publication on child morality rates called for next step to be universal healthcare…this is a policy issue we are familiar with in the West.
Carol Lancaster (Georgetown University):
- Said that the interest in development among young people is nothing new; “field that’s exciting, gives back and is challenging”.
- She emphasized the need to understand the “kinds of things that go behind the problems” i.e. institutions and political problems.
- Argued that a big piece that’s missing in today’s programs is students from developing countries! The cost of a U.S. education is steep and there should be more of a focus on raising money for scholarships.
- One of her ideas for future innovations is a greater focus on using technology to teach class. She mentioned the “flipped class” idea, as well as using mobile technology for technically enhanced learning abroad.
David Hirschmann (American University):
- Stipulated that students wish to study development because of an idealistic/ethical drive to solve development problems.
- Pointed to that the issue that there are more students coming into programs than there are jobs for them once they exit out and into the job market.
- Said programs should “teach them how to do things” rather than just teaching students “about things”.
- Proposed a greater focus on teaching practical job skills e.g. proposal writing, how to conduct research as a consultant, improve their presentation and persuasion skills.
- He also mentioned that schools should teach ethics – he said that keeping your ethical compass and finding both strength and clarity in what you do is a skill set that educators should be teaching students in development programs.
At the time, the event was very relevant for me as I was busy tying up loose ends on my own applications for M.A. development programs. Figuring out what I wanted to study has never been an issue (I’ve been hooked on development since age 17) but figuring out the steps to achieve this goal was a process. I spent a lot of time Google searching for tips and asking both professors & peers for advice. When I was trying to make my decision, the experiences of others really helped me, so here’s to hoping that sharing my thoughts will be able to help someone as well!
My first puzzle was deciphering which graduate program would be best for my career goals. I was torn between two options: a PhD in economics or a M.A. in international /development studies. The PhD option intimidated me as I’m not a math whiz and a I have no desire (as of now) to teach. I envision my first job out of graduate school to be at an international organization or think tank, where I can be involved in the research and policy analysis process. I solicited advice from professors & professionals I know in the field, and most told me “if you don’t want to be a professor, there’s no reason to pursue the PhD.”
Still not entirely convinced, I found it helpful to look at profiles of folks I admire (and whose careers I envy) in development and see what types of educational paths they took. Many started with M.A.s and then went straight to a consulting or a supporting research role at an international organization. Many later returned to pursue a PhD. To me, this seemed like a good plan! (Sidenote – if you look at enough of them, you’ll definitely notice a pattern of the schools many of them graduated from…)
Once I had narrowed down my decision to pursue a M.A., I looked at the possible programs. Location did matter. Because of my visa situation, it really would be best for me to stay in the U.S., while my personal preference would be to stay in the D.C. area. Having lived here the past few years, I’ve been able to build a professional network, one that I would hate to leave behind. For international work, D.C. is also (in my subjective opinion) the best city to be in. My location preference limited my search down to a handful of programs.
As I was skimming specific schools, I looked for the following list of attributes in the programs (in no particular order):
- The right combination of devt, econ & public policy - b/c development is a mix of economics, public policy and international relations, I looked for a school that combined these disciplines. My top choice school has a focus on languages which was a huge draw, as it’s important that development professionals can effectively communicate with their regions of focus.
- Job prospects upon graduation – the development job market is tough. But some schools still have impressive stats on students going straight to interesting jobs after graduation. Finding schools publications of where graduates were immediately employed helped me narrow my list down quite a bit; even more so, schools that sent students to places of employment that focus on policy, research and consulting. (I’ll be honest here, a big indicator for me was what %age of graduates went onto jobs within the World Bank Group).
- Diversified & experienced student body – Development is a global field, as such, if the student body is international the classroom discourse is enriched. Learning from fellow students is equally as helpful as learning from a professor. And when studying development, learning from a classroom of 60 Americans is not only mundane but one-sided. Being around students of various nationalities and cultures taught me a lot in international high school, so I truly prioritized a graduate program that had a high %age of international students, as well as students who come from a variety of professional backgrounds.
- Possibilities for regional specialization - Another priority was a school with a strong African studies department. This preference narrowed down my search quite a bit.
- Excellent AND available faculty- I would be stating the obvious if I said I looked for good faculty. But it doesn’t matter if a school has renowned faculty if the TAs always teach the class. I know one guy (his name will go unmentioned) who is studying development at one of the top three U.S. universities. Being the nerd that I am, I asked him if he had Professor X, Y, Z (all famous development economists). He said he was registered for all their classes but rarely had the professor in class. What a let down! That alone was enough to deter me from applying to this school’s program. Why pay a lot to learn from the best if these professors don’t actually teach the class?
My #1 priority was a school that approached development practically and sensibly, i.e. faculty that exhibited good understanding of “what’s needed in development” in their work. I think there is a fine line with graduate development programs. Development is very much a discovery process and no university program can teach students exactly how to make development happen. In most cases, local people need to discover development for themselves. Easterly’s Planners vs. Searchers logic definitely applies to development education. Universities need to be training innovative, enterpreneurial graduates who will search, through trial and error, for development solutions. I think the best type of program is one that teaches a wide range of tools that will prove useful in this discovery process, such as economic theory, political science and public policy analysis. Such skills facilitate development initiatives and help folks avoid bad policy prescriptions and interventions. And these were all things I looked for. Additionally, I prioritized a school that seemed to have an experienced (read: knowledgable) student body. I agree with Hirschman that many are attracted to development for ethical reasons. But this is a bit of a risky starting point. If there’s one thing the development field doesn’t need more of, it’s more folks who have too many romantic notions about development and how to change the world. I’d prefer to be around students who have had hands on experience in development (either in the field or in research) and will bring interesting insights to a classroom. Being able to discuss ideas with other students is valuable and something I’m really looking forward to.
For more pointers, I’d like to point to Chris Blattman’s graduate advice: asking for recommendation letters, how much economics to study in undergrad, MPA, MPA/ID or PhD? , FAQ on PhD applications. And, of course, CGD’s page for educators is also helpful for students, especially the growing list of university development programs.