Graduate School for International Development

I realize I have neglected the blog for far too long — such is the life of a graduate student! One might think that going to grad school would present more free time when compared to a work schedule, but in reality at work you are (mostly) off the clock once you leave in the evening…in grad school, even the joy of three-day weekends are countered by the fact that every spare moment could feasibly be spent checking off an endless stream of readings and assignments, and some classes don’t actually end until 10 pm!

Still, I am incredibly grateful to have studied this year with amazing professors and students at the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, and think about the issues I faced in the field for the last three years. In honor of the completion of my first year of grad school, I thought I would write an FAQ about going to graduate school for international development. A lot of these questions are from friends who were recently been applying and making their decisions.

What kind of graduate degree should I get to work in development? MPA, MPP, MPA/ID, MGHD, MBA, PhD, JD…? 

If you want to be a doctor you get an MD; if you want to be a lawyer you get a JD; if you want to be a professor you get a PhD; if you want to be in private equity you get an MBA. So what about if you want to work in the dynamic field of international development? Your career could and likely will span all three sectors (private, government and non-profit). You could work on a government-sponsored project through a private contractor, then for an NGO, and then a multilateral organization like the UN, World Bank or IMF. The development field is filled with actors beyond just the donor-donee landscape of a couple decades ago.

Which degree to pursue basically depends on the skill set you want to exercise. In general, a masters-level degree in development (MPA/MPP/MPA-ID/MGHD/MIA, all different names for approximately the same degree) will cater to the well-rounded professional. You will learn core skills for analysis like statistics, econometrics, micro/macro economics. You will also get development-specific courses on politics, post-conflict theory, social enterprise, regional studies and/or impact evaluation. The core curriculum for Masters degrees tends to be similar across programs, but the emphasis on quantitative requirements sometimes varies. Later I will discuss some differences between specific programs.

An MBA will be useful if the main skill set you want in development is a managerial one, and not an analytical one. If you aspire to being an upper-level manager in an organization, no matter public/private/non-profit, an MBA can give you the managerial skills to make that leap in both responsibility and salary. However, it also comes at a very large cost. I am doing mine at Yale SOM because it was one of the only programs I found that 1) had a real focus on non-profit/public management and social enterprise, and 2) guaranteed full loan forgiveness plus interest to me if I went into the public/non-profit sector after graduation (with no limitations on how many times I can leave those sectors and come back, for the 10 year loan payback period!). To see business schools that really have good options (faculty, courses, clubs) in the social/public sectors, see this great ranking at, and talk extensively to financial aid offices about their loan forgiveness programs as you apply.

PhD is, of course, the right option for people pursuing academia. However, it can also be useful for those who want to do quantitative economics/political science research at think tanks, work as a World Bank analyst, or obtain a high-level analyst position in the US government bureaucracy. A Masters degree can sometimes be a good foot in the door for PhD candidacy. Several of my classmates at Princeton are going on to apply for PhDs in policy, which exist at a select number of institutions (such as Princeton WWS, Harvard KSG, JHU SAIS, RAND, Berkeley Goldman, Georgetown GPPI, University of Maryland, etc.). These policy PhD programs, as opposed to standard programs in PoliSci or Economics, tend to be shorter and a little more applied, with less of an automatic assumption of a future academic career (though it is still an option). As a development professional however it may be more relevant to get a straight PhD in economics if you want to be on the quant side of the World Bank or other development economics bodies.

For a good debate on the MPA vs. PhD, check out development blog star Chris Blattman’s popular post.

In my opinion, there is not a huge amount of value added to getting a JD for doing actual development work. A law degree used to be a catch-all for all smart people that wanted to do something in policy, but its cache is falling while expenses rise. I thought I was going to be a lawyer from age 12, when all my friends and family told me that being articulate and liking a good argument clearly suited me to this profession. That is a horrible reason to go into law. A good reason to go into law is to practice law, not development. “International law” doesn’t really exist and offers very few concrete jobs internationally outside of the private sector (most of them involve advocating for prisoners of conscience or dealing with war criminals, with operations like Amnesty International or international criminal tribunals. Very competitive field when it comes to jobs, and if you’re into development this is important but offers a very narrow view of the issues you deal with in the field).

What should my #1 criterion be when choosing schools? 

To me, it is self-evident that the answer here is funding. Many development jobs are in the government or non-profit sectors. While private sector options do exist now that do many of the same types of projects (i.e. development consulting, or private USAID contractors), taking on a huge amount of debt for a development degree can still be very limiting in career options. Scholarship options are few and far between (though I will pass along this one, for those interested in careers w/ USAID).

Receiving funding is difficult for masters programs in IR/development/policy, even harder for MBAs/JDs, and virtually guaranteed for PhDs (but there is a higher opportunity cost in salary for doing the long degree!). And, not all masters programs are created equal.

Many prospective applicants may be interested in which concrete schools offer more or less funding. The Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton offers a full ride (no tuition costs) to every single person who is admitted, in addition to a ~$20k living stipend to most of the class (a few each year who have worked in private sector in the past or have a lot of savings will get less). The offer of full funding also makes it the most selective school in terms of admissions rates. The Tufts Fletcher School is very transparent about their aid packages — they are decent about giving partial funding ($7k-18k is the middle 50%), but their max scholarships cover only about half-tuition and no living costs. The Kennedy School at Harvard offers a few full rides, and some stipends especially to international students, but the vast majority of those who get in do not receive any funding at all and end up having to pay full tuition on top of living costs in a very expensive Boston housing market. The Yale Jackson School is a smaller program and very selective, but as a result offers up to full aid + stipend to outstanding candidates with excellent academic records and a strong work background (in service/military helps). SAIS offers a sparse handful of essay-based full tuition scholarships each year on specific topics, and otherwise gives pretty limited aid. Georgetown SFS gives very limited aid the first year, except for the new development-focused MGHD program which has given out a handful of full scholarships and a number of partial tuition scholarships in its two-year existence so far. Like SFS, Columbia SIPA also has a system of little to no aid the first year, with an opportunity to receive aid based on merit the second year; this is a pretty flawed system however as 1) aid is not guaranteed in year 2 so you take a big risk by enrolling with no assurances; 2) your graduate student loans start accruing from Day 1, so giving aid only in the second year means you’ll have already accrued a bunch of interest on your first year loans; and 3) you spend your first year competing with classmates for grades in order to receive second-year aid, which is not the kind of environment best conducive to collaborative learning.

Where do schools fall on the theory-practitioner spectrum?

Another thing to consider when picking schools is how much they focus on theory vs. practice. A development-only program like the Georgetown MGHD is going to be very practitioner-focused, with practitioner/adjunct professors teaching and many applied classes. From personal experience, I can say the Princeton WWS program is more theoretical, and deeply academic with a lot of focus on quantitative rigor and analysis. The professors are not practitioners for the most part — they are academics in the traditional sense. The Core is therefore more theory-based your first year, but in electives which you can take your second year there are certainly more practitioner elements that you can fill out your course load with. MPA-ID at HKS is very quantitatively rigorous and good for development economic analysis, if you are quantitatively inclined.

What are the admissions rates of various grad schools?

Often times they don’t publish these. Peterson’s grad school website is an okay resource for info, though many entries are missing:  This past year the Princeton WWS admit rate was ~11%, while the site reports Harvard KSG at 27% and Columbia SIPA at 42%.

What is a policy memo and how do I write it?

Some masters degree applications require a policy memo (WWS, HKS, SAIS). A policy memo is a succinct document giving a concrete recommendation on a topic. Therefore, it should start with a header (your name, whom you are writing to, date, subject) and the text of the memo should begin with a clear recommendation in one or two sentences. The rest of the memo should back up that recommendation with background evidence and argumentation. At WWS at least, we are taught that there is no need for a reiterating conclusion in the memo, and that a lot of citations are also not necessary. Whatever word limit they give you should be rigidly adhered to, as part of writing a good memo is brevity. It should not be a story or personal essay. It should not really relate to you personally in any way; it should deal with issues that you are passionate about or have expertise on, but need not say why you chose that topic (that can be left for the personal statement). Generally the more specific the topic, the better.

What element of my application to a development Masters program is most important?

IMO, the clear answer to this is your work experience — both length and type. Many people try to apply to policy or development degrees out of college with no work experience whatsoever. It is not law school, where your test scores and GPA carry the decision. The average work experience for most MPA programs is around 4-5 years, so consider that carefully when you apply. If you have <4 years of experience, you are below average in this regard for the acceptance pool, and should consider working more before applying. Many applicants get the feedback that they are too young when they first apply and should work a couple years, go abroad to get field experience, etc. and try again.

For more information about graduate school for development, another great resource is the Grad Cafe Forums on Government Affairs (policy and development degrees). Also check out the inaugural WWS Admissions Blog, for which I was a blogger this past school year.


About beccazsky

NGO Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan
This entry was posted in advice, development, grad school. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Graduate School for International Development

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    Will definitely pick your brains on this matter in the coming years, but until then, incredibly helpful as always – thanks, Becca!

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