6 points to consider before applying to an MA program in international development

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I am a member of one of the largest development and humanitarian Facebook groups and one question that has been coming up several times, probably because it is that time of the year when members start thinking about their plans for the autumn, is about study advice for MA program in the field of development and humanitarian studies.

Many of the queries a quite specific, a bit along the lines of
I’m looking for a free, online, part-time MA in child rights & accountability in humanitarian emergencies in sub-Saharan Africa-ideally in French”.
Given the size of the group and the crowd’s expertise this may not be an impossible question to ask, but as an academic I would like to take this opportunity and zoom out a bit for some general reflections on MA programs and what they can and very often cannot deliver.

I had a great time studying Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the early 2000s, I enjoyed teaching on the Institute of Development Studies’ MA programs during my PhD research and I have been the program coordinator for Malmö University’s Communication for Development program for several years now.
So regardless of your specialization and interests I am sharing a few general reflections about the nature of many MA degrees.

1. Higher education is a crowded marketplace-so always be skeptical about degrees that sound too good to be true
If a faculty/institution/department offers more than two or three different MA degrees it is probably worth having a closer look at their core faculty.
There is nothing wrong with offering an MA in International Development with a few specializations, but no department has experts in humanitarian law, media and communication and anthropology under the same roof. A good MA aligns with the core competencies of the faculty-not a trendy title.

2. The 30-30-30 rule
Even if the exact breakdown may differ, I think that most MA programs roughly follow a similar outline: 30% of your studies will cover more general, core subjects of the field, 30% will be specializing in a sub-field and roughly 30% will be dedicated to the thesis process-so be realistic how much development, law and data the fictitious MA in Development, International Law & Data Science really would have.
This does not mean that the overview over the field will not be interesting or that you cannot learn and apply valuable skills during the thesis process, but if Data Science is what you are really interested in, there may be better courses/modules/degrees out there.

3. Studying more of the same vs. breaking into a new field

This is a tough one. Even though it may not feel like this right now, chances are that this will not be your one and only or last MA.
I do not want to move into higher education buzzword bingo of
lifelong learning”, but somehow I doubt that this MA will be your last for the next 30 or so years of your life…Building up, renewing and reflecting on your knowledge and skills is an important trait in our field.
Disciplines change constantly and your MA in Development from twenty years ago may have become a bit outdated. Doing
more of the same may be a good way of making the most of the 60% mentioned before or even replacing some of the 30% with courses you really want to study.
Branching out can also be a strategy-but be realistic of what a MA/MSc in Public Health can really add to your CV as a historian. You will compete with candidates who have been Public Health people all their lives and nobody in the sector is waiting for you to join ”their” field.
We think that we are the generous person who welcomes the natural science colleague back from their MA in Gender and Development, but very often we (or our organizations) are less generous when a new colleague tries to enter
our” field and perhaps competes with our assignments and consultancies…

4. Postgraduate studies are often linked to stories about debt
Many programs in the UK are charging in excess of 15k GBP in overseas fees for their MAs. Often located in and around London and a few other expensive cities and often following a traditional 9-10 months residential study model which requires you to move/live there, your MA can very quickly get very expensive.
Is it worth it? If you have to pay from your own pocket, move countries and lose significant earnings my frank answer is:
Probably not”. Primarily, you will be paying for your studies-not the networks” or opportunities” that the university may be keen to sell to you. No social science degree carries the weight of an MBA or professional degrees-so even a degree from a renowned university may only get you thus far.

5. Can I please study Saturday mornings from 8:00-10:00?

Postgraduate studies have become far more flexible-from part-time to online and blended formats to generous allowances for leave and completing studies in non-traditional ways. This is mostly a good trend which increases retention, attracts professionals at various stages of their career and makes higher education more open and diverse. Most colleague I know are also very aware of the fact that courses in our area require that flexibility as humanitarian emergencies happen, contracts often change and frequent relocation is the norm, rather than the exception. And of course, life happens in many different ways.
But signing up for an MA is not just a contractual arrangement that follows a
pay for academic credit logic. At the end of the day any intellectual endeavor should contain a little bit of an inconvenience, commitment and struggle.
Good teachers not only support students individually, but also keep an eye on group dynamics and their colleagues as many programs are taught by a team of teachers. The more individual your study plan gets, the less excited most teachers are. A good program could also be a program that does not admit you right now because you mentioned challenging circumstances that make it unlikely for you to finish or have an enjoyable experience. To end with a little bit of buzzword bingo: You will get more out of your studies if you put some effort into them!

6. So should I enroll in MOOCs instead or pay for a LinkedIn professional training course?

Sadly, the answer is
No” both times. As much as I am self-critical about some aspects of the higher education sector and postgraduate studies, at the end of the day I firmly believe in the value of universities as primary places of learning. Perhaps some departments are too market-oriented; perhaps some lecturers do not really want to be in the classroom and rather do research and not every module will deliver what the course outline promised. Even though I am keenly aware of the burden of debt (luckily EU/EEA citizens study for free in Sweden), at the end of the day many programs will be enjoyable, worthwhile experiences.
But they require a certain amount of openness and flexibility on both sides. Your MA is not a training program where
skills” will be at the center of the experience.
But you can use your time wisely. I have yet to meet a colleague who would not meet with a student to discuss an imperfect paper outline or share their networks with you for your thesis research. Despite a changing sector and lots of pressures on higher education, the vast majority of colleagues are generous with their time, encouraging and helpful.

Deciding on an MA is always a trade-off. But if you do your research, enter open-minded and perhaps some financial support from your government you will learn a lot-probably not for the last time in your life…

Additional readings on the blog

Should I transition from aid work to academia? Some don’ts & don’ts (2018)

I personally have absolutely no doubts that diverse PhD cohorts are great for academia, but our desire to be surrounded by field experiences and interesting people always risks to turn into an almost colonial approach at a time when higher education is already going through major soul searching.
So talk to us-but prepared for ‘Reviewer 2’ feedback ;)!
Reader career question 01: Eradicating poverty with a PhD and/or UN job? (2013)
Working for the UN vs. eradicating poverty. While there is nothing wrong with a wish to pursue a career with the UN, I am a bit skeptical as to whether it would really fulfill your development ambitions. And with your background in banking, the World Bank or IMF could even be better options for a career in international organizations. Right now, the UN system is more competitive than ever and every job advertisement will receive hundreds of responses from qualified candidates.
Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies? (2011)
A PhD is a great learning experience-but mainly for you. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if advocacy work is your passion or you want to work in collaboration with others plus see the impact of your work then doing a PhD may not be your first choice, because it gets very lonely and the ‘impact’ of your work is almost impossible to measure. Because the PhD is so difficult to fit into a box, especially if you are accustomed to the 'capacity building' discourse, it requires second and third thoughts.

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