Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

After the Economist’s piece on the (non-)value of doing a PhD and some comments later (e.g. Prometheus doesn't read the Economist (I like the slightly cynical dichotomy between ‘civilians’ and the ‘academic insiders) or the '100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School' (they are only halfway through so check it out regularly in the future...) I had an interesting conversation with a prospective PhD student a few days ago.
This was not the first time that I had been approached about doing a PhD and I always try to be as frank as possible, even playing the ‘devil’s advocate’ when it comes to the complicated ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ decision-making process. At the end of our conversation I sat down and tried to summarize a few important and generic points from the point of view of doing a PhD in Development Studies and in the UK.
I understand that every case is different and involves a range of motives, options and rationales, but there a few important questions and topics that most prospective PhD students could engage with before the proposal writing and supervisor search begins:

Why do I want to do a PhD?
If your immediate answer is along the lines of ‘I’m 26 years old and my Masters degree doesn’t feel sufficient to get a development job so I want a “higher” qualification’, ‘I can’t seem to find a job beyond a three-month internship and I better wait for a few more years before entering the real job market’ or ‘I have been with this organisation for a while now and I need some time off to think why development often fails the poor people’ you may want to reconsider your choice. In many/most development organisations the PhD is not necessarily seen as an additional qualification, especially if it's in a social science rather than, say, agricultural economics or other 'technical' disciplines that could complement development programming work; it’s difficult to forecast future employment in any industry three, four or even more years into the future and a PhD is too priceless to be just tailored to job considerations and potential income (which, by the way, I find is the biggest critique regarding the Economist article); and a creative writing or action-research-focussed program may be a more appropriate choice to reflect on your or more general development's attitudes, mindsets and work- or lifestyles.
The PhD is a theoretical endeavour that goes against any project cycle, development time-frame and beyond any organisational management issue there may be. That’s the beauty of doing a PhD-but that’s also the problem in the area of international development. You should have an inclination to see yourself working in the academy-not because the title ‘professor’ sounds appealing, but because you like to teach undergraduate students, work on laborious research grant applications, want to defend research in the public domain against cuts in government funding and age-old ‘ivory tower’ accusation and remind the ROW (rest of the world...) that development issues are complex and nearly impossible to 'solve'.

A PhD keeps my options open- I can always switch between university, research institutions and ‘real world’ development projects/ organisations
As appealing as it sounds it’s only partially true at best. Given the competitive job market everywhere and in every industry you need to be good at what you are doing and you need some form of specialisation. After five years of working inside a large development organisation it won’t be easy to apply for full-time academic posts (and vice versa). You can be a freelance consultant and teach a course at your local university, but early on in your research career you will encounter the need for specialisation. It may get easier to bridge professional gaps and discourses if you are an established (tenured, well-published, media-covered) academic, but you should also think about the first 15 years of short-term consultancies, 1 year post-docs and £3,000 lump sums for teaching a course. Similar to the point below about multi- and interdisciplinarity, many people happily embrace the concept of academics informing development practice and practitioners spicing up a class, but despite the occassional overlap the professions remain in their respective silos; a short-term consultancy is not 'fieldwork' and sharing stories from the field is not the same as teaching 12 classes on 'introduction to development theory'. Which brings me straight to my next point:

I can pay for my PhD by working as a consultant
As expensive as a PhD may be, many prospective PhD students envision working as a consultant and use the money for their studies. This is a tough question and it likely involves some rough numbers and honest discussions with your bank/parents/partner. With the forthcoming increase in fees even European (EU) students are likely to pay something along the lines of overseas fees (~£8,500) in the UK. Let’s say you only have to pay £7,000 per year and your PhD will cost approximately 2.5 years worth of fees (lower fieldwork fees for example). That’s £18,000. And let’s be realistic: in development studies the PhD most likely takes 4 years. That’s £400 per month (I’m rounding...) for fees. Let’s not be ridiculously stingy and estimate £1,000 living expenses in the UK. That’s £17,000 you need in your bank account (i.e. net salary). Maybe you are lucky enough to get tax-free UN consultancies, but let’s assume that at least some work needs to be taxed and as a proper freelancer based in the UK you would do this. Let’s add 20%. And all of the sudden you need £21,000. That's for a single person who lives a 'student lifestyle'. Let’s be generous and estimate £200 as your daily rate and all of the sudden you have to work for 105 days per year. These are only paid days. Application or bidding processes, delays, travel, unpaid overtime, gaps between consultancies not included...oh, and you haven’t started to work on your PhD yet, being the fulltime student that you are supposed to be and that your supervisor expects...the bottom line is that balancing work (especially freelance work) and your PhD can be exciting, but it is difficult and in 9 out of 10 cases it prolongs the PhD journey. And don’t fool yourself with the ‘the project is practically PhD research work’ argument. In most cases, there are different requirements and except for an interview or two your interesting long-term consultancy has very little value for your actual thesis. Work at the university may be an option, but in the UK universities are not that keen to hire students-and even if you are employed for example as a half-time research officer your salary would be around £15,000 and you most likely have regular working days and very little time for other gigs besides your PhD... 

Being married to your thesis, or: The psychological impact of doing a PhD
Don’t underestimate the psychological impact of a PhD. That one summer where you worked really, really hard on your MA dissertation prepared you for your PhD? Well, only if you want to have the feeling of this summer 10, 12 or 15 more times over the next 3-4 years. Friends get promoted, former colleagues move to new jobs and destinations, sisters have babies, other friends get married...and maybe divorced...and buddies post pictures of summer vacations on their are still ‘in school’. If you are doing a traditional thesis (i.e. a 300-page monograph rather than a 3 or 4 paper thesis) it will always be at odds with the speed of ‘real life’, especially as there is no linear progression-you either have a PhD or you don't! Personal (relationships, family planning etc), professional (many organisations, discourses and bloggers will come, change, stay or go) and academic (your geographic or topical focus never rests and it often feels like chasing the latest political development, publication or project you would like to/should be involved in) worlds will always be in motion and despite the invention of 'the Internet', Google or laptops the PhD process has only been slightly modernised since the 16th century-at least compared to the speed of change elsewhere in society. 

Development Studies sounds inter- and multidisciplinary-that must be awesome!
I don’t know what ‘interdisciplinary’ really means, but I think it’s one of the biggest bubbles in current academic research. It’s true that different colleagues use a range of approaches to their research, but the interactions, exchanges and learning opportunities are limited. Household surveys vs. case studies, ethnographic observations vs. expert interviews, field notes vs. regressions...the list is long, controversial and makes for great dinner debates, but does hardly add anything valuable to your own research project. Every discipline is divided, specialised and fragmented so don’t expect the economist to get excited about discourse analysis and don’t waste time as an anthropologist to sit through an introductory course of STATA. Many universities promote inter-departmental courses on research methods and skills and as interesting as some presentations may be when you are new to postgraduate research, you don’t really take away a lot from them. Academic research is about specialisation and building up your own expertise and you will be judged by your thesis or journal publications, not by the fact that you attended a few courses in your first year that exposed you to some glimpses into other disciplines. When you are applying for post-doctoral work you will face questions about your disciplinary stance and answering them with ‘I’m a sociological anthropologist who likes econometric research’ will most likely annoy people. Job advertisements, university mission statements and grant applications will say that they like ‘interdisciplinary’ stuff, but when it comes to giving away money and jobs they tend to stick with the ‘real’ anthropologists or political scientists. You need a solid academic, theoretical foundation and any 'multi-' or 'inter-' elaborations are icing on the cake. If you have a choice, stick with a ‘boring’ department in the same way as you should stick with a ‘boring’ research proposal. 

So what are some survival strategies aka the 'boring proposal hypothesis'
First, and I know it sounds terrible and I risk being misquoted for the rest of my life ;), choose a boring topic. If you read your title and abstract to a friend and s/he jumps off their seat shouting ‘this sounds soooo fascinating I want to do a PhD TOOOOO!!!’ you just added about 1.5 years of hard work to your project. Yes, quantum mechanics, impact monitoring and ethnography should be brought together to create a new theory of everything in development-but you also want to keep your project manageable. A PhD is a case study in proving to other academics that you are capable of applying a theoretical framework to a scientific project and build a robust case for your argument and findings-and not a space to reinvent the research wheel or try out something completely different, new, strange or surprising. Even if everything seems to work well, there will be a day when you meet with the examiners and one of them hates to be surprised...if you have a lot of 'why did nobody ever think of this before?' moments one potential answer could be that it simply doesn't make sense-or it's too complicated/time-consuming/expensive. It could also be that you are a genius-then just skip to the bottom of this post!
If a friend/former colleague/fieldwork informant asks you about the ‘impact’ of your PhD, one of your first answers should be ‘It will get me a degree from my university’. Changing the world, ending poverty, engaging with organisations and/or local people are worthwhile endeavours but they come with a high price of longer (more expensive) fieldwork or a more painful (longer, more expensive) writing-up stage. There's nothing unethical about doing a PhD essentially for yourself as long as you conduct research ethically, openly and transparently. You will be able to do many wonderful things after your PhD, including changing the way academia works, bringing peace to Africa, turning Marxism on its head/feet and transforming the UN, World Bank or any other large aid organisation-just don't get caught up in these battles while you are writing up your thesis. 

'A PhD is not for geniuses'
So am I discouraging readers from doing a PhD? Absolutely not! But you should be prepared to ask yourself a few tough questions and contemplate a few important trade-offs. For example, maybe it is better to do a PhD when you are older/more experienced etc. Many of my colleagues had significant experience prior to starting the PhD and in development the PhD can really help to open up new professional routes. Although you will only do a PhD once, keeping it manageable (‘boring’) is good advice. You can do and write about fun things on the side or, better yet, after completion. The PhD (at my university it only says ‘DPhil’ on the final document, not ‘DPhil in Development Studies’) is a qualification that you can use and spin in many directions and if your thesis only ends up in the library that doesn’t say anything about your future academic prospects or that you 'wasted four years of your life'. 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. Great, if someone offers you a scholarship-but that's not enough of an incentive to do a PhD; having a great idea and hoping that you can muddle through financially and emotionally is equally a bad starting point. The PhD in development requires impossible choices and trade-offs-and I guess that's why so many of us are doing one besides the 'facts' that the Economist cited in their article. Because the PhD journey, besides the knowledge you will gain, freedom to research your own project, plenty of time to actually read entire books etc. will be a unique journey in your life. In a subject like Development Studies and in a place like UK I can promise you that you will meet a range of inspirational, fascinating, crazy, diverse, bright and intellectually stimulating colleagues that no other organisation, company or single country will ever be able to offer you. And if you like students, teaching, learning and listening to your own voice ;) the pains of the journey will be rewarded with a wide range of full-time career positions at universities around the world, high salaries, exotic conference locations, even higher social esteem and respect from those who will seek your advice-at least that's my little fantasy...

But this is only a very, very rough guide and the best thing to do is discussing your dreams and aspirations with someone from the ‘inside’. Most PhD students are happy to share intelligence on their school and supervisors and how the PhD journey has been manageable for them. Worse than delaying your PhD plans is starting one on a ‘hope it goes well somehow’ notion and then drop out halfway through the project. Stamina and patience are at least as important as intellectual capabilities-or as my supervisors used to say ‘geniuses don’t do PhDs’.

Good luck-and feel free to comment, add your insights or ask questions below!


  1. Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for the insightful post! I'm an IDS graduate (2009) and doing a PhD is always in the back of my head. Reading this I think I'll continue working in development for some years :)


  2. Thomas, Thanks so much for putting me on track

  3. Thomas,

    Insightful piece ! It does touch on some of the dilemmas of Development Studies graduate-- development theory vs. development practice, consulting vs academia. I think for a lot of us PhD always remains at the back of our minds, particularly given the inconsistent and grueling nature of most development jobs. I am a 2009 Development Studies graduate from LSE
    and I think most us around that time (overlapping with the recession) found the development job market fairly harsh...and PhD appeared like a relatively easy option.

  4. Your style is hilarious, and the content so true... I can't help thinking of the PhD as a long tunnel. Things are moving around you, your friends get great postings, there are many other things that you would like to do , but you're stuck in there. Although you don't always see it, you know that the only exit is at the very end.

  5. Hi Thomas,
    For some time now I have been thinking about pursuing a PhD. I am a Development studies graduate from Wageningen University (2008). Reading your article stresses even more that a good planning is necessary before starting the PhD. Especially since I also want to get married and have children in the near future and travel around world. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I need a conversation with myself

    1. Haha, Conversation with oneself, is the key I guess!

  6. Hi! Nice to read you. I mostly agree with you except for choosing a boring subject - I usually ask prospective students if they are in love with their PhD topic! You need to have passionate love to sustain four years of more of lonely research on one topic...since you most likely end up being fed up with it anyway at the end. It worked for me at least - at the end of the writing process I was really tired of my research question but I was always fascinated by it (still am now :))

    Btw, why are the other commenters calling you Thomas? Is it your new canadian nickname? ;)

    Hope you are well! Take care,

  7. Very insightful! I wished I had read your post before deciding to pursue a PhD myself three years ago. Situation is worse in my case (psychologically) as I am doing PhD while working full time (not to mention raising a family). I kid myself into thinking, to paraphrase your line, "work is practically PhD research work" - you are right, it ain't. I hope I will see the end of this enduring journey...

  8. I am currently writing my thesis for my Masters in Development Studies in South Africa and thinking of going straight to do a Phd , however ,the more I look into it the more I am realizing that work experience is very crucial beforehand at 2- 3 years of work experience could help save like the article said and allow a new graduate to have a taste of what being development practitioner is about. it takes time though.. sadly..

  9. A very useful blog Tobias, with an answer to "should I or should I not" clearly no straight forward. I initially responded on this posting in the Linkedin group 'International Development Studies' as responses there seemed to interpret your post as saying first get work experience before embarking on a PhD.

    My contribution would be that one's decision should also be influenced by the kind of Development Studies you are interested in. You rightly indicated Development Studies as multi-/inter-disciplinary with various possible focuses.

    Keep in mind that one's notion of development will influence what you think is Development Studies. Allen and Thomas (2000:29) identify three broad notions of how ‘development’ is used: (1) development as a vision or description of the state of being; (2) development as directed, deliberate processes of improvement (intentional development); and (3) development as a historical process of social change and transformation over long periods of time (immanent development). These notions are not contradictory or mutually exclusive, and I think all these notions are useful in Development Studies. But they each have different implications for the focus and content of a Development Studies (from activism to practices to policy-inputs to general searches for understanding).

    For me Henry Bernstein (2006) makes a useful distinction between development studies and studying development (or 'development teaching/education' versus 'development studies' (Small 2002)). The first is about how to do 'development (i.e. processes and techniques) and tend to focus on Allen and Thomas' definition of development as intentional interventions. The second is a critical study of the practices, policies, and thinking of 'development', and many times contextualise these in processes of historical change (i.e. immanent development).

    Why then do a PhD in Development Studies? For me a PhD is about furthering research skills and knowledge creation in a particular field. Then, to do a PhD because you want to do research in the field of development, does not require 'work experience' - in fact, the PhD is like on-the-job training.
    If you do a PhD because you want to become better at doing development, then maybe work experience in the field of development is what is rather required, before one later considers embarking on a PhD work personal growth/career development/etc.

    Whatever the choice, I think a PhD is a special achievement (and those that earned it, deserve our respect, even if it is just for their tenacity). It requires 'special' effort - clearly not something to be considered lightly!

  10. This more of a guest post rather than a comment and I agree with a lot of what Carina wrote, especially as she frames it in such a great way based on theory and definitions. I have to admit that I took my British understanding of Development Studies as specific discipline almost for granted, but acknowledge the diversity of the subject. However, based on my UK understanding (but I would guess that Dutch or some Scandinavian countries have a similar understanding of the discipline) I want to outline some of the points where I disagree with Carina. First, I find the differences between certain understandings of development more useful for postgraduate or even undergraduate studies rather than the PhD. You don't have to get a degree in Development Studies to critically engage with development issues! From sociology to social work, from business studies to philosophy you can apply your knowledge and skills at different parts of the 'industry'. But if you are planning to do a PhD at a Development Studies place these distinctions become more difficult and less important for your work and life as a doctral student. But the main point where we disagree is about work experience and what you describe as the 'on-the-job training' part. I couldn't agree more with you about 'furthering research skills and knowledge creation', but the requirement is most of the time that you apply these skills to a case study of sorts and you should be famililar with basic intercultural and communication skills. The first time you enter an office, talk to an informant or read an annual report shouldn't be as a researcher. Some previous exposure to 'real life' is essential in understanding the nuances of development process where 'success' and 'failure' are often negotiated outcomes rather than objective findings.
    The PhD then becomes a rather expensive 'on the job' learning experience, because you will be selective in your methodological approach, regional focus etc. Unless academia is the one and only goal, I wonder whether you could learn many of these skills during a great 6 months internship at a research institute or NGO-even if it is an unpaid internship. The depths and scope of research is very different in all institutions other than academia where theoretical literature, sample size or number of respondents often play a lesser role.
    But Carina is right that the PhD is a special achievement and requires some reflections right from the beginning where you want to take your professional and personal development with the degree.

  11. Love the post Tobias.... couldn't feel for/ agree more with wht you have written here.

    Infact I just stumbled upon this searching for an internship/ job as I have just finished my Masters in Development Studies. I just finished doing it in India (Mumbai to be specific) and had applied to a couple of places .. for an Mphil in New Delhi Delhi in Law and Governance at the JNU (u might not have heard of it, but it is one of the few good places for doing social science research in India) and for a direct Phd. in Development Studies at another place in Delhi (newely opened university in Delhi).

    I was in a conundrum of having to decide for a Phd. though somewhere down I know I would always want to do it. The problem that has always been there is that I belong to a literature background, having already done a Masters already in German Literature and Cultural Studies, after which I decided to move on to do a second Masters in Development and now I have to justify myself everywhere for this 'strange' choice. So much for inter- multi-disciplinary approach (though i too think calling it interdisciplinary doesn't quite fit)!

    Anyway, so I want to do a Phd. and then there is a question of settling down, and since I dont earn and neither does my girlfriend who is also a Phd. student in Delhi, also not earning, it seems a very difficult choice:P
    questions like: whether i can do a Phd. at all now? or can I work along with my Phd.? etc. keep propping up in my head again and again also.

    Anyway so much for the ranting....

    I really do believe in the rigour and the satisfaction of doing a good Phd and how meaningful an experience it can be/ should be. (For which, doing it from a good place is also important). Infact I ideally would want to do a good Phd. from a decent place like the IDS. But for people like me in a tricky situation it is a difficult question.

    All said and done... I think a Phd. in Development can actually set you on course, if you take it seriously. Wht seems important is choosing a course and sticking with it long enuff and getting involved with people at places which matter. I think development studies can open up all those spaces since its emphasis is mostly more empirical/ practical (though as rightly pointed out, this can be debated). However, not to forget, I am talking here from the point of view of a person who is thinking of establishing himself meaningfully in the current field of development.. you know finding one's feet and all. The dilemma of choosing to do a Phd. and how to do it etc. thus for me is a personal dilemma ... finally it is up to you wat choices you make and how long well you can stick to that course (Phd. is just a start as Tobias, you have rightly pointed out)....

    So after all this Tobias.. I ask you to enlighten me abt the prospect of Phd. in development studies... at IDS ... wht are the other good places you know of...? If you respond here I will mail you soon... thnx ...

    and lovely post... resonates ... even at this end of the world. I think at least development academics around the world have some things in common.

  12. Thanks for the comment/reply, A Ray. It just proves why this post remains the by far most popular/visited one on my humble blog...In addition to IDS Manchester's IDPM, LSE's Destin, East Anglia and SOAS would be some of the more obvious choices for PhDs in Development Studies, but there are obviously many more-sometimes not labelled 'Development Studies', but in everything from geography to anthropology or health sciences. The Development Studies Association offers a list with all of them here:
    But don't hesitate to send me a message if you have further questions!

  13. Greetings:

    I think your comments are very informative, insightful, and real. I personally think your assessment can be applied to most social science disciplines, and not just "development" per se. I have deferred a Ph.D to SOAS for some years now, as I wanted to have some experience managing programs and working in the field, as my experience and research topic, like A Ray's is multi-disciplinary, including culture/literature(oral tradition), media, and development. You have provided more information on the real deal about the Ph.D than ANY of my professors in my M.A. program:):). For that, I thank you. I think it should be a requirement for professors to provide information on the challenges, reality, and career options available for those considering a Ph.D. I look forward to reading more of you comments.

  14. Thanks, Princessaj for your kind words! I do agree that professors are often not critical and open enough about the PhD journey and its 'aftermath'. Being straightforward with prospective students is important and most would clearly not be offended if a professor says 'maybe you shouldn't do a PhD (now)'. There are so many elements to consider other than 'being a bright student', but many professors seem to be reluctant to turn down PhD applications-especially if the student has funding...

  15. Hello.
    I found your post quite interesting and funny. I was wondering whether you could also recommend a bunch of other European PhD programs that at are worth attending. Thanks in advance.

    Kind regards from Argentina.

  16. Hi Federico!
    Thanks for your comment. 'Worth attending' is an interesting way to phrase your search criteria ;)...There are plenty of good PhD programmes particularly in the UK, the Netherlands and Scandinavia when it comes to social science-based development research. But my experiences at IDS and Sussex can be generalised up to a certain point: It depends on the supervision, the dedication of the university to (overseas) PhD students and your own topic and ambitions. One good starting point is to go through a list of recent books or articles you found interesting and check where the authors are based. Your research should align with that of your supervisor to some extent and once you have identified a few scholars and departments a PhD application can follow...All the best!

  17. I just have little question.. In the long run, if I want to get into humanitarian work/ consultancy/NGO type work, would it be better to hold a PhD in Anthropology or Development Studies?
    Where would a Degree in Development Studies lead?
    Which is better for academic positions ?

    Thanks you.

  18. The short answer to all three questions is: 'It depends'... ;)!
    1. It depends a lot on your thesis topic/research. More people may be interested in that than the actual discipline. My certificate from Sussex will only say 'Doctor of Philosophy' without any department etc.
    2. Not sure I completely understand the question. But
    3. I don't think there is an easy answer. If your long-term goal is an academic position in anthropology than I would suggest immersing oneself in the community right from the beginning.
    But at some point you will have to make a decision and during the PhD some routes will open up-but others will close. If you want to have academic position you will need to teach and publish etc. If you want to be a consultant-great, but you may end up with temporary teaching jobs, because of the juggling. Academia rewards persistence over ability and brilliance, I'm afraid...

  19. hi, thanks for this interesting blog.

    i am keen to do a phd in development studies, and finally land up working in an international organization like the world bank or undp.

    given this, which school would you recommend that I apply to? you have listed a number of schools in the UK in an earlier post, but will be grateful if you could let me know considering my specific case. thanks!

  20. Hi Thomas,

    your article is really interesting. Guess what, I am a Development Studies Post Graduate from East Anglia and have been based in development sector in India. During my work experience of past 5 years, I have been associated with premier social science institutes in India. Here in India, having a Ph.D. is definitely an added advantage on paper. You application to a job is less likely to be put in bin if it has a PhD on it. Also, even if you are a very good independent researcher, your chances of bagging UN-World Bank-ADB consultancies depends more often whether your name carries a Ph.D tag.
    I myself wanted to pursue my Ph.D in Development Studies but I have put those plans on hold , at the moment , and I want to gain more work experience before I venture into the world of 'lonely research'. I think backing up your Ph.D plans with meaningful work experience is a good way of ensuring your don't end up unemployed after your Ph.D.

    Thanks for the insights.and all the best for your Ph.D.

  21. Thanks for your comments, Anonymous and Amruta.

    Anonymous, if your ambition is to work for the World Bank than don't waste your time with a PhD in Development Studies. A PhD in a specialised field of economics (health/development/labour market...), preferably from a North American university, should be the better route. And if your goal is UN(DP) a PhD in any discipline will only be a marginal competitive advantage, plus you won't need many of your knowledge and skills for most UN jobs. It's programme management where you are likely end up writing the TORs for a consultant who will offer some intellectual input. Go for an internship in New York or even better: start out in the field with a UN agency as intern or junior staff and then work your way up the hierarchy.

  22. Thanks for that input Thomas.

    I had a query though: does the World Bank only recruit people with a specialized economics background (preferably from the US)? My undergrad and postgrad was in Politican Science, so I cannot think of a specialized economics doctoral programme! But does pursuing a PhD in Development Studies not open any outlets for working at the World Bank? And is the UK programme not as well recognized as the US?

    Out of curiousity: what career pathways does a PhD in Development Studies (preferably from the UK) lead to?

    I will greatly appreciate your response!

  23. Well, as anywhere in life there are very few things set in stone or career paths that only follow one linear path. The Bank employs social scietists and even a few anthropologists, of course, but within its broader discursive structures the economists call the shots. If you want to work for a large organisation like the Bank you should agree to its mindset/philosophy-especially if this your chose 'career path'. Let's just say that I know very few colleagues with a Development Studies PhD who made a long-term career in the Bank (two-year stints or consultancies don't count). If your long-term aim is academia/research/Think Tanks, which should still be a key motivating factor when signing up for a PhD, a Development Studies degree from the UK will not necessarily be a great advantage for the North American labour market. Large organisations know about IDS/LSE/Oxford QEH/Manchester/East Anglia, of course, but without practical experiences, field experience and programme management none of these organisations will get excited about a PhD in Development Studies. The big advantage/disadvantage is that a PhD does rarely lead to a/one 'career path'. You can do all sorts of things with a PhD-but at some point you need to make a decision and adjust to one of the 'industries'-whether that's the academic industry (publications), development industry (field experience) or research industry (find money for your applied project)-the PhD process itself will not necessarily clarify a path, but rather opening up new/unknown ones-with the challenge that they in the beginning may not lead to a clear path (fulltime work, good salary, benefits, travelling, international recognition (Wow...UN!).

  24. Thanks again!

    But I was wondering, futile as this discussion may seem,that the Bank's staff represents quite a diversity - for instance, the Bank in one of the Asian countries, has people from varied backgrounds - ranging from degrees in rural management, political science, sociology and so forth.

    I am not that keen to work in North America (at least as of now) -- I am surprised that you assumed this!

    In fact, it is quite challenging to work at the Bank's offices in Africa or Asia. That said, I appreciate your point that a PhD opens up diverse pathways, and for large organizations, practical experience counts.

    Zooming in on a PhD in Development Studies from the UK, if I still aspire to join the Bank (with all its baggage) in its non North American offices, I want to ask you a terrible question:which school do you think will grab the most attention - IDS, SOAS, Oxford QEH, UEA, Manchester, or LSE?

    Thanks, plenty!

  25. You are narrowing down the PhD to such an instrumentalist tool that the mindset of the Bank may indeed be quite suitable for your aspiration. You are planning to spend 3-4 years of your life and probably something around 60,000 pounds so your CV will 'grab attention'?! If that's truly your aim try to get into Harvard Business School and don't waste time on development research. If somebody would hire you on the graduate school alone, I would strongly recommend North American schools. They provide better methodological training-be it economics or political science and you can claim to have a UCLA/Chicago/Yale/Stanford/Penn/whatever degree. But no matter where you will graduate from in the UK the question will be about your supervisor, your thesis, your department. Don't overestimate the Oxford-, LSE- or IDS-factor-but also don't underestimate the importance of the right fit. You did research on X in country Y at a small university in the UK? Great, guess what: the Bank office in Y is rolling out a big project on X in the two regions you did your fieldwork in! That's what gets you a job and not some name on a certificate. I think you really need to clarify your topic, identify supervisors and then think about universities. An MA in Development Economics may after all be a good compromise to get attention, acquire skills and spend less money and time on education.

  26. Thanks, again!

    Unfortunately, to join the Bank on a long-term basis, a PhD is a prerequisite.

    I cannot join Harvard Business School since I have a Political Science background. And, I do not mean to ascribe an intrumental worth to a PhD. As you had pointed out earlier, a PhD can open many pathways, and I was only trying to look at one of them.

    Also, thanks for pointing out that at the end, there is no 'ideal fix' and I do hope to make a thoughtful choice about my doctoral research.

    Wondering, what do you intend to do after completing your PhD? Any thoughts?

  27. I really wonder whether Development Studies is the right area for you. If working for the Bank is your goal you will need sound grasp of qualitative AND quantitative methods. Economics is the safest option for the quant part, but what about political science? There's a growing interest in 'number crunching' within political science. Take Essex' political science department, for example. You could still work on something development-related AND you would be inside an academic community that is a leading school in qual&quant methodologies in this area. My guess is that initial discussions with a potential supervisor will help to clarify whether ANY development studies place is the best fit as opposed to LSE's Department of Government or Essex Political Science department. IDS, for example, offers the possibility to research for a PhD in Economics and the development economics department is quite renowned. So good luck with your search-and thanks for a lively discussion!

  28. Any thoughts on starting a family and embarking on a PhD as an international student in the UK. Big question, but thought you might have some stories of colleagues. P.S. do you know if you ahve to pay back scholarship money if you don't complete a PhD? Thanks. Really enjoy your critical blog too.

  29. Wow...that's a difficult question to answer from afar...I guess my biggest concern would be that you may not be able to finish in time because of the new family situation, new country etc. and then the scholarship is over-and UK immigration can be very difficult and you may need to leave without a PhD. However, I have also seen the opposite in the sense that a baby has encouraged colleagues to really focus on the PhD and have a dedicated workday in the office and then return to the family. But every situation is unique, of course. I haven't heard of a colleague who had to pay *back* money from a scholarship. My guess is that you need to explain your situation and why you dropped out and that's that. Again, depending on your situation, a scholarship may seem like a generous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (and somebody paying your overseas fees is great-don't get me wrong!), but living in UK, supporting a family can still be difficult. In the end, you need to have/quickly develop the ability to treat the PhD like a 'job' and be very organised about your time. Nothing is impossible, but it will be a different, probably not very student-like experience in some ways. I hope that helps, but you can always drop me an email for further discussions.

  30. Great blog! Just a question regarding whether yor supervisiors have been (or perhaps others you know) ok with you being out of the UK (or London) for periods of time whilst you still work on the PhD? I mean leaving the country for reasons other than fieldwork. Does it matter where you are based as long as you get the work done? My husband travels alot, that is why I ask. Thanks.

  31. My exprience is that no supervisor likes students to 'disappear'-especially in the process of writing and when s/he thinks that the disruptions through travelling, especially non-PhD-related, affect the progress negatively. That being said, once your first year is over (when it is usually mandatory to stay and study fulltime in the UK) there will be more flexibility. Being open with your supervisor right from the start helps, too. Explain your situation and discuss a strategy that fits the academic needs and your lifestyle-but once you have completed fieldwork it would be ideal to have an Internet-free house by the beach and just write...but that remains a dream for most of us ;)!

  32. Hi there! This is a problem I have been grappling with for some time, and I have to say that this is the most incisive and frank article I've read, especially when compared with the infuriatingly glib careers advice that reassures us 'all employers value PhDs'! I think the point about professors having a vested interest in recruiting, particularly funded, candidates and therefore not necessarily being the best judge is very true. Hand in hand with this also goes the gratitute/guilt complex for students who have won the 'golden egg' of funding like scholarships or ESRC grants, which can make it difficult to refuse or dare think outside of a straightforward academic route.

    I am a first year (funded) PhD student, not exactly in 'development studies' but more social/cultural politics from a development MSc background. I was tortured all last year about whether to carry on beyond my +1 methods training year - despite my passion for the topic and love of studying - over exactly this question of whether I would be shooting myself in the foot if I didn't want to become an academic. Though the (limited) element of freedom/independence to think critically, read, write, debate and theorise is appealing in academia, the horror of teaching uninterested kids, the ever-increasing burdens of bureaucracy, cuts, job insecurity and competition, and general bafflement and derision from the rest of society is not! Simultaneously I have a strong and probably naive desire to get more practically involved in progressive development through policy or campaigning. I had hoped to become a professional who shifts between academia and civil society/development organisations, so reading your comment on the entrenched 'siloed' culture between the two is not encouraging...

    I guess my question is - what are your thoughts on post-PhD, non-academic jobs and organisations that might still value critical and independent thought, and research skills in non-mainstream areas such as discourse analysis and ethnography (as opposed to 'hard' development capabilities such as quantitative analysis or PRA), if there are any?! Also, since I am just starting, and most people in my department seem to go on into academia without much question, it would be great if you have any ideas from your friends' or colleagues' experience, on non-academic career directions following a PhD in the area of development studies?

    Thanks very much, and thank you for a well-written and insightful post!

  33. Thank you, this is a really helpful article. What if I'm 32 years old with an MA and still don't have the job I want? Is that enough reason to do a PhD? ;)

  34. Thanks for dropping by, clarita. I noticed the ';)' at the end of your comment, but unless the job that job really want is a long-term career in academia the PhD is unlikely to be a problem-solver...

  35. Hi, I read with great interest your comments on pursuing a PhD and wish to echo the thanks of others for the frank and insightful remarks. I am employed full time and recently completed a Msc in sustainable development at SOAS. I am looking to embark on a PhD.

    Foremost on my list of reasons is the desire to continue learning- particularly about development- and I'm sure that the gains from that learning process will make me better at my job. I am apprehensive, as are others, by the cost which doubles for 'international students' and, I assume, is considerably more difficult and at a great personal cost when stuying part-time or online.

    In the process of weighing up my options and making a decision I would like to seek your good advice on distance learning institutions that offer PhD programmes in development. In addition to being reputable I would very much like to study at an institute that is representative of Africa and the South as SOAS does.

    Many thanks again and I look forward to hearing from you.

  36. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.
    As far as I know there are no distance learning PhD programs in development in the UK. Places like IDPM Manchester ( and even the Open University ( do not offer distance learning PhDs. Rightly so, in my opinion. To be very frank with you, I actually don't really see a point in such a program. A full-time PhD can already be an isolating experience. A part-time PhD even more as the whole thing stretches on for 7 or 8 years. But distance learning would hardly work for both the supervisor and the student. Interactions, discussions, access to a library (not just online) and field work are all part of a research process that can hardly be managed remotely. For the time being I'd suggest that you may want to explore part-time options at SOAS or talk to one of your former professors to see whether they could imagine a distance learning relationship which I'm sure most are unwilling to do. Also, feel free to drop me an email at tobias[at] if you want to discuss further. All the best, Tobias

  37. Hi Tobias,

    I am just an undergraduate student right now, doing a major that I dislike (that's a long story), and very interested in Development Studies. I like to analyze social issues and I want to see and contribute to development and social changes. I am very academic and definitely aiming for postgraduate study, including the PhD. At the moment I am considering Development Studies and Public Policy. I like to read and do research (I love studying basically), but I don't like people that much. I enjoy working independently, and I hate business-like jobs. I am not very good at socializing. My public speaking skills are very good, and I communicate very well and express myself very clearly when necessary, but I just don't like to chat and make friends with the people that I do not feel interested in. I hope to work as a researcher/research assistant/college professor (don't know when I will ever be good enough) after I'm done with my PhD. Which one will be better for me, Development Studies and Public Policy? I know they probably do not matter that much, since it is my choice when it comes to dissertation and thesis and everything that I want to concentrate on. But please just give me some advice. I would really appreciate your help.

  38. Cao Phượng Minh wrote me a message via the comment section a few days ago. Since this is a rather detailed and personal query I just want to make sure that this should be addressed here. I am happy to post the comment and my reply, but maybe Cao Phượng Minh could drop me a message at tobias[at] to confirm?

  39. Dear Tobias,

    I sent you an email at tobias[at] and said that it was completely fine for you to post any answer/comment to my question here. Thanks so much. =)


  40. Dear Minh,
    Sorry for my belated response, but you actually asked an interesting and somewhat tricky question ;)...First, I think that the title of your degree and programme matters less when you are moving towards the PhD route. If you are planning on spending another 5-8 years in school the general environment, your academic supervisors and peers as well as your dissertation topic matter more than the actual title. Public Policy and Development Studies are somehow related and I wonder whether a Political Science department may a good fit to explore your options. You would have the benefit of a 'proper' disciplinary degree and could focus on public policy or international development topics as you move along. Second, I honestly think that different character traits make a big difference in selectin a PhD programme. You seem to like studying and any PhD process is essentially quite a lonely experience. That said, you can make it more active and participatory if you decide to conduct exciting field research (works in any social science area) or decide to do some teaching. But again, Public Policy and Development are quite similar in their overall academic layout. All in all, I think the first step should be to identify a good programme with dedicated faculty and then decide about the details rather than focussing on the name alone. I received just a Dphil from the University of Sussex without any mentioning of a school, department and programme title and the idea behind it is that you may have to present yourself differently throughout your career rather than being 'stuck' with one label. I hope this helps-if not just send me a more questions and I'll try my best to answer them :)!

  41. Hello... I am immensely fascinated by your blog post and the intelligent discourse i have seen here.
    I actually was surfing the internet on the prospects of doing a Phd in International Development, i have a first degree in Economics and wish to pursue a masters in International relations and a Phd in International development with emphasis on Africa.
    The reason for this is because i have a strong passion for development of home grown policy making that will help develop Africa.
    I have refused to look at specialisations in Economics because my quantitative and mathematical skills are not excellent, thus i feel the way to go should be the route i explained above in order to achieve my dreams
    My longterm goal is to work either as a UN envoy to Africa, or at UNDP, world bank or ADBank, really just anywhere policies that can significantly affect the Plight of the African Continent can be formulated and effected
    Please can you advise me?, am i on the right path. I am 30years old already and a female, is this the fastest way to achieve my dreams or shld i do a masters in Development Policy and policy making instead? but this is quantitative-based as well
    I look forward to your response.

  42. Very great information i like it..

  43. Hi Aidnography!

    Great post in a very fashionable style! But but...when you say : I am 26 years old and my Master seems not enough to enter into the real job market... So in the development field at what age should we be in the real job market? Seems tricky and I agree. However in that case a PhD may really help...
    You begin by teaching then consulting work (or the opposite) just to fill the very well known lack of experience. Anyway I have an MA in development studies and I am seriously thinking about a PhD here in Canada...
    UofOttawa, UofToronto or UBC seem good for a 4 years full time PhD. In any case I may end up working in the field or teaching at the university :)
    but my point is that a PHd in development studies should be "professionnaly ok" after completion. As you stated it should open great career paths afterward or during the process.

  44. Not sure if this discussion is still alive, but will contribute as someone with a PhD in Development, and with practitioner experience. My experience is that this is a practitioner's PhD. If you aspire to work at the senior level in national or international government, this PhD will definitely set you apart. How you get there is not necessarily dependent on the PhD, but how you network and build experience overtime.

    1. Thanks for your comment; definitely an interesting ankle to explore. If you are interested, I would like to talk to you and maybe publish a short post/comment/interview on the blog about your experience and the 'softer' aspects of pursuing and having a PhD? Just drop me a line @ tobias(at)

  45. Hi sorry to comment so late after you published this, I'm currently a masters student, (I did an LLB) studying Public International Law (with a specialism in Law and Globalisation), I want to do an Msc in development in about two years, then go on to do a PhD probably focusing on the common threads between international law, globalisation and development. I'm from (and am a citizen of) an African nation and hope to return there to work in a development bank, or regional body like the African Union, ECOWAS ect...... do you think my study plans are in the right direction?


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