The role of graduate studies in the 'flawed development system'- a reply to Karen Attiah

As development students submit their theses and finish their programs, Karen Attiah’s post ‘Who Gets to Criticize the International Aid System? Not Grad Students, Apparently’ is an interesting reminder about some of the core challenges that many new graduates are likely to face in the coming months. There has already been a debate on Karen’s initial post on AidSource last year, but I want to take the opportunity to share some thoughts on what Karen describes as her ‘original intent’ of her post:

The original intent of my first post was, “What role does academia and our pre-profressional schools play in this flawed system that we have?”
I would love to hear from “J” and those inside and outside of AidSource on how our schools are doing, preparing people for the world of international development, and how graduate programs could better prepare students for that life, or even further yet, how academia can improve the international development system as a whole.
I want to address some of Karen’s relevant and important concerns along 3 questions:

What role do universities play in the ‘flawed’ development system?

First and foremost, universities have become part of an ‘academic industry’ and for a range of economic, political and social reasons many have enlarged existing ‘international development’ programs, established new ones or are planning to do so: International development work (in its broadest sense) attracts students and with any market in which participants want to cash in on a trend, overall quality often suffers. Reduce the number of students by 30-50% and significantly increase mentoring of individual students and involve students in all aspects of academia (research, teaching, policy stuff,...) and the development industry would ‘improve’ over time, too. In other words, reduce the income from student fees and increase the resources spent on individual students-that sounds like a plan that will quickly win over every Dean...universities’ role in the ‘flawed development system’ has to no small extent to do with broader forces that are often outside the control of individual institutions. I would argue that most departments, researchers, PhD students, etc. know better, but the ‘industrialisation’ of education is difficult to overcome – the ‘bottom line’ often comes before the quality of education.

The second issue I want to raise here is that expectations what university education can and should deliver clashes once the transition from the ‘academic industry’ to any other industry is happening. The best medical schools, law schools or business programs will ultimately see students facing the realities of a hospital, a law firm or managing a company. Without going too much into socio-political detail, many would probably agree that the medical industry, justice system and private sector are not exactly textbook representations of how we would like them to be run. The reasons are complex, but blaming MBA programs for the economic crisis is a bit cheap and only one small part of the mosaic. Development is part of that reality and most universities do not have the resources to make the transition easier.

Should graduate studies ‘prepare’ students for international development work?
We can (and should) have a long debate about this, but one of my key arguments for graduate studies in any social science (very broadly defined) is that their primary goal has not been to ‘prepare’ students for an industry. Even if many people inside and outside development may roll their eyes and despite the ‘industrialisation’ of academia, I firmly believe that academics need to defend graduate studies as a space to teach/learn/hone critical thinking, reading and writing skills – without becoming a training program for an industry or institutional system. The spaces for ‘out of the box’ thinking, learning and enjoying academia/university are becoming smaller and smaller. It is in programs similar to the one Karen attended that (ideally) long-lasting critical thinking and reflecting skills seeds are planted – and to learn how STATA works or how to shoot a participatory video there is probably an accessible training course available somewhere. Maybe this will be your last chance for a long time to read Marx, or Robert Chambers, or a development-related novel and I would ask you to spend it wisely. Does setting up a Foucault reading group get you a job interview? Unlikely. But how many ‘write the perfect CV’ workshops do you really need and are they any guarantee for an interview?

I also don’t believe that graduate studies are a panacea to ‘deliver’ answers. The increasing popularity of development-related courses has also to do with a growing number of students who attend graduate schools to bridge time until the ‘economy recovers’. Or students who sometimes have a very vague idea about what they want to do, but somehow ‘travelling in Africa’ sounds cool. And students who have been told many times that you should keep ‘following your passion’ or that they can ‘do whatever they aspire to’. The problem is that graduate school is not simply a problem solver, door opener, job facilitator, but ideally an exercise in critical learning which is less tangible. Yes, you paid tangible $50,000 dollars and you will receive a tangible piece of paper from a recognised school, but there’s still no price tag on spending a day in the library, enjoying the smell of old books and discovering a book from 1983-or finding out what you do not want to do with your life...

Who should be able to criticise the aid industry?

I always find ex-post critique of the aid industry a bit unsatisfying: After 25 years in the UN system I’m finally speaking out on how flawed peacekeeping is...After 10 years in humanitarian aid I can tell you that the system is broken...and after 15 years in academia I can tell you that the worst is yet to come...You don’t need all those years to reach the conclusions, but as with any other industry being a critical voice on the fringe can be intellectually fulfilling, but may not lead to stable, long-term employment. Your Foucauldian power analysis of the office will unlikely get you brownie points with the boss – and I would neither blame the academic industry nor the development industry per se for this. Karen’s posts are a great example of someone speaking up – but also being challenged by varying degrees of fair to unfair criticism.

One of the key challenges as that it needs a mandate for your criticism to be taken more seriously. Many development academics work with development institutions, policy-makers and other ‘movers and shakers’. And even if you will hear numerous stories of how nobody reads evaluation reports, working papers that have more than 5 pages and high-level panels that only accumulated travel expenses and a photo-/blog op, many academics are in touch with ‘the reality’. And they write about it (yes, accessibility of research is a problem and some of the publishing industry’s practices don’t help the academic industry to make their stuff accessible for the aid industry...). And they engage, consult, discuss, travel, blog, teach and mentor.
Hopefully, this makes a difference for ‘better development’.

Universities have over-supplied the (development) labour market with highly skilled, and motivated graduates and even if that sound impossible they should try to find a ‘small is beautiful’ approach to their programs and the overall learning experience of students. But students also need to be more critical with themselves and their institutions when it comes to graduate studies that seem to ‘prepare’ you for an industry that only has limited space for academic, theory-driven critical skills.
Lastly, the discussions of ‘improving aid’ should always include academia, but since it is an industry itself, balancing products and demands has always been difficult. But that shouldn’t stop Karen from writing excellent blog posts and demand answers, because on an individual level we are probably pretty much on the same page and closer in thinking and aspirations as our industries sometimes allow us to show. 

P.S.: If your academic thirst has not been quenched by graduate studies or you are contemplating a full on immersion into academia, my earlier post 'Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?' may offer some additional advice.


  1. Hi Tobias,

    Thank you so much for your post on this, and thank you so much for actually addressing the issues of academia and graduate studies in relation to the world of international development.

    I definitely agree with you about schools in general in terms of the expectations after graduation and whether students are "prepared for the real world". All schools, be it college, law school, medical school, etc. will never be able to replicate the conditions that a person will experience once they leave the bubble of the ivory towers. At school, though we run simulations and mock projects, we are largely protected from real world consequences of our choices.

    I definitely agree with your important point about academia being an industry within itself. Before going to graduate school, I was advised by many of my friends who had chosen the Ph.D track that a terminal M.A in international affairs/development was usually not much more than an expensive "degree farm" and that I would be better off in a PH.D program where I might have had more opportunities to connect with faculty and pursue interests in-depth. The sheer reality of the two years to complete a degree at my program was a heavy emphasis on preparing us for the job market, learning economics, STATA, budget anaylsis, management, mock client projects, and required courses on professional development. I still think that these were all great skills, but yes, I feel that I would like to pursue other avenues of learning about the world and development that I wasn't sure I got from my classes.

    I definitely was glad for any constructive criticism, and realize I have a lot to learn. I'm not interested in being the one who takes pleasure in throwing rocks at a system I still have much to learn about without thinking about solutions. But I always think that constructive dialogue with others like you and those who are experienced is a great starting point for newbies like me.

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for your illuminating discussions about the virtues of PG studies in development - something which I am currently undertaking to gain further insight into the industry and hopefully re-route my career in the development direction. I agree that academia allows us the space to debate the big issues and analyse historical and theoretical perspectives, which the demands of the field and pressing professional deadlines do not necessarily allow.

    Whilst I also agree that it is not necessarily the role of universities and graduate studies to prepare us for the industry per se, I do believe that universities, with their more commercial outlooks, must consider the needs of their consumers. Students, for the most part, are pursuing PG studies in the hope of finding fulfilling and rewarding careers, and such courses in international development need to take this into consideration and offer flexibility through internship opportunities and practical exposure to industry to add value to students' experiences in academia.

    1. Thanks for your comment. This is not an easy debate. My co-author and I recently published a paper on vocationalization in international development studies education which may be additional food for thought and debate:
      All the best,


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