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by Vault Education Editors | June 26, 2009


Most entry-level and volunteer positions only require a bachelor’s degree, although it is not uncommon for even these jobs to go to applicants with graduate degrees.  Beyond entry-level positions, a master’s degree is the industry standard.  It may be possible to turn a volunteer position into a professional position without a master’s degree but without postgraduate qualifications, career advancement is difficult, even within an organization for which you are already working.  If you are just starting out with a bachelor’s degree, you can find many entry-level opportunities that will help you decide if a career in international development is for you before you commit to specialized graduate education. Undergraduate degrees with some international component are helpful, although almost any degree can be suitable for international development if it is balanced with volunteer experience or extracurricular activities. 

For administrative positions the choice of degree is very flexible.  A master’s in international affairs (MIA) or a master’s in public administration (MPA) are standard choices, but there are several alternatives.  Even for administrative positions, it may be beneficial to earn a more technical degree, such as a master’s in business administration (MBA) or a master’s in public health (MPH).  These degrees will give you more flexibility to take on technical work in the future, and may help distinguish yourself from other applicants. 

In addition, many universities are starting to offer specialized programs in international development, and it is very common for international development to be offered as a concentration within a technical degree, such as an MBA, MPH or MIA.  The benefit of studying in a specialized program in international development really depends on your own unique background.  A returned Peace Corps volunteer, for example, might benefit more from an administrative degree like an MPA or MBA rather than a master’s in international development. Someone with no work experience in international development may choose a specialized program to make up for his or her lack of work experience.   Another common option is to earn dual degrees in international development and a more technical field, such as an MPA, MPH or MBA. 

For technical positions, your education should reflect your chosen specialty.  If you want to work in private sector development, get an MBA.  If you want to work in health policy, get an MPH.  A master’s degree in international affairs with a concentration in private sector development or public health may be enough to get you a job but it will not match a technical degree.  That it is becoming more common to see international development- focused students in MBA courses is indicative of the trend toward increasing specialization and professionalization in the industry.  This is an important trend to be aware of when considering your educational goals. 

Should I earn a master’s degree in international development? 

Choosing to earn a master’s degree that is specialized to international development has several important pros and cons to consider.  Programs in international development provide an excellent introduction to the industry, including both theory and practice.  If you are passionate about development, you will certainly appreciate being in an environment devoted to the industry with other likeminded students.  The focus of these programs also contributes to benefits like career services, alumni networks at development organizations, faculty with industry contacts and opportunities to get work experience in development during your studies.  In addition, most of these programs offer several concentrations, allowing students to specialize in particular areas. 

The disadvantages of specializing in international development are the limitations it may place on your career.  Most for-profit consultancies and many NGOs are focused almost exclusively on implementing projects and, thus, look more favorably on a technical degree than a general degree in international development.  In addition, these degrees will offer less flexibility in pursuing work outside of international development.  Students with prior work experience in international development may benefit more by complementing their experience with a technical degree.

Weighing your academic options 

Things to consider include: 

• Courses 

Almost all colleges and universities offer several courses focused on international development.  These may be offered through any number of schools depending on the focus of the course.  For example, a school of medicine might have a course on preventative approaches to public health in developing countries, while a business school would have specialized economic development courses.  Many of these courses are at the graduate level, but larger universities or those more focused on international issues should have a wide range of courses for undergraduates as well. 

• Development tracks for established degrees 

Another growing trend is for graduate schools to offer international development as a track (also known as a concentration or focus) within their existing degrees.  For example, a master’s in pubic administration with a concentration on international development or a master’s of business administration with a focus on emerging markets development.  These programs offer the professional training associated with the degree but with course work tailored to the context of development work. 

• Degrees in international development 

Some schools offer master’s degrees in international development or specific areas of development.  The most common pure development degree is the master’s of development studies, which is offered through many universities, more commonly in the U.K. 

The primary difference between a professional track in international development and a degree in development studies is that a professional track will generally not include courses on the theory or basic skills of international development.  Rather, professional concentrations will focus on applying the skills of the program to the context of international development. 

This distinction is not always clear, as some schools offering a master’s degree in international development may, in practice, relate more closely to professional programs.  The easiest way to assess potential schools is to refer to their required courses.  The following courses would be common to a degree in international development: 

• Theory, History and Policy of Development 

• Civil Society and the Development Process 

• Development Practice 

• Globalization and Development 

• Research Methods in Development Studies 

• NGOs as Development Agencies 

• Political Economy of Development 

• Project and Program Management 

• Fieldwork Methods 

Notable programs 

The following universities offer a wide range of well-respected degrees and/or concentrations in international development.  This is by no means an exhaustive list; it is intended simply to demonstrate the range of degrees currently available to those wishing to pursue international development careers. 

School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) 

Department of Development Studies 

Harvard University 

John F. Kennedy School of Government 

The Johns Hopkins University 

The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) 

Columbia University 

School of International and Public Affairs 

The London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London) 

Development Studies Institute 

University of Oxford 

Oxford Department of International Development 

Brown University 

Watson Institute for International Studies 

The George Washington University 

The Elliott School of International Affairs 

Cornell University 

International Programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences 

University of Pittsburg 

Graduate School of Public and International Affairs 

Duke University 

Duke Center for International Development 

Other things to look for in a program 

Whether you are looking for administrative or technical positions, there are some important characteristics to consider when evaluating educational programs. 

• Alumni network 

In many cases, one of the most valuable components of your education will be the network of contacts you will be able to access.  Most schools provide lists of employers that hire their graduates, which should give you a sense of what kinds of opportunities you may have. You might also be able to go beyond this and have an admissions representative give you a tour of the alumni website where you should be able to search for graduates working in specific organizations. 

• Concentrations 

Even if you are pursuing a primarily administrative career, you will want to develop some technical concentration.  Look for a master’s degree program that offers courses within that concentration then check out those courses to learn more about the reading lists, instructors and any other information that will help you determine if it matches your interests. 

 Internship/extracurricular programs 

Graduate school is an excellent time to get practical work experience in international development.  Most schools will offer some kind of international development club and many schools will even fund travel for members of the club to work on pro-bono development projects. 

• Loan assistance 

Graduate school can be a major financial undertaking and you will likely have lower earning power after school than students entering the private sector. Some schools offer limited forms of loan assistance for graduates who work for nonprofit organizations.  Research this carefully if it is an important factor in your decision because these programs often have very specific rules and regulations. 

What to do if you don’t have the necessary education 

A weakness in education can be offset through several factors, most primarily of which is your relevant work experience.  However, if the position requires a master’s degree and you have a bachelor’s degree, or the position requires a PhD and you have a master’s degree, there may not be a lot you can do.  There will simply be too many other applicants meeting the educational threshold required.  If you have the level of education required, but not the exact degree specified, there is often more flexibility as long as you can still fit your qualifications to the position. Liberal arts degrees like political science or anthropology often contain many courses, if not specializations, that relate to international development.  Emphasize these courses and any relevant experience you have in your cover letter. 


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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