Masters, Masters, Everywhere But Which One Should I Pick?

As a current undergraduate student, reading Development job applications makes me quite depressed. The ‘entry level’ jobs listed on Devex almost invariably require some years of previous experience and a masters in ‘a relevant subject’. I don’t know how that constitutes ‘entry level’ in any way shape or form. You can go lower, down to the scummy depths of internships, but they aren’t always the easiest things to get into either as well as only lasting for a few weeks and not paying. Bit of a downer.

Courtesy of the University of Derby

"Haha, masters degrees are just good family fun - not relentless hours of reading and non-existent social life at all"

After a few hours of clicking through these positions I tend to go and weep in a darkened room for seven or eight hours. After recovering my cool I start to look at masters programs which means looking at a lot of massively irritating, carefully staged and remarkably gender-ethnically diverse prospectus photos. There is a lot of choice. I want to do Development and I’m quite special at sciences/maths so there’s a whole bunch of course that I cannot do. There’s still a huge amount of course to choose from: management type courses, communications, NGO specialist development, law, human rights, ICT type things, business, policy/political science – I find it very difficult to know which of these would be most useful. As nice as it would be to waltz into a university department with the simple aim of increasing your knowledge it’s a pretty tough thing to be able to do, particularly in a world where almost nobody is giving young people jobs. You need to have a plan.

The basics

If I were to put together a start-up tomorrow I’d want to have four people: a money person, a fundraiser, a techie, and a project specialist. Of course, the personnel choices for an NGO depends on what you want to do (or should) but, more or less, I suspect you’re always going to want to have these people on staff. If you want to get into development but you aren’t really sure what bit of it you want to focus on then you should probably base your masters choice on one of these four jobs types. Also, if you are a doctor or an engineer there are more than likely going to be plenty of jobs available for you.

Management: a gap in the market?

As far as I can tell – and it’s something that has been told to me by development types with ten or twenty years of experience – the thing that development agencies tend to have a deficit of is managers. One of the major issues in almost any organisation is oversight: people tend to know what they’re working on without necessarily knowing what anyone else is working on, particularly in organisations where there are multiple offices in multiple countries. People are not utterly disinterested in their colleagues’ work – if they are then there is a major cultural problem within the organisation – it’s just that they’re very busy and it is not their job to know what everyone else is up to. But maybe it could be your job.

Choosing a course

When I look for a masters course I ask three questions:

  1. Will this take me closer to paid-employment?
  2. If so, what type of development jobs will I be able to do?
  3. Do I have the skills or interest in these jobs to actually be able to help people at the end of it?

If you have a yes for all of those questions put that course down on your shortlist. Once your shortlist gets to about 5 you need to get practical again.

How much will it cost?

If you have enough money to pay for it, that’s terrific. If you don’t, take a look at the scholarships/grants offered by the university itself – there is very often quite a lot more money available than you might think. Failing that, take a look at rotary scholarships or, if you want to study abroad, this site for more information. WARNING: these scholarships require diligence and time for successful applications so get them in early and make sure you do your research before you fill out the appropriate forms. Good luck!


At some point, I will be putting together a proper tab for useful sites/lectures/twitter profiles etc for people looking to start in global development – if anyone has any suggestions do send them to me.


18 thoughts on “Masters, Masters, Everywhere But Which One Should I Pick?

  1. Hey Rowan – i already replied on linkedin – but wanted to leave a comment here as well. First of all – great writing! I am working at the Amani Institute at the moment which was started by Roshan Paul and Ilaina Rabbat just about 2 years ago based on the problem that you are writing about. There is definitely a gap between where universities leave off and what the social change market really needs. There are a bunch of articles around that topic on our press stories page that might be interesting for you:
    also – do check out our 5-month post-grad certificate in Social Innovation Management (march-aug in Kenya and sept-nov in Brazil). I would love to know what you think about it and have a feeling that it might be interesting for you or maybe some of your friends.

    warm greetings from Berlin,


  2. Hi Rowen,
    Thanks for the post. I agree with you that management is a gap, and I think much of the discrepancy between higher education (for development) and graduate career options (or early career) can be located somewhere around the lack of engagement between parties representing both (Tobias Denskus and I talk about this in a recent post on WhyDev:

    Also, to add to your resource collection, which I am very interested in, I wrote a post awhile back (which probably needs updating) on WhyDev called, “So, you’re thinking of studying an MA in development studies? Think again”. I’d love to write an update, if you are interested in co-writing?


    • Hey that sounds interesting, I would be interested in co-writing an update. I have read your post – research! I was very much not keen on the MA route, I went for an MPP in the end (pending scholarship). How do you want to work this – send drafts back and forth or get on g-chat and discuss it or what?

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: How can international development promote entrepreneurial skills in the developing world? | UpLook

  4. im looking for a jobs in NAIROBI and DRCONGO .
    TEL +243 971603199

  5. You’ve mentioned how tough it is to get into the field – this is absolutely true as there are a ton of people right now fighting to get a job that pays you to travel all over the world to exotic places to help people. Its very desirable and VERY competitive. It pays very badly and it gets away with it. You are going to need a whole lot more than a carefully selected degree to get you where you want to go.

    An old boss of mine once said “if you don’t love this job, you’ll soon come to hate it”. What I don’t see in any of these posts or any of the comments is a question “what specifically do you want to do?” Do you see yourself in economic growth? Health? Education? If you can’t answer that question when it comes to a job interview, you aren’t going far.

    Recruiters are going to ask you about what drives you – is it saving children from malnutrition? Is it helping women entrepreneurs attract finance? If this stuff doesn’t float your boat, you are going to find yourself very very unhappy at the low salary and the terrible living conditions.

    And if you can’t answer that question, you have no business choosing a master’s topic either. You are going to invest big money on this degree, and you might as well get it right the first time.

    Our business doesn’t value generalists. It wants to know what you are about.

  6. I think is often difficult to draw a straight between a development-related MA programmes and new employment opportunities. That is why in the IDS MA in Science, Society and Development, with its focus on sustainability and policy processes, we seek to enhance both intellectual horozons and practical skills. Because this programme is designed for people with at least two years work experience, and who therefore bring a lot to the table, getting this balance right is extremely important. My experience is that most employers are looking are looking for a combination of intellectual development and skills, and any MA programme worth its salt should help you in both areas.

  7. I think it is often difficult to draw a straight line from a development-oriented MA programme to a new job. A good MA programme will seek to both expand intellectual horizons and strengthen practical skills: most employers are looking for both. This is exactly the approach we take in the IDS MA in Science, Society and Development, which has a strong focus on sustainability and policy processes. The fact that all our students come with at least two years of work experience makes the balance between theory and practice, intellect and skill, particularly important.

  8. Very useful plus interesting.

  9. I think Glenn’s got it right. ‘Management’ is such a squishy and indefinite skill set (and nearly impossible to quantify) that it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. i.e., how do you call ‘shenanigans!’ on the people who are only *claiming* to be effective managers, versus those who actually are? Generally speaking, by looking at their track record…and someone fresh out of a Master’s program (without substantive prior work experience) is generally lacking said track record. Also, a manager who doesn’t really understand on a fairly deep level the work being conducted by her subordinates is going to be a relatively poor judge of whether said subordinates’ work is being completed effectively, as well as unable to be a useful resource for said subordinates when they run up against a problem they cannot solve alone.

    I also think trying to enter at the managerial level is, in one sense, ‘jumping the queue.’ I say this not out of any desire to force others to pay their dues–Lord knows I’d love to be in the thick of dev’t work right now, rather than slogging my way up from the bottom–but rather as a reflection of what I have observed so far. (Who knows, I could be totally wrong.)

    Glenn, might I take you up on the offer you actually made to Rowan? I’d love to begin a dialogue with someone who’s already in the field. My e-mail address is [my full first name] dot [my full last name] at fulbrightmail dot [org].


    • Interesting points. I’m not trying to advocate either not obtaining expertise or not paying your dues – I’m saying that management is where the jobs should be.
      I am at the bottom of the heap: an unpaid intern. I have some previous experience. My observation thus far has been that, while a whole lot of people do MAs in development studies or human rights, NGOs remain largely quite badly managed, particualraly strategically. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to try and fix that?

      • Nor did I mean to imply you were advocating either of those things.

        I don’t disagree that NGOs are often poorly managed – then again, that’s not specific to the nonprofit sector. Lots of for-profit companies are abysmally managed as well.

        My point isn’t that it shouldn’t be addressed – rather, I was trying to answer your unstated thesis: that a management degree ought to be a good tool for gaining entry to the field. (Forgive me if I read into the post something that wasn’t there in the first place.) I think management *is* something that must be learned, absolutely – but I don’t believe that MBAs or MAs in management qua management will do the trick alone. I think they useful, but not sufficient. The truth is, people (both underlings and clients/participants/recipients) will confound your expectations and well-laid plans in ways you could never foresee – and learning to deal with those issues effectively comes only with experience. Experience which would ideally be gained within the field/context/programming that you are to be managing.

        Does that make more sense? I agree to some extent with your surface observation; I think we part ways in our interpretation of what it means.

      • Good points. I think I haven’t explained adequately: I don’t think an MBA/MPA should shoot you straight into middle management, I just think it might be (/should be, if I was the one hiring it would) something that trumps MAs in development and other similar degrees.
        Regardless, experience and knowhow will remain highly prized assets – it’s just not something I get my hands on all that easily!

  10. Great article! I have an MA in Development Management, but I am still looking…….whilst I think it’s important to find a Masters programme that will provide you SKILLS (ie project management) its also equally important to find one that gives you the KNOWLEDGE that you will need, depending on which area of international development you go into (i.e. I ‘specialised’ in conflict & security which is the area I want to go into). Which one is more important? Good question ….

    • How have you found the job search? My worry is trying to be visible – to stand out from other cvs a little. I don’t suppose you’d like to write a blog post on it?
      You’re right, that is a fantastic question; I wish we had the answer!

  11. I reckon specialise first, then go general (i.e., management). I’m going to connect you with someone who’s been working. If you want to go to the field- I reckon there’s work out there.

Vent Below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s