Studying an MA in Development Studies

Studying an MA in Development Studies

For anybody who has seen my linked-in profile, you would know that I just finished off a Masters of international development.

Now there are a range of reasons I chose this masters, but one of them was that I wanted my next round of education to broaden my perspective, rather than simply hone an existing skill.

After all I’m already a damn-fine economist.

So rather than spend a year rolling my eyes and making audible sounds of exasperation whenever I knew more than the lecturer, I enrolled in course focusing on development theory.

Now, after relatively limited amounts of eye-rolling and loudly correcting the lecturer with references to my extensive life experience, here’s my sage advice for anyone looking for studying a MA in development.


Know where you’re going

Start to look for jobs as soon as you start your program.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start applying, but you need to think about where you want to go sooner rather than later.

You’re likely to get a fair amount of free reign in your course (such as when you pick subjects, assignments or projects) so be strategic.

The goal should be, at the very least, to be able to talk intelligently about your field of development in an interview.

In terms of where you should be looking for jobs, here is my list:


Australian focussed:

Australian Council for International Development

I’ve found this website to be a great resource. The jobs tend to be focussed on the Asia/Pacific region, but aren’t exclusively focussed on Australians (ie Australian Citizenship is a requirement for a minority of the jobs here).

Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD)

Check the website out for the full description. Essentially these are temporary programs where people volunteer with an organisation in need. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Australian Volunteers International

I’m mainly engaged with this website due to the PACTAM program. But, similar to the AYAD assignments, they have discrete volunteering opportunities for Australians. This website tends to have programs which are focussed more on people with specialist skills (as opposed to the AYAD assignments).

Ethical jobs

The best source for ‘bleeding-heart-lefty jobs in Australia’. They also occasionally have international positions, but this is a bit of a rarity.


Internationally focussed:


These guys have a ‘linked-in’ style networking site and a massive search engine of jobs. I’d suggest you subscribe via email to keep up to date with what’s out there. Also a great source of development related news.


Great listing of job opportunities in development.

UN Jobs

Don’t let the 1990s style website fool you; this is a good source for jobs and consultancy opportunities. Is also are not exclusively UN jobs.


Nerd it up

Do the readings. You’re not an undergraduate anymore and you’re paying through the ears to do this course.

So put down the beer and do the damned readings.

I also suggest you read more widely than you are required to as part of the course. Given you’re going to have reading piled on top of you as part of your course I’d be realistic about what you expect to be able to achieve in this regard.

A couple of books I’d recommend you read include:


Limit the fluff

The first thing I’d say about doing a Masters of development, echoes what has been mentioned by Brendan Rigby.

That is, don’t do this Masters unless you already possess a specialisation (such as engineering, health or economics) OR are intending to pursue one.

For me, a good reason for this is that development tends to be ‘fluffy’.

By fluffy, I mean that it spends a lot of time talking about ideas about ideas and critiquing modern approaches and definitions.

Although this is no doubt important for training an army of critical thinkers, it also poses the risk of creating an army of impractical development workers who harp on about the evils of capitalism and the market.

This, among other reasons, is why you need a specialisation, go in without it and you might come out the other end more confused about development than you were beforehand.


The dismal science

Study economics. Yep.

I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think you should be able to come out of a Masters of development without a rudimentary understanding of economics.

The reason for this is simple; it is a discipline which has evolved out of hundreds of years of trying to solve the problems of scarcity. Development is, in many ways, about scarcity.

Of course this doesn’t mean you need to know how to solve equations merely that you develop some intuition as to what it’s all about.

Try a free online learning portal such as Coursea. They tend to always have a good choice of self-paced economics courses (and they’re free).

On the other if you are already an economist take a good course in political economy.

This is because there are lots of important factors that a typical training in economics tends to miss (such as power relations, gender and structural violence).


Know your enemy

I felt like a lot of my program involved harping on about the dangers our ‘neoliberalism’ and unrestrained capitalism.

Obviously these critiques have some value, but remember that there are intellectual giants on either side of the debate.

Engage with them.

Read ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ by Friedman, read ‘The uses of neoliberalism‘ by Ferguson. Don’t assume the other side of the debate has nothing to contribute.


Get your foot in the door

This is a cliché, and doesn’t need to be said.

But I’m going to say it.

Find a local organisation or charity which is engaged in international development and volunteer.

Your Masters probably isn’t going to be enough and you need to start to get familiar with the industry you’re trying to get into. It also will help a potential employer see a narrative when reading your resume.

Obviously it’s ideal if there are suitable organisations nearby, but if there isn’t then try finding places you can contribute remotely.

It might not be as interesting, but proof-reading or writing up grant applications might be able to be done without you being onsite. I’d even suggest you check out sites like ‘elance’ which occasionally have projects in the field of international development.


Get field experience

I always feel dirty when I suggest this, as it sounds almost ruthless to suggest you should do a ‘poverty tour’, but if you’re truly interested in doing development you need to get an appreciation for what it means on the ground.

This is also not just my advice, but the advice of every one of my contacts in the development field itself.

Spending time living/working/studying in a developing nation is a valuable addition to your experience and will no doubt knock you in the face with a dose of humility.

If you’re thinking of making decisions which are going to impact the poor, you need to know who they are, realize they’re clever and understand how your assumptions about how things should work don’t universally apply.


End here

Likely a lot of this isn’t anything you haven’t heard before, but then maybe some of it’s new.

If you have questions, comments or want to add something do a brain dump in the comments below.


I'm an economist, data geek and public speaker.

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