So, you're thinking of studying an MA in Development Studies? Think again.
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So, you’re thinking of studying an MA in Development Studies? Think again.

So, you’re thinking of studying an MA in Development Studies? Think again.

There are any number of academics, professionals and bloggers offering advice on working in aid and development. Dave Algoso’s post is a one-stop shop if you are seeking a round-up of disparate opinions on career advice. However, in light of some more recent thoughts about motivation, well being and knowledge in aid and development, I have been thinking about the space in-between motivation and jobs: education. That is, pursuing higher education for future work in aid and development. More specifically, about what a ‘development studies’ curriculum looks like and what it should/might include. This is not a guide to where you could or should study, although that would be extremely useful. Dan Drezner, of Foreign Policy, offers ‘A useful primer of higher education choices for international affairs‘. Drezner’s analogy for undertaking a PhD is attacking the Killer Bunny:

“And, just to be clear, aspiring Ph.D. students:  I’m the guy with the weird Scottish accent, the bunny is the Ph.D. program, and all y’all are the ones suffering from the blood and gore. Unless you really want to kill that bunny, just walk away” (Dan Drezner).

Good advice. Such is not available, to the best of my knowledge, for undertaking ‘development studies’ in higher education (Chris Blattman and Alanna Shaikh are exceptions). In particular, undergraduate and postgraduate (Masters) studies in development in Australia. Degrees in ‘development studies’ have multiplied as the aid and development industry grows and expands, particularly across Australia. UNSW, Deakin, Monash, University of Melbourne, ANU, USYD, Murdoch, University of Queensland, University of Melbourne all offer degrees in ‘development studies’. ANU’s Development Studies Network has a great summary of these courses, but no real critical insight for prospective students. Perhaps if the results of the graduate exit surveys taken were publicly available, students could make a more informed choice.

So, I want to open a forum and think about what should/might be included in a ‘development studies’ curriculum. This stems from my own experience as a postgraduate student and the ebb and flow of dissatisfaction I experienced in terms of relevance, value and skill development.

My experience in higher education is both as a student and a researcher. The latter, in teaching & learning for business and economics. There was, and still is, a radical shift occuring across global business curricula in terms of students’ outcomes, skills and learning. Life-long learning has become a key concept, as it is now recognised that education should not be for employment, but for employability. Students face an uncertain future. This has also seen a shift to a discourse of ‘transferable skills’, which I am sure you are all well aware of (and have). Academic standards are also being developed in partnership with government, industry and universities to engender greater accountability, quality learning and employer satisfaction.

I do not believe that ‘development studies’ has benefited from this shift (nor have my majors in Ancient Roman & Greek History or Near Eastern Archaeology). And I believe this is because there is not the same impetus to invest in research for improving the teaching and learning of ‘development studies’ (again, neither for Ancient Roman & Greek History or Near Eastern Archaeology). Investment is being geared towards those degrees that attract the most number of students and that are considered to contribute most effectively towards the ‘knowledge economy’ (apparently, a nuanced understanding of the prosprographical characteristics of consular elections in 2nd Century BC Rome is not valued in the knowledge economy). The Global Masters in Development Practice (MDP) was set-up and developed thanks to a $16 million MacArthur Foundation grant. Many universities offering ‘development studies’ do not have the same resources at their disposal.

Following are some thoughts about different aspects of studying ‘development studies’.

Skills & competencies

Surveys from across the business world, of students, academics, employers, have usually found similar  desires in terms of skills. However, there is the constant problem of matching education and skills with available employment. The problem of skills mismatch arises even in growing economies. There are severe labour shortages for some kinds of workers and a massive oversupply of others. Often this is in spite of market forces rather than because of them, since markets and higher educational institutions tend to lag behind employers’ skill demands before oversupplying them.

A 2008 Tuning Report on the design and delivery of business programmes in higher education in Europe found very similar rankings of the most important skills and competencies by employers, graduates and academics.

What skills and competencies are the most important for those working in aid and development?

Aid v. Development

As with other higher education programs that lead into a profession and industry, we have to recognise that ‘development studies’ is in the same box. However, there is a key difference. Although aid and development are industries, they are not professions. Wanderlust posted a 5-part series on ‘Becoming an aid worker’, the second of which is titled – ‘Aid work is a profession‘. I disagreed, and had a very engaging discussion on this topic. A recent study from ELRHA, a collaborative network that supports partnerships between higher education institutions in the UK and humanitarian organisations around the world, suggests that the aid industry is a long way off from becoming professionalised. Essentially, there is no professional association body or a standardised qualification system. And, if these were developed, it would be very difficult to make this a universally, globally recognised body or system. They would first have to be developed at national levels, most likely in U.S, UK, Australia, Canada or the EU. This will require funding, research, collaboration, consultation, and more. At the moment, qualifications are fragmented; competencies, learning outcomes and curricula change from one Masters degree to another. In addition, there is no one profession that the aid or development industry consists of, unlike the medical, law, teaching or accounting professions. The aid and development industry encompasses all four professions and more.

Furthermore, there is the apparent difference between ‘aid work’ and ‘development work’. Aid work largely refers to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Development work is much broader in scope, time and place and can also cut across any number of disciplines and knowledge: law, economics, education, health, etc. However, the line is beginning to blur between what is ‘humanitarian/aid work’ and what is ‘development work’. This is from a recent report on aid policy at IRIN:

“A striking finding…is that humanitarian recipients are relatively predictable: the top five aid recipients – Sudan, oPt (occupied Palestinian territory), Iraq, Afghanistan and Ethiopia – have remained among the top 10 aid recipients over the past decade. Rather than aid being a short-term life-saving measure, the statistics indicate it is being used to deliver basic services year on year, according to Kellett, and in this sense, the divide between humanitarian and development aid may be far weaker than many think. ‘It’s not what it says on the box,’ he surmised…This points to the oft-repeated false division between humanitarian and development aid, said UK Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Humanitarian Policy Group researcher Sarah Bailey. ‘The reality is that our efforts to make a clear division between `humanitarian’ and `development’ are not well suited to the complexity of these contexts… We know that humanitarian assistance is not the best tool to address long-term vulnerability and the absence of basic services, so why isn’t development assistance doing more to tackle these problems?'”

But, I think there could still be a distinction between studying for ‘aid work’ and studying for ‘development work’ (or is there?). And, neither aid work or development work is a profession and so suffers in translation to a postgraduate degree and student expectations of finding work. However, the Global MDP seems to be trying to correct this and is leading the way in higher education.

A curriculum

So, if studying for aid and studying for development is different, how could we design appropriate, flexible and relevant curricula?

Core Units for an Masters in Humanitarian Practice

HUM 101 Understanding humanitarian contexts and application of humanitarian principles
HUM 102 Achieving results effectively, considering the need for speed, scale and quality
HUM 201 Developing and maintaining collaborative relationships
HUM 202 Operating safely and securely in high risk environments
HUM 301 Self-management in a pressured and changing environment
HUM 302 Leadership in humanitarian response

Add on some thematic and technical electives and you have a very good looking program of study (tip of the hat – @cynan_sez). See also the Oxford Brookes University’s Masters in Development and Emergency Practice and this index of humanitarian studies across the globe. If you want to further explore learning for humanitarian practice, there is a U.S  site dedicated to talking through the professionalisation of the sector, which has particularly interesting discussions around common competencies, higher education and work-based learning. It is a great site to join and be actively involved in.

And, for a postgraduate degree in ‘development studies’, look no further than aforementioned Global Masters in Development Practice. You can view the sample curriculum here. This is a model course, from which many ‘development studies’ degrees could learn. These are some of the features of this program, with my own 2 cents thrown in for good value:

  • Length: a Masters should should be an minimum of two years, and this one is.
  • Core courses in the health sciences, natural sciences, social sciences and management sciences.
  • Electives can include languages and perhaps should. Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French would be extremely relevant.
  • Field experience: should be mandatory. The MDP seems to allow up to 6 months of field experience followed by a symposium. Brilliant.
  • Pre-requisites: need to do remedial courses in subjects if pre-requisites are not met.
  • Cross-disciplinary: encourages cross-disciplinary study and specialisation.
  • Core Competencies: students and employers need to know what core competencies are being developed, assessed and gained.
  • Inclusive: the MDP is offered globally, in 22 universities in 16 countries. James Cook University in Australia being one.
  • Accreditation: has the potential of being recognised internationally like the MBA. This will require much internal and external quality assurance across the network, but a much needed step in professionalising development work.

What else should be considered in developing a curriculum?

Mental health

Tobias Denskus at Aidnography recently wrote that many development studies are devoid of a ‘personal component’ and that the aid and development industries are ‘messing up sane hearts and minds’. Development as reflective practice is an extremely important concept, and one that needs more currency in traditional development studies. The IDS’ MA in Participation, Power and Change embeds reflective practice in its curriculum and includes 12-months of work-based learning.


Moving equity/inequity up the global development agenda should also apply to ‘development studies’ and higher education. This is quite a significant point, but one often overlooked. Ensuring higher education, particularly for development studies, is inclusive and accessible will enable countries to take deeper ownership of addressing development challenges.


Alanna Shaikh once reasoned that she does not hire development study majors, but changed her opinion. Would you hire someone with a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters in Development Studies, an internship at ActionAid and has read ‘Dead Aid’? What would they have to offer that hundreds, if not thousands, of other students do not have? Enthusiasm? Good intentions? A knowledge of the rights-based framework? An academic understanding of neoliberalism and global trade imbalances? It is always a case of theory v. practice. Many courses would give you an excellent theoretical basis for understanding, but little practical experience or critical learning that will make you more employable.

The only advice that I would offer here is this – study something that gives you discrete knowledge, skills and grounding in a discipline and then do a postgraduate MA. Education, public health, engineering, architecture, medicine, economics, logistics, etc. will offer valuable pathways for entry into aid and development work. A MA in Development Studies has little value-added in terms of skill & technical knowledge development, but does look great on an application for the AusAID or World Vision graduate programs. It is perhaps better suited for those already working in development, particularly for graduates with a few years of experience. As a degree, it gains much more relevancy and value with work experience. If all those in the industry had a discrete background in one of the above, it would perhaps facilitate professionalisation.

Field experience: internships and work-based learning

Field experience is highly prized by both students and employers. Doing the time on internships and volunteer placements is necessary. Built-in field experience, whether it be an internship at an NGO or in-country research in India, should be part of any program in ‘development studies’. But, who should pay for it? Usually, the student bears the cost of gaining relevant field experience in the first one-two years. There are graduate programs in Australia, such as at World Vision Australia and AusAID. There are also a number of paid ‘volunteer’ opportunities through AusAID, such as the AYAD and AVID programs, but these require high levels of experience and usually an area of technical expertise such as nutrition, health, law, or education.

J. of Tales from the Hood laments:

“Professionalizing the aid sector – by definition applying standards which would mean excluding non-professionals from practice – means improving the quality of service provided to the poor. No, of course it will not solve every problem. But it will absolutely solve or eliminate many. Who knows? Maybe I’d even end up out of a job. But even so, professionalizing the aid sector is, or if it ever happens, would be a good thing. Absolutely. I struggle to see why this is such a challenging concept”.

It is not the concept that is challenging, but the process, which starts with higher education and bringing together a hodge-podge of professions, curricula, stakeholders, studies, skills and interests. The following are some guiding questions for discussion, based on the above and more, as what I have written is by no means comprehensive nor necessarily of any value:

  • What is the overall aim of a B/MA in Development Studies?
  • What is ‘development studies’?
  • Is there a difference between ‘aid work’ and ‘development work’? How should this be addressed in curricula?
  • What is the value of a B/MA in the job market, global economy?
  • What courses are essential? What courses are not so essential?
  • Where does service learning, internships and field work fit into the curriculum?
  • How can this help the professionalisation of the sector?
  • Is higher education equitable and accessible?
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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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84 thoughts on “So, you’re thinking of studying an MA in Development Studies? Think again.

  1. Mathew Ayaka

    I don’t really understand what you meant by obtaining M.Sc In Development Studies can’t be considered as a professional, unlike the Law, Medicine, Accounting, economics. What then do you say they are? I’ve obtained M.Sc in Development Studies and warming up for Ph.D in same field in Nigeria. What is your take on it? Would that increase my career prospects or not?

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  3. […] Source: So, you’re thinking of studying an MA in Development Studies? Think again. […]

  4. Ngunu HAPPI Collins

    Hi,I have a degree in law and I wish to study development in my master. Can it be possible and what are my advantages

  5. Hannu

    I found this really useful- I would like to apply to for an MA in development studies. I graduated a year ago with social anthropology and have been working teaching English in Argentina, Uruguay and Spain. Do you think that I would need relevant work experience (i.e. charity work) before applying?

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