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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. Chinese foreign policy is very strong for all over the world.

  2. Das muss jedoch nicht unbedingt monotones und langweiliges Joggen auf dem Laufband sein.

  3. just enrolled for a course in master of arts in development studies. i need a hand to walk through this course. i have always wanted to work with international development organisations ,through currently i am a government officer in kenya. i believe this course will open more opportunities as it enhance my skills in my current job. someone help me understand what to expect after graduation in 2017

  4. mimi

    want to know more about your experience at Cambridge with regards to development studies. I want to go there too for an mphil soon

  5. Patricia

    Dear Brendan,

    would like to thank you for the article was very helpful, I didn´t know that development and aid studies were such a ‘big market’.

    I was accepted in a MA here in Rome in Development Economics and International Cooperation. The course is quite quantitative including Maths, Stata, Econometrics, economics and development issues related to education, labour project implementation…insurance, microfinance and credit markets… (?)

    I come from years of experience in business/sales management in multinationals and hold a BA in International Relations and a mba in Foreign Trade and International Business.

    Somehow I found this program more related to my past experiences and to my future career plans of implementing projects and studing development issues along with economics.

    I often think if I am doing the right think or if I am doing in a right way this moove in my life and career. Would really appreciate to hear from you and perhaps how I could associate all this experiences together.

    I am brazilian and also considere working for south american or global organizations.

    Hope to hear from you.

    Thank you in advance!

    Best regards,


    1. Hi Patricia. In the end, all things being equal, it doesn’t matter what MA you do. To get your first job/s, an MA is a minimum requirement. So, must have one. It comes down to the value you get from it – networks, skills, knowledge, etc. It sounds like you want to come at development from an economics angle, and this MA sounds like it is relevant. Just make sure you get opportunities to build your management skills, technical knowledge and get some work experience.

      1. Karin

        Dear Brenden,
        Thanks for this insightful post. It is very relevant to me now, as I am deciding if I should do a master’s program in development. I got my BA in Political Science – International Security and Development in 2014, so it’s a bit late to do it in another useful field. For the past year, I have volunteered for a local Egyptian organization in donor relations. This has has been a valuable experience in multiple ways, but I still don’t feel that it’s given me the technical or managerial experience I need to get a job. From the many things I’ve read online, I am afraid that I will invest in a master’s only to still be unable to find a paid job in the sector due to lack of experience. For a master’s program, my first choice would be to study development and gender, but gender also seems very theoretical. I also have experience and passion for education (but no teaching credential). Would it be more useful (and helpful for landing a job) if I studied education policy? And on that note, do you suggest that I should work in education in my home country (U.S.) for a few years before transitioning to international development sector? The most important things to me are that I can work in international development eventually and also that I can count on paid work (though by no means needs to be high paying) not too long after getting a master’s. Thanks so much in advance for your assistance.

  6. […] you loved this article and you wish to receive more information relating to (moved here) i implore you to visit our web […]

  7. Naluuma

    Am so much interested in studying a masters in International development and Governance but the fees are so overwhelming,

  8. karma

    Can you write something on development studies from the perspective of “Land”. How the two are related. Thank you for your resourceful posts.

  9. i want to venture into studying development studies bt i dont noe wat i can do after. what are the posts that i can attain or job offers available for me if i do this program.



  11. San Ra

    I want to study Master of Development because my country is least Development.

  12. i desire to do development studies

  13. malik

    Now I have done my Fsc .. and I want to join development studies but I really don’t know about its scope in Pakistan and also Abroad . And I m in confusion that it is good field for girls or not in Pakistan speciaaly .. plz reply and suggest me that what is better for me

  14. Henna jesingh

    I have completed my post graduation from Indian Institute of Forest Management and my specialisation was development. Currently I am working in State rural livelihood mission and my work is of rural development. Kindly suggest a university

  15. Hey Brendan, thanks for sharing your knowledge, its reassuring when people share! I’m looking at GDP courses presently, and then Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland, which appears to be thorough and quite prestigious (?). I’ve recently complete a Bachelors in Podiatric Medicine and trying to figure out my path. I found your point about the shift from employment driven courses to employability very interesting too and something I have certainly considered important in the past.

  16. Kitaviri

    Hi I am a lawyer by profession working in development in my home country.
    One thing I see lacking my country – largely is an Development or Aid Policy guiding my government on how to engage and when to engage with donour countries. I want to take on studies that would allow me to develope this policy – would love to chat with about what you think is the best mode of post grad dev study that would allow both my academic development as well as giving me the opp to create this much needed policy.

  17. I’m considering the MA in Development studies at UNSW, could we chat in private regarding some specific questions about this program?

    1. Sure. You can reach me at brendan[AT]whydev dot org.

  18. i have completed my bachelor’s degree in Engineering(electronics and communication) and would like to pursue a career in development research. please advise me since I am going to a social career from a technical one..

  19. i have completed my bachelor’s degree in Engineering(electronics and communication) and would like to pursue a career in development research. – See more at:

    1. Hi everyone! Thx for your wondeful comment.
      Am a fresh graduate in Uganda, I have a degree of honours in development studies but I find it had to get a job and my parents are forcing me to pursuit a masters degree in public health. Am still 23 I reaaly don’t know what’s there out in the world I relly need your advice

  20. Dear Sir/Madam,
    I hold BA in Community Development and MA in International Peace Studies.

    So much interested of applying for MA in Development Studies this academic year.

    Is there a way you could help? Need your urgent response on the above matter as soon as you receive this message.
    Abba Bello Misal

  21. […] with: So you’re thinking of studying an MA in international studies? Think again and Some bad news about TOMS […]

  22. i have completed my bachelor’s degree in Engineering(electronics and communication) and would like to pursue a career in development research. please advise me since I am going to a social career from a technical one

  23. baraka kivy

    Hi everyone! Thx for your wondeful comment.
    Am a fresh graduate in Uganda, I have a degree of honours in development studies but I find it had to get a job and my parents are forcing me to pursuit a masters degree in public health. Am still 23 I reaaly don’t know what’s there out in the world I relly need your advice or +256793356464. Thx!

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

  25. im studying development studies , what did u advice me about the best research title for MA THESIS

  26. joy oji

    I did my post graduate diploma in development studies what do I do in my MA, international
    development or international affairs

  27. Song

    Hello, I am currently choosing masters programmes in development studies for 2013 entry. I received offers from several, and contemplationg between Lund university( Sweden- LUMID) and IDS(Sussex-UK)’s in poverty and development. Both seems to have good programmes, and I am non-EU citizen I have to pay tuition fee. Lund offers 2-years programme with internship included, and it’s recently signed up as a Global MDP partners you mentioned-though I am not sure what benefit I will get from this).Tuition fee at Lund is quite expensive , about $30,000 for two years. IDS offers 1 year programme without internship. tuition fee’s cheaper than Lund about $20,000. I am confused now.In the post you mentioned ‘look no further than Global MDP-Is there any advice for making decision?

    Considering job opportunities after graduation, the internship experience inside the school worth affording $10,000 only for tuition fee?- I know this will sound lie a foolish question. But I am really confused now.

  28. Very interesting and helpful article, so first off thank you. I’m currently trying to decide the best route to take to get myself into the international development sector. I have a BS in Construction Management, and my goal is to work in rural communities in developing nations on water and sanitation issues. I guess I should also note that I’m American. I have been accepted into a very interdisciplinary community development program (by very interdisciplinary I mean I have 4 required courses and then can choose the rest of my courses from any program throughout the university) which I will come out of with an MS. My plan, if I choose going back to school, is to take the required courses to get a background in community development and then take water related courses (water resource management, hydrology, water policy, ect) so that I can be knowledgeable when speaking to and informing people in the communities about water related issues.

    On the other hand, right now I dont have any international experience (besides some traveling) which makes me very nervous. I would most likely be able to do a summer internship overseas if I decided to go back to school, however, I doubt 3 months would be enough experience? The other option I’m considering is doing Peace Corps (or something similar) to get myself a significant amount of experience. The one problem I have with Peace Corps is that you dont have control over what you end up doing, and therefore I’m not sure how helpful it would be for me to do Peace Corps if I’m not working on a water or sanitation related project. Would the experience alone, even if not specifically related to what I want to end up doing, be a better route?

    I’ve heard different things from different people which has made this a very difficult decision for me. I would hate to spend 2 years earning a degree only to find that I cant get hired because I lack experience, and on the opposite side of that coin, I would hate to go volunteer somewhere for 2 years only to be told that I need a Masters degree to get hired. Maybe something that is important to note is that I’m a very hands on person and would like to work in the field, in communities, with the people, hand-in-hand on coming up with and implementing solutions. I’m not really concerned with making a lot of money (maybe this will change in the future), and I’m really just concerned with helping people. I know there’s no “right” answer to my questions, but any thoughts you could offer would be very much appreciated. Thank you!

  29. Anum Iqbal

    Hi Brendan. Your post is very enlightening. I was wondering if you could give me some tailored advice? I have worked for the past two years teaching in a low income community in my own country (Karachi, Pakistan). I did this work through a non-profit organization. I want to continue working for education but to truly work for its development, I feel I need to understand the broader context first. Hence, I have been applying for masters in development studies. Do you think I am on the right track or would it be better to pursue an education degree instead? Also, what if the development studies programme does not incorporate any course units on education? Would that limit my job prospects in the field of educational development?

    1. Thanks for your comment Anum. Great to hear from you.

      I am bias here, because I was also a teaching and pursued a teaching degree first then a Masters. If you want to work in the education sector of development, then you definitely need an education degree. It doesn’t have to be a teaching degree, but can be related to education programming, policy, etc. Masters in development studies are so broad usually as to be of little real value in terms of skill development. If you want to chat more, be happy to at brendan[AT]

  30. Musa

    I have a Economics undergrad and i’m thinking of doing a BA honours in dev studies, but worried about job prospects. Can anyone tell me if its easy to find a job in dev studies.

    1. It is never easy Musa! 🙂

  31. S

    It may be cliche but for entry level ppl networking will get you so much further than a second higher degree. Seriously, do all it takes to get a vollie position in an NGO or the like. If you have no links at all try using your lecturers, or join a uni group and try from there. If you are friendly, capable and talk to ppl you will see internal vacancies, short term opportunities etc come up. You can do all this whilst doing undergrad or honors year.Do a boring job (admin, telemarketing, etc) and from here you will get your break. Something better will come up – like anything it is about doing your time and learning the ropes.

    Australians 30 years and under are very lucky to have the AYAD program. If you’re having little luck, apply for the jobs for small NGOs in remote places – be consistent and something will come up. Do your time there and you will have earned your stripes and be employable for bigger and better things. This commitment is really what separates you from others in the job market. If you don’t have that commitment to work for little but enough pay for 12 months as a young person, you are probably in the wrong industry.

    As a recruiter I can say that kind of experience, in my view, gives ppl a much greater standing than those who have done a DS masters or similar (anyone can rock up to uni and hand in a few essays).

    Also wait until you have a bit of experience until further study – there is more to bring to the table and it is much more rewarding!

    Hope this adds something to the discussion…

    1. Thanks for the useful advice S! Spot on I think.

  32. Sasha

    Hi Clio, thanks for your response, and in my heart I know what you are saying is right, mind the pun but I know I should ‘capitalise’ on the years of pain and use these to my advantage! Thanks for the words of wisdom ! Sasha

  33. Sasha

    Hi Brendan, so glad I came across this post, literally as I was applying to a Master of International development in Melbourne – so thank you for urging me think about my decision in more depth now! I am two subjects off being a qualified CPA/ (number cruncher) and have been working in accounting / finance / commercial analysis in internships and graduate programs since I was 17. Lets just say I am desperate to launch my career in the direction of international development after literally falling in love with Mexico on university exchange and coming to understand that my passion is for helping others, learning about other places and cultures and immersing myself in them. As someone with experience in a field that would (hopefully) be of some use to organisations working in international development, would it be a step in the right direction to complete a Masters in Development Studies? When reading the course units for the MA in DS @ Melbourne Uni I do feel a genuine interest in studying these topics and I really do not want to do accounting anymore, my soul cannot hack it and I want to follow my heart and passion of helping people. Thanks for your advice!

    1. Clio

      Hi Sasha,
      I was going to humanitarian articles to another when I ended up on this one and reading your comment. I could not help myself after reading your comment to think that, like it or not, but your best shot to get into this field is to use your accountancy and finance skills. The program of this MA is interesting and will be useful but not enough to interest organisations. When you apply you have to highlight your skills in order to the HR manager to see in which position you could fit the best. You should first research what kind of profiles NGO are looking for and build you CV in that direction. If you have already a strong experience in finance and accounting, really good point. Then for coordination positions, maybe in your experience you can highlight skills that are suitable. Fortunately or not, I don’t know, nowadays humanitarian aid is less about passion than experience, skills, commitment, efficacy and efficiency. So my advice would not to bury too quickly your finance skills it can be a really good entry.
      I know what I am talking about, budget, accounting, administration, payroll blah, blah, blah are my day to day tasks on the field. Not as shiny as being a nurse, a doctor or a field coordinator but without us they will be screwed and they know it! And at least I get to be on the field and to be part of a team who provide aid relief to people in need. From my point of view, it is satisfying.
      I wish you good luck and maybe see you around on the field one day.

    2. Hi Sasha,

      Thanks for your comment. What did you decide to do?

      My mum is an associate professor of accounting at Macquarie University in Sydney. She is also a trained accountant (CA). However, after completing her studies in the 70s, she went to Bangladesh for 3 years as a volunteer. I think, as Clio says below, you have an important and undervalued skill-set for working the sector. However, Masters are min. qualifications these days. Just pick the Masters that is diverse, not all course-based, challenging, and will give you new skills and improve existing ones.

      1. S

        Hi Brendan,

        Thank you for your article. It has really got me thinking now. I’m at a crossroad at the moment and am still trying to decide on a course for my Masters degree. I graduated with a B.A. Economics Degree and ever since graduation i have been working with a microfinance development centre in Nepal for the past 3 years. I really do enjoy work and the learning experience that i am getting. However, i think i’ve got enough work experience now and need to get a masters degree.

        I know that i want to end up working in the development sector in the future as well. So should i pursue a M.A. in Development Studies or are there any other courses that you would suggest?

        Thanks and i hope to hear from you!

    3. Patricia

      Ciao Sasha,

      I have just came across your comment and I am currently facing the same situation you described here.

      I was accepted in a MA in Development Economics and International Cooperation and thinking a lot about about it.

      This post is 3 years old but I would be happy to hear from you and what have you chosen to persue.

      my best,


  34. Hi Brendan
    Thanks for the great blog and the nice round of comments that have come out of this discussion. I think it is a really important topic. I know myself I went to school for development studies and had to volunteer for nearly three years to get into the sector. Not the easiest path to take by any means. It’s for that exact reason that I have started the Humanitarian Development Program at to help people get targeted field experience so that they can get their first paying job. I also have a free service to give people advice on their career direction etc. I know I had so many questions starting up!

    These days it really seems that the competition is rising and rising. I have been in touch with several organizations that are running internship programs alone some for in the office like Save the Children and others like Merlin who do the six months in the office and then a six month field placement. They receive over a 100 applicants per position and cannot begin to consider ones without masters.

    From what I have seen as a growing trend for getting into the sector is that most entry level positions the ones that are looking for 1-3 years experience are more technical based. So it seems that the logical entry point is to get a Masters in Public Health or some other expertise like agriculture or engineering etc. Once you are in this role then you can easily move into a more senior management type role.

    However that being said, a Masters in Management is never a bad thing. Both development and Aid work these days are centered on management. People are always managing budgets, project, donors etc. Yet a Masters in Management will not really aid you at the entry into the field as management is something that is quite hard to quantify it is more of an indefinite skill set that is shown through practical experience.


  35. Hi Brendan,

    I think this is a brilliant post. I wish I’d read it before I completed my Masters in ID then spent three years working for free. I give everyone I meet whose interested in development work similar advice. Its not easy taking the “development studies” path but I do feel if your passionate, willing to work your arse off and for free you can get there. I am actually considering a second masters now that I have experience in order to become more specialised, and also because everyone has a masters these days so its not quite as valued as it once was. What is the world coming too? Upside that no one mentions is that specialising pigeon holes you when your not quite sure where you want to work…small but something.

  36. Suprit

    Hi Brendan,
    Its really wonderful to read your post, currently i am working as a teacher in computer science and is wanting to pursue a ma degree in development studies.I want to do a phd as well but want to remain in this teaching line only.Please give me suggestions regarding teaching career option in this field of development studies.

    1. Hi Suprit, thanks for your comment and great to hear from a fellow educator. Please email me at and we can chat further. Cheers

  37. Wow! Popular topic ey..

    Development encompasses an almost endless list of issues, perspectives, problems, solutions, policies and good ol’ fashioned grassroots work… But I have found almost all development courses to lack a specific component on relations and development between state peripheries and state centres, as well as development in ‘stateless’ territories such as James C. Scott’s proposed ‘Zomia’, or contested zones such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, or Jammu Kashmir, in, whoever’s side you may wish to or to not take… They tend to fall into existing discourses of ‘conflict studies’ and ‘borderland development’, I feel that ‘centre-periphery studies’ is a unique and valuable specialisation that needs to be in any development curriculum, perhaps something looking like:

    capitalist, marxist, postmodern perspectives – aid – development – conflict studies – states, peripheries and frontiers – (development as a career??)

  38. Omar

    Thanks for your commentaries. However i disagree that development studies do not add value for employment. It gives us indepth knowledge in research in sustainable development. I did BA in dev.studies in one of African universities and able to come up with research on marganilized communities. I feel it worthy.

  39. rowanemslieintern

    The aid/development conflation really is infuriating. I'm a young pseudo-professional (currently getting short term consultancies and long term internships to build experience), believer in development but an aid sceptic. Seperating those two streams into two distinct categories would go some way to unmuddling the industry/ies' career paths.

  40. seo

    Hello this is kinda of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding expertise so I wanted to get guidance from someone with experience. Any help would be enormously appreciated!

  41. AndyB

    After this article, I (alb202) got into a very interesting discussion on Twitter about the idea that an MA should be a minimum requirement to enter the field of International Development. I noted on Twitter that I am trying to push back on this idea and said that it is irresponsible for organizations to require a MA for a job that pays US$30,000/yr. I was asked by @wmyeoh to elaborate in comments here on how I am doing this. The answer to this is pretty simple, I am now mid-career and mid-career folks are the ones who actually write job descriptions. So among my networks, I am trying to disrupt the idea that the MA should be a minimum requirement for entry-level positions. Maybe a well-organized advocacy campaign comes next 🙂

    A few more thoughts on how I came to this position, because I think there are good arguments on both sides. First, I am a huge advocate of the professionalization of aid. But I think part of the organization of a profession is that there are entry-level positions that require less education than more senior positions. One of the arguments on Twitter was that if you want to be a doctor, get an MD. But I think the better analogy would be, if you want to work in a hospital, get an MA. All I am an advocating for is positions at the bottom rung of the ladder that folks can apply for without an MA in order to see if the profession is for them. I also think this benefits organizations, because the skill set of the applicants, matches the requirements of the job. At least in DC right now, there are too many overeducated MAs doing pretty menial work. It would be much better for all involved I think for individuals to do that work with a BA, and then decide either to leave the profession, or make a more informed decision on whether and/or what type of MA program to enter.

    1. Brendan Rigby

      Thanks for your insights Andy. It is an interesting and very relevant debate, both for those writing job descriptions and those applying to them. Perhaps we need closer collaboration between higher education institutions and 'industry' representatives (that is, international development agencies, NGOs, etc.). Higher education in business has very close ties and representation with industry and government. Does higher education for development have the same? I am not sure, but I would say no. Again, it seems to come back to collaboration and communication.

  42. Soph Kagan

    For this reason, I'm probably more tempted to apply for a one year program that might be weak on practical skills but allows students to develop a strong theoretical base in development studies. This is not to say that the practical side of things is not hugely important, but I wonder whether (for those on a budget) those skills might not be better obtained through the workforce.

  43. Soph Kagan

    Thanks for an excellent post Brendan! It couldn't have come at a better time for me – I'm just in the process of putting together my applications for masters in development studies for 2012. I had intentionally put off applying for a masters for a few years thinking that work in the field would better prepare me for post-grad studies. Perhaps that will prove to be true but it certainly hasn't helped me for the task of selecting an actual course. I agree that the Global Masters in Development Practice programs do have the components for a great program and I had been keenly eyeing off the SIPA program at Columbia until a friend in the course warned me that I need to be prepared to pay $69,000 PER YEAR for tuition and living expenses. There are of course, other GMDP programs without such exhorbitant costs, but nonetheless, two years at university (when you may still be paying off your undergrad. debt) is still a financial burden.

  44. Completely agree that discrete skills are a much better basis than development theory. I recently advised a university which is developing a new program exactly of this point, particularly as they were considering including an internship/volunteer placement as a unit.
    My advice was don't send 22-year-olds with a unit in each of Community Development, Project Management and Keynesian economics to a Solomon Islands NGO (for example). A teacher, nurse, physiotherapist, accountant, etc. with a few years experience in their own culture, would be much more use. Being able to distinguish standard issues faced by a first year teacher from cross-cultural issues is vital.

    It is not fair on the host communities to be burdened with good-intentioned but unexperienced volunteers, especially if they are pre-loaded with ideas about skill transfer (uni-directional from volunteer to "poor community") and how this placement will launch them into the glamorous, feel-good world of aid (cough cough). I am aware of some significant soon-to-be-released research, which among other things, notes a worrying trend in the "professionalisation" of volunteering, that is the use of volunteering as a career making tool (and especially the selling of it in this way in a competitive recruitment market) at the expense of good practice in the field.

    I would worry about a development course which was too prescriptive. Development occurs in so many different cultural contexts, woven with colonial, post-colonial, neo-colonial and occasionally anti-colonial histories. It aims to meet an incredibly wide variety of aims. My biggest disappointment with my Masters in International Social Development (UNSW) was that even when they expanded from 6-8 units, they added two more compulsory units where, I believe, it would have been much more beneficial to let students study an area of particular interest from other faculties to complement the sound development perspectives gained in the core.

    I've also seen incredibly smart graduates with multiple qualifications and an excellent understanding of sustainable capacity building revert to practice which was abandoned decades ago as the weight of poverty, cross-cultural frustrations and feelings of insignificance bears down. Brendan was absolutely right to highlight the personal component. The single most valuable tool anyone can have on their way to becoming a 'good development worker' is a sympathetic and wise mentor (or network of mentors). I also believe this is essential for ensuring they stay that way.

    1. Gianna

      Hi nokenwei. I’m considering the MA in Development studies at UNSW, could we chat in private regarding some specific questions about this program? I’d really appreciate your input 🙂 gianna.bonis @

  45. Following my personal experience of aid work I’ve come to realise that a first step towards making an impact in the world around us, is to become familiar with the world inside us, at our own motives, triggers, projections, delusions, strength and weaknesses, becoming aware of the what drives us to do good. Technical competencies and languages are very useful, at the same time in this line of work it is who we are that matters, we need to incorporate self-reflection into the action, being aware that while serving others it is essential to look after our whole self (is this taught at college level?).

    1. Brendan Rigby

      I wholly agree Alessandra. That is why I find the IDS' Ma quite intriguing as it very much emphasises self-reflection. But, we also need to show and demonstrate the self-reflection in conducive to students and graduates' learning. What effect does it have? Does it enable students and graduates to be 'better' workers in the sector/in the field? Intuitively, I would say it does, but is there evidence?

  46. I realise this is an huge topic which is really about what a development studies curriculum should look like, but I really want to address the issue of employability. I also want to say that my comment is framed from the perspective of an employee, not an employer. In that regard, it's probably going to be an idealistic one, rather than realistic. An oft repeated criticism of a typical Development Studies degree is that it lacks the critical skills in a technical area to get the job done. As Liz commented above, a professor at her uni said that people in developing countries need doctors and engineers, not someone with an arts degree. I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I think it's a pretty simplistic viewpoint. Yes we need people with tangible and transferrable skills in development, but we also need people with good perspective of what good development is. And I'm not saying they need to have all the answers (because clearly no one does), but they at least need to be asking the right questions.

    In my experience, you can get people who have fantastic technical knowledge in a certain area working in development, and transferring this knowledge really well into their program, or using the knowledge in direct relief well. But unless there's someone there with a development eye towards sustainability, participation, governance, advocacy, awareness raising etc etc, the long term impact of the program is questionable. You need someone asking "at the end of all this, when we close shop, what happens next?" And that one of the single greatest things a good Development Studies program can get you to ask.

    What then is the way forward? Do we try and squeeze more practical skills into the development curriculum, or do we scrap it entirely, knowing that it's not going to add to employability (at least in the eyes of employers)? I don't have the answer to this, but I don't think we can ditch the skills that you pick up in a Development Studies degree altogether. Sure, keep the technical skills, or supplement them with another degree. But let's not write off the value that Development Studies adds as well! (spoken like a man who spent 2 years and several thousand dollars studying development studies).

  47. liz

    I've just completed my first semester of the MAAPD course (masters applied anthropology and participatory development) at ANU. To be honest i fell into it more because of the specialisation (indigenous policy) than the actual development aspect, although there are considerable overlaps between government policy on Aboriginal Australians and a development agenda. courses i've done and about to enroll in seem pretty practical eg. gaining skills and practice in desigining a social impact assessment, and gathering and analysing data through participatory methods. Of course, class based learning and experience in the field is radically different. as you point out such programs are more complimentary for people with existing experience rather than a leg-in to development work, and the overwhelming majority of people in the development part of my course had been working in development for many years for their home governments. For the few who did not already have development experience they were all looking to do internships. Which i think is the main thing that development degrees can offer. The grad programs you mention give kudos to those with development experience and outside of the AYAD program, internships are probably the 'easiest' pathway to gaining experience in development.

    I remember a friend at uni in the uk (studying development) asking her tutor how she could use her degree to get into development work and he replied something along the lines of "oh no you can't, people in developing countries need those with real skills like doctors and engineers, not just another person with an arts degree telling them what to do".

    1. Brendan Rigby

      Thanks for sharing your experiences Liz. You seem to touch on a critical aspect of not just higher education, but for international development. That is, the education opportunities for those from countries to whom 'development' is being given/facilitated/encouraged. Not only do people in these countries need those with 'real skills', they need doctors and engineers (and those with Arts degrees) who are their own countrymen and women. But, this is a difficult challenge to met, as it intersects with so many other issues such as, poverty, equity, governance, economic development, sustainability, brain drain, and the list of buzzwords goes on. This does not mean there are no roles for skilled graduates of 'development studies'. But, we have to think more clearly about what those roles should be, and how higher education can best meet changing demands and equity issues.

    2. Gie

      Thanks Brendan for this post. I was also a development worker in the Philippines for nine years. I started-off right after I finished my undergraduate degree. The Program that i’ve been working with has just packed-up and here I am looking-out again for a new job. I must admit, it is tough… Everyone is right, a Master’s degree is now a minimum requirement, at least, for a mid-level career.

      And so here I am, preparing to pursue a Master’s degree. I found this post while searching for an appropriate degree. I agree to Liz at some point (after being on-field for quite a time). The recipient countries need more skilled workers on-field. Those who are professional practitioners such as agriculturists, engineers, doctors, science experts who transfer technologies directly to recipients on-field. Development need more of this kinds of people and less of the arts guys.

      But if you want to land a program management career, then go for the MA.

      Thanks everyone for your brilliant ideas. I think I know now what degree to take.

      1. Thanks for sharing Gie. I agree that we need skill transfer & capacity building, but I would venture that it is done poorly, if at all. Both these activities, skill transfer and capacity building, are essentially education activities. Yet, are usually carried out by non-education professionals (or at least designed and managed by non-education specialists).

        How do you think we can better transfer skills?

        What degree are you pursuing?

        1. Gie

          Hi Brendan-

          I think that teaching is more of a gift, than a learned skill. There are a lot of experts that are effective teachers themselves despite of the lack of formal education in the arts of teaching. I believe what it takes is the understanding of the specific development needs, the passion of helping others that will inspire the eagerness to share knowledge, and the gift of being a “people-person” as against a shy person who is not comfortable interacting with a lot of people.

          But it is not tantamount to saying that we don’t need education specialists. We need education experts in program implementation planning and management. However, for starters I would suggest mastering the “recipe” first and working on the “plating style” next… so we have something to offer to begin with.


          – I suggest working with local government units who share the same passion and priority development interests. After all, they are the ones who are expected to continue moving-on once development program support ends. They are also the best facilitators to ensure effective communication from both ends, and even contribute resources to get things done.

          -Secondly, there is a need to chose the right people’s organization to work with. The ones who have proven track record, have been there for the right reasons, and possess attributes to lead and influence others. They are usually the respected community leaders we can always ask for help and support while on the field. They can even lobby policy concerns..

          -Third, let us do less of the classroom-type lectures and do more of the interactive, hands-on trainings. Skills are best learned (and remembered) by doing than by listening.

          -Fourth, i must add the importance of regular follow-ups and monitoring. There must be continuous activities on-field, ideally economic/social activities to which beneficiaries can exercise the skills learned and benefit from it.

          -Fifth, we need continuous training impact assessment by consultation and field monitoring to continually improve, upgrade, modify training modules to respond to recent opportunities/challenges and incorporate new technologies.
          These are just my practical views based on my field experience as an extension worker (agribusiness specialist) for an internationally-funded economic development program. My undergraduate degree is Agricultural Engineering and am planning to pursue an MS in Agricultural Science or an MS in Regional & Rural Development Planning, hopefully this year through a scholarship.

          1. Rita

            Gie, did you get your scholarship? Who did you get it through? I hope your course went well!!

            Some Masters cost a fortune!

  48. Just a few thoughts to offer:
    –Any development degrees offered in the future must be interdisciplinary in nature. From the moment I walked "out of the classroom and into the field", I knew the the vast macroeconomic training I had would do nothing for me as I wrote proposals, developed monitoring indicators, navigated tricky, power-infused relationships, and submitted financial reports. At the end of the day, it was the project management and "soft" skills that became the backbone of my daily life as an aid (or shall I say development?) worker. And what a degree could not have prepared me for I believe was the creativity and ability needed to size up a difficult situation and offer a way forward. Becoming a cog in the wheel was just not an option for me, which leaves me wondering…Are some aspects of being an effective aid worker just inherently inborn or learned only through the hard knocks of life?
    –I was just lamenting the state of the "development discourse" the other day with a colleague. Part of the problem when it comes to the topics that are being discussed and the subjects that are taught from our perspective is that, "The thinkers are not the do-ers. And the do-ers, they're always thinking, but they have no time to influence and share."
    –Empathy and self-care. It's got to be part of the package, school and employer. It's time to recognize that in endeavoring to help people is need, much more is required of us than just our intellect. We must be enabled, encouraged, and supported to bring our whole, messy selves to this work and to access the self-awareness and psychological and emotional well-being needed to be effective.

    1. Alipo

      I agree wholeheartedly.

      Most people on the course I am attending have much experience under their belts and from a diverse number of sectors. While not the most highly ranked university on the league tables, the course and college is preparing me for writing tenders, leading stakeholder meetings, managing projects, engaging hands-on in fields, enterprises, charities, etc., as well as equipping me with rigorous academic skills necessary should I wish to continue in academia or research. After having the opportunity to work in both the private and public sectors in developing countries and work for one of the largest European development agencies, I turned down my place at UCL for more all-round, interdisciplinary and career-oriented postgraduate course at the Royal Agricultural College ( In fact, my Master's thesis will be based on at least 3-9 months field work or collaboration with an institution/organisation/company, which is more engagement in the world outside the ivory towers than most postgraduate courses seem to offer today.

      At the end of the day, securing jobs in this field comes down to connections as much as it does to a qualification-loaded resume.

      1. Brendan Rigby

        Thanks Alipo and Jennifer for sharing your experiences and views. You raise a number of critical issues that need to be explored more, particularly in academia. Although academia can often be too quickly dismissed, at the very least, it has very direct influence on course curricula in higher education for students. In can directly address the issues you raise, through not just research, collaboration and advocacy, but through course design and delivery; courses that will be taken by most students wanting to work in the aid and development sector.

  49. When I saw the title of the post, I have to admit I gulped a bit. I'm a recent graduate of Cambridge's MPhil Development Studies program, so it's a topic that hits rather close to home. I agree with most of the argument, as well as similar writing elsewhere: the degree doesn't impart the skills needed for development work, nor could it. However, I would like to dissent on two points. First, you leave out the possibility that those seeking the postgraduate degree already have substantial field experience. Not the case with myself, but among my peers there were heads of NGOs, Iraq veterans, and former diplomats. For them, the degree is simply a means to increase their marketability, just as most undergraduate degrees (and some postgraduate ones such as an MBA) are. Second, I think you're underestimating how it can be the perfect degree for some who are going into the academy, pursuing research, or dream of a diplomatic career. My research is on state formation in Africa; studying institutional change and economic development with Ha-Joon Chang certainly contributed to my career preparation. You might say I'd have been better off with the MPhil Economics, MPhil IR, MPhil Politics, etc. But none of these degrees has the same interdisciplinary perspective as Development Studies. The Economics degree more often resembles an advanced mathematics degree, while Politics and IR is focused on research methods, modeling, and, of course, Eurocentrism. The only postgraduate option to teach me how political competition, institutional change, economic growth, and yes, violence interact in African states was the MPhil Development Studies. I couldn't be happier I pursued it.

    1. Apologies, where I wrote that you "leave out" the possibility of students having previous work experience, I meant to correct it to "underemphasize."

      1. Brendan Rigby

        Thanks for your personal and thoughtful perspective Zach. And, I agree and relate to the two points you make. I myself did an MA in Development Studies at UNSW in Sydney Australia. I guess I did it to also increase my marketability as you say. I have a strong education background and wanted to start transitioning into the development sector. Although I felt a bit short-changed by the MA, it was invaluable in many respects: networks (new friends and colleagues), internship with Centre for Refugee Research in Sydney and India, and some very challenging learning in terms of conceptual and analytical (using skills I already had). I also appreciated the interdisciplinary approach to development studies, but I kept thinking to myself: this could be so much better. And, institutions such as Cambridge have the resources, gumption and faculty to perhaps offer postgraduate courses in development studies than many other institutions.

        Don't get me wrong, I am happy I did it. I probably underemphasised (or rather left out) this as well in the post. I just wanted to offer a critical reflection and encourage others to discuss, contradict and disagree.

        1. Petra

          Brendan, my experience for the MA of Development Studies at USYD is similar, but worse. I felt like they were just cobbling together a degree just to keep up with other universities, it was incoherent and unfulfilling. That said, it ticks an essential box in job applications and has served me well in that regard. I just think it could have been so much better.

          1. Gianna

            Hi Petra,
            I’m considering the MA you mention, I ‘d love to talk to you about it. My email is gianna.bonis @, or please give me yours. It’d be great to speak with someone who has been there already.

        2. Vincent

          sir, my son wants to study Governance and Development. what will be his motivation to attend the programme in GOVERNANCE AND DEVELOPMENT and how will the acquired skills and knowledge be used upon completion of the programme? what type of future plans and aspirations will he have? am still bothered. i have always wanted him to study masters in economics because i want him to take charge of my business knowing that i did not go to higher institution. please convince me.

    2. Jehann

      Brilliant reply! I also did the MPhil in Development Studies at Cambridge (before doing an MA in Economics in New York) and I found the program to be especially useful for my career. Today I am employed with the IMF as a (macro)economist, working on an improvished African country. Both graduate degrees have provided me with the theoretical context and analytical rigour to make the difference that I always wanted in my professional career.

  50. Phenomenally useful post, as always! Thank you very much for the great compilation of tips. Another distinction I would make is between aid vs. development vs. conflict programs. I have looked at the development studies track of many MAs in Public Policy/International Affairs and it is filled with classes about conflict/conflict resolution/post-conflict strategies. As someone fascinated by conflict and security studies, I welcome the popularity of these classes and I do understand that development and conflict are related issues that often need to be taught side-by-side… but a conflict-heavy curriculum does not suffice for an education in development studies.

    1. Brendan Rigby

      Thanks Roxanne for your thoughts. I had not thought of the place and importance of conflict in development studies. Why do you think there are such conflict-heavy curricula out there? Is it more a reflection of particular academics' own interests and research or mirrors the needs of the knowledge economy/aid and development sectors?

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