The Principled Agent

Thoughts on development economics and impact measurement

Humble Grad Guide to getting Hard Skills

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When I was considering graduate programs last year, I found there to be a dearth of information on what to expect from your graduate school experience and how to make the most of it in the context of my interests in international development, monitoring and evaluation, and social venture capital.

With the majority of my work experience in the private sector, I went to grad school to make a professional transition into the development space. I’ll sidestep the question of the relative merits of hard vs. soft skills, but my emphasis was on hard skills. As a Master in Public Administration candidate at NYU Wagner, I was most excited at the flexibility I would get in choosing my coursework, and most concerned about the degree’s competitiveness in a field where I might be competing against MBAs. While I can’t comment on the latter, I now feel like I can provide some preliminary thoughts on the former.

1) It does help get an internship/job
It’s my personal experience that the “.edu” helps you get call-backs, especially if you’re making a professional transition. It signals committment. If you’re a prospective student, what’s the local market for internships relevant to your career goals? I’ve found it hugely beneficial to work while in school. Do free labor if you can’t get a paid position. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about what they do and how it differs from what you’re learning. If you’re an M&E person, get their data and offer to analyze it as you work through your advanced quant courses. If you’re looking for international development job advice, talk to Alanna Shaikh. If you’re looking for resume or cover letter help, talk to your Career Services folks!

2) Your hard-skill mileage will vary by your program and your preparedness
Like most other programs, NYU has a number of core courses, e.g., statistics, microeconomics, public policy. If you have taken these classes before, waive them. If you can self-study and pass a waiver exam, do so. You’re paying a lot of money for your credits, make the most of them. If you’re a prospective student, find out what the requirements are and what you can waive. Talk to students about how easy or difficult it is. You can make your own curriculum, but your mileage will vary by program and your preparedness. (NYU Wagner has done well by me!)

3) There are resources outside your program to sharpen your skills
Given my interest in statistics and finance, I’ve taken a number of courses at Steinhardt’s Center for the Promotion of Research Involving Innovative Statistical Methodology (PRIISM) and the Stern business school. Prospective students should know the school’s policy and the student reality in taking courses in other programs. If you’re interested in international development, a course in causal inference, for example, might serve you well, and you may find the coursework in another program.

4) It’s a great opportunity to become a statistical software ninja
If you’re interested in M&E, grad school is a great opportunity to learn the different software (e.g., STATA, SPSS, SAS, R): know their limitations, find professors who can serve as resources beyond school, and find other resources to support your post-grad learning (e.g., www.ats.ucla.edu/). If you’re a prospective student, it’s worth checking out syllabi to see what software you’ll be exposed to in class. You can learn these programs on your own, but you’ll find free resources (including software) at school and useful academic support.

5) With or without grad school, become an Excel ninja
The coursework is there to develop Excel expertise, and learn how to validate data, calculate what-if scenarios, goal seek, etc. You’ll probably need to work on your own to learn Visual Basic, for example, but the more you can pack into your time, the better. While my experience is limited, everywhere I’ve worked Excel ninjas have been highly valued. That said, grad school clearly isn’t necessary for this.

6) With or without grad school, do informational interviews
For prospective students, I do think that having an “.edu” e-mail address increases responsiveness, but it’s not necessary. Yes, it’s painful to ask, but do it! Prepare for them. Often the interviewee will happily share information they might not otherwise broadcast about your industry that will deepen your understanding in ways that no coursework nor social enterprise conference nor even internship can. Sadly, it took grad school for me to learn the value of the informational interview.

7) With or without grad school, read the stocks, manage the flows
With all this emphasis on skills, where’s the content? As Dave Algoso suggests, if you’re a prospective or current student planning to learn your field just through course readings, you’re doing it wrong. Identify the relevant stocks of knowledge and work through them. Find a way to filter the large flow of information in a way that you can extract meaningful information without getting too caught up in the daily back-and-forth. If you’re like me, you’re taking method courses rather than content courses, which puts the onus on you to do the content on your own. Twitter, Google Reader, and journals are your best e-friends. Your job and informational interviews should ground this internet intake in reality. Warning: it’s easy to drown in the flows.

This advice won’t be relevant to everyone. (Hopefully useful to some.) However, I think it’s well worth the time of current graduate students (and, preferably, the recently graduated) interested in the field to make an effort to share their experience, so that folks considering making a large investment in their education have an understanding of what value students found in their grad education and what they did not. As far are current resources go, Chris Blattman has some great advice on the MPA/MPA-ID/PhD decision.

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Written by Chris Prottas

March 29, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] one from Satori Worldwide on whydev.org, one from La Vidaid Loca, and another from The Principled Agent. Here’s a few of my thoughts on the […]

  2. […] –       another from The Principled Agent. […]


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