US Master’s Degree Tour 2011: Crunching Numbers at Harvard Kennedy School (Master of Public Administration/International Development)

In early 2011, I took my first graduate-school trip along East coast of USA. This blog post is a series of this amazing intelligent journey. Enjoy!

Ok…continuing my previous story from Harvard Kennedy School at Master of Public Policy. After being amazed by Professor Nicholas Burns at his modern diplomacy class, I am going to share about my another interview session at Harvard Kennedy School, but at this time at Master of Public Administration/International Development. I already signed up for interview request six months before I went there, and the admission person, Carol Finney, simply told me on the very early of our interview that they had never received an interview request as early as six months ahead like I did. So i didn’t know if i should take that as a compliment, but well yeahhh i took that as a compliment.

The reason I searched for Masters in Public Administration and an International Development program was because this program covers enough my interest on working with global issues as well as multinational organizations in relation with government. And the international development being named on the study program resembles modern and globalized perspective. Different with my nervous problem during my interview at Fletcher, I simply lost my english brain system during this MPA/ID interview. I kept saying “ummm….how to say…” (like searching for close by vocabularies). I always think and feel that English is my first language as I communicate more often with English, and I saw this problem like just another form of nervous :p So unfortunately, after the admission person spent time explaining about the program, I ended up overtime in my talk because I was pausing a lot searching for some words.

Anyway, these are facts I got from the admission people about MPA/ID program:

1. The MPA/ID is barely new program. It has small class consists of 30-50 students per batch. So everybody knows everybody.

2. It focuses on development issues which are related a lot with social science research, but furthermore to what action these researches extend to the development of the world.

3. Though it’s quantitatively basis, in the end of study students have to work on client basis with multinational organizations, governments, or developing foundations, prior to their graduation.

4. Life after MPA/ID is usually for multinational organization such as UN and World Bank, but there are also graduates who go for private companies such as Goldman Sachs.

Carol was so nice that she asked an Indonesian student, Doni, who was studying in the program to take me for campus tour. I was so surprised that there was (another) Indonesian student i met in this prominent school. The school also gave me lunch ticket that I could use for anything that I want to eat at Harvard’s cafetaria (super nice school). We then decided to sit in lunch-open-conference-hang out place for Harvard Kennedy School. It was a nice indoor place, formed as random stacks of layers where lots of nice corners were located to sit and chat on each layer. That was why this place is called open conference as from each layer on the top, we could see the cafetaria floor which often turned into podium used by prominent speakers, so that both faculty members and students could join in the “open seminar” (just like sitting in theater-box watching for the play). It was not surprising, as my description about Harvard Kennedey School’s building on previous blog described the building as set of complicated labyrinth.

From my chit chat with Doni, he explained that MPA/ID is all about math, advance math. Math in the sense that numbers are tools to reveal something, both further decision or proper immediate action. That’s the reason why prospective students need to prove for undertaking calculus class in prior to application. Doni wasn’t coming from governmental bodies in Indonesia; he worked for a private company and came to Harvard to switch career. He was also a fully covered scholarship recipient from Harvard (WOW!). He suggested me to take additional calculus class if i want to apply here. There were also few students here who didn’t have working experience before, so he though it should be fine for my case.

Carol Finney also assigned me to sit in the class of Advance Macroeconomic II. From its class’ title, it sounded hard and by the time I sat there, I was introduced with economic curves but not familiar enough though I had sets of economic class in my college. Until I figured out it was a theory of growth, neither endogenous nor exogenous (but what is it???—x___x); strange, unfamiliar, and pure logic in numbers.

My time in Harvard Kennedy School MPA/ID came to an end. Doni called his friend at Harvard Business School (HBS) to take care of me showing around the school after tomorrow’s interview at HBS (again, i was fully happy with all treats I received in this school). I then headed to meet my boyfriend at the entrance I firstly managed to get inside here and walked over to crave some foods around Harvard.

Thank you Harvard Kennedy School; such an awesome experience.!! Ohh..below I re-posted someone’s blog about Harvard MPA/ID, He’s Chris Blattman, an alumni of Harvard MPA/ID and he told much more about the program and the life after MPA/ID; Enjoy!

Which is for you: MPA, MPA/ID, or PhD?

by Chris Blattman (source:

Students often ask me about the MPA/ID program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a course I completed about six years ago, before going on to do an economics PhD. (For those who are unfamiliar, the program is similar to a standard Master’s in Public Administration, but with a heavy emphasis on international development–hence the “ID”–and on advanced economic analysis.)

The most common question I receive is “should I do the ID program?”– a question that is usually shorthand for: “Is it better than an MPA?”, “Is the math too hard?” and “Is it a substitute for a PhD in economics?”
I polled some classmates, and jot down their thoughts (and mine) below. A number of more recent IDs read this blog, and I encourage them to comment as well.

The short story: whether an ID-focused program is right for you depends largely on you. The ID is probably ideal if you want to work in a large development institution, but still very good if you plan to work in another field of development. If you don’t get in, or you fear the math, don’t despair; it is a simple thing to create your own ID program at whatever graduate school you land. I have many, many friends who did an MPA at Harvard or elsewhere who are doing incredible work.

Is it a substitute for a PhD? Not if you want to be a researcher, in my opinion. But for a professional career in international development the ID is probably the superior option. Should you consider doing the ID program before a PhD? Yes but mostly no, a point I return to at the end (and also discuss here).
First, let me summarize a number of the pros and cons of Harvard’s ID program. Let’s start with the (copious) pros:

  • Job placement has been outstanding, especially if you are interested in working for one of the IFIs (international financial institutions like the World Bank or IADB). The ID brand is exceptionally strong there. I think this is a reflection of great screening and selection of students, but also a superb network and a terrific environment and teaching.
  • The class is likely to be more diverse and international than any other program you will find. The new perspectives this offered in and out of the classroom were real and meaningful.
  • Your professors are in this game because they care about changing the world. A lot. Most academics are passionate and generous people. The MPA/ID faculty devote their lives to making better policy for poor people, and seldom lose focus of that.
  • Your professors are well-informed, opinionated, influential, funny, and contrary. They will challenge orthodoxies and make you think differently than when you came in the door. That is why the program is not simply a screening device for prospective employers.
  • You will be pushed intellectually in a way that my friends in MPA programs were not. An MPA may push you in other ways, but the ID program was undoubtedly more intellectually intense and intimidating, primarily because of the economic theory. (Note that this is not universally agreed upon as a pro.)
  • A classmate who later attended a PhD at another Ivy lamented the absence of other professional schools there. One of the advantages of Harvard is the presence of a public health, business, law and education school with superb courses. Another classmate was most pleased to have access to faculty at Harvard and MIT, and also Tufts, BU, BC, …
  • From a classmate now working in private finance, “I feel very comfortable in gliding between hardcore finance and public policy and sometimes the line dividing them is very fine, and those are the times when you value your MPA/ID lessons. I guess once my international workload picks up, where institutions cannot be taken for granted, MPA/ID learning would prove invaluable. I may not remember the maths but ideas are still very fresh in my mind.”
  • The Kennedy school has a non-stop set of prominent speakers, often every day. I saw 25 current or former heads of state speak in my first year alone. Of course, you get to enjoy this from every program.
  • One classmate suggests that the program is a superb entry point into the international development world and the US job market for anyone coming from overseas, especially because of the high proportion of non-Americans in the class.
  • Program Director Carol Finney will become your second mom.
  • From another classmate, my favorite pro: “To find a brilliant spouse.” I think you could probably do that from an MPA, of course. And I found my brilliant spouse in the slowest Internet cafe in Nairobi, which goes to show you just can’t plan these things.

Now, some cons I’ve experienced or heard from classmates (sorry, Carol!):

    • From a classmate now working in the humanitarian field, the program really doesn’t prepare you for fieldwork and grassroots development work (prepare even in the theoretical sense–naturally you will only get field experience in the field). This lack of micro focus was my experience as well. At least at the time I was there, the faculty was dominated by eminent development macroeconomists, and there were few field economists doing applied micro work. Thus when I arrived at Berkeley I knew little about microeconomic development–a field that would later become my life and love. The applied micro focus may be better now, especially with people like Rohini Pande around, but I’d like to hear from more recent IDs on this point.
    • There appears to be less placement into the US government, UN, and humanitarian agencies, and the network feels smaller there. I’m told the ID “brand name” has not carried that far, even within USAID and MCC. There is a beeline to the IFIs, however.
    • If you don’t want or need PhD-level economic theory, then maybe you don’t want or need PhD-level economic theory. An MPA might be a better choice. I have a close friend who created her own ID-focused MPA, with a foreign policy and aid focus, and is now quite senior at the State Department. But (as someone noted in the pros) you may find the math is good for you in the long run.
    • You have almost no course flexibility in the first year, and it is not until your second year that you can branch out and begin meeting non-ID people, even at the Kennedy School. This was my experience, and I’m an extrovert by nature.
    • The career services group seems to be universally derided. I have no personal experience with it, however, since I went straight into academia.
    • Another classmate reminds me that the program was expensive. Some other schools (e.g. Woodrow Wilson at Princeton) are essentially free for the majority of students. I still have Cdn$60k in debt, for instance, which is no small burden (and I had a half-scholarship). I just try not to think about it, especially since I now earn US dollars and the Canadian dollar has appreciated almost 50 percent since I borrowed. Is it selfish and impersonal for me to secretly hope that Canada’s natural resources and industry dry up in the next year?
  • It’s not yet clear if there is a glass ceiling for IDs in professional economics positions, especially where PhDs have historically dominated. In World Bank operational jobs, my sense is that there is no ceiling so far, and in fact IDs have been doing exceptionally well. In more research-y jobs (think impact evaluation or tasks requiring advanced statistical analysis) I think the glass ceiling has already become clear in a handful of places. A couple of friends have bumped their heads against that ceiling already. But these jobs are probably a very small fraction of the total. Outside the professional research positions, I think an ID will get you further ahead than behind.

Now, to the PhD questions. Is the ID a substitute for a PhD? A precursor? My answer is weakly “no” to both points, but it is better if I explain.

The best reason to get a PhD is if you want to be a professional researcher. Some would go even further, and say that a PhD is appropriate only if you want to take a position as an assistant professor. Dani Rodrik has blogged this opinion (and he is the Director of the ID program). My sense, however, is that a PhD is also right for people who want to do institutional research as well–statistics for the World Bank or census bureaus, impact evaluation for MCC or the Poverty Action Lab, and probably senior macroeconomic policy at places like the Fed or IMF.

Is the course work similar? The microeconomic and macroeconomic course sequence were very close to what I covered in the PhD program at Berkeley (although the general equilibrium training was weak the year I did the ID). In contrast, the PhD econometrics coursework was orders of magnitude more advanced. If your goal is applied statistical analysis, a PhD may be a better option.

For all other development careers, I would endorse the ID program with gusto. Yes, a PhD program has its benefits, but the opportunity cost in terms of alternative experience (and foregone earnings!) is enormous. A PhD makes you a one-trick pony. An MPA or MPA/ID plus three or four years of work experience makes you a handy jack of all development trades.

Should you do both? That’s what I did, and that’s what Dani did too. Many of my classmates have gone on to PhDs as well. In general, however, if you are pretty sure you want to do research and you can get into a top PhD program, then go straight there. An MPA or ID will be a pleasant detour, and will inform your work and research, but better just to get the PhD done. Fast.

If you hesitate between practice and research, an MPA or ID program is terrific. It helped me, Dani, and many others sort out our priorities. The program also gave me the breadth and field experience that was of great benefit in my own PhD (although it meant I was the old man of the class). In my case, it also gave me the training and credibility I needed to get into a top PhD (although I could have done that with an economics MA, I suppose).

If you do go the PhD direction, see my post on how to get a PhD and save the world.
Former IDers: comment away. This will be a much more helpful post to future inquisitors if you applaud me, harass me, or tell your story and experience.

UPDATE: Marshall Jevons (that can’t be his real name) lists other excellent ID programs.
Also, Dani responds here. As I hoped, he notes that the ID program’s focus on micro development has increased.

And as for whether long posts are good for my career, well, everyone needs a hobby. I do appreciate the concern, and it might be warranted. I’ll make my the-blog-is-not-a-career-death-move-and-might-even-help-tenure argument another time. The short answer: every single thing I’ve ever done in academia that people have liked has begun with conventional economists (Dani is not one of these) telling me it’s not a smart move. I like to follow my instincts and, as I mentioned above, do what I love. It’s an experiment. I’ll let you know how it works out in, oh, about seven years.


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