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Mpa/Id Essays Online

Note: This post is a bit out of date and MPA/ID focused, and I updated it October 2013.

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.

Hopefully on this blog.

This post originally appeared on the Accepted blog.


Today’s guest is Matt Clemons, Director of Admissions at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s joining us to discuss the programs HKS offers and what it takes to get accepted. Welcome, Matt!

Can you give us an overview of the MPP program? [1:25]

The MPP is the largest master’s program at HKS. It’s a 2-year, full-time, early career program. There’s a strong focus on giving people a set of skills to address real world problems. Students complete a professional project (rather than an academic thesis).

Students have an average of 3 years of work experience before starting the program. Work experience is important – it helps students make informed decisions and also prepares them to contribute to the program (there’s a lot of group work).

How do the MPA and the MPA/ID differ? [2:50]

The programs are similar in structure: core curriculum in the first year, professional development in the summer, and a professional project in the second year. For the MPA/ID program, the professional development is in a developing country or with a development organization. The coursework for the MPA/ID is very quantitative: similar to what a first year PhD student in economics would do – with an emphasis on practical applications to challenges that are faced in the developing world. They touch on theories, but the focus is on solutions in a developing world context.

What’s the difference between the MPP and MPA? [4:18]

The acronyms shouldn’t confuse people. The programs provide similar skillsets.

Broadly, a public administration program focuses on a macro-level overview, and MPP programs are more technical. But students can structure and tailor their programs to address the problems that they see.

What is the mid-career program? [5:45]

The mid-career program is a 1-year MPA. It draws some people who’ve been public servants, and some who are making the move from the private sector to the public sector. We require 7 years of work experience, and the average is 13.

You have joint programs with HBS and HLS. Is HKS also a case-based school? [6:35]

It’s a mix. The faculty teach to their strengths. You’ll encounter cases in the classroom, but it’s not the predominant teaching method.

What distinguishes the MPP from an MBA? [7:52]

Policy degrees teach candidates tools to manage strategies and policies that impact people and populations. Similar to what one would learn in b-school, MPA students learn economics, policy analysis, and quantitative analysis.

In b-school, students learn similar analytical skills, but they’re focused on the bottom line. In policy programs, your bottom line is society’s bottom line.

HKS offers lots of joint degree opportunities (law, med, business). Why might an MBA want both degrees? [11:50]

The intersection of business and government is increasingly important. Also, people are interested in being social entrepreneurs – outside the traditional channels of non-profits – they want to create their own opportunities to make a difference in society.

We have a new social innovation fellowship to help students start their own companies.

In general, policy professionals should be able to speak with people across fields.

HKS offers joint degree programs within Harvard (HBS, HLS) and concurrent degree programs with few schools at Harvard and with several outside of Harvard (MIT Sloan, Stanford, etc). How do concurrent programs work? [13:30]

All concurrent programs require two separate applications – there are no shared committees or shared evaluations (even for programs within Harvard). We don’t look at applications together with the other programs.

If an applicant is accepted to both programs, they let us know they want to pursue both programs, and we give them a contract.

If you’re not admitted to the second program, you can reapply during your first year at HKS (except for HBS).

Where do HKS grads get jobs? [17:25]

There’s no such thing as a typical grad. But about a third of our grads work in the public sector, a third in the non-profit sector, and a third in the private sector.

One recent grad of the MIT Sloan-HKS program is working for Deloitte – technically in the private sector – but she’s working on a public sector project. So many of our grads cross sectors like that.

Do a lot of grads spend some time in various sectors? [18:45]

One example: A mid-career grad who had a career in government (White House, Pentagon, etc.) is now the CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he has a reputation for building strong ties between the franchise and the local community.

Is there a recent grad whose experience typifies the opportunities HKS opened up? [20:35]

We had a student who worked in marketing and consulting before coming to HKS, and was interested in government. She got a job in the Boston mayor’s office, working on a task force related to citizens’ relationship to government. She helped create “City Hall To Go”—a mobile government office. (Now there are two mobile units.) She’s still working in the mayor’s office – now working on pay equity initiatives.

What is HKS looking for in its applicants? [23:15]

Four things:

1.Public service: A track record of service and contribution.
2.Leadership: People who are established as leaders. (Not measured by your title, but by your impact.)
3.Quantitative aptitude: We want to know you can do the work.
4.Work experience:  we want people to be making decisions based on experience in the real world.

What about grades and test scores? [25:20]

The real issue is: can you learn what we teach? And do you fit what the Kennedy School is about?

We don’t have cut-offs, and we don’t publish average GPAs or test scores.

It doesn’t mean a lot if you have great test scores and a 4.0 without a track record of public service and leadership.

We do look at ranges: approximately the top third on the GRE or GMAT. But it’s not the critical component in admissions.

What are the top “pause points” when you review an application? [29:40]

Since 50% of our applicants are international students, for those candidates, we pay particular attention to their English abilities to make sure they can keep up the pace.

For all applicants, we want to make sure they have the quantitative skills to succeed. HKS is a very extracurricular-oriented experience, and you won’t be able to take advantage if you fall behind. Each program asks for a quantitative resume or quantitative statement (we provide examples on our blog).

Finally, we’re looking for a real commitment to public service. If somebody’s compass isn’t pointed in that direction, that makes us pause.

When is the application available, and when is it due? [31:50]

It will be live in early September, and the deadline is December 1. The decision date will be in March. We provide regular updates and information on the blog.

Is there an advantage to applying early? [33:00]

We don’t start reviewing applications until after the deadline. But don’t submit at the last minute.

What are some common mistakes applicants make? [34:35]

The biggest mistake is not following instructions.

My pet peeve is people asking questions that are already clearly answered on the application or the website. We provide a lot of advice on the blog.

Another pet peeve: quoting Gandhi in your essay! I’m not trying to admit Gandhi to the Kennedy School – I’m trying to admit you.

What else should we know? [37:25]

My first job was as a fry cook at a Dairy Queen. I went to a public high school and saved money for college by working at a fast food restaurant. I borrowed money to go to a liberal arts college. I never had it in my mind that I would be working for an institution like Harvard.

I also share the story of being rejected from the Peace Corps – ultimately, the best thing that ever happened to me, because I ended up teaching English in Korea, where I met my wife.

Don’t let the name of the institution intimidate you. If you’re worried about cost, we offer nearly $25 million in financial aid. You miss 100% of the chances you don’t take. And if we say no, it doesn’t mean that other wonderful doors won’t open.


About Linda Abraham:

Accepted.com has guided thousands of applicants to acceptances at top universities since 1994 – they know what works and what doesn’t, so follow Linda Abraham on Google+ and contact Accepted to get started or visit Accepted.com for all your admissions consulting needs today!


Photo at top courtesy of Shutterstock.com / Marcio Jose Bastos Silva


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