MID: Building Careers that make a Difference


GSPIA’s international development faculty have learned a lot about what students need both to get the first job and establish a career path that makes a difference, noted Associate Dean Paul Nelson. Students are encouraged to use their 16 courses at GSPIA to build a strong set of professional skills which are shaped by both the top scholarship and hands-on experiences found in and outside the classroom. 

Professional Skills

GSPIA’s faculty have learned a lot about what students need both to get the first job and establish a career path that makes a difference, noted Associate Dean Paul Nelson. Students in the international program are encouraged to use their 16 courses at GSPIA to build a strong set of professional skills which are shaped by both the top scholarship and hands-on experiences found in and outside the classroom. Dr. Louis Picard, MID program director, noted that the skills may be in organizational management—including finance, human resources, grant-writing and managing partnerships with organizations in diverse cultures and places—project management, monitoring and evaluation. For some, it is it is a set of technical or analytical skills: economic analysis of energy or water systems, cost-benefit analysis, statistics. “Some students focus primarily on a single problem or initiative and develop deep expertise: children’s rights in the context of HIV/ AIDS, education in refugee and displaced people’s camps,” explained Nelson. Others, Assistant Professor Jennifer Murtazashvili pointed out, “build on the ground experience and deep knowledge of a particular place. I think having knowledge of a certain area, and that includes learning languages, is critical. So deep immersion in a particular context allows students to understand how people in a society cope—with weak government, with corruption, even with conflict.” 

Why Theory Matters
A strong theoretical foundation becomes the basis for making countless decisions in the course of a career. “To be successful in international development students need to develop the intellectual capacities and skills needed to deal with the global complexities of development,” said Assistant Professor Lisa Alfredson. “Equally, they need the passion and commitment that it takes to persist under challenging, sometimes adverse conditions, without losing sight of the big picture, and even as they become experts zeroed in on smaller parts of that big picture.”

“People often come to the field of international development with preconceived notions about how you help people,” Dr. Murtazashvili observed. “We break down those assumptions into a set of questions. So you assume that doing a particular kind of intervention helps people, but do we actually know that’s the case? That’s why theory matters—to understand what drives development, what works and what doesn’t work.”

“Students need to grasp complex problems and think critically, be able to see the big picture, and understand the power structures within which projects happen,” said Associate Professor Nuno Themudo. “We teach students to do that by exposing them to the big theories in development, time-tested approaches to thinking about economics, sociology and politics of development.”

Hands-on Experience 
Hands-On Experience Hands-on experience with aspects of the real work that organizations do in international development is key to being well-prepared for a rewarding career. How does a student get that experience, when they don’t have an employment record in the field? They need to demonstrate the “extra” steps they have taken to set themselves apart, according to Assistant Professor Müge Finkel. “These extras can come in the form of internships, projects they design, volunteer work in a research group, creative solutions to standard problems they designed,” she said. “They can also show that they have command of skills the field is constantly seeking—not only analysis and quantitative skills but also creative data visualization skills, mapping and others.”

Nelson agreed. “Most students who have an easy transition from grad school into jobs they love have something in common: During their GSPIA experience they did something distinctive that shows an employer something special about them—worked for a refugee resettlement agency, carried out a major group project that actually went to a development agency (see article on Working Groups at Ford Institute on page 18); designed or evaluated a project or launched a fundraising initiative. Often they come into contact with an employer through such project work. Think about it: If you’re a prospective employer, would you rather interview candidates chosen from an anonymous pile of letters and resumes; or would you prefer to bring in someone whose work you’ve been able to observe occasionally for several months, or who a friend or colleague supervised, and who you know will fit in? So our message to students is: Find a project you’re interested in and get involved.”

Or, as Professor Lou Picard often says: “Jump in!”

In the Classroom
Muge FinkelIn the Classroom I use my course assignments as opportunities for students to build and expand a repertoire of professional skills,” said Dr. Finkel. “In elective courses, this comes in the form of a policy paper in which students frame a policy problem in a specific context, then build recommendations based on comparative and real interventions from the field.”

“In my capstone course on Project Design and Evaluation,” Finkel continued, “students start with a real ‘project idea,’ an issue or problem they are passionate about solving. Using project design tools like log frames, I guide the which they defend at the end of the semester in front of a panel of development specialists. Students learn how projects are designed, how mistakes are made and then fixed, and how to take ‘ownership’ of an idea and bring it to reality. The experience has been rewarding to me: In two years, several in-class projects turned into real projects. A soccer project designed to give students in Cameroon leadership skills received a seed grant from FIFA and has been in the field for two years. An education project for Bedouin women in Morocco is being implemented by an NGO. A student who designed an education project for children in the refugee camps ended up working at the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan with International Relief and Development.”

Associate Professor Taylor Seybolt’s capstone students also link their research to agencies in the field. “We build the skills to analyze complex problems, and communicate the analysis to specialists in the field,” he says. “In my capstone, we’ve done work for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Students learn how to analyze complex problems, how to ask the right questions and pursue the answers systematically, and writing and verbally. Through the Ford Institute, we bring in speakers that provide students with the opportunity to talk to experts in their field, and to make professional connections.”

Other classes in the curriculum also help students develop the skills for professional-grade analyses and solution building. Assistant Professor Lisa Alfredson’s courses, like many others, require students to develop comprehensive recommendations for particular sets of actors, working in a team with people from diverse backgrounds. Dr. Themudo introduces financial skills.

“I make sure that my classes have strong skills components—so in my class on financing NGOs and nonprofits, we study log frames, logical framework analysis; students get exposed to data mining, how do you select the best donors from a data set with multiple donors?

That will allow them to hit the ground running in their first jobs and start managing programs from day one.”
Professors’ research can be the connection in the classroom to professional skills. Associate Professor Shanti Gamper-Rabindran presents her research—both published and ongoing—to her students in class. “These publications address persistent development questions: What interventions help improve public health? Are corporate social responsibility programs greening companies’ activities or merely greenwashing? Under what conditions do proposed development policies lead to adverse environmental consequences and how can these be prevented or mitigated?” In 2014 and 2015, she organized conferences on environment and energy, bringing top scientists and social scientists across the globe to campus to discuss the economic, environment and energy nexus, and allowed students to engage with leading analysts.

“I work on a lot of projects with development agencies,” explained Dr. Murtazashvili. “So in the classroom I’ve had students work with survey data I’ve collected from Tajikistan and Afghanistan. They work with the data to see what they find. When I talk about strengthening governance, we talk about governance in difficult environments. I have lots of examples upon which I can draw from Afghanistan, from Central Asia. As they refine their statistical skills, they hone them for particular applications like program evaluation and impact evaluation. We focus on impact evaluation in our courses to give students cutting-edge skills. Many of the faculty members are involved in doing impact evaluations and experiments for aid programs.”

Working Groups and Projects
Working Groups and Projects Dr. Seybolt stresses the role of student working groups. “We prepare students to work in human security fields by providing them with a strong grounding in analytical concepts but also a specialized knowledge of topics that are central to human security, such as the work being done by working groups at the Ford Institute on food security; preventing extreme violence in the Sahel region of Africa; the relationship between climate change, migration and conflict; and other topic areas.”

“The working group I co-lead at the Ford Institute, Gender Equity in Public Administration (GEPA), has been collaborating with the GEPA team at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP),” said Dr. Finkel. “Students have contributed 900 research hours to the project to date, and in turn have participated in shaping the GEPA agenda in the UNDP. Experiences like this set our students apart as they compete for jobs—employers see how they can put their knowledge to use.”

The Governance Group, which includes faculty from GSPIA, Political Science and Pitt’s School of Education, has been deeply involved in a multi-year USAID-funded project to train participants in seven West African countries in techniques of project assessment and evaluation. Coordinated by Dr. Picard, the project has employed many GSPIA students and recent alumni in diverse aspects of USAID democracy and governance projects.

The required internship is a particular challenge and opportunity for MID students, and they seek out a rich array of international, national and local development opportunities. Dr. Picard’s engagement in consulting and humanitarian work benefits MID students directly: As a board member of the Ugandan NGO Bright Kids Uganda, he has supported GSPIA students in forming a nonprofit that raises funds for BKU, and coordinated internship positions for GSPIA students doing work as diverse as direct service provision to children, grant-writing, needs assessments and financial management for a micro-credit scheme. Nearly all GSPIA students who complete international internships receive travel funding from the Dean’s Professional Development Fund.

Diversity, Passion and Evidence 
It’s no surprise that faculty emphasize analytical skills and teaching students to anchor policy and opinion in the best available evidence. Dr. Seybolt’s classes meticulously analyze patterns of violence against civilians in many conflict situations. Dr. Gamper-Rabindran insists that students anchor their analysis and advocacy deeply in evidence. A growing number of MID students now take advanced statistics classes and courses that use advanced analytical methods with professors like Sera Linardi and Luke Condra.

But MID faculty emphasize two other themes that shape student experiences: the diversity of MID students, and the passion their instructors convey. A typical 2016 MID class of 20 included students from Argentina, Uganda, Sierra Leone, China, Vietnam and Pakistan, as well as the U. S., with challenging experiences working in Central America, West and Central Africa, and with refugee populations in Pittsburgh. That diversity means that students learn from each other every day, as Dr. Nelson’s story shows: “Many students arrive in Pittsburgh with interesting experience, and it shows up every semester in classes. One morning in class we had a discussion of ‘social mapping,’ a technique that asks residents to identify important groups and institutions in a village or neighborhood. A student in the front row was smiling as I outlined the method, and soon he spoke up to describe the process of making this kind of a map as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda. Two other students had similar experiences, and different perspectives on how the mapping process worked. We had a lively discussion, and this kind of interaction isn’t the exception, it is the rule in my ID classes.”

Dr. Themudo builds on this diversity by teaching with case studies. “We’ll look at cases from Asia one week, Africa the next week, then Latin America the following week, back to the United States for a week and then start again,” he said. “The classes tend to be diverse, with students from Africa, Asia and Latin America, so through dialogue students are exposed to different viewpoints. And that’s a very important lesson for people who have perhaps not encountered that before, including U.S. students with less overseas experience.”

Similarly, in Dr. Gamper-Rabindran’s Global Energy course, student teams working on issue- and country-focused reports benefited from the cross-disciplinary and multinational makeup of the class, which includes students from China, Japan, India, Thailand, Portugal and the U.S. That diversity allowed students to discuss energy and environmental policy issues in their home countries, and to address cross-border environmental or trade conflicts or international trade conflicts. 

MID professors stress the passion they bring to their classes. Dr. Alfredson’s Human Security and Human Rights courses draw from her experiences as a practitioner and scholar of human rights. “Approaching development from a human rights and social justice perspective is one ‘big picture’ approach, and for me also drives my passion and commitment,” she said. “Students need to find what drives them and develop the skills and flexibility to adapt to the demands of the field.”