Getting the most from SAIS academics


I graduated a semester early from SAIS almost by accident. There’s no indication in the school’s policies & procedures to indicate that this is possible, and technically speaking, if I had followed all of my department’s regulations to the letter, it probably wouldn’t have been possible.  What I found during the course of my final semester, however, was many professors and administrators are willing to be flexible about requirements if one provides a good rationale for doing things differently.  If you have a clear vision of what you’d like to study, this can definitely help you get the most from your SAIS experience.

Here are some of the useful tricks I learned:

  • Early graduation is quite feasible!  It’s simply a matter of fitting 16 non-language courses into three semesters.  I did this by taking five courses each semester, and one course during the summer.  Six courses per term is the upper limit, so it would even be possible to pull this off whilst still spending the summer outside of DC.  (I did five academic courses and a language during my third semester, and whilst this was time-consuming, it’s no worse than taking four courses and working a 20-hour internship, as many SAIS students do.)  Savings: $18,000 worth of tuition.
  • You can get IDEV credit for courses that aren’t on the list of approved courses if you can show the departmental administrators that the course is relevant to development.  Especially useful if you’re in the badly understaffed politics & governance track.  I did this for both of my regional and one of the P&G requirements.
  • If you’re strongly interested in a topic that isn’t covered by existing courses, or would like to come away with something approaching an MA thesis, an independent study is a great idea.  The Red Book provides the relevant details.  It’s best to approach professors the semester before you’d like to do your study, as independent studies must be supervised by a faculty member, and SAIS’ small faculty can make it difficult to find a professor willing to take you on.  (That said, an adjunct can be your direct supervisor as long as a full-time faculty member has also signed on to supervise.)  I ended up working fairly autonomously under Stephen Smith, who’s an amazing resource for all things related to conflict in Africa.

I have mixed feelings on the utility of testing out of the poli sci and economics core courses.  I didn’t test out of them largely because I didn’t trust myself to read an entire trade/stats/monetary textbook before the exam, and I definitely learned the material in greater depth from taking the courses.  On the other hand, I found most of the econ pedagogy rather antiquated – a useful foundation if you plan to continue doing theoretical work in economics, but otherwise of limited practical application.   I enjoyed comparative national systems, but definitely wished I had tested out of theories of IR, which I found deadly dull.  (CNS is more obviously applicable to my primary interest, politics in Africa, whereas theories of IR is oriented towards classic interstate conflicts, which occur less often in Africa.)  So, in sum: testing out isn’t necessary for early graduation, but could be useful if you understand your academic preferences clearly going in and wish to substitute more interesting classes for something you know you won’t enjoy or need in your future career.