The prevalence of unpaid internships as the gateway to development careers means that there is substantial inequality of access to this type of work. It’s not quite the case that only the 1% can afford to work in development, but in my experience, wealthy Ivy League graduates (myself included) are significantly overrepresented in development compared to the general population. This means that well-qualified people from both high and low income countries who are supporting families or paying off student loans are often excluded from development work. It’s deeply problematic to imply that only the rich should be able to care about poverty reduction. Increasing the number of (well) paid internships and entry-level positions would improve the situation, but as this seems unlikely to happen any time soon, I’ve laid out some thoughts on how to continue keep earning a salary while switching careers to development.
In writing this, I’m thinking here of people who are employed in their home countries in non-development fields. The primary advantage of pretty much any type of employment over an unpaid internship is that it offers a better chance to build transferable skills. An ideal situation would involve working in a field which has an analogue within development. Public health and education may come to mind first, but fields as diverse as consumer finance, counseling, software development, engineering and journalism all have substantial transferrable components. If you have time, consider doing a part-time, unpaid internship with a development organization in your area (discussed in my last post) as well.
After working for several years, and hopefully building up some savings or paying off a portion of your loans, the next step is generally to get an MA in a development-related field. This is the pivot point of the career transition. If you can clearly outline how your previous experience and skills are relevant to a development career, and make the case for how the MA will let you complete your career transition, you should be in a good position to be admitted to this type of program. Once you’re in the program, focus on taking courses in your chosen sector of development (in part because it’s a good way to meet other people in the field, including the professors); building up technical skills, like monitoring & evaluation design or statistical analysis; and networking within your sector. Most development MA programs are explicitly professional in nature, and will hold career fairs and other networking events with some frequency. If you’re not already on LinkedIn, sign up and look for alums from your program who are doing interesting work; they’ll likely be happy to do informational interviews or connect you with possible opportunities in their fields. Try to find a part-time internship with a development organization during the academic year, and a full-time internship during the summer. Your program may offer grants to cover travel and living expenses during unpaid internships.
For all the advantages of getting a development degree, however, doing an MA in the US shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, as the cost of doing so can be quite high. (Much of this section focuses on finances in the US because I’m most familiar with them; I’m not sure how this works in other countries.) The full cost of tuition plus living expenses for one year at a program like Johns Hopkins – SAIS is US$65,000. Many American MA programs do offer some fellowship aid, and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale offer full tuition payments and stipends to many students. Another option is to look at one-year MA programs in the UK, like the MSc Research for International Development at SOAS or the MA in International Development and Education at Sussex, which are significantly less expensive than the US degrees. Open University also has an online MSc in Development Practice which should be available to people who can’t travel to the US or UK.
You should also look into outside sources of funding for US degrees, such as the NSF Graduate Research Program and Foreign Language and Area Studies grants from the US government, or other grants listed in UCLA’s GRAPES database. I’ve also a list of fellowships for Anglophone and Francophone students who would like to study in the US or Europe, although they’re not all for development-related fields. If you still have outstanding loans from undergrad, you may be able to defer your payments while you’re in graduate school. If you’re supporting a family and you’re a US citizen, you may be eligible for TANF or other forms of government assistance while you’re in school.
Finally, keep in mind that having an MA in development and several years’ work experience will bring your salary prospects up – but not dramatically. For every World Bank consultant earning US$100,000 per year, there are many more middle managers at medium-sized NGOs earning US$40,000 in the US or even less abroad. (For comparison’s sake, an entry-level position in the US might be US$25,000 – US$30,000, and as little as US$15,000 in a low income country.) I think it’s appropriate that organizations concerned with poverty relief shouldn’t be paying extravagant salaries, but unless you reach upper management, it will likely still be challenging to balance development work with loan payments or a family’s financial needs.