Advice from alumni: Grad school is a time to learn what motivates you

Photo by: Saulo Mohana on Unsplash

After graduating with a bachelor’s in international politics and Latin American studies, Sanola A. Daley took a few years to figure out what her next career move would be. With Jamaican roots and a one-year stint teaching in Puerto Rico under her belt, Daley was committed to working on development issues in Latin America. She decided to pursue a master’s in international development at The George Washington University, which is part of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs. During this time, she pursued her personal interest in private sector development in Latin America and the Caribbean, and now works as an advisor on diversity, and inclusion with the Inter-American Development Bank.

Daley reflects on her postgrad experience and explains why it was a good investment for her. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What lead to your decision to pursue graduate studies?

I thought the best thing for me to do would be to go to grad school, and I reflected on a couple of options, mostly development because development kept coming back to me in different forms. I thought very briefly about anthropology because of the type of development that was interesting to me — which was looking at people and systems — but really also thinking about economic development, not in the traditional sense. That's why I wanted to go back to grad school and that was part of the decision-making process of going back to study development.

How did you go about picking the degree program that was right for you?

I knew that the best two locations physically for me would be to either go back to New York or to go to Washington, D.C., because the Organization of American States was close by, the World Bank was close by, and because the Inter-American Development Bank was close by. I looked at location and programs, and this program at GW was the one that I felt gave me the level of specificity but flexibility to do what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do economic international development, but I wasn't sure how I wanted to go about that. GW has an international development studies program. It’s flexible enough where you have a core program, and then you have some more formal concentration and what I'll call more informal.

In addition to the real core courses of international development studies, I concentrated on MBA, so I took a lot of MBA courses as complementary. There was one, for example, called managing in developing countries, which was for me a life-changing course because it was looking at businesses and helping businesses operate in developing country context. I felt that was the course I was looking for my entire undergrad experience. Inspired by that course I took international marketing, I took entrepreneurship, I took all these different courses, and I focused all my papers and my research on things like gender and private sector. I really loved that about the program because it gave you the flexibility to say “I find this unique and interesting and I want to do some more work on that.”

Do you feel that your postgraduate education helped you find a job in the sector?

Definitely. There are a couple things: I was really, really blessed to get an opportunity early in my grad school work to work at the OAS. My career counselor at GW put me in contact with a former student who was from the Caribbean, and that person introduced me to colleagues he had when he was at GW — and one of those persons worked at the OAS. And so when a job opportunity came up that I could apply for, she let me know and I was able to have the flexibility of a consultant. I had their understanding to go to class when I needed to and then to work. I was in the department of trade economic development and tourism, and they knew I was doing private sector as my focus, so they also really were helpful in helping me pick courses that made sense for my interest.

I also found out about our youth conference that [the Inter-American Development Bank, the INCAE Business School in Costa Rica, and the Copenhagen Consensus] had put together in Costa Rica. I got to go to this conference and our professors were very supportive. When a job opportunity opened up at the business school early the next year, they emailed me and asked if I wanted to apply. And once I graduated, I ended up in Costa Rica for four years because — based on my experience doing international development and the focus on private sector — they knew my interest in the region and they were able to see value in my work. You need to have that master's degree; in the IDB, for example, a lot of the opportunities have that minimum requirement.

“I really loved that about the program because it gave you the flexibility to say “I find this unique and interesting and I want to do some more work on that.”

—  Sanola A. Daley, master’s in international development from The George Washington University

How do you feel that degree program prepared you for your career in international development?

What I liked about the international development degree is that it gives you two things: it gives you the skillset to do the basic work of the research, the basic work of knowing what the problem areas are, the basic work of the project management, knowing what you should be looking for work, what the situation is, etc. It really does give you that strong base of skillsets. And this is where the flexibility comes in — you can then apply that to any area you're interested in with the same level of skillsets and the same level of rigor.

The other thing is basic knowledge of development issues. If you're into microfinance, for example, you'll learn a lot about what's working, what's not working — and so even when you're doing something years later on gender and microfinance, you already know where to look for information, you already know what the problems are, etc. You get the base of really good information that you can use as time goes by and deepen that into the area that you are interested in. And so, for example, when I was in Costa Rica I worked on tourism, microfinancing, and women’s leadership — and it was all using the same lines of skillsets from development, skillsets from research, and knowing the issues. That’s the great thing about an international development degree is that skillset, that research — you know who the real players are and who the emerging players are.

“Going back and doing the degree opened up a lot more doors, helped me financially to just move to another level in terms of earning potential, gave me a lot more flexibility to go create the career I wanted to create.”

—  Sanola A. Daley, master’s in international development from The George Washington University

While grad school can be a huge financial investment, did you feel having that qualification was of value when it came to applying for jobs and salary discussions?

Getting a grad school degree gave me a higher earning potential. I could ask for more money, I could negotiate my salary better, and that really, really helped on a financial perspective. Also I feel like the world opens up. Going back and doing the degree opened up a lot more doors, helped me financially to just move to another level in terms of earning potential, gave me a lot more flexibility to go create the career I wanted to create. It's the basic point of entry right now, that master's degree, but it paid off.

What advice do you have for someone about to start their grad school studies? How can they ensure they make the most of their experience?

Really get to know yourself and what you're interested in, and explore even if that means sometimes going out of your comfort zone and asking for informational interviews with people you don't know. And really getting to know companies, industries that you're interested in. Use it as a time to really get to know what motivates you, what gets you up in the morning. I think a lot of the difference for me was the networking, the informational interviews, the conferences. We also had a club for international development studies. I ended up being on the board, and so we ended up organizing events and getting ambassadors and different people to come and talk to us about whatever their passion was or what was going on in their country.

I would say also balance is really important, so making sure to leave some space for your health and emotional well-being and friends and family; that’s really, really important, especially for people who work and go to grad school. The balance part is really key. Grad school can be overwhelming, especially if it gets financially difficult. Just trust that you're doing the right thing and that you're investing in yourself, and see yourself through it.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree, and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), Duke Center for International Development (DCID) at Duke University, Duke Kunshan University, the Online Master of Public Health (MPH) at George Washington University, and the MPA/ID Program at Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.