Sarah Schwepcke, country manager for Tunisia with the German development agency GIZ, knew that a master’s degree was key to landing her dream job working in global development. Not long after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, she returned to school to pursue a master’s in international affairs and governance at the University of St. Gallen, a member of the Association of Professional School of International Affairs. Schwepcke has worked for the German organization since 2012. In her current role she supports the country director in managing the portfolio for Tunisia and coordinates with the different ministries who support their projects.
Schwepcke tells us how her postgraduate studies in international affairs and business helped build the theoretical knowledge and practical skills she uses on the job every day. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Pretty soon after undergrad, you went back to school to study a postgraduate degree. How did that decision come about?
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The decision was pretty much made when I finished my undergrad already, for several reasons. One is of course, in the German context, you basically have to have a graduate degree. It's pretty much a requirement, I would say. Also from my side, I felt like I needed to. I wanted to know more; I wanted to connect more dots. I did an undergrad in business administration — which is a very practical hands-on degree — but before I started that, I already had kind of a vision and a wish to work in development, and it became a lot stronger throughout.
So, after I had finished that degree, I did a small internship for a couple of months with Google Switzerland. But then I said I really do want to do this and I need to get a graduate degree to have a chance to enter in this really competitive field. I applied and I went back to school; I did a double degree. For me that was a really cool opportunity to do a master’s in international affairs, but at the same time to do a master’s in international management and to keep the business roots so to speak — to get this whole international affairs theoretical add on, not only theoretical, also very practical, I have to say. And for me it was a perfect combination. It was a lot of work, but I would recommend it to people who want to go in a similar direction.
How did this postgraduate study experience compare to your previous university experience?
One important factor was the switch of discipline when it came to the master’s in international affairs, and that also meant that it was a very different mix of people in the class. There were a lot of graduates from political studies or regional studies or economics, and very few business grads like myself. It was a really astonishing experience to work on the same tasks and see how everybody thinks very differently. It's an interdisciplinary degree — the master's in international affairs — and they do always tell you this, but I felt it very much even among the students that were there. You complement each other's experiences and knowledge, and the way you work and analyze things is very different.
We even had courses where we were also digging into this from the side of the professor. So we had, for instance, one course which was taught by a law professor, a public administration professor, and a politics professor, and they would look at the same topic. In this case it was European legislation or the system of the EU, from their different disciplines. You could really clearly see how these views are different from each other, and then we have the task as students to kind of knock them together and find this balanced outcome between the different disciplines and something that I really see happening in my work. I felt that was very practical in retrospect and back then I really enjoyed that too.
“You have to kind of meet the people where they stand and everybody comes from a different standpoint. So I really find that I appreciate the skills I learned there.”— Sarah Schwepcke, master’s in international affairs and governance at the University of St. Gallen
On the other hand, I think also St. Gellan is really a school which focuses on research. I thought it was a tiny bit more theoretical than the bachelor’s I did. I don't know how it is for other programs, but for me the master’s was less just practical, hands on and more really thinking about the theories behind everything and bringing these things together — and I think that's a really solid basis. You had to think more and learn less by heart. I did enjoy that a lot and in terms of coursework. I think also the student-teacher ratio was a lot lower, so there was a lot more discussions, and that was really great.
How did the master’s prepare you for working in development? In your current role, what benefits or lessons do you still carry with you from that program?
We were looking at certain topics from a very kind of one discipline focus, like looking and analyzing it in a legal way, analyzing it in a political way, and analyzing it in a public institution way, and then pulling this together. And this is something, for instance, that I think I do a lot of now to plan the portfolio that I am managing with different actors — be that in Germany now with the German government or be that in Tunisia as I work with the Tunisian government and with the different ministries there. You have to kind of meet the people where they stand and everybody comes from a different standpoint. So I really find that I appreciate the skills I learned there. To be able to meet people where they are from, what is their disciplinary background, what is their view on things, and then to find a common ground and negotiate — I think has been extremely helpful.
And also dissecting some really complex topics. We had another class which was really just on this — getting a difficult, complex problem and then trying to dissect it into small pieces is something that we do every day, that was really helpful. In terms of the larger kind of theoretical background, I think it's interesting and it's still the basis which organizations are built on, which we work in today. So it's important to know this and think and to understand where everything is coming from if you work with public sector.
“This is something I would recommend to anybody: check what’s going on right now, what are the hot topics — be that migration or renewable energy or now the Syria crisis. If you work on really current, actual topics, I think there will be demand in the labor market in our field.”— Sarah Schwepcke, master’s in international affairs and governance at the University of St. Gallen
Did you feel that the master’s opened up job opportunities in the sector?
I think it's hard to enter the development field and it's really competitive. There's a lot of positions on a high level, but nobody wants to take care of the newbies, so to speak. There are all of these junior programs and young professional programs, which are really highly competitive; it’s not so easy to get in. I did manage, and I think for me, I was lucky enough that my master thesis was on youth unemployment in Egypt and this was right after the revolution. So it was at the exact time when a lot of attention was on this part of the world. I could offer my knowledge and skills, and this is how I managed to get in.
This is something I would recommend to anybody: check what’s going on right now, what are the hot topics — be that migration or renewable energy or now the Syria crisis. If you work on really current, actual topics, I think there will be demand in the labor market in our field. I think especially if you study international affairs or something around policy, it seems so generalist, and this is something that some people criticize about these programs. But it offers so much opportunity to also specialize on a specific topic. You just have to go and do that — maybe by yourself — and I'm sure, at least in St. Gallen, I got the support to do that and that helped immensely to get in.
And in terms of the connections you can make still, it's very useful. I still sometimes benefit from the alumni networks; that’s where I find inspiration or people that might help us or help to advance the projects that we work in — so I do try to make use of that. And I also think that within our organization, we were a few people from the University of St. Gallen. So we connect and we help each other out — so that networking aspect, it's important. Otherwise, as I said, the master’s is for us a basic requirement in GIZ, in this organization specifically, to get to a higher position.
What advice would you have for a prospective student considering a master’s? How can they make the most of their postgrad experience to help them land their dream job in the future?
I would kind of boil it down to finding a topic, a specialization, be that regional or be that a specific topic that is very relevant at the moment. Read into specific problems or any specific topics that are current. One more thing: a business major is maybe not the straightforward choice to go into development, but I find that I can use these roots really a lot when it comes to project management and the work we do. So even though people didn't study development economics all throughout their careers, it doesn't mean that they cannot work and cannot contribute to the development sector.
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.