Betty Tushabe had worked for several years in a senior policy advisory role for the Office of the President of the Republic of Rwanda before she decided to go back to school. Tushabe already held a dual master’s in law, but she wanted to know more about the design and implementation of policy in global development. In 2014, she started the two-year master’s in international development policy program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Since graduation, Tushabe has worked with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and now serves as a senior legal and regulatory advisor with the organization.
She talks to Devex about her postgrad experience and how it helped advance her global development career. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You had been working for several years in policy advisory. What made you decide to go back to school and invest in a postgraduate degree?
I had been working for about five years and I had done a lot of work in one particular field, which was law and policy advisory. That's something I learned on the job while I was at the president's office, where I joined the strategy and policy unit. Then I started getting curious and asking, how does policy interact with law? How do you make it work for development? I thought, are there people who teach this kind of stuff and mid-career people like me who have been doing some kind of work and want to know a little bit more, broaden their horizons or their understanding of different ideas or how they contribute to development?
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I started looking at policy itself. I had a legal background, I had the skills to be able to analyze any document, I could read it and write — but I didn't have policy writing expertise or skills, and that's something I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn how to interpret policies and know what you look out for. I had been doing it — I had a mentor at the president’s office — but I wanted now to just immerse myself in the whole situation.
How did you go about picking a school and a program?
I searched around the internet, then I came across the two-year program, the MIDP one. It was very fluid, unlike some other programs that have this focus on leadership or something specific. I had done five years [working], but I wanted to be able to take a break and then refocus and see where I wanted to see myself five years after this program. For me, that was the biggest motivator: after doing the program, was I going to be interested in continuing with law or policy? It was a gamble on my part, but I figured this program is very wide, it has every element, it teaches you almost everything.
You went back to school with some specific learning objectives. How did the course compare with your expectations?
The MIDP for me was what I needed at that point. I got an opportunity to study about science and technology and how it interacts with innovation and development. I got to study about social problems, social protection programs. I studied leadership, capacity building, and how it is supposed to be done for development. It was like going into a bookshop and getting all your favorite books in one place. So the two years was worth it, it was really worth it. I felt like there was something I was learning every day.
At the end of the program, I actually sat down and did an evaluation of myself and I said, “ok, now I know a little bit about almost everything.” I can work with financial inclusion, social protection programs; I can design social policies; I can look at international organizations and understand things; I can design a capacity-building project; I know about project management. I was a bit overwhelmed with what I knew in a way, because I was thinking, what am I going to do? How do I zero in on what I am going to do next? At the end of the day, it was a good process to sit down and evaluate.
It was also good to learn with people who have the experience of some of the subjects we were learning. It was a good exchange of ideas.— Betty Tushabe, master’s in international development policy program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University
How did the master’s help you get to where you are now?
I got the opportunity to be dynamic, flexible — and that’s how I ended up doing what I am doing currently. In November last year, I was approached by someone who works for UNIDO, and I was told they were designing a capacity-building project. I sat down and told myself, “you can do this. You did a whole semester of classes on capacity building.” I ended up using my capacity-building classes, the project management classes, and the leadership classes.
So I think that the MIDP program for me was worth the money that was spent by the World Bank in the scholarship that they paid for me. And it was the perfect break for me to take career path wise, because unless you are really focused on honing in on a particular skill, if you are looking to learn a little bit more about almost everything and if you are going to be a policymaker, then it makes a lot of sense to have a good idea about almost everything.
You mentioned you went to Duke on a scholarship. What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of finding funding to help them with their course fees?
Looking for funding is actually something that I would advise people to take their time about. You don't want to apply to a school and then have the pressure to look for funding. First identify, what are the available opportunities for funding in this particular area, and do they fund this particular school? I took advantage of all these different websites that provide scholarship help to people who are interested in getting funding to go back to school — and that's something I always tell people who ask me how do you get this scholarship. There is a website that I really like, which has actually proven to be one of the best; it's called the Opportunity Desk. That's one of the best recommendations — especially for people who are coming from Africa — but also it’s a global site and it has all kinds of listing for current scholarships, deadlines, fellowships, internships, and competitions around the world.
Having been in the world of work for some years, how did you find it to be a student once again?
To be honest, I think that was the hardest part. I had come from a job that was a 9-5 job, and it was a very challenging job, but I was used to very set hours. I managed to figure out the routine. But going back into academia, you have coursework, and three classes at the same time, and you have a presentation to make. It took me a while to adjust in the beginning months. The beauty about it is you are not alone; the beauty of the MIDP program is that most of the people there are also mid-career, so you are also not alone. You figure it out it together and you learn together.
I think going back to school should not be something you just wake up and do. You think about it and say, five years from now, this is what I want to be able to do with this.— Betty Tushabe, master’s in international development policy program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University
It was also a lot about watching my fellow classmates — people with five or 10 years experience, then going back to school — there was a lot to learn there. That's what I liked about the MIDP program, I wasn't being left behind. I was learning at the same pace with everyone else. It made me feel like I could reach out to someone and they would be able to help. Also the professors themselves, I think because they have the understanding and they are mentally prepared to deal with people who have come from working experience back to academia and dealing with that mindshift. I like the fact that they were very patient with us and understanding that it takes a while to adjust.
What was the learning experience like for you?
Different courses had different approaches — some had a heavier coursework load, some had more presentations, some more lectures and seminars. It all depended on the course and the professors and how they designed it. But most of our classes, it was more discussions actually, and I think that's what made everything more exciting. You are studying with people who have vast amounts of experience in some of these subjects. Some people have all this experience of a particular topic. People who come from, let's say, the Ministry of Finance and have been making budgets for five years — if you have a problem, these are the people you can reach out to.
It was also good to learn with people who have the experience of some of the subjects we were learning. It was a good exchange of ideas. We come from different country experiences, contexts, and that's another thing about the MIDP: it's very culturally diverse. So it also opens you up to a bigger network, an alumni network — that's another thing that I liked about the program.
Do you feel that your postgrad experience created more job opportunities for you?
Yes, I think it opened up a little bit more opportunities. It made me more dynamic and flexible. Now when I look at a job posting on the Devex website, let's say, I have the option of applying for a job as a social policy analyst, I can apply as a financial inclusion person, as an industrial policy expert. I have more options in terms of opportunities now than when I had just one training, which was basically in law and where the only jobs I could have applied for at the time was a commercial lawyer or legal compliance officer. Now I can do almost any aspect of international development. So I think doing this two-year course was really worth it.
Any final advice for working professionals contemplating going back to school and pursuing a postgraduate degree?
You have to be sure that you are going back to school for the right reasons — that you are not just taking a break to be running away from a job. You have to be committed and knowing that, even if it is for a break, it has to be a break that you use effectively. Anyone who is thinking about going back to school now, the first question that they should ask themselves is, why am I going back to school and why now? What do I want to gain out of this and where do I see myself in the next two, three, four years after this course?
I think going back to school should not be something you just wake up and do. You think about it and say, five years from now, this is what I want to be able to do with this.
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.