Advice from alumni: It's not what you learn, but how you learn

Photo by: Faustin Tuyambaze on Unsplash

For Jinu Koola, who now serves as the U.S. Treasury financial attaché to India, graduate school was a time to reorient her career and figure out her place in the development sector. Born in India, but raised in the United States, development issues had always been at the back of her mind — but she didn’t imagine this could be a career for her. Upon graduation from her bachelor’s degree program, Koola worked as an economic researcher with the World Bank before spending some time in sub-Saharan Africa working with Innovations for Poverty Action on projects on secondary school attendance, HIV/AIDS, and fresh water access.

While she had thought she might one day pursue a Ph.D., this experience convinced Koola that academia was not for her. She preferred the on-the-ground work and everyday challenges of implementing development projects. A master’s in public administration in international development at Harvard Kennedy School allowed Koola to explore her interest and advance her career in the sector.

Koola shared with Devex how graduate school was a time for her to figure out exactly what kind of development work she wanted to do — while also not sticking to any rigid career plan.

Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What led to your decision to pursue a master’s degree?

I always knew I was going to go to graduate school; that wasn't the question. It was really what kind of graduate school I would do. When I decided against the Ph.D., I really had my heart set on the master’s in public administration in international development program at Harvard Kennedy School. It's a program that I had known about as a college student, and I had spoken to some students while I was there, and it spoke to me as a program that had a rigorous foundation in economics but still had this development practical lens to it. When I applied for the MPA/ID and when I got into the program, the decision was made for me. I was lucky enough to get in and I said, you know, this is definitely what I'm going to do.

Going into the master’s, what were you career objectives?

I think I had a sense of what I didn't want to do. The World Bank, for me after college, was kind of the place to do development, but I realized that it wasn't going to be the place for me after graduate school. I wanted a slightly different experience. I knew I didn't want to do pure research either in an academic setting or in an organization that focuses on research. What I did want to do was affect policy. But that felt very nebulous and I couldn't quite understand yet what that meant to work on a policy issue.

It's not so much what we learn but it's how we learned in the program. It was about how to think about and how to ask the right questions, how to remain sort of inquisitive and curious and open to new ideas, and how to be adaptable.

— Jinu Koola, master’s in public administration in international development at Harvard Kennedy School

To be perfectly honest, if you would ask me when I was joining my master’s whether I would end up working for the U.S. government or the U.S. Treasury, I wouldn't have ever predicted that. I wouldn't have predicted any of the things that I've done. It was a little bit of a surprise that it came about. I got lucky with the circumstances and positively surprised — because I think if I had a five-year plan coming out of my master’s, I would be doing something completely different than what I'm doing right now. I couldn't have imagined what I'm doing right now. It really took the master’s for me to kind of reorient how I would think about my career next steps.

How did the master’s help prepare you for a career in global development and the job you are doing now?

I went into the MPA/ID convinced that it was the only master’s for me, that it was the only master’s that would be able to provide me the kind of education and training I needed to do international development. And in that, I think I'm actually wrong. It wasn't the training in the sense of the economics courses, the development courses, the policy courses, the econometrics courses, or the statistics courses. It really wasn't what I learned during the MPA/ID that has set me up for what I'm doing now. It's not so much what we learn but it's how we learned in the program. It was about how to think about and how to ask the right questions, how to remain sort of inquisitive and curious and open to new ideas, and how to be adaptable.

I'm very grateful for my time at the MPA/ID for many reasons, but I think you can get that in most graduate programs. It is a way of thinking about both the world and the questions that you're interested in and how to really pursue them. Five years ago, I wouldn't have felt prepared to be in the job I'm about to do now. I feel prepared to do it now because the master’s enabled me to figure out how to do it.

Upon graduation, did you recognize the value of your master’s when it came to job opportunities and salary negotiations?

“When you're in school do something hard because you're not going to do that hard thing on your own.

— Jinu Koola, master’s in public administration in international development at Harvard Kennedy School

In terms of remuneration, in terms of opportunity, I think in the end the MPA/ID Program has a very strong reputation and that helped me think about both people to speak to when I was first exploring options, as well as places to look into. Again the U.S. Treasury was totally off my radar until I had started thinking about this; that was a bit of a surprise to myself. I remember doing a pretty extensive search thinking about what I wanted to do after the Kennedy School and landed on U.S. government and U.S. Treasury fairly quickly in that process. And then I sort of honed in on what I wanted to do there.

What would you tell prospective students considering a master’s? How can they ensure they are making the most out of their postgrad experience?

The best advice I would give is some of the best advice I received, both as a college student and when starting my own career. The first piece of advice was when you're in school do something hard because you're not going to do that hard thing on your own. A college professor of mine was saying to do a course that you wouldn't normally have affinity with because you're not going to do that on your own online; you're not going to sit down and do those kinds of problems. So use graduate school to do the hardest thing that we wouldn't otherwise do.

I think the people who got the most out of my program, out of the MPA/ID Program, are those who had been the longest out of school before we entered graduate school.

— Jinu Koola, master’s in public administration in international development at Harvard Kennedy School

The second piece of advice I got is around not planning too much, because I think part of what we're told is always to have a five-year outlook on what we want to do. Someone said to me if you know what you're going to do five years from now, that's not nearly as exciting as not being able to imagine what you're going to do in five years, and you need to kind of waddle through the next few years to see what this opportunity might be. I love that advice because it's absolutely true. I couldn't have seen this five years ago and if I had planned it too rigidly, I wouldn't have ended up here. And I think that would have been a mistake in some way.

And finally, I think the people who got the most out of my program, out of the MIPD program, are those who had been the longest out of school before we entered graduate school. I spent three years out, but I think the average was probably a little bit longer, maybe four or five. I think anyone who spent a few years actually working and trying to understand what they wanted to do, how they want to do it, and then comes back to graduate school to really train themselves to do that thing and meet people who have done similar things and dissimilar things — I think they got much more out of the experience than those of us, including myself, who only had two or three or less years of work experience. I think with fewer years of work experience you enter graduate school as a student rather than as a professional.

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.

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About the author

  • Emma smith

    Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a reporting and communications associate at Devex, based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to our global development community. Emma has a background in journalism and, in addition to writing for news publications, has worked with organizations focusing on child rights and women’s rights in sustainable development.