Advice from alumni: Take the time to figure out what fits your interests

Photo by: Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Kristina Granger always knew she wanted to work in development. Her dad spent his career working with United States Agency for International Development and she wanted to follow in his footsteps. After graduating with a bachelor's in political science and women’s studies, Granger spent some time working, including a stint at Devex, and figuring out exactly how she wanted to contribute to global development. She noticed she had developed a strong interest in child and maternal health issues so, while still working part time, she decided to pursue a master’s in public health at George Washington University.

Granger is now the social and behavior change communication manager with the Manoff Group, working on the USAID-funded SPRING project, which seeks to strengthen nutrition for mothers and children.

Granger told Devex about how her postgrad experience allowed her to gain hands-on experience and build expertise in the issues she was most passionate about, which helped her land this dream role. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to the decision to go back to school and pursue an MPH?

After my undergrad I started at Devex. I did a couple of small things here and there, but I knew I wanted to work in international development and that was kind of all I knew. At first I didn't really want to go back to school; I was kind of burnt out on school. But working in this industry, I realized that to get anywhere, you really do have to have a master’s degree. Essentially I decided that I wanted to get my master’s to check off that box and to be able to get somewhere in my career. But then it was just a matter of what do I really want to study?

I knew that it wasn't really the best idea to be a generalist — that I should kind of hone in on something. And so upon some self-reflection, I realized I was very interested in maternal and child well-being overseas. I realized that the health aspect was really drawing me in, so that's what I decided to ultimately go back to school for.

Was it helpful for you to have taken that break before going back to school?

I think one thing that surprised me actually was I felt like an older person in my program, having waited some time between undergrad and graduate studies. I felt like there was a lot of people at the time — and I think it was indicative of the job market — coming out of undergrad. It was kind of during the recession, so kids weren't getting jobs and so they just decided to go back to school and get more education. There was a lot of people that were younger and coming straight from undergrad; and to each his own, but I think — and mentioned whenever I talked to people for informational interviews — it's helpful at least for me to have that gap where I really got work experience and could better hone in on where I wanted to focus my career. I think I took school more seriously. I got more out of that and I think just for me I needed that direction. I didn't want to just go to school to go to school; I wanted to go to really focus my career.

How did you find the postgrad experience as someone who was balancing your studies with work?

The one thing I would say that was a detriment to working while going to school was that there was a lot of extra curricular opportunities that GW offered and I did not take part in because I was working, so I didn't have time. There were clubs, then there were practicum opportunities that were for longer and people could go away and they can apply for fellowships. I wasn't really able to take advantage of any of those things. However, I did end up actually taking what I call kind of a sabbatical from Devex — about four to five weeks, I think. I went and traveled to Guatemala and I did my practicum there. That practical aspect that GW required — I think some other schools don't require that — is really helpful. Whether the school helps you with your practicum or whether you find it on your own, I just think it's helpful because it's really putting your learning into practice, and then it automatically sets you up with some experience under your belt when you go into that job search. And also a lot of people end up working for the organization that they did their practicum for. One big bonus of the program is that practicum opportunity.

Did you feel that the master’s helped open doors to job opportunities in the sector?

Definitely, for sure. No question about it. The jobs that I wanted and that I was looking for and applied for, I wouldn't have even made it past the first round without having a master's — just because in order to be in almost any position, except a very entry level one, you have to have a master’s.

For professionals thinking about investing in a master’s, what advice would you have for them?

The first thing to consider I would say is the program — make sure that their program has different tracks and that there's at least one that you're interested in. Or sometimes it's useful to look at the faculty and see if they have published research or are involved in research activities that you're interested in — because that will be a huge kind of gateway to experience on the job later on down the line. Also I would suggest that people really think critically about their life, ability to go to classes, their schedule, location. It's really easy to be aspirational when you're applying to schools and think, “I would love to move.” But if it’s not really within your means to do so, without taking on a ton of student loans, that may not be the best idea. And there are perfectly great schools that are accessible to you without having to necessarily uproot your whole life. Just think critically about yourself and do some self-reflection — and basically don't just sacrifice things because of a big name school, but make sure that it really fits for your life.

Reflecting on your postgrad experience and career journey since, what advice would you have for students to ensure they make the most out of their graduate studies experience?

Take advantage of all of the extracurriculars and also definitely the networking opportunity — that's really important. It really is who you know in this industry and maintaining those networks and connections because you never know; it’s a very small world. So definitely don't burn bridges and make sure that you're using those network connections as much as you can. Don't feel embarrassed by it because we all do 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.