How important is a master's degree to your global dev career?

Photo by: MD Duran on Unsplash

At some point in their career, many global development professionals consider going back to school. Of the 120,000+ jobs published by Devex from January 2018 to July 2019, 30% required a master’s degree.

It’s no wonder that the sector’s young professionals feel under pressure to invest in further studies. A Devex survey, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and Population Services International, found that 79% of international development professionals believe a graduate-level education will be needed to succeed in the sector in the future.

Katherine Raphaelson, president at the Society for International Development in Washington, said there is a strong bias in international development for people with master’s degrees. Despite all the conversations around diversity and inclusion, this approach is making the sector exclusive, she said, adding that the high costs involved in studying limit the options for many people.

So is there a way around it?

“Not every job requires a master's and sometimes relevant experience is equally as much, if not more, important.”

— Sebastian Rottmair, head of change management, UNOPS

Donor-driven demand

The demand for master’s degrees is in part driven by some of the large donors, such as USAID, which require staff working on their projects to have these credentials, Raphaelson said.

She has seen many of her young staff and interns leave the workforce to go back to school, feeling that this was key to their career progression. And in the end, she came to agree with them.

“The position [they want] itself doesn’t necessarily require the skills and knowledge you get in the master’s degree, but you have to have a master’s” to even be considered, she said.

There are times when it makes sense for a role to require a higher level of education, Raphaelson acknowledged, but it shouldn’t be an across-the-board policy. It can be a real stumbling block for people looking to move up at companies that get funding from donors, where the requests for proposals require staff to have a master’s.

Chris Watson, business development manager at Premise Data, who decided against doing a master’s at a time when he saw many of his peers following that route, agreed that donor requirements mean organizations don’t want to risk including a staff member on their bid who doesn’t exceed all of the qualifications. “Credentialist” methods of screening candidates are making it tough for professionals who don’t have a master’s to get certain jobs, he said.

But Watson added that the pressure to go back to university can sometimes be self-imposed. He sees a lot of young professionals who have a bachelor’s degree and some development experience — such as with Peace Corps — but then struggle to land a job or end up in an associate-level project management role. When you feel stuck, a master’s can seem like the answer.

Experience can be enough for some UN agencies

Some employers are adapting their job requirements to make hiring more inclusive. For example, work experience can make up for an advanced degree for United Nations jobs in the professional or higher categories, and requirements vary by agency.

Sebastian Rottmair, head of change management at UNOPS, told Devex in an email that his agency does not have a fixed master’s requirement. It considers job requirements very carefully, he explained, and avoids unnecessary restrictions in an effort to attract a diverse group of applicants.

“I can't tell you what percentage of our colleagues have such a degree. I can tell you that the majority of jobs in UNOPS do not have a requirement for a master's degree,” Rottmair said.

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The agency follows a job grading system where minimum criteria for both education and relevant experience are important, he continued. There is, however, flexibility and willingness to allow candidates to demonstrate skills, expertise, and competence through applicable practical experience, as well as through formal education.

“Not every job requires a master's and sometimes relevant experience is equally as much, if not more, important than an advanced university degree,” Rottmair said.

Opportunities with new players

Despite not having a master’s, Watson worked on USAID-funded projects in the early days of his career. Now, the entire staffing structure has changed, making it tougher for professionals without a master’s to get included on bids with these traditional donors.

According to Watson, there are still opportunities in the sector for professionals who don’t have a master’s, including working with organizations where there’s funding from a mixture of donors. Within these organizations, there tend to be field positions for entry-level expatriates. These are billed across different contracts under a country office overhead structure, he explained, so those donor-driven requirements don’t apply. A lot of these organizations also have new business positions in the field that aren’t subject to donor requirements regarding education, he added.

Another option is to get involved on the product side. There is an increasing number of companies working to provide products for international development, particularly in the area of tech, said Watson — look at companies such as VIAMO, for example, which provides polling services focused on international development.

These product companies don’t bill labor hours to donors such as USAID or need to state upfront who will be managing projects, explained Watson.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    For four years, Emma Smith covered careers and recruitment, among other topics, for Devex. She now freelances for Devex and has a special interest in mental health, immigration, and sexual and reproductive health. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master’s in media and international conflict.