New pathway to a master's degree is good news for global development professionals

Photo by: Juan Ramos

Global development job seekers are increasingly expected to have a master’s degree. Without one, they may find themselves quickly disqualified for the positions they seek. In a 2015 survey of global development professionals Devex conducted with the United States Agency for International Development and Population Services International for the Next Generation Development Professional, 79 percent of respondents believe professionals will need a graduate-level education to succeed in international development in 10 years.

While the proliferation of online certificates and training programs can provide accessible (and often free) learning resources, pursuing a master’s degree from an established institution is still not a viable option for many. Expensive tuition, lengthy programs, and inaccessible campuses — particularly for aid workers located in some of the more remote corners of the world — can make pursuing a master’s degree from a well-regarded institution a tall order.

Competitive admissions processes can bias professionals from the “global south,” who may not have Western-based education, test scores or work experience. Yet, it is precisely these local professionals employers seek — and often struggle to find — to lead their programs. In a recent Devex survey of recruiters, 81 percent predict that local candidates will be in even greater demand in five years.

However, several top institutions are now adopting a “micromaster’s” model, which can offer a new pathway for job seekers to obtain the qualification that could further their career and build capacity across the sector.

The concept of the micromaster’s was pioneered by Massachusetts Institute for Technology in 2015 with a program in supply chain management. While the institution does not offer degrees solely online, the micromaster’s is a credential by itself and a path to a master’s degree. Anyone can enroll in the program and either audit the classes for free or complete five individual courses and pass the exam for the micromaster’s credential. Those who gain the credential can then apply to MIT and spend one semester on campus to obtain the affiliated master's degree.

“This is what MIT has been calling inverted admissions because basically, you take the course first then you prove yourself in the exam — usually it’s the other way round,” said Maria Cruz Lopez, marketing and communications manager with MIT’s Office of Digital Learning. Lopez added that this has a lot to do with the focus on “democratizing access” to education.

Following the success of their pioneering program, MIT has now launched its second micromaster’s, titled “Data, Economics, and Development Policy.” The program is designed to equip learners with the skills and tools for data analysis and understanding the challenges of development. It also aims to reach a truly global audience through a personalized pricing model.

This approach to tuition fees means that the cost of each course depends on the student’s ability to pay. Students are encouraged to enroll and begin auditing classes while their financial documents are under review. They can then upgrade and pay between $100 and $1,000 for each course, including the proctored exam, based on their annual household income.

Anna Schrimpf, postdoctoral associate at J-PAL — which co-designed and runs the program with MIT’s Department of Economics — is leading the development and implementation of the second MicroMasters. The decision to introduce a personalized course pricing is tied to the program's mission to build capacity among development practitioners and help them “acquire the analytical skills to become competent producers and users of rigorous evidence.”

“We see an enormous demand for capacity building in this area, but limited training opportunities. In addition, many existing options — such as fully residential master’s programs — are quite simply out of reach for the vast majority of development practitioners across the world — in terms of the time commitment and relocation burden they often necessitate but also, of course, financially. Affordability was, therefore, a key concern in the design of our micromaster’s program,” Schrimpf added.

With enrollment still open, the program has experienced high levels of interest from India, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and China, in addition to the U.S, United Kingdom, France, and Canada. This mirrors the success of the pioneering MicroMasters, which did not involve a personalized pricing model but still attracted a diverse and global crowd.

“The learners that have currently joined our very first micromaster’s cohort were born in 181 different countries — and approximately 70 percent of our learners are from middle- or low-income countries. Our learners work for NGOs, government agencies, development banks, think tanks, multilateral organizations, and also the private sector. Others are pursuing the micromaster’s credential in parallel to other university training.”

Several other institutions have now adopted the micromaster’s model and also work with online learning platform edX to deliver programs for a range of degrees. Working with schools such as Columbia University and the Thunderbird School of Global Management, edX currently offers 17 online micromaster’s courses. Although they’re not all working with the personalized pricing model, they can provide an accelerated and more accessible path to a master’s degree.

The focus on increasing access to higher education will be welcome news for global development professionals who seek a master’s to further their career — or who simply want to update their skills and knowledge — but who already have full-time work commitments or other challenges in studying. The opportunity for professionals from this sector to be part of a learning community — whether online or on campus — can also allow for the sharing of knowledge and experiences, which can strengthen practices and projects in the world of global development.

Schrimpf noted that the “diversity in background and experiences that our learners bring to the table is a very exciting opportunity to create a dialogue and environment of mutual learning that extends beyond the confines of the program’s curriculum.”

For more coverage on professional development, visit the Skills for Tomorrow site here.

This article was last updated on 2 November 2018

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.