Opinion: 7 steps to innovation — making your graduate program work for you

Attendees of the 2014 Annual Gramlich Showcase of Student Work, which features exceptional student work on a broad range of local, national and international policy challenges. Photo by: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan / CC BY-ND

Innovation is everywhere, but how does it “get inside” us? I come from a family of doctors, computer scientists, chemists and bankers. Innovation and entrepreneurship have always sounded interesting, but not something for me.

My journey towards becoming an innovator began when I attended a seminar called “Social Innovation 101” at Duke University. After much reading, a little writing, many late night conversations and one application, I was competing at the regional finals for a million dollar Hult Prize. Though we did not win, I learned much and developed an incredible network: people and ideas worth much more than a million dollars.

Along the way, I also began to see the application of innovation to public policy and development. To make real change in the world — to make a difference that lasts — always takes new ideas. Sometimes these new ideas are technical or research breakthroughs, such as simplifying HIV prevention in infants or using behavioral economics in policymaking. Other times, innovation means combining old ideas in a new way, such as integrating community involvement with a business incubator to stimulate the local economy in rural North Carolina.

Whether you are looking to select a graduate program that builds your skills in innovation and entrepreneurship — or if you are currently a grad student trying to get the most from your program — these seven steps will help you make innovation work for you.

1. Flexibility.

For a career in public policy and international development, you will need a strong foundation in economics, statistics and policy analysis. Many programs have these courses, but the best programs also provide the flexibility to design your own curriculum based on your interests.

For me, I was able to mix core courses with courses in entrepreneurship, communications technology, social innovation, behavioral economics and others at Duke. Remember that seminar on “Social Innovation 101”? That class was taught by a professor from the business school.

If the school you are applying to or currently attending does not offer the courses you need, try looking for them at other departments, schools or universities. Though rivals on the basketball court, Duke often collaborates academically with the University of North Carolina or North Carolina State University.

2. Integrating best practices from the field.

While learning theory is important, its application is even more critical. Choose a school where the professors are or have been the leading practitioners in their fields. Whether your interests are efficient service delivery, public finance, project management, governance, poverty alleviation or innovation, look for faculty with practical experience that is relevant to your interests.

3. Diversity of experience.

Julius Caesar once said, “Experience is the teacher of all things.” I selected a program where I knew the students would come with vast experience and knowledge in their respective fields. Many of the fellows in my cohort were midcareer government officials and other professionals who had led significant projects. Look for a program that has students with diverse experience and that allows you to work in teams. Such joint team projects provide a hands-on learning environment for a global workforce.

4. An environment that promotes innovative thinking.

Look for opportunities in your graduate school to practice problem-solving approaches. Engage with various institutes, research teams, and student clubs to pursue their interests and to get help with yours as well.

During my summer internship in London, for example, I got hands-on experience working in the area of social finance. Later, I received guidance and support to start a nonprofit venture.

5. Interdisciplinary learning.

Taking classes or working on projects with other schools and programs such as business, law, environment, global health, engineering and sociology facilitates a multidisciplinary approach to policymaking. Collaboration among people with widely varying perspectives and areas of expertise usually delivers the most effective and sustainable solutions.

6. Research and resources.

In today’s age, academic resources are not limited to the books and journals at the library. Take advantage of the numerous optional training modules on subjects such as data visualization or quantitative analysis that will equip you with skills you need to be an effective policymaker.

7. A sense of community.

Last, but not least, find the one thing that unites your school. For me, it was Blue Devil basketball. Besides being fun, the people you meet and interact with — even in an unrelated area such as sports — will become your largest network once you are in the field. This shared bond among alumni gives you something to lean on as you work to solve local and global issues.

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, Duke Center for International Development, American University Kogod School of Business, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and the MPA/ID Program at the 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.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Preeti Prabhu

    Preeti Prabhu is an alumna of the Master of International Development Policy Program. Prior to attending Duke, Preeti worked for eight years in international organizations including the United Way, the British Council and the Government of Canada. While at Duke, she started her own social enterprise with fellow Duke students and is working to get it off the ground. She is currently working for a non-profit based in Durham, N.C.

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