Why on-the-job experience can be as valuable as a postgrad degree

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Most global development job requirements include a postgraduate degree in addition to two or three years of work experience. As a result, it can be difficult for professionals to break into the sector without an advanced degree, particularly when these requirements have been set by donors.

While it can be tough, candidates without postgraduate studies can still break into the sector — by focusing on building strong networks and marketing themselves, leveraging transferable skills and knowledge, and applying to hard-to-fill posts to gain hands-on experience.

Devex hears from two global development professionals who chose not to pursue a postgraduate degree and instead focus on gaining experience on the job. They share insights on the value of work experience, including the skills that can’t be taught, and why not having a postgraduate degree shouldn’t stop individuals transitioning or advancing in their global development career.

“I found that everything I needed to learn to keep doing what I’m doing, I was able to either learn on the job or teach myself.”

— Chris Watson, business development manager, Premise Data

Going back to school isn’t the only path to career success

For Katherine Raphaelson, president at the Society for International Development in Washington, D.C., there is huge value in the tangible and practical skills that come from work experience. Taking time off to go back to school can mean missing out on these.

Early in her own career, Raphaelson considered getting an MBA, which would have involved studying full time for two years. In the end, she felt she could gain more from continuing in her role with a small organization where she was “doing a bit of everything.” She remains a firm believer in learning by doing, and this has helped her progress into leadership roles.

“If you consider that most advanced degrees take about two years, if you spend two years just in a job, you learn it, and that’s what I did,” Raphaelson said.

Chris Watson, business development manager at Premise Data, also opted not to study for a master’s, despite feeling some pressure to do so. He doesn’t feel this decision has ever held him back in terms of carrying out his work or being promoted.

“I found that everything I needed to learn to keep doing what I’m doing, I was able to either learn on the job or teach myself,” he said.

While Watson started out in an entry-level administrative position, once he had gained field experience in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province — a region many others chose not to work in at that time — he found he had a lot of career options.

“Suddenly I had field experience, and if you want to substitute something like education, then field experience will usually get you there,” he said.

Learn by doing

There are cases where the level of in-depth knowledge gained from a postgraduate degree can help professionals in their work, Raphaelson explained. She has witnessed firsthand how studying for an MBA has helped one colleague working in finance bring more to that role.

Yet other skills are best learned on the job. 

Some of the most important skills Raphaelson developed was navigating relationships — managing up, managing down, and working as a team. In grad school, there is some focus on building relationships and negotiating but, from her own experience, professionals who have only an academic background really need to learn these skills on the job, she explained.

The ability to understand cultural differences and the obstacles that can arise is another critical skill for working in global development and this is not something that can be learned from textbooks and lectures, Raphaelson said. 

“You have to be in it and understand it by doing,” she stressed.

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Watson had some background in statistics but it was through working that he developed skills in data analytics as well as tech literacy. In the next 10 years, he believes that the everyday development worker will have to use dashboards of real-time data to drive decision-making but feels this isn’t something many people in development are doing so far. It isn’t necessarily something you need to go back to school to study, and there is no way he could have learned these skills without “just doing it,” he said.

He also said there is a huge demand for people with knowledge of design thinking, but currently, this isn’t something well-taught, and can be learned on the job. In some knowledge-based roles, there is a lot of design needed: to help better understand the problems, the constraints, and how to best help your client, he explained. Increasingly, donors are hiring consultants to bring a stronger design focus to their projects and approaches, such as human-centered design, he continued.

Build sector-specific knowledge on the job

Prior to joining Premise, Watson’s work focused on conflict and humanitarian systems and he knew little about global health. He learned a huge amount just by reading relevant books, and this helped him immensely, he said. “I didn’t go back to school for any of it and I am not out of place in a room with epidemiologists or HIV experts at all,” he said. Sometimes, the desire to learn is more important than anything else, he added.

While reading is a huge part of learning for Watson, for some more technical skills, such as data science or coding, he suggested boot camps and programs to help individuals go beyond basic levels of understanding.

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Upon transitioning into global development, Raphaelson also had to get up to speed with the sector. While she had many years of experience in running organizations and had been working on an international project for over a decade, she lacked knowledge specific to global development.

Building on what she did know, she spent time talking to people in the sector, attending meetings, and reading sector-specific newsletters. In doing so, Raphaelson said she was able to pick up a lot of what she did not know.

At the right organization, not having an advanced degree shouldn't be a barrier to career advancement either, according to Raphaelson. If an individual shows they are capable of learning and picking up new skills, then they should be rewarded with more responsibility based on that, she explained.

Learn from other professionals

There are vast educational opportunities in global development hubs, such as Washington, D.C., where there are daily events and these are usually free, Raphaelson pointed out.

You can meet people working in the sector and learn from them about the challenges, how they’ve overcome them, the lessons they’ve learned, and the trends and innovations impacting the sector, she explained. People are also very willing to be mentors and share advice, she added.

If you can’t attend these events in person, they are often live-streamed. Raphaelson recommended that those living in development hubs to participate in this way.

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

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.