Public, please help me determine a gradual, economical policy for my life.
November 3, 2009 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Considering grad school for public policy, economics, international development. Help me sort out my life.

Note: my situation is pretty similar to this post. (I did a double take when I read it to make sure I hadn't posted this question already myself)

I just got back from teaching English for two years in the Peace Corps and suddenly everyone I know seems to be in grad school and loving it. I like learning and am pretty passionate about social science. I've been looking around at masters degrees in public policy and economics (possibly with an international slant, mostly because I'd be more qualified for it having done Peace Corps) and am considering masters programs in the following:

-Public Policy (or International PP) with econ focus
-Public Policy + Economics (dual degree)
-(plain old) Economics
-International Public Policy with econ focus
-International Studies with a development focus
-Public Administration + Economics (dual degree)
-(The other option is just to move back to DC and look for another nonprofit job.)

I don't have any formal background in economics (like the referenced post, I'm mostly a dilettante at this stage), so it's likely that I will be taking undergrad classes (econ and maybe stats) next spring in preparation for any of the programs. My BA was in German with a minor in Politics. Political orientation is leftward and making lots of money is not very important.

I have two major concerns. The first is that I want a solid grasp of both neoclassical economics and some of the major heterodox critiques. Ideally I would like a solid econ program that is grounded within a broader social science context. Public policy seems like it would be a good place for this, but I'm not really sure.

The second concern is that I don't really know what I want the degree for, career-wise. At this point I have no desire to continue on with a PhD and/or go into academia (I want to do some more things first...), and sitting in a think tank doesn't appeal to me very strongly either. Besides working for the gov'mint, what other kinds of jobs are there that this kind of degree would be conducive to getting? I'm concerned that my passion for a topic will not sustain a dull desk job.

Those of you that have done similar programs, where have you ended up and what are your jobs like? What kinds of programs seem like they would best fit what I'm looking for? Economists (and others), are you going to take me seriously if I don't have a specifically econ degree? Is more advanced economics helpful in the real world anyway?

Huge thanks in advance.
posted by ropeladder to Education (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First consider if this MA is going to make your life better - financially, etc. Also, aren't RPCVs eligible for MA tuition reimbursement? I'd do one of those in a heartbeat!

Take your econ classes NOW. SAIS and Fletcher require it. I did an online class at a local community college when I was preparing.
Have money but no time? I did my MA in London at SOAS and it was fun.
posted by k8t at 10:01 AM on November 3, 2009

Some very general thoughts (I don't have a PP degree, but it seems like half the people I work with do and the other half wish they did. I don't know international development stuff, sorry):

Public Policy will likely come with a few econ classes anyway. I'd do a degree in a place where you can add a few more econ classes, maybe with a focus on {environmental economics / international development economics / whatever}. I think most people leave PP and get jobs that, while "desk jobs," are more about politics and memos than endless Excel spreadsheets. Most graduate degree programs will provide lists of the types of things their graduates are doing. I'd do it in the city where you want to ultimately live, since the local alum network seems really helpful.
posted by salvia at 10:05 AM on November 3, 2009

I had a very hard time deciding between an M.A. in economics and an MPP, and I ended up going with the M.A. in economics, because I figured it was a more flexible degree in terms of future career options. Plus, I have a pretty quantitative background and after talking with a few MPPs from a program that has a reputation for being one of the most quantitative out there, I realized that an MPP would invariably mean sitting through a lot of classes on basic regression and statistical technique, which I already knew quite a bit about. It was also clear that while I would be taking econ classes in an MPP program, they would not be calculus based; I had done an econ class like that before in college and the experience was pretty frustrating (the best analogy I can think of is it was like trying to take an art class where you couldn't talk about colors).

I'm not sure I'm happy with my decision. I also was looking for a more policy-oriented economics degree and somewhat surprisingly to me (because this program was in DC) the my classes were not really policy focused, or even really social science based. It was basically a series of math classes, with very little big-picture stuff. When I took classes that were more policy-based, like public finance, they were focused on the math behind big theorems--however these results were usually based on a lot of very specific and unrealistic assumptions, which we never really grappled with in class (other than tossing off "well of course we must assume that utility functions are quasi-linear, which may not hold true in the real world, blah blah blah, but look at this ELEGANT result!"). Krugman's critique of how math has become the master rather than servant of economics rang very, very true.

I'm not sure how much of this is specific to the particular program I was in, versus masters programs in economics more generally. My sense is that my experience was not unique. At least in DC, I feel like the econ degree gives you a bit of an edge, because the perception is that someone with a background in economics could have done an MPP but not the reverse. (This is kinda a questionable assumption, but I think it exists.) However on balance I think I might have been a bit happier at the end of my program if I had looked for a program that was intentionally more social-science based, or maybe had a stronger focus on economic history (which is where you'll get more of a sense of critiques).

Feel free to memail me if you have questions.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:09 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

At least in DC, I feel like the econ degree gives you a bit of an edge, because the perception is that someone with a background in economics could have done an MPP but not the reverse.

I completely agree with this.
posted by jgirl at 1:10 PM on November 3, 2009

Might I suggest health policy?

I'm currently in an international public health program for an MPH. Included in most schools of public health are degrees in health management and policy, which you can generally apply either domestically/in developed countries or internationally/in developing countries. Usually, you can get either an MPH (the public health degree) or something like an MHSA (health systems administration). People who are going into policy often get the MPH, whereas business folk get the MHSA.

I mention this because health policy is definitely a field with employment prospects, and an area that a tremendous amount of good can be done around the world. Although I am not a policy person myself, I've been learning quite a bit about the need for systematic and policy-based solutions to a lot of the developing world's health issues. The MPH/MHSA can both be terminal degrees, so a PhD does not have to follow for you to be employable or get mileage out of your degree.

Generally, MPH programs have a stats class included in the overall program rubric, but taking one at a community college would still not be a bad idea if you have no background. No clue on the econ, but again: most schools have core classes that account for limited background on the part of some of the students. If you've never taken an econ class, community college can be a real godsend. For $60 a credit hour, you can figure out whether you even like the subject enough to study forever before you commit to the money and time sink that is graduate school.

Memail me if you have questions or want more specifics.
posted by palindromic at 1:11 PM on November 3, 2009

I wouldn't bother with a degree in International Development. Most job postings I see in that field ask for a Master's Degree, but not necessarily in ID.

What were you planning on doing when you got back before you found out everyone was in Grad School?

If you had no other plans, Grad School is a good option because you will feel "on-track" and proactive.

There is nothing worse than coming back from a long stint of overseas work to no plans.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 1:51 PM on November 3, 2009

As an RPCV I get discounts at some schools and there are a few that offer full scholarships. Also I have dual US/Canadian citizenship so I'm looking at some (very affordable) programs there.

Health policy does sound like a good field but for whatever reason, it (and medicine in general) has never appealed to me in the slightest.

Thanks for the advice and information, everyone. Please keep them coming.
posted by ropeladder at 5:25 PM on November 3, 2009

Since you can school in Canada, check out York's Environmental Studies Program - you can do an MES at the Faculty of Environmental Studies in almost anything you want.

You can also select specific courses or areas of concentration from other faculties - including the excellent Schulic Business School. Economics Dept there is very Marxist/old boy (or was 6 years ago...) but lots of opportunities in a small program with tons of individual student focus.

good luck!
posted by pick_the_flowers at 12:29 PM on November 4, 2009

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