Summer Reflections 2010 – Post #2

John Hughes just graduated from SIPA and during his second year of study worked in our office.  He is spending the next two months in the office to assist with projects and help fill in for a staff member on maternity leave.  John is set up for a job in Washington, D.C. and will be moving there in August.  I asked him to reflect a bit on his experience as a SIPA student and contribute to the blog over the summer.  This is his second entry.

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I often speak to incoming students here at the Admissions Office who tell me that they “were admitted into the EPD concentration” or “accepted into IFEP” etc.  Though it is good that these students know what they wish to concentrate in at SIPA, I thought I should write a blog post about what to consider when you are actually selecting courses.

First, if you came to SIPA for a specific concentration, by all means take all the courses that interest you in that concentration.  However, it is not necessary to limit yourself to only courses within your chosen concentration, and you can always switch your concentration if you decide there is a different one that better fits your interests (that said, you should have a good idea of the path you want to pursue before you come, and your admissions essays should reflect this).  One of the great advantages of SIPA over many of our rival schools is the breadth of courses available to students, both within SIPA and at the other graduate schools at Columbia.

Every semester there are scores of courses offered at SIPA, plus many more open to SIPA students at all the other graduate schools.  You will receive a list of what these courses are (including those at other schools) before registration, and I would recommend looking through this list thoroughly before choosing your courses.  Many incoming students have the misperception that they must do as many courses within their chosen concentration as possible in order to set themselves up best after graduation, though this is not necessarily the case.  The reality is that your concentration does not show up on your transcript, and potential employers will never ask you what your concentration was.  Thus, whether you take 6 ISP classes or 8 ISP classes you will still have an MIA or MPA degree at the end of two years, the same degree as your friend who did 6 IFEP classes.

I do not wish to imply that you should just take whatever and not worry about it.  It is definitely to your advantage to have a focused course of study, especially since you can list your courses taken on your resume and can use that list as talking points during interviews.  Nevertheless, it does mean that you should not be afraid to search outside of your concentration for classes that might make sense for you.  For example, taking a course in corporate finance or operations management can be very helpful for a number of careers, even though the former is only required for the IFEP and Energy concentrations and the latter is only required for the Management specialization.  Or, a course on the geopolitics of oil and gas can be helpful for a security concentrator who wishes to get a broader perspective on the issues that affect decision-making at the international level, even though it is an energy course.

These are just a few examples.  The overall takeaway is that your academic time at SIPA is what you make of it.  There are countless combinations of courses you could take, and it is up to you to decide how to best combine everything.  There are, of course, many people here at the school to provide guidance, so don’t worry if you don’t know exactly which classes to take right away.  There is also the add/drop period each semester where students are free to attend any class they wish for a week or two before deciding whether or not to remain in the class.  Many students take advantage of this by going to many classes at the beginning of the semester and deciding then which ones are the best fit.

Regardless of what you decide to do, do not feel that you need to pigeon-hole yourself into one track.  There is nothing wrong with taking all your courses in one area if that’s what you decide to do, but if you decide to branch out a bit you’ll be happily surprised at just how diverse the course offerings at Columbia are.

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