SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice

By Molly Powers

At the Office of Admissions we get a lot of questions about the MPA in Development Practice (MPA-DP also known as MDP). It’s understandable, considering that the degree program was established in 2009 and just graduated its first class in May 2011. As a current second-year MPA-DP student, I am often the go-to person fielding these questions, so in the interests of sharing some insights with folks who can’t come by our office, I’m highlighting a few of the most common queries here.

Q. Where did the MPA-DP degree come from anyway?

A. The creation of the MPA-DP degree was one of the core recommendations of the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  The year-long Commission was co-chaired by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and John McArthur, then Executive Director of Millennium Promise, and comprised 20 top thinkers in the field of sustainable development, including the CEO of CARE, the then Executive Director of UNICEF, and a former president of Mexico.

This group concluded that there is significant and growing demand for generalist development professionals – individuals highly trained in a set of cross-disciplinary competencies that prepares them to address the complexities of sustainable development.  Leaders in the field need multidisciplinary knowledge and skills to solve problems in an increasingly complex and dynamic world.

There are now students pursuing MPA-DP or MDP degrees at more than 20 universities around the world. You can learn more at the Global MDP Secretariat website.

Q. What is the difference between MPA-DP and a traditional MPA?

A. Each MPA-DP or MDP program around the world may be slightly different, although they share the same cross-disciplinary objectives. At SIPA, the MPA in Development Practice program is a two-year MPA degree, but the student cohort is smaller (fewer than 50 students per class) and the core courses differ somewhat from a traditional MPA. The MPA-DP is geared toward development practitioners with some field experience who are interested in a multi-sectoral approach to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

Due to the number of required core courses in varied subjects such as health, food systems, management, infrastructure, and economics, MPA-DP students do not select a concentration or specialization. As with a traditional MPA, macro and microeconomics, statistics, and professional development are required, but MPA-DP students are not required to do a capstone project in their fourth semester (though they may if they apply and are accepted).

One of the major differences is the nature of the MPA-DP internship. Rather than find their own internship, MPA-DP students are matched with select partner organizations for a three-month field internship in a developing country during the summer between first and second year. Otherwise, most courses available to MPA and MIA students are also available to MPA-DP students.

Q. What kind of background do MPA-DP students have?

A. There’s a big range. My cohort includes four engineers, six Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, a lawyer, four corporate consultants, two with experience working in corporate social responsibility, a number of entrepreneurs who started their own non-profit enterprises, and many who have experience with international NGOs like WWF or multilateral organizations like UNDP and ILO.  One thing is for sure, MPA-DP encourages potential students to gain hands-on field experience before applying to the program.

For each cohort, we seek diverse international representation and undergraduate degrees. The first two MPA-DP classes include students from 21 countries, coming from a range of academic backgrounds including economics, business, engineering, computer science, agriculture, public health, biology, religion, history, communications, political science, law and international relations.  The cultural and professional diversity within each cohort is a powerful asset for learning and contributing to a vibrant program.

Q. Is the MPA-DP program more quantitatively rigorous?

A. The MPA-DP degree requires that students take advanced 6400 level macro and microeconomic analysis for international affairs rather than the (slightly) less advanced 4200 level. This is in preparation for some of MPA-DP’s other core curriculum including Human Ecology and Energy and Infrastructure Planning. Economics is a key component of international and public affairs and students who have not been exposed to statistics or a college-level economics class will find the first semester particularly challenging.

That said, MPA-DP is not significantly more rigorous than the traditional MPA or MIA degrees, quantitatively speaking, and people who have not cracked open a calculus textbook since high school should not feel discouraged from applying.  Speaking for myself, I came to the program with a Religious Studies and Anthropology major, having little exposure to economics and having avoided statistics in college. I struggled with some of the concepts, but managed to do better than I expected. So long as you are able to demonstrate quantitative competency (I had taken a number of natural science courses and my work experience included budgeting and excel), you should be able to survive, and even hone new skills.

Q. What kind of jobs are MPA-DP graduates qualified for?

A. MPA-DP graduates are qualified for the same jobs as MPA and MIA graduates, although the degree is particularly well suited for work in international development-oriented organizations requiring fieldwork. Grads are equipped to understand and solve complex development problems at local, national, and global levels. In addition, the small size of the cohort and the program’s alliance with the Earth Institute and Global MDP Secretariat gives students access to additional networks through which to pursue career opportunities.

In May 2011, our first class of 23 students graduated from the program. They have since found jobs with a diversity of organizations across 9 countries. These include positions in the World Bank, US government, foreign governments, international NGOs, development  consulting firms, entrepreneurial ventures, philanthropic organizations, and universities.

Q. How do I select a Summer Field Internship site?

A.  The three-month summer field internship is an essential component of the MPA-DP curriculum and is designed to provide students with practical work experience in sustainable development practice. MPA-DP students are given a number of possible, approved sites and organizations employing integrated approaches to sustainable development around the world. Students are also provided descriptions of project work that is available at these sites, then rank their preferences, and are matched in teams of 3-4 with these preferences and the site needs in mind.

In 2011, MPA-DP students worked in six Sub-Saharan African countries with Millennium Villages Projects, in Bangladesh with BRAC, in Cambodia with Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, and in East Timor with the Earth Institute. The number of projects and countries will expand in 2012 to include Haiti as well as more Asian, African, and Latin American project sites. To read student blogs from summer field internships, you can visit this site.

Q. Can I do a dual degree with MPA-DP?

A. As of 2011, the answer is no.  It is not possible to combine the international dual degrees, such as the two-year London School of Economics Degree or Sciences Po Program in Paris with MPA-DP because of the specific core requirements for the degree. The MPA-DP curriculum is densely mapped out over 22 months and cannot be completed in only one year at SIPA. Domestic, three-year dual degrees with Mailman School of Public Health or the School of Social Work, for example, might be more feasible, but are not currently available to MPA-DP students.

Q. Can I submit an application to both the MPA-DP and to a traditional MIA/MPA?

A. Yes, you may apply to both MIA/MPA and MPA-DP programs by creating two separate applications. The MPA-DP admissions process does not differ significantly from the traditional MIA and MPA process. The same elements are required (application, personal statements, traditional and quantitative resumes, GRE or GMAT, and 3 recommendations), however the MPA-DP applications are reviewed by a different committee to select a well-balanced cohort.

For more information, interested applicants should also check out the MPA-DP website, or contact the program manager, André Correa D’Almeida, directly at ac3133@columbia.edu or at (212) 854-2636.