So many concentrations, so little time

An alum once told me that the best and worst thing about being at SIPA is the amount of choice we have. Those words could not ring truer today. Seeples are spoilt for choice when it comes to courses on offer, even more so when we have the opportunity to cross-register (in layman terms: take classes from other Columbia University schools).

It’s easy and tempting to want to do everything, but that quickly becomes overwhelming when you’re trying to juggle school, internship/work, student organization, school events, sleep and wellness, and having a social life.

When I first came to SIPA, I had no idea what my graduate school game plan was – what skills did I want to develop, what classes I wanted to take, what knowledge I wanted to get which would help me towards a meaningful career after graduation. I did the safe thing and opted for core classes in the first semester to buy myself some time. While you’re not locked into your concentration when you’re at school, it helps to have a clear idea of what direction you want to head in. Here are three tips to help you find what concentration/specialization works for you:

#1 Figure out your area of interest and choose a concentration that caters to it

AKA, why do you want to go to graduate school. By now, you may already be in the early stages of your personal statement, which has hopefully helped you think about what drives you and what your career goals are. There are six concentrations for both MIA & MPA degrees and each curricula has a different subject matter and focus. The focus of each concentration is quite self-explanatory as they are rather distinct – economic development, energy, human rights, international finance, international security, and urban & social policy.

Choosing a concentration does not restrict you from taking classes that might relate to other concentrations. Rather, it serves as a starting point to help you focus/tailor your graduate school academic life. One of the biggest concentrations is Economic and Political Development (EPD), which I belong to. I chose EPD (and stuck to it) because of the breadth of courses and the focus on development and emerging markets. As I hope to return to Southeast Asia, this emphasis on the developing world is important for me.

#2 Identify your specific interest or leverage your professional background to specialize

Choosing a specialization is SIPA’s way of helping you further focus your degree. Most people have one specialization but some do have two specializations, because why not. Specializations require less credits to fulfill the criteria compared to concentrations. But don’t fret because you only need one to graduate. If you’re unsure of how to choose, go with your gut because SIPA offers flexibility in changing your specialization. Management is a popular specialization because it offers a wide range of flexibility, especially if you’re looking to take classes outside SIPA. Some Seeples also specialize in a region. Some specializations such as Technology, Media and Communications (TMAC) are still broad and offer more breadth and further focus such as cybersecurity.

The tl;dr version is don’t stress because there is a lot of flexibility to explore and choose your specialization if you’re admitted. It might be more helpful to think about what geographic coverage you might prefer.

#3 Recognizing how much flexibility you want to pursue electives

Every concentration has different requirements and the amount of credits you need to take to fulfill that requirement. Concentrations such as EPD, Energy and Environment (EE) and the International Finance and Economic Policy (IFEP) may have more core requirements compared to others. This might limit your ability to take more electives and classes outside of SIPA, if that is what you are looking for, or if you’re not keen to take full 18 credit semesters. Some requirements may also be challenging to fulfill. For example, EPD has a second language requirement and language courses can be 4/5 credits. This might limit the number of electives you can take per semester if you are required to take language classes and cannot test out. Similarly, IFEP is a more quant-heavy concentration which requires satisfying more advanced economics and quantitative courses.

Think about the trade-offs of what experience you are looking for out of graduate school and how much flexibility you require for your own well-being.