Archive for undergraduate

Peter Zheng MPA ’20 reflects on his first year at SIPA

Hi! I’m Peter Zheng, MPA Class of 2020 and concentrating in Economic and Political Development and triple specializing in East Asia, Management, and Technology, Media, and Communication Studies! I was part of the 5-10% accepted from undergrad so I did not have work experience prior to SIPA. I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pittsburgh Honors College with quadruple majors in Economics, Political Science & Government, Business Administration, and a Bachelor of Philosophy (master’s-level degree) in Psychology within 4 years.

What was your first year of policy school like?

Whenever people ask me about policy school, I always say, “It’s a choose your own adventure.” It’s not hard if you don’t want it to be hard, but it can be hard if you make it hard. You prioritize what is important to you.

To me, I value experimental and classroom learning. In my first year of graduate school I took 12 courses at SIPA, 2 courses at Columbia Business School (CBS), and 4 courses at a rigorous online business certificate program outside of Columbia University. Boy, OMG did I learn. It’s probably something I will never ever do again, but I learned a lot and met so many cool humans because of it. So, for that, I am super grateful.

During my first year, I created a startup (but decided to pause after talking to media executives because the media ecosystem is highly distorted, and barriers of entry are super high). I started an independent research project at Columbia Business School with a CBS PhD student, and did research in the management division at CBS, which was a continuation from my summer internship before SIPA. I applied and received five fellowships from CBS/SIPA, joined the board of SIPA’s Technology Student Association, learned how to live alone in Manhattan (Hell’s Kitchen is lit), and met some really cool people who have become dear friends!

What are your plans this summer?

I’ll be spending my summer working at UNICEF as a business operations analyst (networked from a SIPA professor). I was also accepted into a joint healthcare entrepreneurship program at Harvard Medical School and MIT in June. I’ll be TA-ing the Executive Ethics EMBA course at CBS (networked through a CBS professor). I’ll also be creating a new social impact startup, synthesizing both SIPA and CBS resources.

Do you have any regrets?

I used to question whether coming straight into an MPA program without full-time work experience was the right choice, and whether I should have pursued a different degree because my interests span across disciplines. I was considering a deferred MBA or a PhD in Management. I didn’t know if the MPA was worth the investment or whether this degree was right for me.

A year later, I learned it’s not the letters on the degree that matter (our graduates enter each sector at a proportional rate: private sector, public sector, and government) but the connections you make, which land you the opportunities.

As a SIPA student with access to all of Columbia University’s resources, I was able to spend my time pursuing interests at both SIPA and Columbia Business School. This created rare, intersectional opportunities that make this question easy to answer. It was most definitely worth it, and I don’t question it anymore!

Why did you choose SIPA?

Location, faculty, school brand, and job placements (median salary & industry) — These were the most important things to me! I was deciding between 9 schools (Cornell, Georgetown, Duke, Oxford, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, McGill, University of Chicago, and Columbia), but chose Columbia for the aforementioned reasons.

I approached my decision objectively by creating a grad school utility function and allocated criterion with separate weights and running it through Excel. I included additional personal reasons as well: I wanted to be in a progressive city; I’m a foodie so food options were a must; living and tuition costs; and a place where my parents and friends could easily visit me!

The location of SIPA is unbeatable and something you should consider heavily if you are a go-getter and want to network with people. It is so easy in Manhattan! The faculty is top-notch at SIPA and Columbia University as a whole. You have amazing guest speakers e.g., former Secretary of Education John King Jr., Hillary Clinton, Wendy Kopps, and talented adjunct faculty who are working in these fields that bring their work experience into the classroom settings. These are just to name a few!

What is your advice for student starting their first year?

  1. Stay true to your core values. If you don’t like drinking, ditch the happy hours and attend other events that don’t circulate around booze! I don’t drink so I invite people to coffee/tea/food outings and create meaningful connections there.
  2. Don’t lose confidence in yourself and ditch the imposter syndrome! You were admitted for a reason.
  3. Consider taking cross-registered courses for Pass/Fail if you don’t need the credits for a concentration or specialization. Grades can vary across classes, so if you cross register in other schools at Columbia, know that an “A” there may translate to an “A-/B+” at SIPA.
  4. Engage in intentional networking and relationship building.
  5. Taking all of your core curriculum courses during your first year can get exhausting. Frontloading your core can mean doing multiple problem sets and studying for exams every week. I took half the core my first year with interesting electives and will take the other half my second year with some fun electives. This makes the semesters more fun for me. This also gives ample opportunity to spread yourself across Columbia, engage with the greater NYC community, and do fun things.
  6. You’re here for a terminal degree: Spend less time in the library, take advantage of Columbia University’s resources and not just SIPA (you are only here for two years, so maximize the university’s resources while you can as a student), and create your own unique SIPA experience.

If you have more questions about SIPA or want to chat, please reach out! I’m on Instagram at @peteey27 and SIPA Admissions can connect us by email. I’ll show you my favorite food and coffee spots! 🙂

Pictured at the top: Peter hosting a housewarming party with SIPA classmates.

“I’m coming straight out of undergrad. Should I apply?”

When we here at Admissions talk about what we look for in a SIPA candidate, the first item on that list is professional experience: “Most successful applicants have had at least three years of work or internship experience relevant to their intended course of study.” But every year, the incoming class has a small percentage of students who come straight from undergrad.

We often have people asking us, “Should I apply if I’m coming straight from undergrad? What are my chances?” Only you know when the time is right to apply and attend graduate school – for some people that’s at age 22, and others maybe 32 or 42. (Regardless of your academics and experience, you have 0 chance of getting in if you don’t submit your application.)

An anonymous student who came straight from undergrad says, “Don’t Apply Yet, Undergraduates” in this piece on The Morningside Post, a student-run platform for SIPA experiences and opinions:

“If you are an undergraduate student thinking about applying to SIPA, don’t rush. Expose yourself to the best, most enriching experiences so you can to get the most out of a truly unique graduate program like SIPA.”

As another student who came to SIPA straight from undergrad, Dylan shares his thoughts:

“As a junior and senior in undergrad, I naturally got caught up in the anxiety that surrounds the job recruiting process. As young twenty-somethings, we are expected to make decisions that will shape the trajectory of our careers and our lives, with little experience to draw from.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a State Department fellowship that made my decision much easier. However, I still felt like I lacked the skills and experience to know how to best take advantage of this opportunity.

Now, two years later, after completing three semesters at SIPA, I have a concrete idea of what I offer to State and what I hope to specialize in. I credit SIPA and Columbia for providing me with the skills and exposure to new ideas and fields that I previously knew nothing about. Now, as a prospective Foreign Service Officer, I hope to build upon my anti-corruption and good governance coursework, by applying what I’ve learned in the field.

While the decision to jump straight into graduate school after undergrad is a difficult one, it has been rewarding for me and most of my other peers who made the jump. Here are some things to consider before making the decision to apply.

I majored in Government and History in undergrad. I loved my undergraduate education; it was holistic, I developed my reading and writing skills, and I learned a lot about political theory. While great, I didn’t leave undergrad with a field or area of study that I knew I wanted to study in-depthly. At times, I was drawn to Latin American studies. Other times, I wanted to focus on human rights and post-conflict resolution.

This type of oscillating is natural; however, SIPA’s rigorous education forced me to think about these issues in ways I previously never had. In turn, after a few courses that threatened to draw me in a million different directions, I realized that I really loved two things: anti-corruption policy and writing.

At SIPA, I have access to world-class experts on the issue of good governance, who continue to serve as mentors. In terms of writing, I took a course with Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times reporter, who completely blew up my style – and changed it for the better.

I do not encourage students to apply if they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing post-grad and want to delay going into the professional world. However, if you have strong interests and a general idea of what fields/careers you want to pursue, going into graduate school immediately after undergrad is a great option. It provides you with perspective, exposure and ultimately the connections that can only be found in places like SIPA, where theory and practical application are taught by experts who are active in their field. By taking classes, completing internships and befriending your peers, you will slowly gain a better understanding of where your strengths lay, and how to begin your journey into the professional world.”

We hope this gives you more information in making your decision about graduate school. Know that you are the only person who can decide when the time is right for you; and that the Admissions Committee does see applicants that would be fantastic candidates after another year or two of working. Graduate school is a huge commitment in time, resources, and opportunity cost, and every candidate should make sure they can get the most out of their time in school.

PPIA 2014 Junior Summer Institutes

There is a great academic opportunity for college students interested in pursuing a career in public policy and international affairs.  The Public Policy & International Affairs Fellowship Program (PPIA) is now accepting applications for the 2014 Junior Summer Institutes (JSI).  Each year, PPIA brings together high-potential undergraduate students from universities across the country to participate in an intensive seven-week Junior Summer Institute (JSI) before their senior year.

The program focuses on preparing students for graduate programs in public and international affairs and careers as policy professionals, public administrators and other leadership roles in public service.  The JSI curriculum will cover courses and topics that will strengthen the students’ quantitative, analytic and communication skills. These skills are vital for admission into the top graduate programs in public and international affairs.  If you are interested, an application must be submitted through the PPIA website at:  The application deadline for the 2014 Junior Summer Institutes is November 1, 2013.

PPIA’s mission is to promote the inclusion and full participation of underrepresented groups in public service and to advance their leadership roles throughout our civic institutions serving domestic and international affairs.

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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