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My IR Grad school horror story


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I've been following this board for quite some time, and although I have seen a couple of threads from people basically telling prospective IR grad students to stay away from these programs, I thought I'd outline my own experience to show you just how perilous going down this road can be.

I few years ago, I graduated from a top private university in New England and gained acceptance to one of the Top 3 IR programs in the country that people on this board salivate over. I went in with what traditionally is thought of as the right pedigree for entrance and future success in the foreign policy field. I had a flawless gpa, had tons of overseas experience working and volunteering with prestigious agencies and was a polyglot. I studied for a semester overseas in which I gained a certificate and made even more connections. I was only able to obtain a modicum of funding, but was happy I got in to my what was at the time dream school. I cheerfully racked up over 120K in debt to attend as I thought with my experience and the degree I'd be a shoe-in for top jobs with the government or private sector.

Here I am two years later with no job and colossal debt, writing to you from an internet cafe in Argentina where I am currently hiding out from creditors in the states so I don't have to pay my debt. There's a lot of us on the run from our school debts in South America. They call us "debt dodgers". All my loans were private, so I'm relatively safe from debt collectors. I've made a living for myself down here teaching English and "Historia Norteamericana" to private school twits for a pittance. I've also managed to do some free-lance consulting with some banks as well. Someone I know at an NGO has promised me once the Maduro government is toppled in Venezuela, I can go to Caracas to maybe get a fulltime gig. 

If I had known what I know now, I would have just tried to get my foot in the door with my undergraduate degree instead of shooting for the stars and getting an overpriced Master's degree. Even with all of my experience and credentials I wasn't able to break the Adamantium ceiling that only the most ferocious and well off of candidates can seem to break. If you aren't somehow connected to a high ranking military officer or career diplomat, you are never going to be anything more than a government paper pusher in this field. 

If you are okay with that, then I plead with you to consider other avenues to enter this field. Join the Peace Corps, and try to join an employer that's willing to foot the bill at least partially for your degree. If you have a relative or close friend that can guarantee you a job before you go to get your Master's, that'd be ideal. 

If you have none of these connections, I suggest you find some other line of work and take the State Department's FSOT exam. It's the best way, although long and drawn out in my belief to enter this field as anyone from any background can get a job if they jump through all of the hoops. I wouldn't suggest you join via the military as they are treated rather poorly and in most cases are no better off than their non-military colleagues. 

Hopefully I will get a job in the field back home, and my debt will be somehow discharged so that I can return soon, but until then, I lament ever going to grad school.

 

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Anonymity is a crazy thing. I'm sorry that happened to you, but without substantial context, your story just seems a little far fetched. 

If you went to one of the top private schools in the Northeast and a top 3 IR school, landing a private sector gig or even a position at a non-profit is not that incredibly difficult. Is getting a job in the conduct and formulation of foreign policy itself extremely hard, yeah. But being forced to go to Latin America to dodge debt is quite something. 

I have no dog in this fight--I'm not applying to the IR Masters programs, but it's a bit annoying to see stories like this written ad nauseum on this board. There's certainly some response bias for those who post their stories, so keep that in mind while reading everything you see here. 

All who are applying--keep your eyes wide open. If you want to be successful and get a good job in D.C. (or Geneva or wherever) after your degree, that process has to start while you're in undergrad or before you go to grad school. Make those connections early, they'll be invaluable later on. 

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Whenever I see posts like this, it really burns my ass. I realize this is a competitive field to enter, and I'm not expecting to get rich, but is it really this bad? I'm grateful for the wealth of knowledge and experiences posted on this site, but sometimes I wish I had never found Grad Cafe and just remained ignorantly bliss about my prospects. Even though I've got two offers in hand and one decision to hear about, I'm considering just saying screw it, and not pursuing a degree, or a career in this field anymore. Maybe I can start working at some start-up or bank, and save enough money to start my own Alpaca Ranch in some remote area and make a living that way. 

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39 minutes ago, Nico Corr said:

Whenever I see posts like this, it really burns my ass. I realize this is a competitive field to enter, and I'm not expecting to get rich, but is it really this bad? I'm grateful for the wealth of knowledge and experiences posted on this site, but sometimes I wish I had never found Grad Cafe and just remained ignorantly bliss about my prospects. Even though I've got two offers in hand and one decision to hear about, I'm considering just saying screw it, and not pursuing a degree, or a career in this field anymore. Maybe I can start working at some start-up or bank, and save enough money to start my own Alpaca Ranch in some remote area and make a living that way. 

Nico--Feel free to reach out via PM. Gradcafe can be a hopelessly depressing place with a warped perspective at times, but based on the schools you've applied to in your bio (GW & AU) I think you'll be alright. 

The dirty secret of D.C. is that people from these programs in the district (even from undergrad!) go on to have amazing careers because they're able to intern downtown every semester and work their way up the D.C. career ladder. It's not for everyone, but it's 100% doable. The only real upside to these top 3 IR prestige programs (since the material you're learning is not that different elsewhere) is being able to network with your peers, many who will go on to do amazing things.

Addendum: I didn't even mention in my original post the possibility of lobbying positions which absolutely abound in D.C. (and pay well, and you get to do cool things too). Honestly, if you can't find some form of employment in D.C. after a year of hard grafting, you're doing something wrong.  

Edited by devpolicy
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23 hours ago, The Vitruvian said:

Here I am two years later with no job and colossal debt, writing to you from an internet cafe in Argentina where I am currently hiding out from creditors in the states so I don't have to pay my debt. There's a lot of us on the run from our school debts in South America. They call us "debt dodgers". All my loans were private, so I'm relatively safe from debt collectors. I've made a living for myself down here teaching English and "Historia Norteamericana" to private school twits for a pittance. I've also managed to do some free-lance consulting with some banks as well. Someone I know at an NGO has promised me once the Maduro government is toppled in Venezuela, I can go to Caracas to maybe get a fulltime gig. 

Your story sounds quite far-fetched and is not consistent with the experiences of friends with IR degrees, many of whom did not attend prestigious schools or have "flawless" GPAs.  Not saying they all have perfect careers, but as far as I know none are hiding from debt collectors in Latin America hoping for regime change in Venezuela to get a full-time job.

Were you not eligible for federal loans when you attended grad school?  Fellow GradCafe readers, do not to take out private loans for grad school if you are eligible for federal loans.  With federal loans you have access to income-based repayment, which means if you don't have an income, your payments will be $0.  No need to hide out abroad unless you really want to.

Edited by MaxwellAlum
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2 hours ago, Frosty_McGee said:

what makes you think SIPA?

I guess I was thinking WWS, HKS, SIPA, but Georgetown and SAIS are probably in there. 

I was more just trying to get them to be specific about the context -- it comes off as a pretty outlandish account, and it seems like they could include more details while using an anonymous account.

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Am in one of these grad schools (DC-area) now. I love it, but no, I can't justify taking out that much in loans for it. I've lived in DC a few years before starting grad school and I haven't noticed a particular "edge" for people who have the most coveted IR degrees but no other experience. If you want to get an IR degree regardless, I would say the DC schools are more worth it because of the networking/internship opportunities here. 

Apply for external funding or work a few years and save some money up. I recommend working for a couple of years anyway, because you'll be a more competitive applicant, and thus it'll be more likely you receive more funding. Professional experience also means you'll have a better sense of what you want to do post-graduation.

I would say getting an IR degree with a very specific position in mind is not a good idea either. If you're flexible, there's jobs in the field for you, but if you just want to join the Foreign Service (seems to be the top choice in my program), this is an expensive way to do it, with no guarantees.

Running away to another country... great if you never plan to come back.

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Hmm.

I'm clearly not a cheerleader for these programs, but OP's testimony seems...improbably extreme. I know plenty of people who are unhappy with / bitter about their IR grad school experiences, but none of them are dodging loans in South America. It's more like...they have unfulfilling office jobs in DC and are stressed about finances because they are going to be on income-based repayment plans until their 50s.
 
Some people I know definitely struggled to find full-time jobs -- I know multiple people who took internships after graduation just to avoid a hole on their resumes. But all eventually found something. Whether it was worth the 100k piece of paper is another question. 
Edited by elmo_says
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The very important factor that none of us (or OP) are seeing, which doesn't get mentioned nearly often enough on these forums, is the personal factor. Attitude, soft skills, how hard you are willing to work and what conditions you are willing to accept determine where and how far you will go in this field. OP seems very offended at the prospect of being a "paper pusher" - and since they definitely got a rude awakening about the chances of being made Secretary of State as a 25 year old kid with no work experience and a generalist master's degree, perhaps to them hiding out on a coke farm in Costa Rica was the next best alternative. 

For my part, the #1 reason people should get relevant work experience before signing up for grad school in IR is that IR usually implies very specific working and living conditions. I've seen people who couldn't handle it and people who could but didn't want to - and, really, undergrads, take 1-2 years to make sure that you are neither of these people before giving up more of your time or god forbid creditworthiness.

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Oh good grief. I know goofballs with free degrees from tiny universities in Europe with successful careers in international development. I also know whiny, entitled, self-pitying jackasses without a shred of professionalism, who polish and polish the exotic story of their rebellious exile like they were Ernest Hemingway with TESOL certificate while dialing in every job they've ever had. Who spend most of their time, as far as I can tell, blaming their school/internship/other school for never being quite elite enough, as a fixture of the corner of whatever bar the World Bank people hang out in. OP has one thing right - there are a lot like him.

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