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100k debt for IR Masters worth it?


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This article may be of interest to everyone who is reading this thread.

 

American scam: My kid and I are both supposed to go broke paying for college? Forget it

I’ve learned what many students and parents already know: The student loan system is a quasi-criminal shell game

 

https://www.salon.com/2018/03/22/american-scam-my-kid-and-i-are-both-supposed-to-go-broke-paying-for-college-forget-it/

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These two things are concerning. Why aren't you getting any scholarship money? These programs aren't super competitive, so as long as you're not a functional idiot, you should be able to. Take a look

@elmo_says Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's a lot easier to make it anywhere if you come from money. My issue with you is that you're perpetuating the mindset that gets people suckered into these pro

That's my story.  I finished my Fulbright and decided to come back home and try to make an impact in my state. About 8 years of policy work later (with some international experience in between) I

do you think you will make 100,000 a year upon graduation or soon? Also that kind of debt can very easily derail your career especially in IR. You won't be able to take that low paying think tank job in DC etc or work with an interesting NGO after graduation. Also considering you will be probably working in an expensive city so 100,000+ will impact your life in many ways, multiple roommates etc for the foreseeable future. I wouldn't unless I already had amazing IR experience and was mid career and knew for sure I could get a job paying atleast $70k+. IR is a field where you really have to pay your dues so the less debt your carrying the better. 

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22 hours ago, lovelife905 said:

do you think you will make 100,000 a year upon graduation or soon? I wouldn't unless I already had amazing IR experience and was mid career and knew for sure I could get a job paying atleast $70k+. IR is a field where you really have to pay your dues so the less debt your carrying the better. 

How many people make anything that even comes close to the $70K-$100K range? As someone who not too long ago thought nothing of spending $100K on one of these degrees, I've had major doubts about spending even half of that. I'm not too great at anything quantitative, but I'm thinking about sucking it up and just getting an MBA or something else technical and going that route. 

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1 hour ago, Nico Corr said:

How many people make anything that even comes close to the $70K-$100K range? As someone who not too long ago thought nothing of spending $100K on one of these degrees, I've had major doubts about spending even half of that. I'm not too great at anything quantitative, but I'm thinking about sucking it up and just getting an MBA or something else technical and going that route. 

Gathering data would take more time than I'm willing to donate, but it's not that rare to make in the upper five figures to low 6 figures. Some examples of jobs (this is going to lean on the economics/quantitative side, but idk how much of that is the true mean vs my occupational bias):

  • private sector consultants (will vary heavily by company, but ~70k is doable early-mid career)
  • technical staff/senior operational staff at multilaterals
  • upper GS grades in Fed government (if your agency does its own pay scale, you may earn as much at lower GS grades, or cap out at figures like 200k)

Sometimes nonprofit management or upper level administration positions in industries considered less lucrative, like education, can reach 6 figures - depending. But generally, the difference between this degree and an MBA (which I wouldn't call a technical degree, lol) is that the job spectrum, and hence the salary spectrum, is really broad. You can position yourself to get a high-paying job (this positioning should start before the program, otherwise you can get yourself on track to a good job with an ~entry level position), but you won't be shepherded into it along every step of the way. With a candidate at a top MBA program, employers know what they're getting: some passable raw intelligence, a good degree of professional and socioeconomic socialization, and strong prior work experience in a relevant industry or at least a relevant role (career outcomes for people from low-ranking MBAs, btw, are pretty bad). With policy candidates it's a bit of a mixed bag (not least due to the sheer number of weirdos out of undergrad in these programs). Plus, I'd wager that most people don't get policy degrees because they want to make bank. If your goal is to make a lot of money, not to be idealistic, but why are you here?

Regarding you specifically, you just seem a little lost. What's your career goal? I think especially for someone with 10 years in the workplace, going into any professional program without a clear (but not restrictive) trajectory, maybe a 5-10 year plan, is not a good idea. If that's coming across in your applications, it might be why you're not getting money. You're kind of jumping around from policy to business to unnamed technical programs without rhyme or reason. If you just want to get a higher salary, there's ways to do that without upending your entire life. For that matter, if you want to have an impact in the policy world, there's lots of way to do that that don't involve policy or business school.

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On 3/23/2018 at 2:38 PM, ExponentialDecay said:

@elmo_says I don't think I'm being critical of these programs. I'm being critical of the decision to take out 100k to attend one of them. From what I recall of your post, I disagreed with your proposition that only rich international types can afford a career in DC and the many other similarly ridiculous generalizations you made.

[...] 

It's also bullshit that these schools don't give out significant funding. If you're competitive, you'll get money. If you aren't competitive at this stage, you will struggle later (a struggle that can be overcome, but do yourself a favor and overcome it ex ante rather than ex post). This is a good lesson to learn early: don't work for free, and don't pay to work. You want to be somewhere where your time and your contribution is valued, because those places will invest in your potential and not just use you and throw you out. This is also why I say don't go even if you can afford 100k out of pocket: education is an opportunity, not a consumable. A place that is interested in paying your way is interested in giving you opportunities (and if you've ever had to fight tooth and nail for those, you will know the force behind that statement).

The entire point of my post a few months ago was to warn people against being cavalier about taking out debt for these programs, because most of them over-promise and under-deliver what they can do for your career. A lot of naive 20-somethings who've never worked in DC get suckered by the marketing and end up pretty unhappy on the other side. Their massive loan payments come due and they realize their jobs aren't "fulfilling" enough to counterbalance that, or they find they have to compromise what kind of jobs they pursue in the first place just to service the loans. 

I know you took issue with a comment I made about "rich international types"...But the fact is -- it's a lot easier to make it in this town if you come from money (whatever your national origin), because a lot of the early years of the more prestigious career paths here involve low pay and long hours, and require significant education. Personally, after moving to DC, I've been surprised by how many 20- and 30-somethings in this town still receive significant financial support from their parents. Of course some people are willing to make the sacrifices to work low-paid but interesting jobs without any outside help, but it's hard, and I think a lot of applicants underestimate that. 

In any case, I agree that if you don't get any funding from these programs, it's probably a good sign not to go. But unless things have dramatically changed since I was applying earlier this decade - most of them don't give fellowships/scholarships to even half their students. And even the competitive scholarships like the one I got can still leave you with a lofty bill after you factor in living expenses etc. I do think the fellowship thing can be gamed, so if you're really set on this career, it's worth trying to tweak your application and see if you can get lucky with some serious funding. 

6 hours ago, Nico Corr said:

How many people make anything that even comes close to the $70K-$100K range? As someone who not too long ago thought nothing of spending $100K on one of these degrees, I've had major doubts about spending even half of that. I'm not too great at anything quantitative, but I'm thinking about sucking it up and just getting an MBA or something else technical and going that route. 

A lot of schools post starting salary ranges for recent grads - you should ask them for those materials (though keep in mind - their stats are based on voluntary graduate surveys, so may not include people too ashamed to respond).

If you're trying to pursue one of the more interesting or altruistic jobs in the IR / policy world, it will take a while to get there, from what I've seen. But if you go private sector, or work for certain government contractors, you can get into that range in a few years. My staring salary as a policy analyst was in the high 60s. Now a few years out, I'm making in the low 90s (after a few raises and a job change). Even so, my relatively reasonable loan payments still feel like a burden, and as I've mentioned ad nauseum on this forum, I'm doing very different work than I had imagined when starting my master's - though after a recent job change I'm actually starting to enjoy my work life. 

But I agree with @ExponentialDecay that if your only goal is to get ahead or increase your income, this is not the right path, and neither would be an MBA from a non-elite school. I think once you define your goal, perhaps you should reach out to people who have achieved whatever you're after and try to figure out how they got from point A to point B.

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17 hours ago, Nico Corr said:

How many people make anything that even comes close to the $70K-$100K range? As someone who not too long ago thought nothing of spending $100K on one of these degrees, I've had major doubts about spending even half of that. I'm not too great at anything quantitative, but I'm thinking about sucking it up and just getting an MBA or something else technical and going that route. 

Not specific to IR (lots of people with IR degrees don't go into IR jobs), but in my experience, several of my peers who went into local or federal government in the DC area were making $70k+ two years out of grad school.  Most of us are over in the $90-$110k range now that we are 5-6 years out (GS-13 level in the federal government).  Salaries won't increase as fast from here on out (a lot of the increase comes from noncompetitive promotions, which stop at a certain point), but assuming reasonable cost of living increases (more likely at the local level than federal at this point, unfortunately), it's not a terrible place to be.  Some friends who work in nonprofits/NGOs/USAID contractors have not had the same level of salary progression.  I believe they are in the $60-$70k range at this point.

If you go into a government job with the ability to get noncompetitive promotions your salary can increase pretty fast in just a few years.

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@elmo_says Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's a lot easier to make it anywhere if you come from money.

My issue with you is that you're perpetuating the mindset that gets people suckered into these programs in the first place. You dispel the notion that these programs are exclusive and what you need to succeed only to replace it with another similar one - actually, what you need for success is to be a "rich international type" with a PhD in engineering from MIT. (As an aside, I will never forgive you for that phrasing. As someone who works in development, you purport to help developing countries and then you turn around and disparage the very people coming from those countries, often(!) at great personal cost, to participate in that work and make sure that not just your imperialist perspective gets heard - how dare you). This is unhelpful for two reasons: because few people can will themselves into becoming a rich international type with a PhD in engineering from MIT, and also because it's bullshit.

More people are funded in these programs than you think, not only via internal scholarships, but via external scholarships or by their government or employer. The money is out there and you can get it. It is good practice to get it now, because the public sector, if we come down to brass tacks, is fully about convincing different groups of people to give you money to do socially important things. The scheme for getting money is simple and the same for everyone: 

  • Get your hard stats in order
  • Have work experience that you can make relevant (NB: this is an exercise in storytelling, not an exercise in asking Daddy to get you a position at State)
  • Pay attention to fit: know what you can offer a program
  • Apply widely
  • Negotiate

And if you don't get money, here's what you can do to build a successful policy career without a degree in public policy. I'll start with the other degrees you can get, but the rest of the list is more interesting and arguably more impactful.

  • Get a degree in something else: business, area studies, economics, etc. The specific MPA/MPP title does not matter in 99% of cases.
  • Get a degree somewhere else: Canada, Europe, Asia. The network at the top policy schools does help, but I also meet a lot of people who are tired of the cookie-cutter SAIS grads and want to hire people from new perspectives and experiences.
  • GET A JOB. Get a job in the Parks and Rec department of Pawnee, Indiana. Get a job in the Kafkaesque government of your tiny third world state. Get a job at Goldman. Get a job at a tiny nonprofit. It's bullshit that you need to live in DC and work at State or the World Bank in order to do anything in this field. State and the World Bank are where impact goes to die. The real work and learning happens on the ground, often among people without advanced degrees but with lots of enthusiasm. I meet so many people in their late 20s-early 30s who are considered top in their field who graduated Podunk State and started their careers as low-level bureaucrats in flyover country. Most of them got their advanced degrees 6-8 years out of college; some don't even have them. 
  • Do your own thing. You don't need a degree to start a small business or an after-school activity for low-income children. You already know what your community needs, and I bet you're smart enough to figure out how to help them get it. This knowledge is more valuable - including to employers - than whatever Dani Rodrik will lecture at you for 2 years at Harvard.
  • Do something other than policy for a few years. Lots of people come in from other backgrounds in business, health, engineering, whatever. 
  • Meet people. For my part, I am continually amazed at how many people in my dog-eat-dog callous and jaded field have taken their time, effort, and not infrequently money to help me out for nothing in return (although gratitude is a nice touch). So many busy and important people want to mentor and guide you (sometimes pay you) - but you do need to reach out. Most people get broken by this field eventually but few forget why they're even in this thing, and if you're a promising young person who has something to offer, they get really excited.

There is such an incredible variety of policy careers and policy backgrounds. You don't need to be a rich international type to be in policy, and you don't need to follow a single prescribed path. If you're a young person with a bachelor's level education and some idea of how to position your perspective within the context of the field, you have so many opportunities to work, travel, and make an impact. It's a shame to chain yourself to a DC office job straight out of college.

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2 hours ago, ExponentialDecay said:

 

  • GET A JOB. Get a job in the Parks and Rec department of Pawnee, Indiana. Get a job in the Kafkaesque government of your tiny third world state. Get a job at Goldman. Get a job at a tiny nonprofit. It's bullshit that you need to live in DC and work at State or the World Bank in order to do anything in this field. State and the World Bank are where impact goes to die. The real work and learning happens on the ground, often among people without advanced degrees but with lots of enthusiasm. I meet so many people in their late 20s-early 30s who are considered top in their field who graduated Podunk State and started their careers as low-level bureaucrats in flyover country. Most of them got their advanced degrees 6-8 years out of college; some don't even have them. 

That's my story. 

I finished my Fulbright and decided to come back home and try to make an impact in my state. About 8 years of policy work later (with some international experience in between) I'm towards the upper end of the $70 - $100k range...in the U.S. South...doing the work I've always wanted to do. I've been able to do some really high level stuff and really put myself out there in ways I would never be able to do so in a D.C. or New York, but I'm definitely not some savant or anything. Just really went after what I wanted. The most important of advice to anyone though is work. You'd be surprised how you can have any job be exactly what you need it to be in the long run.

The stuff isn't rocket science, yet some of the most brilliant people I know struggle with all of this. Folks who are much smarter than myself, yet I've been able to get through all levels of education without having to take out a single loan. Ever. I'll be able to go to HKS without having to take out a cent in loans. In fact, I didn't even have to pay the dang deposit nor application fee. It's not to big myself up at all. I don't have some secret formula. I just have good experiences and the right background, which I crafted over time and very strategically. I guess I put all that stuff together in a cohesive enough manner with my application. You can too, though! Probably better than I can. Just trust the process.

So to more directly answer the original question. No, taking out all that money to pursue this particular type of education is not worth it and never will be. I believe you can always find the right school who will give you the right money. I encourage you to reevaluate your approach to this process, whether it be the testing (I didn't study much for the GRE and was going to really concentrate on retaking if I didn't get in), essays (I told stories that wrapped around both my work and what I envision being able to do), and coaching up my recommenders (make sure you don't duplicate your resume and help them dig deep).

I encourage you all to simply not rush any of this. It will work out to your benefit if you don't.

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