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How specific does your application need to be for top programs?


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Slightly weird topic I guess, but having taken two years out since graduating and gaining some solid experience (observed the presidential elections in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea as a long term observer with the Carter Center) I'm still not 100% sure what area of development I want to commit my life to. I've got 10 months of field experience, around two years of NGO HQ experience and a 3.8-3.9 undergrad GPA in Politics from a top-ten UK university (got a First class honours, so no real GPA equivalent). I sat the GRE three years ago and got 610Q, 690V 5.5AWA and I'm about to retake it to hopefully push my quant and verbal over 700. I'm also currently studying for a diploma for graduates in Economics with the University of London international program.

I know what I don't want to work in, and the type of work that interests me (conflict resolution/peacebuilding) but as yet I'm not certain what area I want to focus on. I guess my problem has always been that I find all of the conflict-resolution jobs somewhat interdependent and so it's a bit hard to disaggregate the one area that I specifically want to work in. My field work has focused on elections, and while I enjoyed that a lot I'd like to shift more into the DDR and humanitarian/refugee management sphere with grad school. I'm also still interested in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, and broader security/conflict issues. One thing I do know is the type of work I want to do - definitely project management and the more concrete side of development. While policy interests me, I'm definitely more of a 'boots on the ground' guy and want to be able to say what I've achieved at the end of any given week - be that troops disarmed or refugees resettled.

I want to be competitive for the top programs, and more importantly for full funding everywhere I apply, but does that mean that I have to totally narrow down my interests in my LOR to sound authoritative? I want to apply to WWS, American, SAIS and SIPA and be competitive for their scholarships.

What do you guys think? Is it alright to kind of admit I'm not certain where I'm going yet, but flag the areas I am interested in?

Thanks for any advice! Hopefully I'll get it right for Fall 2012!


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I would be rather specific in your application, at least in how you relate your interests to the program.

For example, if you were looking at Heinz, mention Jendayi Frazer and the center she directs, CIPI. They focus on electoral violence in Africa, and she is a former ambassador. Mention how your experience led you to this interest, and how the work there would inform you. Talk about the international development group's participation in the harvard ID conference. Etc, etc.

For each school, find faculty, courses, extracurricular groups, research centers, etc. that relate to specific interests you have. Some schools will have more for elections, some more for conflict resolution, some more for general ID, etc. Incorporate your experience in that area, discuss your vision in that area, and use the program's specifics to tie the two together. You won't necessarily need to know what you want to do exactly, but the more clear you are with your vision, the more solid your statement is. Treat your app as a "package," and the specifics are the bow making it all hold together.

Again, some schools won't have what you want, so work with what they do have and treat that as your major goal. Don't be afraid to discuss how you think many aspects interrelate - I did that with energy, economics, international relations, and security studies, and it worked out pretty well. Just make sure everything is clear.

Hope that helps!

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Thanks a lot mppgal :) That's definitely articulated how to craft SOP fit better than anything else I've read (and in markedly less space).

I guess what I'm more worried about is how specific I need to be about my interests/where I want to end up. i.e. do I need to say I want to end up working building water towers for one legged Liberian civil war survivors in Sierra Leone? Or is it significant to say I'm interested in working in refugee and former combatant issues?

My interests are still pretty broad, and I guess I'm not sure whether I need to be hyper-specific or whether I can reflect that for me, grad school is part of the 'zeroing in' process. What do you reckon?

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Who's to say you can't discuss both? Mention your broader interest, then you can provide the hyper-specific as an example (to show you know what you're talking about, possible options, you've done your research). Then go on to talk about the courses and program aspects that you plan to use to help narrow down your options. You could talk about how a particular thing will broaden your perspective, or provide grounding skills, etc even though you aren't certain precisely where you'll end up.

Everyone will change course during grad school, no matter how certain you were going in. It's just important to choose a program that will help you no matter what your eventual end goal ends up being, and for the adcomm to know that their program is a good fit for you in all scenarios. They don't want you transferring or dropping out, and they want to know that your background, combined with their program, can get you where you want to go.

I had an advisor tell me the more specific, the better - down to agencies you want to work for. I went with that, but managed to keep a pretty broad perspective despite my uber-specific examples.

Edited by mppgal55
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Again, thanks for a great reply :) That definitely sounds wise, and I think in an ideal world I'd try to end up on a program that's strong in all my primary interests (DDR, refugees, security) in the hopes that it'll cater to whatever I end up wanting to write my thesis on.

As you've been so helpful, what do you think of my profile in general? Do you think I'll be competitive for the top programs if I can pull my GRE up? My main goal is to get a full ride + stipend somewhere!

Edited by fenderpete
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I think you've got a high chance of getting in, especially if your GRE Q goes up a bit. As for money, it's hard to say. SIPA is super stingy, WWS does full money to all admitted I believe. SAIS and American are touch and go. If you are dependent on funding, I'd suggest adding one or two schools where you'll have higher chances of it, like Korbel or GSPIA, just in case. I have to do the obligatory plug for CMU too, since I love it here :). You can cross register with GSPIA, and we have some great faculty in IR/ID around Heinz and campus.

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