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IR program decisions (money or notoriety)

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Hey everyone. I hate to beat a dead horse, but I'm reaching out to see if anyone has any thoughts about how to go about deciding which Master's of IR or MPA graduate school I should attend this upcoming year. In particular, I'm split on whether the debt burden justifies attending a more 'prominent' master's program, over perhaps a less prominent program with more funding. Has anyone else had this dilemma? I was lucky enough to be accepted to 7 of my 8 programs, with various degrees of funding and I'm having some difficulty parsing out my choices. With that in mind, I've been accepted to the following programs + funding (roughly ordered by my preference of where I wish to attend):

JHU SAIS Bologna MA (no funding), Tufts Fletcher MALD (20K overall), Syracuse Maxwell joint MPA/IR (52K overall), GW MA in Philosophy and Social Policy (44K overall), CMU Heinz DC program MSPPM (46K funding overall), Cornell Institute of Public Affairs (6K overall), Brown's MPA (6K overall). 

Am I crazy to turn down more funding to attend, for example, SAIS or Fletcher, over other programs? As it stands, there's a chance I might get a better award from Cornell or GW, and I plan to petition the admissions team at Tufts to see if I can get more funding. I fear that SAIS might be a lost cause regarding funding, from what I've read on this forum. However, this is the program I've wanted to attend for quite some time. I intend to pursue any opportunities for further fellowships or external scholarships wherever I attend, although I recognize that this would be a burden on me during my graduate studies, especially if I attend SAIS or Fletcher with the substantial debt obligations looming over my head. Has anyone been in this position -- where you turned down generous funding for a program with less funding with more recognition in the policy world?

For reference, I am interested in working for a multilateral or international organization, enter public service or work for a think tank. Best possible world would be political affairs for UN, or something State Dept related. (If all else fails, I suppose there's always priv sector consulting?) Any current students/alum of these programs have any insights? Anyone in a similar position?


Edited by WIPDXSFBay
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11 hours ago, WIPDXSFBay said:

Am I crazy to turn down more funding to attend, for example, SAIS or Fletcher, over other programs?

I was in a similar position last year, with offers from SAIS (both years in DC, no funding), Duke (50% scholarship), and CMU Heinz (80% scholarship). I chose CMU because of the funding and the skills I would obtain at the school. Courses related to operations research, machine learning, and econometrics, among other subjects, have enabled me to compete with SAIS grads for the same positions and obtain internships at the most selective employers. Because of the way I've structured my course schedule, I've been able to argue time and time again that I am capable of analyzing international issues with a more rigorous lens than an average MPP or SAIS MA.

If you're concerned that the MS-DC track may leave you with few electives, you can always transfer to the MSPPM program with little difficulty.

11 hours ago, WIPDXSFBay said:

If all else fails, I suppose there's always priv sector consulting?

On this: companies like PwC and Deloitte regularly recruit CMU Heinz students. Not everyone gets in (no school can promise that), but a substantial proportion does. There are considerable resources available here to help you prepare for the interviews. Consulting, finance, and data science clubs, along with the career services office have developed strong links with these companies and regularly sponsor competitions and networking events through current employees.

I discuss the pros/cons of CMU in greater detail from an international affairs perspective in the post linked below. You can always message me if you have any questions.

To put this matter into a broader context, you may want to consider the tangible benefits that each school has to offer. Financial aid is the most obvious factor but there are other things as well:

  • Professional and financial benefits of being able to work in DC via CMU's MS-DC track
  • Cornell's CIPA isn't a full-fledged department as I understand it. It seems more like an amalgamation of courses from other departments, which may grant you more flexibility but result in a weaker network.
  • What are the outcomes associated with GWU's Philosophy and Social Policy grads? Are they employed at organizations you want to work for? I'm posting this question as most IR students apply to GWU's Elliot school instead and I'm not familiar with the Philosophy/Social Policy program.
11 hours ago, WIPDXSFBay said:

Best possible world would be political affairs for UN, or something State Dept related.

The following point initially sounds worse than it means to be, but I would also be cautious on this and be open to a broad array of options. I know of certain individuals who wanted to get into State/UN/etc., but with the turbulent politics of our times, cuts may be coming to the jobs you're hunting for. They've typically done well, though--while agencies like USAID may be cut, the budget at DoD, DoJ, and other related agencies is increasing. A job at the NSA, for example, might not be what you're initially looking for but can be immensely rewarding.

Edited by PolicyStud
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Thank you for your thoughtful input. A brief survey on LinkedIn sheds light on degrees that seem to be more versatile regarding my interests (both State Dept/IOs and private sector consulting), whereas it seems like both SAIS and Fletcher are strongest with these sorts of placements (in addition to Hienz to being strong with firms such as EY and Deloitte).

I totally agree that one should hedge their bets regarding State and IOs, although I think the fear reflected on this forum about the potential cuts are a bit overstated. I should qualify the following with a grain of salt, but I don't feasibly see any budget cuts to the State Dept of such a magnitude ever being passed even by this congress, which is the most conservative we've seen since maaaayybe Gingrich's reign as speaker. However, the risk of cuts to the IOs are very very real, whereas any shortfall would have to be picked up by other member states. In that scenario (can't say how likely it is) it may mean that people with US citizenship will have more difficulty acquiring jobs such as Political Affairs Officers, etc., whereas other people of other citizenships may be given more preference. But it may not, and given how ridiculously competitive it already is to land a position like that in the first place, it may not even have a material impact. Anyways, I can't say for sure, nor can I affirm that any of this current budget will have appeal to Senate Foreign Relations Committee whatsoever (I remember Sen. Graham saying something like "it was dead on arrival"). But I certainly agree that in the very very plausible event that cuts of any sort do effect my primary job market of interest, and it does throw in some added unnecessary risk to my "dream job" outcome, in addition to the risk is already being a bit higher by the idea of added debt.

Regarding the 'more debt' route', I see it like this: could I jump ship from a job in the low-paying policy world (switch from income-based payments) and grind for a couple years to strive for a six-figure salary in the consulting world to knock out my immense (est. between 80K-120K) debt load in a couple years? Maybe. I currently work as an analyst for a financial services firm in SF, so at I know what it takes to land these sorts of jobs. Does that escape route have enough secondary appeal to justify pursuing a degree that will make landing "dream job" more likely? Right now, I have no idea.

Edited by WIPDXSFBay
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