Getting the most from your MSc: Big questions and thematic interests

Associate Professor of Development Studies Kate Meagher shares advice on clarifying the themes and questions you’re most interested in when selecting courses for your MSc Programme in International Development.

The first few weeks of an MSc can be daunting: on top of course choices there is an endless variety of lunchtime and evening seminars, and a range of societies, reading groups and internships that seem to beckon from all sides. Some feel a bit like a kid in a candy shop – so many exciting things, so little time – while others can feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. With so many mind-expanding choices, students are guaranteed to learn new and interesting things no matter what, but structuring your learning choices can help you get the most out of your MSc. There are a variety of ways to do this. You could approach course selection using a medical model: generalist vs specialist, or you could use a social enquiry perspective, focusing on big questions and thematic interests. It all depends on what connects with your own ways of thinking about how to master the intellectual potential of your Masters.

In the field of International Development, there is a long tradition of framing development challenges through ‘big questions’. Is development about economic transformation or service provision? Does Aid work? Are financialization and digitization changing the nature of development processes? Do development knowledge and best practice perpetuate Western imperialism? Should sustainability take precedence over growth?  Of course there are many more big questions, but this gives of feel of the kinds of broad concerns opened by the study of development. The core courses of MSc programmes in the Department of International Development (ID) tackle a range of these big questions in ways that help students look under the bonnet of different approaches to development. Each of the ID MSc programmes focuses attention on a curated array of big questions that are most suited to unpacking and understanding a particular approach to Development.

The various MSc induction programmes are geared to whet student appetites as they dig into the smorgasbord of option courses and seminar offerings. While some may get a bit lost in the vast array of options, issues and developing regions, reflecting on specific thematic interests can help students to find their bearings and tailor the MSc to their needs. Thematic interests may draw your attention to issues like migration, health, informality, finance, civil society or international institutions, or your interests may be more regionally focused. Some students are keen to know more about Africa, while others want to focus on South Asia, Latin America, or learn more about the BRICS. Some students want to combine thematic interests with a knowledge of particular methodologies, such as developing quantitative skills, or learning about process tracing or comparative case studies.

Of course, many of us have more interests than option slots, but thinking in terms of the thematic-regional-methodological nexus can be a helpful way of defining your main interests and prioritizing courses. Think about whether you have a passion for a particular issue, like digital technology, health, aid or decolonizing development. Some may find they are interested in the intersection of two themes, such as the digitization of health provision or decolonizing development aid, and can identify option courses on each of the component themes. Others may find that regional interests take priority.  Indeed, some come in knowing they want to focus on India or the Middle East, and need to think about what specific thematic issues they want to know more about in the context of these regional interests, such as how environmental governance affects India or the role of inequality in the Middle East. Still others want to take the opportunity to learn new methodological skills to deepen their ability to investigate specific regional and/or thematic interests.

Allowing your thematic interests to help you prioritize courses can be a useful way of ensuring a measure of intellectual convergence in the selection you make.  When courses and seminars pull you in too many different directions, it can be more difficult to capture the knowledge synergies that make MSc Development programmes more than the sum of their parts.  Competence in a range of new skills is great, but at the Masters level, this needs to be focused around a core of key interests so that your various courses connect with each other in enlightening ways.  If you’re not sure which are the best courses for your needs, your adviser can help you identify the most appropriate courses.  So don’t look at the course guides as a list of all of the things you don’t know.  Use them as a way of focusing what you do know about your interests and objectives, and building that into a tailor-made programme for your year at the LSE.  After all, what makes you stand out from the crowd is not learning the same skills as everyone else, but pulling together a unique combination of experience and development training into insightful new responses to pressing development questions.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Photo Credit: LSE on Flickr.


Getting the most from your MSc: Big questions and thematic interests