With the New Year under way and a new semester just around the corner, development students are setting resolutions that will help them learn about the field and prepare them to embark on careers in international aid. The Guardian’s recent series on New Year’s Resolutions for Development Professionals prompted me to share some resolutions specifically for graduate students in development.
1. Read blogs
The aid and development blogosphere is rich with knowledge, opinions, and anecdotes about all aspects of the field, and provides a great complement to classroom learning. Reading blogs allows students to engage with the field informally, dig deeper into topics that interest them, keep up-to-date with new research, and see debates unfold in real time.
Though updates on many blogs have become less frequent lately, there are still dozens of excellent ones, with a tremendous amount to be learned from them. Some great bloggers to check out include Chris Blattman, Ken Opalo, Duncan Green, and the teams at WhyDev and Humanosphere. [Ed: we have an extensive reading list for the internet addicted bottom-rungers here]
On a related note, the aid Twitterati is very active and offers links to relevant posts and abridged versions of the discussion found on blogs. Both The Guardian and WhyDev recently posted lists of top development Tweeps to follow.
2. Read non-academic books related to the field
Students (myself included) often find it difficult to commit to doing much outside reading, but I’m not suggesting everyone study extra statistics textbooks in their spare time! Rather, I think reading non-technical books is a low-stress, enjoyable way to deepen our understanding of development and aid.
Books that informally address material learned in class can help the concepts sink in and give students a chance to see how these concepts get applied in the real world. Similarly, memoirs by aid workers offer insight into the life for which students are preparing themselves. For example, Zen Under Fire, written by a human rights lawyer about her experiences working in Afghanistan, thoughtfully discusses struggles many aid workers face in both their personal and professional lives.
Novels and non-fiction works set in developing countries can also provide a new perspective and some cultural understanding. For suggestions of books from (literally) any country of interest, take a look at A Year of Reading The World.
3. Connect with students in other schools and programs
No more reading resolutions, I promise! It has become very clear to me that there are many, many different ways to approach development work – public policy, anthropology, economics, public health, gender studies, business, even engineering. All these fields and many others offer their own approach to development, their own lens through which to view development issues, their take on the most important problems and the most effective solutions. Even among the APSIA schools, which offer somewhat similar degree programs, each school has its own bent on the study of development. Connecting with students from other programs and schools can offer great insight into the many approaches to development and enhance students’ understanding of the field at large. In short, resolve to attend a happy hour.
4. Learn a relevant computer skill
Admittedly more technical (and probably less fun) than the above resolutions, becoming proficient in a relevant computer skill can only be beneficial. In my job-search and networking experience, many organizations are looking for employees and interns who are skilled at Stata, ATLAS, GIS, CSPro, HTML, or other software or languages. Do some research to identify which one is most relevant to your goals, and see if it is taught in any courses or workshops at your school or through online tutorials.
5. Listen to foreign language podcasts
On a somewhat similar note, resolve to keep up a foreign language. Most students in international development speak at least one foreign language, though maintaining proficiency probably isn’t a priority for most students while they’re in school. Since you will likely be called on to use another language during internships and future jobs (including in interviews), it’s advantageous to stay familiar with it. I’ve discovered a simple way of doing this is to listen to foreign language podcasts while commuting, which at least keeps comprehension and vocabulary from getting too rusty.
6. Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
At one point or another, regardless of the exact type of aid work you ultimately do, you will have the responsibility of portraying people from other countries. It could be in official reports for your organization, on a personal blog, during conversations with other aid workers, or in letters to your grandmother. For the sake of both dignity and accuracy, it is critical that portrayals – in whatever form they take – go beyond stereotypes, simplifications, or a “single story.”
Please share your own resolutions and recommendations for blogs, books, and other resources in the comments.