Experiences

Course Reviews: Master of Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance

When I started my graduate degree most people would hear ‘Master of Public Policy‘, nod, pause a couple of a seconds and then ask me what that was, exactly. At first I didn’t know how to answer. Judging from the answers given by my graduating class (and myself) we’re still not entirely sure.

Now, at least, when people ask me about the course I did I have a quickfire response: it’s like an MBA but for politics.

Need someone to revamp a bit of your company? Hire an MBA grad. Want somebody to draft you a new policy or run a project that isn’t profit oriented? Hire an MPP grad.

The world of modern government is difficult. The public sector is responsible for far more than it ever used to be, people expect much more from and the general public is generally more dissatisfied with it than ever. Public policy schools have sprung up to try to train people who can solve some of these problems.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin

Personally, my motivation for doing an MPP came from my various internships in development and hearing the experiences of friends and bloggers who were doing similar things. I saw that, often, many organisations in the sector aren’t run very well. They aren’t financially stable, the people in charge are often technical experts rather than people who know how to run organisations, and, as a result, most organisations are struggling to stay relevant, transparent and respected during a difficult moment in history. Rather than become a highly specialised lawyer or logistics expert, I figured, why not go study to be a generalist – be the person who lets specialists focus on their specialisations.

The MPP programme dips into economics, law, politics, public administration and statistics; enough to give graduates an understanding of the broader set of challenges facing public and nonprofit organisations today. This is a degree that sees the fox as superior to the hedgehog, an approach that I think global development truly benefits from. If you want to come out of your graduate school experience an expert in your field, this probably isn’t the course for you.

Of course, you do learn skills. In the (brutal) first semester everybody gets a crash course in economics (both micro and macro in 12 weeks!) and statistics, where you learn to use STATA and understand multiple regressions. I did courses on digital economics, learned how to download and analyse social media data, got an introduction to law and participated in a series of mock negotiations during my two years in Berlin.

The MPP is a professional graduate degree that focuses on shorter, more workplace applicable outputs: memos, short essays, presentation after dreaded presentation. It is a tough and full time course that gets through a lot of material very quickly. The day I handed in my thesis I had an oral exam. After that, I went right home to work on two essays due that same week. Many of my peers would agree that this course was a lot more work and hours (say goodbye to your weekends) than most jobs. But once you get through it, nothing else is likely to phase you.

The Berlin experience

I chose to go to the Hertie School in Berlin for three main reasons: it was cheaper than most of the other options (both in terms of tuition and living costs); I really liked the city from previous visits; and my partner grew up in Berlin. I’m still very pleased with my decision.

There are things you probably already know. Berlin is cheap as chips. Berlin is still just about the coolest city on the planet right now. But it is also the capital of Europe’s most powerful country and the Hertie School is located a couple of minutes from the Reichstag, slap bang in the middle of the government district. Practically every day at Hertie a important minister, ambassador, policy maker or social scientist visits to give a talk (with free food and drinks afterwards). You can’t help but feel you’re at the centre of a major political capital. In addition, Hertie is tiny compared to most of its competitors – my graduating class, the only class of my cohort, was just 146 people. That’s it. You’ll know most of your peers and most of the professors will know your name and learn your interests. You don’t feel part of a huge machine at Hertie, but part of a very active, very well connected political community.

There are downsides. Hertie is a very young institution, just over a decade old, and doesn’t have the name recognition (at least outside Germany) of the LSE or Columbia University. Particularly for non-Europeans, battling with the bureaucratic German registration process and finding housing can be gruelling. While my fellow students were largely very well integrated there is no denying that the Germans tended to stick with their fellow Germans, leaving the rest of us ausländer to club together.

On the whole, however, the downsides were handily outweighed. What Hertie doesn’t have in brand recognition it makes up for in faculty and staff who are massively committed and energetic – it’s a young, small, hungry institution that doesn’t coast along on its name. One of the worst aspects of my undergraduate experience was the feeling that I wasn’t seen as a student with interests and potential, but a source of income. This will not happen at Hertie.

The MPP network

I heard about the MPP via the Master of Public Administration course offered at the London School of Economics (which is, broadly, the same as the MPP offered at Hertie). There are several Public Policy schools who band together around the world offering more or less comparable degrees and a huge amount of study abroad and dual degree options. Friends of mine studied part of their 2 year degrees in London, New York, Washington, Paris, Tokyo, Cairo, Milan and Moscow.

Hertie is the most Europe/EU focused of the public policy schools. It has EU staffers and former European Central Bank officials in its faculty. Most of the lessons focus on European issues (not German, specifically, but in recent years the two have been hard to disentangle). Some students were disappointed that they could not focus on geographical or thematic areas – such as Latin America or Conflict Resolution – so check out the rest of the policy schools before you choose one: most have a general area of interest/focus.

All MPP/MPAs are taught in English. You can travel the world and meet your fellow politics geeks at yearly student conferences like the European Public Policy Network or the Global Public Policy Network (which I attended in 2013). My graduating cohort contained students from 36 different countries, starting with Afghanistan all the way through to Uruguay. Friends have gone on to travel and work or study in many more countries. There aren’t many places in the world I can go and not find somebody in this network, sweating it out writing policy memos, ready to give me local tips and share a drink or two.

It’s not often in life that you will meet so many interesting people in such a short space of time (several of whom have written for this blog). In 20 years time, I’m sure that the most valuable thing to come from my time at Hertie won’t be the skills or ideas I learned, but the network of people I met.

Five characteristics of a happy Hertie MPP student:

  1. You don’t want to be a specialist/you don’t know what you want to specialise in just yet.
  2. You want to work in the public or nonprofit sectors (or in socially oriented business).
  3. You value personal attention over big name recognition.
  4. You care about the EU.
  5. You are internationalist in outlook.
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Commentary

Sleeping Rough in Geneva: What is behind Unpaid Internships at the UN?

by Alex Odlum

The international press have been quick to jump on the story of David Hyde — the 22 year old New Zealand intern found squatting in a tent on the shores of Lake Geneva due the impossibility of meeting the city’s exorbitant rents on a UN salary of zero Swiss Francs (CHF).

As a law graduate with recent Master in Public Policy eager to start out on a career in international affairs, David’s struggle to afford the strangling prices of a city consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 most expensive is one to which I can closely relate.

Fortunately – for me at least – I am able to call a small apartment home and so far have not had to resort to a tent. Nonetheless, many a time I have found myself munching on nothing more than plain baguette after weighing up the horrendous prices of a more traditional bakery lunch – a humble ham sandwich (forget about the cheese!) will set you back nearly 10 CHF in many places.

Of course it is not fair to him but, in some respects, David has had it easy. At just 22 with only four years of study – and presumably four years of cumulative student debt – under his belt, David’s finances are potentially a lot healthier than those of many graduate job seekers today.

Many of the UN’s other unpaid interns have spent five, six, seven or more years scratching out master’s degrees and doctorates at the world’s best (and most expensive) universities, only to find themselves working for free.

I have known qualified medical doctors with public health master’s degrees to be on the World Health Organization’s books as unpaid interns. Sadly, such stories of over-qualification and under-valuation are more common than they are unique.

The point I am making here is that the discourse on David Hyde’s dilemma, whether justifying or scandalising unpaid internships looks only at snapshot in time and fails to grapple with the further issue that ambitious and talented young people often undergo years of financial sacrifice just to be eligible for a coveted internship at their dream institution.

Of course, students will always be poor.

That is a truism that one cannot challenge. Being a student is as much about learning about life outside the classroom as it is about books and grades.

There is nothing like a couple of weeks of a lavish indulgence followed by a couple of weeks of acute poverty to teach us the finer points of monthly budgeting and personal finance.

But whereas obtaining a good bachelor’s degree peppered with a bit of work experience over the summer breaks used to be a pretty fail-safe launching point to a junior position, the hard truth is that today over 5 years of study, a master’s degree or two, and a host of paid or unpaid internships is no ticket to employment.

At the UN, for example, entry-level professional positions – “P1” – simply do not exist. You’ll need to miraculously summon two years work experience from the day of your graduation just to qualify for a P2 position.

Ultimately, the problem here is not that the UN requires highly trained and experienced entry-level candidates – after all, this is a highly sought after employer operating in a competitive, global market. Rather, the problem is that such reasoning ignores the fact that just getting to graduation day costs vast quantities of students’, parents’, or even the government’s precious savings, leaving highly qualified graduates in a precarious position.

Although US tuition fees are at the high extreme of the global spectrum, the fact that average graduate loan debt in the US hit $35,000 in 2015 is indicative of the predicament young job seekers face around the world.

Investing three, six or even 24 months of your time to make contacts, demonstrate your skills and learn the ropes is not simply a matter of roughing it for a few nights, akin to pitching a tent on your new plot of land before you are able to afford the bricks and mortar.

Instead, it is more like sleeping rough deep in an excavated building site. Sure, you might have some pretty solid foundations lying around that in theory could support a skyscraper. But without the money to buy construction materials, you’re not going to be able to build the home you dreamed of. What is worse, with just a bit of rain, you will soon be up to your neck in mud.

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