So you’re in. You made it. You’re now a proud incoming graduate student. No need to think any further or make any more tough choices, right? Wrong. Here’s where some of the critical choices will come into play that position you to get your dream job after graduation. What student groups do you join? What internships do you apply for? What courses should you take? Let’s start with the courses since that’s the first thing you need to decide. Those first weeks (and months!) can be very overwhelming, particularly if you’re returning to school after some years in the workforce. You get a list of the required courses (Econ? Stats? Courses with titles like “Fundamentals of Public Policy”, right?) but then you need to fill the remainder of your schedule with elective courses that fulfill requirements. It’s hard to know where to start and while 2 years (or 1 year if you have a condensed program) sounds like a long time, it flies by and it’s only four semesters to fit it all in. Here are the rules of thumb I wish I’d known when selecting my courses. If you can’t answer “Yes!” to at least one of the below questions, you probably don’t really need the course.
Does this course provide me with tangible, “marketable” skills?
A fancy graduate degree is great, but what employers really want to know is “Can she do the job?” Do you know how to use statistical regression software? Do you know how to design monitoring and evaluation plans? Do you have negotiation and mediation skills? Do you know how to write a policy memo? Get clear on what specific skills you’ll need, what skills you’re missing, and find the classes that will fill those in for you. If you’re not sure what skills you need, start reading job postings you hope to be qualified for post-graduation. And of course, ask alumni what skills they needed to get their jobs and what they use in their jobs. If your focus is international, you’re going to need language skills. However, taking a foreign language during grad school is either the best idea ever (a time in your life when your raison d’etre is all about getting those skills!) or the worst idea ever (you’re already swamped with coursework and an internship and taking a language means you have zero time to do that critical networking that’s actually going to get your foot in the door for an interview—maybe you should enroll in a language intensive month away immediately after graduation instead.) Think before you leap into a language.
Has this course been recommended by alumni in my area(s) of interest?
Don’t be afraid to ask around. And in your first semester, befriend some second-years and ask them. Ask around:
- What are your top 3 favorite classes?
- Which classes were most useful to you?
- What should I take—and why?
Pay attention to why they recommend certain classes.
- Did the professor connect them to job opportunities later?
- Did they learn something key to add to their resume?
- Do they use the skills or ideas taught later in their jobs?
- Did they get the opportunity to structure their own research paper on a topic that led them to publish later?
Is this professor someone I want to be “in” with?
Who is well known in my field or knows my field well? Is the professor someone who might later write me recommendations and serve as a reference? This may sound hard to guage, but don’t be shy about connecting with professors before enrolling in the course; read their bios and then go to office hours. Don’t just come up with a question for the sake of asking a question, but if you’re truly interested in their work, it should be easy to find something to ask about. People generally like to talk about themselves and their work and if it’s a good fit, you’ll actually be interested in their answers. Go on the hunt for a mentor from day one!
Is there some other “perk” to this course?
I’m talking about an awesome internship connected to the course reserved only for its students. Or a class trip to “the field” when “the field” is Iraq or Kenya, or the chance to present at a conference at Google. Or the course is held in the UN Headquarters building and UN staff join the course. Or something else I haven’t thought of or experienced, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Is the workload manageable?
Only you will know the answer to this, but while grades aren’t everything (unless you’re going for a PhD later or are competing for a prestigious fellowship), it’s also not worth killing your GPA or sending yourself into a stress spiral for a course that is going to truly be too much. You don’t want to sacrifice your ability to do that amazing internship or be your best networking self and go to those career panels because you’re stuck in the library writing a 60-page research paper when writing and research aren’t your strengths or studying for a quantitative exam when you’re just not good with numbers. Diversify your resume, but also choose courses that play to your strengths. A lot of grad programs in the public policy, international affairs, global studies field have a mix of practical and theoretical courses and it can be hard to find the balance that works for you. However, if you’re not planning to go on to a PhD program, you may want to limit the number of super theoretical courses you take unless they are a “yes” to one of the above questions. I, for example, got lured into a lot of very interesting theoretical courses that I can say with certainty never came in useful in my career since then, and did not help me get a job (and I barely remember the content). Of course if you have extra time in your schedule, go ahead and sign up for those classes. Better yet, sign up for the “quantitative methods of…” course that sounds kind of boring but rounds out your resume. You’ll thank me later.