GWU’s Elliott School holds classes in the evenings so that students can work or intern during the day. This allows students to supplement the academic side of development with practical experience. But it also means that students have to find healthy ways to manage your time and stress. OID sat down with two second-year students in the IDS program to talk about how they work full-time, tackle grad school and have fun in between!
OID: Hi, ladies! Let’s start off with the basics: who are you, what are you studying at GWU?
Stephanie: I’m starting my second year in the IDS program and am focusing on rural community development, particularly in Africa. I’m originally from southern California but have been working in DC for about five years now.
Mary: I’m a second year in the IDS program and my concentration is women in conflict and post-conflict situations. I’m originally from Fairfax, Virginia, just outside of DC and went to undergrad at UVA. I’ve been in DC since graduating in 2009.
OID: What made you pursue your Master’s at GWU, and in development specifically?
Stephanie: I’ve known for a while that I wanted to have a career in development, and GW seemed like the perfect fit; it’s in DC, offers a wonderfully broad range of courses related to development, and was one of the most professionally-oriented programs I considered.
Mary: Coming out of undergrad, I had in my mind that I wanted to go back to school for my Master’s in Public Policy, not having any idea what I’d do with that. Once I got some work experience, I had a better sense of the direction I wanted to go in and what kind of degree I needed. I started out working on national security issues, and got a chance to focus on development as a security issue, which sparked my interest in development in general. In my current job, I get to sample a lot of the different sectors and in turn, it has helped me narrow down my own development interests. I knew I wanted to stay in DC, and the program at GW was the perfect fit.
OID: You both work full-time and do school full-time, right? Do you work in development and do you feel like working helps you understand development and your coursework more fully?
We do – it seemed like a good idea at the time…
But, honestly, we both think working in development and studying development at the same time are mutually reinforcing. Our work experience helps us see how the ideas we learn about in class may – or may not – actually work out in real life, especially given practical constraints (like budgets). In the same way, we’re able to bring what we’re learning in class to specific work assignments, and having a better academic and theoretical foundation is a huge asset at work.
Stephanie: I work at USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives. I think the fast and flexible programming my office does is fascinating but doesn’t always fit within standard models – so it’s really interesting to see how the concepts I’m learning in school (like evaluation techniques) can be applied in a less traditional USAID context.
Mary: I work at the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network – we’re a coalition made up of implementing organizations, think tanks, and individual policy experts. As a coalition, I have a lot of access to different kinds of organizations and sectors, which has given me a chance to learn more about the different (US based) development actors and how they work and interact. I’m really more focused on the policy and advocacy side of things, rather than the programmatic side, like Stephanie, but I’ve found that my work and courses have been really complimentary of one another.
OID: Tell us all of your secrets to success: how do you balance school, work, friendships, relationships, and your sanity?
Besides always having a bottle of wine on hand? It’s obvious, but time management is probably the most important. Not having the luxury of being able to do reading or paper writing at work means you really have to start assignments sooner, work ahead, and very carefully plan out your schedule. And that does mean fewer dinners and happy hours during the week, not as much time with your friends and/or significant other, and less sleep. But we’re not total recluses (contrary to what some may think!) – it’s absolutely necessary to carve out time to relax and have fun.
And, if you start working full time, don’t give up hope. We’ve seen going into our second year that it does get comparatively easier with time as you get in your rhythm and figure out your own limits.
OID: What do you wish you had done differently your first year, and what would you recommend to incoming first years?
Looking back, we do really wish we’d had more time to be part of all the IDS social activities, even though we’re not sure how that would have physically been possible…
As far as advice for incoming first years, two things come to mind: first, try your best to be fully present in every class. There are already so many other parts of life that compete with school, spending class time thinking about work (or internship hunting, or anything else) is just going to detract from what you get out of your time at GW. Second, use your first year courses, particularly final projects that give you a lot of freedom in topic choice, to explore specific interests that could end up being your concentration.
OID: What have been your favorite classes thus far?
Stephanie: I loved how Cornerstone made my head hurt in a good way, I really liked my program evaluation course (in the School of Education and Human Development, believe it or not), and the Participatory Planning skills course gave me some great tools that I can’t wait to try out.
Mary: Agree with Stephanie, Cornerstone was hugely helpful. It was such a great foundation building class for development history and theory. I also really liked my Violence, Gender and Humanitarian Assistance class just because it reinforced for me that I picked the right concentration for my interests.
OID: Anything else you feel like those considering going full-time should know or consider?
The decision to go full-time is a based on so many personal factors, all we can suggest is to think through each of them, including your preferences and goals, your ability to multitask and manage stress, your finances, and what kind of academic experience you’re looking for. Also, even within working full-time, there’s a lot of variation in terms of how much your job expects of you, both officially and unofficially – so make sure you understand what those expectations are before you make a decision. (Editor’s note: check out this post from last year with Bethel Alemu and Megan Meinen!)