Working as a development consultant while studying: Why not?
When I decided to pursue a postgraduate degree, I knew I wanted to master Development Studies, specifically about the roles of public, private sectors and civil-based organisations in shaping the socio-economic development of a country. Not only did I want to deepen my understanding of the theories, I also aspired to have a hands-on experience throughout the study, which could expand my network. Having this rationale in mind, I proceeded with a desktop research to decide which universities offered the modules that suited my objectives. I came across Development Management programme under Department of International Development at LSE, which employs a political economy approach to examine the distribution of wealth and poverty across countries.
One of the many exciting opportunities available to the students is the compulsory Consultancy Project. In teams of three to five, students are assigned to help real clients by conducting research and producing a theoretical-supported report pro-bono. The clients are ranging from aid donors, NGOs, to multilateral organisations, such as the World Food Programme, the World Bank, Gates Foundation, UNIDO and Save the Children; and geographically spread across the continents. So, you would expect to have regular Skype meeting with your client in Ethiopia or India. The project accounts for 40% of the final score of the Development Management course, so this is truly a big deal!
Apart from LSE’s reputation, the consultancy project was eventually one of the many reasons I applied to the university. It is a golden opportunity to apply what I have learned in the classroom to real world’s problems, plus, I get toput the international working experience in my CV!
So, the voyage of my project started off in Michaelmas term by firstly selecting my preferred top 6 out of 54 available clients. When the organisations want to be the clients, they should submit a brief proposal about their main problem and the scope of work they demand from the consultant. Before I ranked my clients based on my preference, it was imperative to read the proposal and choose the projects based on my research area or an issue that I am interested in – anything that makes me tick. The professors have repeatedly reminded us not to select the clients based on ‘which clients are more famous’ because if we are not into the topic, we will be miserable in the next eight months.
Because there were so many exciting projects, I found it hard to shortlist my options to six clients that I wanted to work with. Finally, I made up my mind and the faculty assigned me to my third choice, the UK Department for International Development (UK DfID), which is responsible for administering UK’s international aid to developing and less developed countries. Along with three bright and highly-dedicated teammates, I worked to synthesise evidence from demand-led climate services across South Asia to determine how these can effectively serve the needs of end-users and marginalised groups in the agriculture and disaster risk reduction sectors.
After the faculty had introduced us to the client, we managed everything by ourselves with close collaboration with our clients in DfID’s regional office in India. Despite all hectic schedule each of us had, we worked in a strictly professional environment, including with the regular internal work-in-progress meeting and Skype call with our client.
Although the professors also helped us through some workshops and feedback sessions for the project, most of the work was managed independently by the team. We never thought to compromise the quality of our works just because we were students and working pro-bono. We took the project seriously- partly because of its importance to our final score and also because we were passionate about the topic.
After long hours of discussions, Sunday’s meetings, contentious debate among ourselves, and sleepless nights at the library, we managed to submit the 10.000 words report that our client was so proud of. After sending the report to the university and our client, we had to prepare the final presentation. Our client informed a good news that within a few days of publishing the report, it had already been widely used, both internally within the DFID Asia Regional Team and within Practical Action Consulting which would aim to incorporate its key findings into future programme design.
As I am looking back to the beginning of my project, I am grateful that I have learned many other things besides literature about climate services, agriculture and disaster risk reduction in South Asia. Below is a snapshot of the key lessons.
- What is it meant to be a development consultant from an academic perspective?
In some development consulting firms, the consultants are tasked to execute development projects on behalf of the clients. Nevertheless, approaching this project as a member of academia, I learn doing an independent research with my client’s problems in mind. I should be objective to see which works and which does not; and transparent in revealing the caveat of the proposed solutions or the key findings. This is an invaluable learning on top of my experience as a consultant before coming to the LSE.
- Writing 10.000 words report
Writing might sound simple and straightforward, but the process was complicated. It was full of hours of research, long fruitful debate and getting stuck in the same conversation or even back to the square one of our discussion. But then again, from this process, I gained experiences in interviewing experts or NGOs practitioners and thinking through the structure of a report, not to mention writing in grammatically error-free English is another significant challenge for a non-native like me.
- Working in a multicultural environment
My teammates come from the USA, Malta, and Slovenia with various academic and professional backgrounds. With this such international composition, I would lie if I said working together was not challenging. Luckily, I got very supportive and positive-minded teammates, who went extra miles to deliver qualified work to the client and helped each other out with personal issues outside of the work. I am also academically and personally indebted to them, especially for all their feedbacks in writing a report. Getting used to work in a multicultural environment is one of the most desired traits to employers. Nonetheless, most importantly, coming out of this journey, my teammates and I have become good friends.
In a nutshell, the project has been very demanding and driving me nuts, I gain more lessons than what I expected. These three key lessons will further shape my personal and professional trajectory. Therefore at this point, I can confidently say that working as a development consultant while pursuing your master’s degree, it’s not a bad idea at all.
I am writing this post as a response to the request from Adhi Hardiansyah, a student from Institut Pertanian Bogor. If you have burning questions or topics that you want me to write, please let me know via my social media below. As much as I can, I will be more than glad to share my contemplation of my experiences.
All photos are courtesy of the author.
Josefhine works as Communications Specialist at World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia. She holds a master's degree in development management from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her post-graduate study is fully funded by Indonesian Presidential Scholarship. Prior to pursuing post-graduate study, she worked as a communications consultant at Maverick. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science with a Valedictorian honor from International Relations Department of Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung. In 2011, the US Department of State granted her full scholarship to study at Utica College, New York.
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