Forward, upward, onward, together*

* Bahamian national motto

korbel grad group shot

This is my last post on this blog, as I graduated on June 7th and with my new responsibilities back in The Bahamas will not have time to update it (and I also want to keep it as generally Korbel/GFTEI-relevant as possible…). I may have a new blog at some point in the not too distant future, however, and if I do, I’ll update this page to fill in the site address HERE, for those who may be interested.

So here’s a few things I’ve been thinking you should know if you are considering coming to the Josef Korbel School of International Studies to do a Masters degree. It’s my own personal opinions and observations, so please seek clarification or alternative opinions elsewhere if you feel the need, or feel free to ask me any questions you like at the bottom in the comments section. It’s long, but hey, it’s the last one…and I’m trying to be comprehensive here! (It is also possible that I am trying to fill some of the time I now find myself with in this post-graduation, pre-job start period, so as to avoid a minor existential crisis – a sort of mild, post-graduation stress disorder brought on by the sudden loss of all responsibility and sense of purpose, if you will…).

General observations on doing a “Masters” degree…

You will not come out feeling like a “Master”, if by master we assume expertise in some area or other, although this is of course, entirely relative. Compared to the general population, you will indeed by masterful, but in comparison to your best professors, you will still feel like an intellectual novice. However, if you are lucky, you will realize via your studies that there is no consensus in most subject areas of any real importance, and where consensus has seemed to at some point exist, or seems to at present, it is most often due to some kind of confluence of interests that have collided to result in a certain ideologically-driven worldview becoming dominant (but not necessarily correct) because it benefits one group or another (see: neoliberalism). Or it may be due to faulty data/ analytics that point to a particular conclusion which might not actually be well supported (see: recent controversy re: austerity). A liberating realization is that this enables room for debate and criticism, and the value of your contribution as someone who can read, write and consider these issues and arguments.

While you may not be a “Master” in the sense that you may hitherto have been imagining this degree would allow you to become, if you can, during the course of your degree, learn how to come up with answers under a time constraint given limited information which you have developed some adeptness in locating and analyzing, you will have reaped the rewards of your decision to pursue this degree. Being effective at this is basically at the heart of what being somewhat successful at life, and most work situations, is really about (as far as I can tell, based on my limited time and information thus far in life…).

As both a participant in classes with students who have done so, and as a student who has had such experience myself, I can only recommend that it is better to come in with some work/life experience. Not only are you more likely to know what you actually want to do, and therefore what you want and need to study in order to do what it is that you want to do, but you will find yourself applying what you’re reading and discussing to the context in which you had your experience. In my own experience, I felt this aided my ability to apply and critique theories tremendously and I can’t quite imagine having taken half of what I have from this experience had I not had work experience prior to arriving at Korbel. The ability to bring real world examples or counterexamples to class is a huge tool for your own and others’ learning. Given the cost of this education, it is truly worth thinking about how you can wring the most benefit from it as possible, and for me, prior world experience post-undergraduate studies was key to that.

Korbel-specific observations…(maybe?):

Professors and adjunct faculty:

There is quite a large amount of variation in the quality of professors and adjunct faculty, and consequently, the classes they teach. Some are leaders in their field, on the cutting edge of research and scholarship, and have excellent world-renowned reputations. Some have excellent world-renowned reputations but have less interest in teaching. Some are just starting out, but have a solid academic background, interesting research interests and a real commitment to passing on knowledge (although less experience in doing so). Some are primarily teaching professors, who do not do much research at present, and in some of these cases, can seem less up to date with the latest scholarship in their field (but may nonetheless be enthusiastic and helpful disseminators of knowledge and inspirers of discussion).

Among adjunct faculty, there are a number of people who are leaders in their professional spheres, and more often than not, the enthusiasm for teaching among this group is very high (most likely reflecting the fact that they do not have to teach classes as they have full time, successful, professional careers elsewhere and simply do it out of a desire to pass on expertise). Their enthusiasm may or may not be matched by their ability to structure classes well and impart their knowledge. Again, there’s a lot of variation. In classes, this variation can be reflected in discussions, readings assigned, and more. Depending on how deeply you intend to pursue their particular subject area, whether or not a professor is a deeply-involved researcher who remains up to date with their field and will be more or less important to you. My personal recommendation would be to take as many classes with those professors who are indeed truly on the cutting edge of their field, whether it be academic or in the private sector. You will feel like you have really been given a true insight into the most critical debates in these areas, and engaged with someone who can challenge your thinking in ways that will help you see the world differently in important ways that my shape your outlook and approach going forward.

(It’s also worth noting that Korbel has hired a number of new teaching staff this year, and I can’t vouch for where any of these will fall among the categories mentioned above!).

Your cohort:

Some students seem to be here primarily to get a degree under their belt to put on their resume, others to expand their minds. Some come to find the practical means to tackle real world problems, and a significant minority are using the time and ability to indulge in studies of a variety of areas to try to figure out what they want to do in life.  Some are older, with significant international work experience, others younger and fresh out of undergraduate college (it’s also a fact that the cohorts have been getting younger on average in recent years). By and large, however, most people have something interesting and worthwhile to bring to the table.

Besides this, it’s worth appreciating the fact that the simple pleasure of being surrounded by a group of individuals of roughly your age with interests that either directly align with your own, or if not, which cover a variety of subject areas that you would love to have time to study, but may never get the chance to do so, is a rare, huge and sometimes unanticipated benefit of doing this degree. It’s been extremely gratifying to meet so many people who want to do good and improve the human condition, and more importantly, who are intelligent and realistic. You will make some of the best friends of your life. And eventually, once the job search settles, you will have a network all over the world – for vacations and for future jobs! (a Google map of the future locations of all of the 2013 class is currently being created by one enterprising Korbelite…).

Talk to them:

You should get to know your professors. Talk to them – seek their advice and input.  By and large, they are interested in your future. There are few professors from undergrad whose names I recall, but I doubt there are any who can recall mine. Classes were larger, and in general, individual attention much less forthcoming. The level of personal interest and attention from professors at Korbel was a surprise, and a truly gratifying aspect of the experience.

Do your homework (before taking classes…):

Each quarter students at Korbel are required to evaluate their classes/professors with both scores on a five point scale, and comments. Read the class evaluations that you can find on WebCentral before deciding what classes to take. This will minimize your chance of taking one which has been widely assessed to be lacking (and such classes do exist), and maximise the likelihood that you will take a kick-ass one instead. Checking these evaluations is also advice that often isn’t given to incoming students, but only passed on by word of mouth from others in the previous year’s cohort. But bear in mind that it’s also clear that a five point scale can’t accurately depict everything about the quality and characteristics of a class and professor. Neither is the syllabus always the best description of what the class will entail, or whose interests it is aimed at. So talk to fellow students, in the years above you, and your own, before deciding to take certain classes.

And on this note, please continue to push for the administration to make student’s written comments on quarterly class evaluations which we are asked to submit available for all to read. The DU law school does it, and if lawyers think it’s okay to make students’ comments regarding the strengths and weaknesses and classes and professors available, it surely should be okay for Korbel to provide this qualitative information to students too (should it be litigation we are concerned about…). When students are paying thousands of dollars a quarter to get an education, they deserve to be fully informed about the product they are going to consume – especially if the information has been collected already. The fact that it is not seems like an oversight, and has been raised with the Dean, Christopher Hill, who appeared sympathetic (as did other members of the administration). Let’s make sure it happens, so that even though my year won’t get to benefit from it, others will.

Can I handle this program?

Perhaps this is not a politically-correct comment, but don’t worry about whether you can handle this program. I am saying this as someone who almost didn’t come because I was afraid I wouldn’t be up to it, and who now in retrospect finds the thought of that unwise and uninformed decision having played out quite terrifying. If you have done well in undergrad, you are not going to fail this degree. If I’m being entirely candid, besides not handing in papers, totally missing the point of an assignment question, or ignoring all related readings, my sense is that it is extremely hard to totally screw up. Furthermore, if you’re here agonising over doing a masters degree, and ultimately decide to come, it generally means you’re at least somewhat committed to learning something and doing well, which is at least half of the battle. You will also be given the benefit of the doubt – it’s the unavoidable impact of the profit motive of a private school. No one wants masses of disgruntled, failing students to complain about having spent large sums of money on a program that failed them. However, by no means does this mean the program is not worth the while. The key takeaway here is that if you really want to make your degree valuable, you must realize that you get out of it what you put in. It’s possible to get a B+ or even an A- without killing yourself, but the solid As are generally reserved for those who have gone a step further – who do all the readings, who participate thoroughly in class, who bring some additional insight and perspective to discussions and essay writing. More importantly, it is only by doing the above that you are going to feel like you earned the letters M and A after your name once it’s all over. You will also be preparing yourself for succeeding at whatever it is you decide to do next by honing your ability to engage with material and deadlines in a disciplined way. And you may just be more likely to remember what you did in 10 years’ time.

Flexibility:

Flexibility in the program is a blessing and a curse. It enables you to specialize in a variety of areas of your choice (GFTEI with a concentration in global health, Security with a concentration in development, etc), but it also means you may end up taking certain classes prior to others which you would have been better off taking afterwards if you are going to garner the greatest advantage from them, and not feel either overwhelmed or under-challenged by the material. It can also be like going to a restaurant with a very large menu – it’s just hard to choose what to eat, and you may end up with an unsavoury combination/lose focus in your degree if you try too many different things. Try to get some advice on this from fellow students who have already taken the classes (having not taken the classes, professors, while generally aware of what classes are more popular, and which professors are most accomplished, are not always the best at advising which classes to take and when, except if it is their own). As an example, taking Martin Rhodes’ Political Economy of Globalisation class is best done after taking DeMartino and Grabel’s trade and finance classes. You will simply be able to focus on the arguments and not the terminology more, for one.

Language Requirement:

With regard to language requirements, it is necessary to understand that one of the benefits of Korbel is that they, unlike many other schools, allows students to be admitted who are not already fluent in a language. This was a huge advantage and part of my decision to come to the school (the admissions director at GWU, for example, told me that I could not get into the school without already being fluent in a second language “even if I had a letter of recommendation from the President). However, due to the fact that you cannot take language classes for credit while at the school, it turns out that the requirement is akin to an unsupported mandate within the school. This essentially means you must be prepared to take time out of school hours and pay-out in addition to your school fees to fund any language tuition you may need to meet the requirement. It’s also worth noting that whereas in the past, the test required only language reading skills, it now involves reading, writing and speaking. This said, if you come in with some language skills (I would say I was a low-intermediate reader in Spanish, and an advanced beginner in speaking when I came to Korbel) you can easily manage to meet the requirement as long as you don’t leave it until half way through the last year. There is a language center which provides language tuition (at additional cost) in various, sometimes relatively obscure, languages, as well as people (generally undergraduate students who speak the language as their native tongue) who you can practice your speaking skills with. Korbel also allows you to meet the requirement if you pass a level 4 language course with Berlitz.

Outside speakers:

Attend as many of these events as you can. I can’t emphasise this enough. Not only do you get a free lunch (most of the time), but also a free education (or at least, some extra education as part of your degree which you are already paying for…). Some may fear that Korbel is outside the beltway, away from the heavy-hitters in international politics, diplomacy, and academia, but if you take advantage of the series of speakers who visit the school, you have little reason to feel this way. Korbel’s Center for Middle East Studies, the Center for China-US Cooperation and the Center for the Study of Europe and the World, in addition to individual professors and student groups, have been doing an excellent job of bringing in a fantastic range of speakers. Personally, having had the opportunity to hear heads of state, ambassadors, military officials, bureaucrats, business leaders, journalists, transgender libertarian feminist economists, and other academic experts from various leading universities and think-tanks in the US and globally talk on topics from the Arab Spring, to the Eurozone crisis, to China’s rise, and dozens of esoteric topics in between, was easily one of the most valuable parts of my experience at Korbel. These individuals are world leaders in their respective fields, and to not only be able to hear them speak, but to engage them in Q & As in an intimate setting has provided me with some unforgettable memories and insights into some of the most important issues in the world today. Go to as many speaker events as you can – and ask questions! In some cases, it may be one which few others would get the chance to ask.

Thus…

In my opinion, if you plan your degree well (seek advice before or soon after you arrive on what order to take classes in, and with whom, and have a good idea of what types of classes will help you get where you need to go), come with work experience and get some more while you are here, read, read, read (and take notes on your readings, it will help massively with writing papers and if you are like me, remembering what you did in class by the time the next quarter rolls around), talk to professors outside of class,  participate in class (answer and ask questions), attend as many outside speaker events as possible, and aim not to become a master but a discerning consumer and producer of information within a time constraint, your experience at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies will be extremely valuable and fulfilling.

Classes:

Most mind-expanding:

International monetary relations (Ilene Grabel – on sabbatical until 2014)

International Trade (George DeMartino – on sabbatical until 2014)

Political Economy of Globalisation – (Martin Rhodes)

International Political Economy (Rachel Epstein)

Finance and Development (Ilene Grabel)

Political and Economic Development in Latin America (Lynn Holland)

Most practical:

Econometrics (Mark Evers)

International Project Analysis (Tom Laetz)

International Campaign Management (Rick Ridder)

Capital Markets in Africa (Robert Fogler)

International Business Transactions (Josiah Hatch)

If you have any questions regarding any of the above, feel free to comment below and I’ll try to get back to you. I hope some of you prospective students will find this blog useful in making your decision about whether to come to Korbel. I’ve really enjoyed having this outlet (even though I never did get the giant muffin I was promised for writing it…), and more importantly, my time at Korbel, for so many reasons.

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Posted on June 17, 2013, in Global Finance Trade and Economic Integration, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Masters and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I was searching for the information of Denver University Josef Korbel school that I happened to come across your blog post. It is just so informative and useful! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences in Josef Korbel. I would say it is truly helpful for me to get to know more about the school when I am now preparing for my Master in International Relations. Thank you very much again also for many of your tips of getting through the work:)

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