If you had a chance to go anywhere in the world and do one thing for your career over the summer, what would you do?
When I say I am majoring in economics, most people try to clarify. “Consulting?” they ask. “Management?” But my passion is development economics; that is, economics of poor and least developed countries.
During the past year I realized that I want to contribute research that helps policy makers improve the lives of disadvantaged people around the world. I discovered that I want that rewarding feeling of fighting for a cause. But while I knew this was the field I wanted to pursue, what I didn’t know until recently is what this career, or even an average work day, could look like. I’d read numerous research papers on economic development issues, but didn’t understand how that research is produced.
After spending the past two months in Nepal, working on a research project examining the links between migration, poverty, and the quality of governance, for the first time now I feel confident that this is a career path I can pursue in graduate school and beyond.
How I got the chance to work in Nepal
In the middle of my junior year I found out that Mount Holyoke offers summer funding awards. These awards can be used towards financing any internship or research project in any country in the world, provided you can articulate how the summer experience will fit into your career. I applied and, a few short months later, found myself accepting my grant at an award ceremony.
In order to get this grant, I had to decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do there. I was not interested in any country in particular, but hoped to travel to a developing country to work on a socially significant research project, so that I could get to know what it is like to be a development economics researcher and, at the same time, make an impact with my project.
There were two resources that were invaluable to me in finding an opportunity that would meet my goals. First was Mount Holyoke’s career resource center, which collects reports from students when they return from their summer internships. I browsed through the folders marked “Asia,” “Africa,” and “South America,” and identified around ten local development organizations involved in research. I then visited the organizations’ websites, prepared my applications, and sent them out. In a few weeks, I got a positive response from organizations in India, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nepal.
I also got a lot of great direction from a course called Prepare Your Internship/Research Project. The course helped me better understand my career objectives, as well as my strengths and weaknesses, which allowed me to make a well-informed choice among the summer opportunities I had identified.
I ended up choosing a position with the Nepal Development Research Institute (NDRI). I really wanted to get a hands-on research experience, including fieldwork, which I thought I would get at NDRI, and because NDRI works with a broad array of development issues I figured I would have a wide choice of potential research topics to explore. They also offered to provide me with a research supervisor, which was important to me because it meant I would be able to work independently while also receiving professional guidance.
Getting the opportunity is only the first step
After I secured the funding and finalized my plans, I had to take care of my traveling. Never before had I booked international flights. Never before had I made housing arrangements in a foreign country for such a long period of time – 2.5 months. Never before had I taken care of a visa myself rather than through an intermediary agency.
It took me over a month to get ready for my trip, but booking the flights and securing an apartment for rent myself turned out to be an invaluable logistical experience.
In early June I finally landed in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
For the last two months I tried to be a researcher, and I enjoyed every moment of it. I am now 100% confident that I want to go to graduate school in this field.
I’ve been studying how migration, poverty and the quality of governance are connected, which is a topic that is particularly significant in Nepal but has not received a lot of attention in the past.
I now have a deeper understanding of the techniques used in development economics research. I now better understand the links between academia, research, and policy; theory and fieldwork; research and its environment. In addition, I have identified my interests within the field of development economics and had my eyes opened to development issues I had never thought about before.
I have finished the theoretical part of my paper and will be doing fieldwork in the coming weeks. Later, I hope to publish my research findings and foster a dialogue on my topic.
Finally yet importantly, living in a developing country for the first time turned out to be a stressful but very rewarding experience, and I have dramatically improved my adaptability skills. I am grateful to Mount Holyoke and NDRI for this transformative experience.
People may continue to question me when I say I am pursuing development economics, but I no longer have any reason to question myself.