As my time at the Harvard Kennedy School comes to a close, I had the opportunity to attend a lunchtime panel where the impending HKS graduates shared their experiences on their capstone presentations. It wasn’t a full-scale synopsis, as the purpose of the panel appeared to be to thank the Ash Center for providing travel grants, and the dialogues were short and appreciative. Each participant gave a brief overview of their project, and then discussed subsequent follow-ups, such as how the project fit in with the wider scheme of their graduate education, and how it fit in with their anticipated career trajectory.
I stood in a similar spot only a few months ago, when I presented my own capstone project, and I was acutely eager – as my colleagues pointed out shortly before the presentations began – to see how these capstone projects measured up against my own.
My project included a team of five – three economics grad students, and three of us with policy oriented degrees. Of the policy students, I was the only one with a concentration in public health. We worked on a microfinance project in West Bengal, India, and two of us (myself and one other group member) traveled to the rural Indian project site to conduct interviews of the potato farmers who participated in the lending scheme. The entire process included many tiring nights, countless literature searches, original survey design, dealing with the incompetency of the IRB, and spending a whole lot of unnecessary time worrying about group politics.
The big element I didn’t see that I really expected to in the Kennedy School presentations was a quantitative component. Whether generating policy recommendations for a hypothetical nuclear disaster in Japan, spearheading social innovation in Germany, Shadow banking in Hong Kong, or Community Organizing in Oregon, all of these projects included travel, interviews, and in depth analyses…without necessarily including datasets.
One thing I think is important to understand in regards to outside perceptions of the Kennedy School is the huge emphasis placed on econometrics, regressions, and quantitative elements of public policy and international development. The mere requirements for admission to the school and any of its program offerings is a major deterrent, as they alone require more quantitative prerequisites for a policy degree than most schools do for an economics degree.
Even though I didn’t personally have a huge hand in the econometric analysis of my own capstone project, I thought our quantitative offerings were ultimately the crux of what we had to offer. The fieldwork I participated in provided valuable qualitative analysis, though albeit secondary to our hard quantitative findings.
I guess a lot of things come down to policy recommendations. I was surprised, though oddly reassured – there were several justifications for the absence of the quantitative components – such as where would this data come from? With a uniquely crafted project build on a hypothetical idea, convenient data sets don’t just drop from the sky (much like they did in my own capstone project which utilized meticulous records of loan repayment information and household characteristics from the borrowers for the past four years).
All in all, I was impressed with the panelists and their various efforts for their final capstone projects. My primary interest, however, lied with the people themselves over their research in this setting. With an overall older aggregate age, and obvious working experience, the Kennedy School panelists came from political careers or were “members of the intelligence community.” I don’t mean to knock my own program – I was after all, the only one in my group from the U.S. – I’m just saying workforce experience is key.☼