SOAS University of London

Brian King, MSc Environmental Economics (2015)

The fact that SOAS specifically catered to working professionals in the development field was also a major factor in my decision because it gave me confidence that the material would be high quality and relevant as well as flexible in terms of how the degree programme was structured.

Brian King
Chief of Party, USAID Zrda Activity in Georgia - Chemonics International

Why did choose this subject  and what made you choose SOAS?

I studied Economics during my undergraduate and had always been interested to continue my education to a MSc but career and family delayed my plans significantly. In my chosen career, the MSc has become essentially a required qualification for consideration to many positions and it became increasing urgent for me to complete my MSc for professional as well as personal reasons. When researching MSc programmes, I looked at both residential and distance learning programmes though was near certain that a residential programme would not be practical given where I was in my career as well as my family obligations, so distance learning became the option that I focused on. I wanted to find a reputable school that offered programmes relevant to my career in international development and SOAS emerged as the only real option that met these criteria. I chose to study environmental economics out of personal interest, a sense that the subject area is becoming increasingly more important in terms of global trends, and finally due to the relevance of the subject matter to my work in international development. The fact that SOAS specifically catered to working professionals in the development field was also a major factor in my decision because it gave me confidence that the material would be high quality and relevant as well as flexible in terms of how the degree programme was structured.

Why did you choose to study by distance?

I really had no other option besides distance learning because the opportunity cost of stopping work for 1-2 years to pursue an MSc in a residential programme was far too high for my personal situation. I was a bit nervous when starting out but after finding my way and developing a routine to incorporate study into my work and family life, I found that distance learning really suited by learning style. I’ve always worked well independently and really enjoyed the flexibility offered by the distance learning programme. I was able to work at my own pace, and shift intensity of study according to the other things going on in my life. Without the option of distance learning I don’t think that I would have been able to complete my MSc.

How did you manage to work and study?

I can’t say that balancing work, study and family was easy but it was manageable. During the four years of study I was serving in a senior field leadership position as country director for a large international NGO, raising a toddler and during my study welcomed a second child into the family. After three years, my family also went through an international move to a new posting in a new country. Fortunately, the structure of SOAS’ distance learning programme allowed me to approach study in a very flexible way so that I could complete work at my own pace, whether working very intensively for one, two or three months and then taking a break from study for a few weeks or a month if work and family obligations needed to take precedence. I would move quickly through the modules early in the year, then usually slow down in the middle of the year before ramping up again prior to exams, but I always remained flexible in my approach and took things one week and one month at a time. Distance learning requires self-discipline and effective time management but for people in my circumstances, it really was a blessing that allowed me to complete studies that I otherwise probably could not have pursued.

How would you describe your learning experience?

For me the learning experience was almost perfect. I am a self-directed student and did not require or really want much interaction in groups study sessions. I very much preferred the independent nature of the learning process in the programme but that also allowed for interaction and engagement with other students and tutors at the level I felt was necessary. Tutors were always very responsive to queries and I always felt that I would get the answers to my questions when I needed them even if I didn’t have any. I always felt that evaluated assignments (whether for marks or not as was the case when I began) were incredibly valuable experiences and I really thought that tutors without fail provided excellent constructive feedback that really helped me to prepare for exams. I was a bit surprised that exams were very old fashioned and did not leverage technology and would recommend that at least exams should be taken on computers rather than hand-written. I felt the exams were fair and designed well to test understanding of the key concepts of the modules. Exam questions were not surprises and I felt that SOAS and the tutors did a great job on setting expectations effectively for how to prepare for the exams. In terms of the dissertation, I cannot say enough about how positive of an experience this was. I was lucky to be able to leverage my job for my research but the contributions from my dissertation advisor were excellent and helped me to really put together an excellent paper that I am very proud of.

What difference has your MSc made to your career?

This qualification allowed me to get the job that I currently hold. Without it I would not have been considered for the position. In the international development field, the MSc is a required qualification for more and more senior level positions. This is especially true when competing for key staff positions on USAID proposals. If the proposal requires key staff to hold an advanced degree then you will not be selected no matter that number of years of experience (in most cases) as the lack of a degree can be used when evaluating proposals as an immediate disqualifier. In international development, advanced degrees, such as those conferred by SOAS, are now a requirement for career advancement. I know that University of London degrees are well considered by all types of organizations working in the development world from NGOs to for-profits.

Have you been able to apply the knowledge gained in your studies to your work?

Most definitely. The reason I selected my degree programme was because of its direct relevance to my work. My studies have provided insight into how environmental issues impact on development outcomes and have allowed me to contribute greater technical insight into my work. I have developed a well-rounded appreciation for the academic aspects of development, from the perspective of economics, and environmental economics in particular that have greatly complemented my almost 15 years of practical experience in the field. In many ways, I feel that having pursued my MSc later in life has allowed me to apply more of the knowledge in my career than had I obtained the same degree immediately following university. I think my work and life experience added to the richness of my educational experience at SOAS and allowed me to immediately apply knowledge in my day-to-day work.