In my final semester of my graduate degree at The Harvard Kennedy School, I’m taking this opportunity to reflect back on what I have learnt, what I have absorbed, what I have not learnt and just simply, trying to make sense of it all.
A long many years ago, Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who I worked with as a Junior Fellow) had advised me: “In graduate school, don’t try to become a subject matter expert. Just learn how to think.” Looking back, he was bang on. Graduate school in a lot of ways seems to be about “frameworks” and “tools” with some amazing opportunities for knowledge gathering thrown in. And in the process, I think most students graduate being a lot more thoughtful and mature, and more importantly, capable of making sense of what previously seemed incomprehensible. So as I look back at my MPA degree, I have tried to identify key themes and takeaways from my coursework, projects, study groups and even events that I have pursued or attended at HKS (and Harvard broadly). It still isn’t all fully coherent in my head, but I figured I should now be more capable of making sense of what previously seemed incomprehensible!
Theme 1: The Science and Art of (Domestic, Foreign and Economic) Policy-Making
Courses and Work: Counter-terrorism, Law and Policy Making; Modern Diplomacy; U.S. Congress & Lawmaking; National Security Law; War, States & Intervention; Leading Cities; Why are so many countries poor,volatile and unequal?; Management, Finance and Regulation of Public Infrastructure; Worked in the Government of India
Key skills/aspects learned: policy analysis, memo writing, managing the policy process, policy implementation, and deep dives into policy areas
Most of the courses in policy-making (esp. Modern Diplomacy and Counter-terrorism) really helped me lay out a simple framework for policy analysis and recommendations: summarize key facts and the overall scenario, identify strategic objectives and interests for all parties involved, lay out different potential scenarios and then present your recommendations backed with the right analysis.
On the other hand, U.S. Congress & Law-making as well as the Public Infrastructure class really helped me understand the dynamics of managing the process of policy making itself (from managing multiple stakeholders to structuring deals).
Leading Cities, taught by two ex-mayors (those of DC and Indianapolis), was really a course laden with war stories about the implementation of policies at the city level, while Wars, States & Intervention really heightened my awareness and consciousness about the devastating impact policy decisions (or their bad implementation) could have on the people involved. Finally, National Security Law provided a legal perspective on the issues that I had been looking at purely from a policy perspective.
As an Economics major, I consciously decided not to delve too deep into Economics at HKS, but the course on Why are countries poor… really got me into the weeds of economic data and the drivers of economic development and divergence/convergence of development paths of different countries. Interestingly, the concept of the product space and economic complexity being a key determinant of economic development really jived with me – especially with the technology and product immersion I have undergone as an entrepreneur in recent years in India.
Theme 2: Managing Political Campaigns/ Technology and Politics
Courses & Study Groups: Politics, Money & the Internet; Media, Politics & Power in the Digital Age; The Making of a Politicians; Running a Campaign; Inside the Victory Lab: Using Data, Experiments and Analytics to Make Campaigns Smarter; Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Campaign; Competing with Social Networks; Technology and Strategy; The Online Economy; Polling in the Real World: Using Survey Research to Win Elections and Govern; Project on Elections, Data and Transparency
Key skills/aspects learned: campaign management, data analytics, social media, building volunteer networks, fundraising, communication, campaign team building, poll and survey drafting and analysis, building platforms.
Politics, Money & Internet, along with Media, Politics & Power, and Inside the Victory Lab, all have helped me understand the workings of campaigns – specifically their use of field forces, fundraising, messaging, media, press, voter mobilization, and analytics. The Project on Elections and Data similarly has emphasized the value of data in managing campaigns. On the other hand, The Making of a Politician, Running a Campaign and Behind the Scenes have provided great overviews of how election campaigns are run and how candidates execute their campaigns with the help of teams. Finally, the Polling class really helps you see surveys and polling in a different light – these can really make the different between a candidate who gets the pulse of the people and one who doesn’t!
Competing with Social Networks, Technology and Strategy, Online Economy, and to some extent, Media, Politics & Power were really survey courses to understand the technology industry and its evolution and the strategic choices tech companies face. The case studies really illustrate and drill home the fundamental nature, laws and characteristics of technology and the internet, and the opportunities and challenges that come with it.
Theme 3: Leadership, Communications, and Negotiations
Courses: Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change; The Negotiation Workshop; Arts of Communication Workshops; Public Narrative: The Story of Self, Us and Now; Becoming a Leader
Key skills/aspects learned: Negotiations, systems analysis, group dynamics, speech writing/ crafting narratives, fundamentals of communication, mobilization, various aspects of leadership, ethics
This theme – probably the least explored theme of all, yet probably the most powerful and useful one – is I think what has made my graduate school experience “complete.” While the first two themes have really been technical in a lot of ways, this theme of leadership, communication and negotiations highlights the key strength and magic of the Harvard Kennedy School. I have written separately about the pedagogical styles adopted by Harvard professors but its not just that – these courses have provided me the skills and the frameworks required to communicate, lead and negotiate in tough situations.
These are the classes that I will probably remember and use the most in my day to day life. Leadership has taught me how to be cognizant of group dynamics, the multiple pre-occupations present within a group, the meaning of exercising leadership or authority, and how to really begin to mobilise a group to achieve its shared objectives. Becoming a Leader really exposes you to the pitfalls of leadership and the mistakes – personal, tactical and strategic – that are so easy to make along the way. Public Narrative made me look deep inside, reflect and explore my innermost fears, motivations, challenges and choices that I have made along the way. Weaving it into a particular narrative really helps to make sense of your choices. Finally, negotiation – a topic close to my heart – has taught me some incredibly powerful frameworks and concepts that shape how I approach and conduct important negotiations.
Overall, I think HKS has provided me a great platform – and multiple ways of thinking, analyzing, dissecting, and synthesising, that hopefully will help me in my personal and professional life. So I think this is the closest I’ve gotten to making sense of my coursework at HKS (the learning outside of class at HKS is tremendous as well, and will hopefully be the topic of a separate blog post). The coursework has obviously just scratched the surface of the immense learning that I think lays beyond in life, but at least I feel a bit more prepared to participate in the complex world out there than when I first walked into the HKS courtyard several years ago.
For those interested, I detail out what I got from some of the courses individually below:
The Science and Art of Policy-Making
Counter-terrorism, Law and Policy Making
– This course really taught me the art of writing and structuring policy memos. Plus it also taught me the basic rules and laws relating to counter-terrorism and national security, and specifically how the U.S. has dealt with very tricky issues of law and balanced them with its overarching need for security. I was particularly interested in how India was dealing with similar issues in South Asia – and whether there were lessons to be learnt.
– This course, taught by Nick Burns, was a quintessential course in diplomacy and international relations. It built on my earlier undergraduate coursework in IR and my work at Carnegie to help me write effective policy memos, formulate policy recommendations, and analyze key decisions within the larger context of international politics. While studying how the great powers – Russia, China, the U.S., and U.K – make their foreign policy decisions, I wondered what the evolution of Indian foreign policy would look like as its importance on the global stage grew. Which of these powers would it be most similar to?
U.S. Congress & Lawmaking
– This course taught me the dynamics of power. What happens when individuals are faced with the prospect for power? How do they collaborate, connive, and compete with each other? Plus, it taught me that the functioning of any powerful body is definitely going to be replete with power games, and to get things done, you need compromises, give and take, side/back door games, and a lot of planning. The Indian Parliament probably has its own set of structures and committees but I imagine the games played are similar.
War, States and Intervention
– Started to address issues – humanitarian, legal and other – that come along with interventions and wars such as the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Was more than anything just a way for me to understand what you can or cannot do during interventions. I guess the takeaway was that interventions are messy and hard to manage. Provided a different framework (a much more humanitarian focused one) for analysis of security issues that the Counter-terrorism class also tackled.
Management, Finance and Regulation of Infrastructure
– How are different infrastructure projects structured? What are the roles of different players in projects that are PPPs? What are the different managerial, financial and regulatory hurdles that infrastructure projects often face? What are some of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen and how we can work to avoid them in the future?
– What are some of the basic issues faced by managers of cities? From water to sewage to open government to education to health? What prevents or aids better management of cities?
Managing Political Campaigns/ Technology and Politics
Politics and Internet
– It started to show me the power of the internet to transform how politics, campaigns, and organising is done. It got me really hooked to what Obama and others before him (esp. Howard Dean) had done to use technology to their advantage. The India Social Media project came out of this class.
Making of a Politician/ Running a Campaign
– How does someone run for office? How do they come up with a message? How do they stay on message? What are the different aspects of running a campaign? The key thing I took away from that class was the need to stay on message.
Inside the Victory Lab
– This study group was really about using data, experiments and analytics to make campaigns smarter. While studying how the Obama campaign used concepts, social science theories and research methodologies that I had essentially learnt in Econometrics at Haverford, what was fascinating was how these techniques were used to create predictive models for how each individual was likely to vote! India seems way behind on this front.