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Why Study Development Studies?

Development studies is a multidisciplinary subject focuses on the evolution of nations from political, cultural, geographical, and socio-economic perspectives. We explain why you should study developmental studies.

Feb 26, 2024
  • Education
Why Study Development Studies?

Developmental studies emerged as an academic discipline during the late part of the 20th century amid growing concerns for third world economies struggling to establish themselves in the postcolonial era.

More recently, academics turned their attention towards Western states, seeking to address today's (and tomorrow's) most pressing issues by studying their cultural and political development.

Development studies focuses on understanding the current political landscape by examining their origins, which then enables academics, politicians, and world charity organisations to make better plans for the future.

What is development studies?

Development studies is about understanding the current political landscape by examining their origins, which then enables academics, politicians, and world charity organizations to make better plans for the future. Course content varies depending on where you study, with some universities offering specific programs such as international development with NGO management, designed to prepare students for a career in organizations such as Oxfam or Save the Children.

The core modules of any development studies degree tend to focus on an introduction to political ideas such as:

  • Liberalism and conservatism
  • Economic analysis
  • Colonialism’s impact on the third world

In the second and third years, students go on to explore issues like:

  • Mass immigration
  • Global warming
  • The causes of poverty
  • International relations.

And given the multidisciplinary approach of development studies, some students combine their studies with modules form other related subjects, including history and anthropology, giving them a broader understanding of the challenges many countries face. Most courses also offer the opportunity to take part in international placements where students gain first-hand experience of working in developing nations.

Development studies graduates have a wide range of career options. Many go on to work for development research organizations, charities, think tanks, lobby groups, conservation projects, while others opt for roles in government, academia, or the civil service.

So if you're interested in a career where you can enact some real-world change, then development studies might be the course for you.

Why Study Development Studies?

The importance of development studies

According to the UN definition, 783 million people live below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day. And inequality is no longer a simple case of contrasting the first world with the third world. In the USA, the top 1% of income earners are paid more than the bottom 40%, with many people struggling to meet basic living costs despite working 40-50 hours per week.

It's easy for many of us to accept this status quo, convincing ourselves there's a certain inevitability to today's economic and political situation, making any significant change feel almost impossible. The importance of development studies comes from its different approach to assessing and tackling problems. Through examining the past, present, and the future, development studies finds causal links between cultural and political institutions and the lives of ordinary people all over the world. More importantly, its students and graduates propose and enact practical, real-world solutions designed to build fairer societies in which we all have the chance to live dignified and meaningful lives. As the UN wrote in its human development report, development is essentially a humanitarian project that aims to expand "the choices people have to lead lives that they value."

Another one of its main areas of focus is diversity and inclusion. The United Nations Development Programme is taking measures to address challenges regarding equal pay, while its strategy for advancing diversity and inclusiveness is creating environments where everyone has an opportunity to succeed regardless of age, gender identity, disability, race, caste, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, or any other status.

This proactive approach to the challenges of today and the future is more important than ever. Climate change, the rise of automation, greater income disparity, mass migrations, and geopolitical instability are set to radically change the lives of world citizens within the next few decades. And these issues will only be compounded by increasing population growth. The UN states that 83 million people are added to the world population every year, meaning a projected 9.8 people on Earth in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Simply meeting the basic needs of all these people will be a monumental challenge, but it's one in which development studies will play an important role.

Why Study Development Studies?

The popularity of development studies

The good news is that development studies is an increasingly popular choice, meaning more and more young people are making a commitment to building a future for everyone. In fact, global development recruiters Devexarets called international development the most "in-demand" subject for those entering postgraduate education.

Many students are attracted to the possibility of making long-term sustainable change, inspired into action by an evermore connected world where the stories of developing countries can no longer be suppressed or marginalized. During the late 80s and early 90s, Western audiences' exposure to humanitarian crises in places such as Ethiopia was limited to occasional news stories or charity concerts such as Live Aid.

Today, thanks in large part to the internet and other digital technologies, such stories are part of mainstream narratives, creating more socially aware societies made up of individuals who recognize their roles and responsibilities within a global community.

Why Study Development Studies?

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Development Studies

Development studies tackle real-world problems

Development studies programs combine rigorous academic study with practical skills. Students learn the importance of bridging the gap between policy and practice, where knowing how to write a persuasive proposal or budget plan is just as essential as understanding theoretical concepts such as the drivers of poverty, globalization, or economic sustainability.

After all, part of any development professional's skill set is the ability to engage with many different stakeholders, ranging from international governments, local community leaders, academics, and the general public. This requires excellent negotiation skills, plenty of empathy, and the ability to make clear and engaging arguments without diluting the substantive content that will get people on board with the project.

Alongside real-world case studies, development programs encourage students to gain first-hand experience via internships, pro-bono consulting, volunteering, and even international placements. Many courses, especially at the postgraduate level, run lectures and seminars during the evening, which allows students to take part in volunteering opportunities or other kinds of work experience in the daytime. Employers are desperate for graduates with the practical skills to match their academic qualifications and having such experiences on your CV is one of the main things that will make you stand out amongst the competition.

And for anyone looking to enter a specific area of international or local development, a master's degree in development studies is almost essential. Whereas undergraduate degrees tend to be far more general, many postgraduate courses are tailor-made to prepare students for careers in particular development industries, including climate change, energy, social change, globalization, and business. Universities also have very close links with development organizations and relevant governing bodies, making postgraduate study an excellent way of building up a network of contacts and career opportunities.

Why Study Development Studies?

Career opportunities within development studies

International development is a global industry with huge support from big business, government, and influential organizations like the EU and the UN. And with the population set to soar in the coming decades, there will always be fresh challenges to overcome in the pursuit of meeting fundamental human needs of people all over the globe. Development will also help emerging economies build strong and stable societies, creating more opportunities for their citizens.

Once qualified, ambitious students can go on to work as high-profile government officials or in senior positions within NGOs and charity organizations. Others can pursue meaningful careers in work in local government, helping to tackle income disparities in their own communities through educational or extra-curricular programs. And these are just a handful of the career options for graduates.

Additional job paths include:

  • Policy analysts
  • Ecotourism guide
  • Diplomacy
  • Immigration officer
  • Aid worker

Development studies is on course to become one of the most influential academic disciplines as we look for ever more innovative ways to tackle poverty, disease, prejudice, and discrimination. So if you’d like to join the fight for a fairer world, then enrolling in a development studies program is the perfect way to start.

Ashley Murphy


After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.