Can Graduate Education Solve Global Problems?

PhD candidate (political science) Sabrina Karim and MPH student Erin Bernstein conducting an interview in Liberia.

PhD candidate (political science) Sabrina Karim and MPH student Erin Bernstein conducting an interview in Liberia.

Emory graduate and professional students who study international development and do related research take seriously the question, “Can graduate education solve global problems?” These students learn to analyze critically and rigorously research issues related to poverty and insecurity that affect individuals and societies in developing countries. They master research methods in their respective disciplines, gain experience doing research in different contexts and, increasingly, have opportunities to work in multidisciplinary teams. 

In April 2014, Emory’s Laney Graduate School (LGS) held its inaugural Laney Symposium focused on this very question, “Can graduate education solve global problems?” The symposium featured George Rupp—past president of the International Rescue Committee, president emeritus of Columbia University, and member of the Council on Foreign Relations—and included a distinguished panel of LGS faculty, alumni, and students. Following the symposium, IDN invited five Emory graduate and professional students working on development-related issues to reflect on the question of how graduate education is helping them solve global problems. The answers the students shared shed light on what they feel is necessary to make a contribution in both academia and society.


Sabrina Karim, a PhD candidate in political science, researches conflict, security-sector reform, peacekeeping, and gender. She has conducted field research in Liberia and Peru.

Morgan Mercer completed her master’s in development practice in 2014. Her work focuses on the social and structural determinants of the impact of HIV/AIDS and HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

Will Oswald, a PhD candidate in epidemiology, researches water, sanitation, and hygiene, and has worked with the CDC and the Center for Global Safe Water.

Rebekah Stewart Schicker is completing a dual MSN/MPH. She focuses on the health needs of migrant workers and has worked with The Carter Center’s Malaria Control Program in Ethiopia.

Jacob Wood, who earned his master’s in development practice in 2014, worked for Emory’s Global Health Institute. He worked with a team researching tobacco-control effectiveness in northwest China.

IDN: Describe your current global research/projects.

Karim: Currently, I am working on understanding how women in the security forces—and other security initiatives taken to reform police, peacekeeping, or the military—can help countries transition from war to peace. I have worked with the Liberian National Police to understand how their female quota system and ethnic integration have improved group dynamics and interaction with community members. My dissertation also addresses the security sector by understanding which government-security initiatives help to generate public support for the government.

Mercer: During my time at Emory, I have designed and carried out a community-health assessment for the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture. My contribution was to influence future programming with regard to food-security initiatives in low-income areas in Atlanta, Georgia. I also collaborated with a multidisciplinary research team, supported by Emory’s Global Health Institute, to conduct an ecological assessment of health care needs in Ranomafana, Madagascar. The research is feeding into the development of an integrated primary health care system, spearheaded by the organization Partners in Health.

Oswald: For my dissertation research, I am using multilevel modeling to estimate the effects of community sanitation upon the prevalence of trachoma and soil-transmitted helminth infections under various programmatic, environmental, community, and household conditions using data collected by The Carter Center’s Trachoma Control Program in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

Schicker: Last summer I conducted a malaria and health-needs assessment survey among migrant farm laborers in Ethiopia in conjunction with The Carter Center and the Amhara National Regional Health Bureau. This research showed that migrant farm workers have unique risks for malaria and limited access to prevention and treatment measures. The results from this study were shared with local partners in Ethiopia and are being used to design strategies that target this population in an effort to reduce their risks for malaria and other illnesses and improve their access to prevention and treatment measures.

Wood: I am currently working on a project with Emory Global Health Institute to reduce the exposure to secondhand smoke in China through subnational policy adoption and social norm change. Seventy percent of nonsmoking adults in China are exposed to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, leading to the death of 100,000 people who have never smoked and a million people total each year. We work with subnational government leaders to implement city-wide tobacco-control programs that raise awareness of the harms of secondhand smoke and enact indoor smoking-ban policies.

IDN: Can graduate education solve global problems? How?

Oswald: Graduate education is critical for solving global problems. Advanced education not only provides students with the knowledge and tools to develop solutions for global problems but also the time and focus to investigate the minutiae of an issue and ground this knowledge within the big picture. For example, in epidemiology, multilevel statistical modeling techniques allow the researcher simultaneously to examine the impacts of and control for the relationships among factors operating at individual, area, and larger structural levels.

Karim: Graduate student education is very important to solve global problems. Because they must come up with innovative research projects, graduate students know what research is currently out there and have spent a lot of time trying to understand and solve these gaps. They also are trained in cutting-edge research methodology, which enables them to answer these crucial research questions in the most rigorous manner.

Schicker: I think it is too much to say that graduate education can solve global problems. However, graduate education gives people who are interested in global problems the time and the training to think critically about global problems, to interact with experts, and to learn about the potential risks and benefits of engaging in global problem solving.

IDN: In the context of solving global problems, what is graduate education getting right? What are some things it could do better?

Wood: Graduate education equips students with tools to approach global problems from a holistic and unique perspective. Although graduate education alone cannot solve global social, political, and economic issues, it provides students a framework from which they are able to challenge established norms and come up with innovative solutions for complex problems. Graduate education provides a space in which students are taught to think critically and build synergies between theory and practice. Graduate education must learn to equip students with better problem-solving skills that will allow them to go beyond identifying problem areas to coming up with solutions.

Mercer: Within Emory University and, specifically, the Laney Graduate School, I chose a program that combines hands-on learning and field experience with rigorous training in a wide range of academic disciplines. This has provided me with the academic foothold necessary to make sense of what is happening when I am working in very different contexts, to question the prevailing systems within which I am working, and to reorient my work in ways that make it much more valuable and appropriate to those contexts.

Oswald: I believe an area for improvement is collaboration and knowledge sharing. Training local professionals, freeing access to findings and information, collaborating with local universities, and facilitating students coming from other countries to pursue advanced training in the United States are all things graduate education could do better. It would not only help solve problems faced abroad but also bring innovation and new ideas for solutions to truly “global” problems—like water scarcity, environmental pollution, climate change, violence, and poverty—that affect us all.