Searching for the perfect grad school

I was fresh off the boat a graduate from Thammasat University in Thailand. I was young, energetic and enthusiastic and at that point, I wanted nothing more than spending a year at the London School of Economics and Politica Science.

Up until that point, I was a leading youth activist in Thailand. I founded an English debate club for my college and later partnered with the European Union to expand equal access to quality English platform for Thai students. I represented Thai youth in the Planned Parenthood Board members and I was actively involved in the creation of the World Development Report on youth – to name but a few.

I wanted a degree that will allow me to make sense of everything that I did and how best to positively impact development in a way that is critical and thoughtful. I researched, I talked to alumni of many universities and I decided there was no other place I rather be that MSC in Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

All eggs in the basket. Days went by that I was nervous and anxious. Until the judgment day arrived – early February 2006.

I opened and it read:


The rest of the text went blur and I screamed on top of my lung to this news. I ran around the house like a three year old getting ice cream and I told my mother, “yes mom, I did it.”

Twelve months at the London School of Economics was everything I dreamt of and much more. Intellectually, it was very stimulating. Twenty weeks of twenty theories on Development. Lecturers who knew what they were talking about and better yet – passionate in – even some theorists are arcane, they are so obsessed their stories became interesting and illuminating.

Behind the grandeur of LSE lecture halls, what I appreciated most was the quality of our professors and efforts they put in to make sure “we got it.”

Professor Lloyd Gruber particularly helped pave my way for doctorate studies in Columbia. He spent hours and hours in mentorship discussing and debating the role of IMF in Education Budget for Thailand after the Financial Crisis. Behind his desk are paintings of his children. He reminded me no matter how great a lecturer you are, the most important thing is being human and being with family.

I remembered in the class Poverty. We were talking about Social Exclusion and I tried to come up with a captivating way to explain the theory. I decided to tell a story.

“A homeless man walked in. Bought a cup of coffee. Sat there to read newspaper. Everyone looked a him and left. Why?”

Through the rigid lens of poverty, he would be doing just fine and no one would know he’s homeless. He had 3 quid to buy a cup of coffee and he is literate. But through Social Exclusion, it is his ardor that separated him from the rest, I said.

Professor Ashwani Seith came up to me and said “keep thinking like this. You will be fine.”

LSE taught me so much more than a 850 words article could do a justice. It teaches me disciplines, hardworks and open-mindedness to what you know and don’t know. The LSE teaches me to read in team and prepare for exam in groups and share idea. The LSE taught me to be quiet to observe but speak up when necessary.

DESTIN at the LSE brought the best and brightest development professionals to come together, learn together and help each other. 12 years since, these friendships are still alive and knitted.

I write this to say – my perfect grad school is not the same as yours. Don’t go around asking people where you should be – go around asking yourself first what you what to do 10 years down the road. Maybe you don’t know. It’s ok. But ask yourself what type of things you like to do, what kind of people you want to be associate with, what kind of skills you want to have.

Going to grad school is expensive and luxurious. If you can afford it – make sure you spend it on something better than “it’s famous.”

Fame fades and that answer won’t get you in the door.

Rattana Lao
Rattana Lao
Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.