Alumni Spotlight: Shashank Sreedharan ’17 MPA

Shashank Sreedharan ’17 MPA discusses his experience in the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs MPA program and how it prepared him for his position as the Senior Research Associate of Financial Inclusion for LEAD at Krea University in Chennai, India.

LEAD is a nonprofit research organization in development economics and finance based in Chennai, India. Including a team of more than 100 researchers, LEAD produces evidence-based analysis to foster improved financial access, targeted social services, and better legal and physical infrastructure for poor people living in India and other low-to-middle income countries. LEAD is a part of Krea University, which also hosts J-PAL India, EPoD India, and several other centers.


Baroda, India

What is the scope of your work? Has it changed since you received a promotion?

At LEAD we use experimental and quasi-experimental methods to study questions of poverty, livelihoods, migration, women’s economic empowerment, social protection, and financial inclusion. My work runs the gamut of the lifecycle of a research study, and includes writing proposals, designing survey instruments, piloting, data collection, data cleaning and analysis, dissemination, and of course, meetings — a lot of video calls and meetings!

My team takes on projects that are related to financial inclusion, which is quite broad. As a research associate, I mostly did work on the ground, including running and monitoring surveys, conducting field work, cleaning data, literature review, and training enumerators. This work was extremely rewarding and made for an intense learning curve. The biggest change since my promotion to senior research associate has been that I work on several projects simultaneously and have the opportunity to manage projects. I am much more closely involved with conceptualizing and designing projects, and am responsible for the end-to-end execution. I spend more time ideating, undertaking analysis, and managing stakeholders, such as donors and principal investigators. Managing projects often means managing people, which is something I enjoy immensely, both for the opportunity for collaboration, as well as the chance to learn from my colleagues.

What sorts of skills from the MPA program have you used in your work?

Where do I begin? The MPA has been instrumental in preparing me for the work I now do. The statistics and economics classes gave me a strong theoretical foundation while the program evaluation class most closely resembles my current work. Combined with the advanced statistics elective, these courses form the quantitative bedrock that prepared me to do my job effectively. A lot of the material in the policy analysis class and the management and implementation class gave me many of the skills required to be a capable researcher: being able to ideate, frame problems, put together analytical frameworks, and use strong writing skills.

The intense pace and rigor of the Brown MPA, in hindsight, served as an effective dress rehearsal to the kind of pressure and deadlines public policy professionals often deal with. The numerous opportunities I had to present and defend my work helped me become a better communicator. Finally, the solidarity and sense of community and teamwork I experienced with my cohort prepared me to work with diverse teams of enumerators and field staff, and collaborate with other researchers.

“ The statistics and economics classes gave me a strong theoretical foundation while the program evaluation class most closely resembles my current work. Combined with the advanced statistics elective, these courses form the quantitative bedrock that prepared me to do my job effectively. ”

Shashank Sreedharan MPA Class of 2017

What has been the most impactful project you’ve worked on so far?

Clichéd though it sounds, every project has been transformative. One project that stands out is my first field experiment, titled “Does Gender Matter for Small Business Performance? Experimental Evidence from India” with two principal investigators from Stanford University. We tried to get to the bottom of why women-owned micro-enterprises are less profitable than their male counterparts by conducting two field experiments with vegetable sellers. Over the course of this project, I relocated cities, spent 14 months doing field work, setting up experiments, innovating and problem-solving, and developed an acute understanding of how things play out on the ground, the challenges researchers can encounter in running experiments, and the importance of persistence. Working on this study made me a more careful researcher by narrowing the gap between desk-based ideation and on-the-ground implementation. What’s more — I befriended vegetable sellers all over the city of Jaipur, got to know numerous stray cows and dogs, met with an accident and nearly lost a finger, and most importantly, got the opportunity to work closely with two incredible researchers!

Where did you fulfill your MPA consultancy and how did the consultancy experience prepare you for working at LEAD?

My MPA consultancy was with the United Nations for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), in Geneva. OCHA is the apex UN agency for humanitarian response, and its work cuts across humanitarian financing, policy, advocacy, and dissemination. As someone who started the MPA directly after undergraduate study, the chance to get formal work experience under my belt before entering the job market was very valuable. The consultancy allowed me to test out the skills and tools I had acquired in the program. Moreover, I got a feel of working on fast-paced real-world projects, dealing with difficult stakeholders, and meeting tight deadlines.

My responsibilities at OCHA were to execute a research study, and to assist my team with their high-level advocacy efforts as well as a slew of ad-hoc projects. Each of these experiences have helped prepare for my current work. The study I worked on at OCHA helped me develop an operational understanding of how research projects are carried out. Collecting data, accessing and cleaning administrative datasets, and analyzing and presenting results depending on the target audience are integral parts of my work at LEAD, and I first learned how to navigate these tasks during my consultancy. Working in a large, bureaucratic institution like the UN was immensely useful in preparing me to work with challenging partners and stakeholders, which is a core part of my work at LEAD. And, working with people from several teams, nationalities, academic backgrounds, and levels of experience during my experience with OCHA was good preparation for the collaborative nature of work at a research institution.

What advice would you give international students entering the program?

The academic experience at Brown in general and the Brown MPA in particular is unique in that Brown’s Open Curriculum encourages students to explore multiple disciplines. Coming from a more conservative academic background, the flexibility afforded at Brown can seem daunting at first. The sheer variety of courses across departments, a truly world-class faculty, and the resources for academic and professional growth that Brown gives you access to allows you to tailor the program to your own interests and career aspirations. Do your homework and be strategic about what you want to get out of the program — be it a specific policy domain you want to develop your expertise in or a specific industry you want to work in (consulting, research, nonprofit management, etc.). Reach out to faculty whose work and courses catch your fancy, to the centers at the Watson Institute that align with your interests, and to alumni about their experiences with specific courses and concentrations. Make informed decisions, and select courses that set you up to be a competitive candidate for the jobs you want to apply to.

In terms of career development, Brown’s career center has a ton of useful resources, and the Brown alumni network is a great starting point to find alumni that work at the kinds of places you’d like to work at. Engaging with guest speakers is also a great way to initiate a conversation about their work and explore opportunities at their place of work. In a nutshell, what you do inside the classroom, while vital, is just one part of the job-seeking process. Start early, and make use of the resources you have access to as a Brown University student.

What was a highlight of your experience at Brown?

This is a difficult one to answer, but if I had to pick one, it would have to be the summer, particularly the econ and stats classes. As students, we were thrown into the deep end, and it was so challenging and so much fun! Working closely with the whole cohort on problem sets, lab assignments, and studying together — I can’t imagine a better way for a group of people to get to know each other. The solidarity you experience in the Brown MPA is something I look back to even today.