Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dolson applies problem-solving skills to international development

Erik Dolson in Senegal

For Erik Dolson, the best way to address a problem is to consider all the possible solutions.

While spending his year at Université Gaston-Berger in Senegal, the University of Wisconsin–Madison economics major pondered graduate school as one avenue to follow upon his return to the United States. "I was looking at graduate school in applied economics," Dolson says, "at master's and Ph.D. programs, and they were not practical enough for me — they were too ethereal."

When the Economics Department's career advisor suggested he consider public policy schools, Dolson looked at the La Follette School and other master's programs. "Taking apart problems and fixing them with public policy sounded interesting," Dolson says, "and my experience in Senegal made the prospect even more interesting."

He ended up returning to Madison for the fall of 2012 and spent that semester as an accelerated student, completing his bachelor's degree in December and becoming a graduate student in January 2013.

Usually the La Follette School's accelerated degree program lets an admitted UW–Madison undergraduate take graduate courses in the last undergraduate year and earn a Master of Public Affairs or international public affairs degree by continuing their studies with a year of graduate school. However, Dolson is taking a year off to live in Malawi as part of Princeton University's Princeton in Africa fellowship program that places recent college graduates with organizations in Africa.

Dolson will intern with Imani Consultants in Malawi, leaving in early July for a year. He expects to work on research projects related to agriculture, regional trade and small business development.

In June he spent three days at Princeton for orientation and to meet the other fellows heading for Africa this summer. He was impressed with the high caliber of participants. "Some of them have been working at places like Goldman Sachs and are taking a year off to do this program," Dolson says.

He is excited to begin using the skills he has gained at the La Follette School, especially in statistical analysis and macroeconomics. "Both of those classes were very important to my getting the position in Malawi," Dolson says. "They give me a solid theoretical framework to apply to what I will be working on."

The La Follette School's quantitative skills courses, including the introductory policy analysis class, have given him good tools and exposed him to new ways of thinking and career opportunities. "The experience of doing thorough research and coming up with real numbers will help me hit the ground running," Dolson says. "Before La Follette, statistics and policy analysis were not on my radar, but once I took the courses, I realized how useful they will be. That exposure to statistics really enhances the skills I bring to a job."

As an undergraduate, Dolson minored in African studies. He went to Senegal his senior year "to see what happens" and because he speaks French. "Being in Senegal proved to be a transformative experience," he says.

As part of his studies, Dolson analyzed a microfinance program. "We did field work and communicated with a local group to study the effects of a microfinance program on women," he says. "I could see the different effects as part of the overall development puzzle."

The experience in Senegal reinforced his decision to pursue a Master of International Public Affairs degree. "I enjoyed that project and the program evaluation it involved," Dolson says. "We have our perceptions of problems and opportunities for development, and I want to gain skills to analyze more rigorously different development projects to see if and when they are effective."

In addition to the analytical course work, Dolson has found the one-credit professional development course and support from career development coordinator Kate Battiato to be invaluable. "Kate and her class really helped me with my application for the Princeton in Africa program and gave me the confidence to apply," Dolson says.

He also appreciates student services coordinator Mary Treleven's help with the administrative details of getting admitted as an accelerated student and then taking a leave for the 2013-14 school year while he is in Malawi.

"I like that La Follette is a small program where we are taken under the wing," Dolson says. "People are available and the staff are helpful and supportive. The professors are available one on one. The small classes and small atmosphere are really key."

Ultimately, Dolson suspects he will end up working in a job similar to his Malawi internship, ideally doing policy analysis related to regional trade. "I am very analytical and I like to fix problems by looking at different solutions," he says. "The La Follette School is giving me more tools to do just that."