In our second episode, alum Kim Vidal joins IDinsight Associate Alexandra Agcaoili for an insightful conversation on how IDinsight helped her gather the skills and knowledge she needed to make the transition to graduate school. She opens up about her IDinsight journey and how the organization empowers and provides its people with the space they need to come into their own.
Alexandra Agcaoili: Hello, and welcome to IDinsider Talks, a podcast series where we sit down and have a conversation with IDinsight alumni. My name is Alex Agcaoili. I am an Associate at IDinsight based out of our office in Manila, Philippines, and our conversation today is about graduate school.
At IDinsight, we’re committed to enabling our colleagues to reach their full, long-term professional potential, and this looks different for different people with varying professional development goals. In some cases, this means equipping someone with the right knowledge and experience for graduate school, and our guest today, Kim Vidal, fits that description perfectly.
Kim was a Manager at IDinsight. During her time with us, she gained experience in building Theories of Change, developing evaluation designs, leading remote data collection, and conducting capacity-building workshops for national government agencies in the Philippines. She also engaged with the Department of Health in a Learning Partnership to understand and boost COVID-19 vaccine demand in the Philippines and provided M&E advisory to the Department of Agriculture and Department of Transportation under the UNDP NEDA strategic M&E project.
Most recently, Kim and I actually worked together on the Health Promotion and Literacy Study. A nationwide survey in partnership with the Department of Health. On a personal note, Kim was my first IDinsight buddy and has been a great friend and mentor to me throughout my time at IDinsight. So, welcome, Kim!
Kim Vidal: Hi, Alex! Thanks for having me!
Alexandra: So, Kim, one thing that we talked about a lot when I first joined IDinsight is how we both hold the same undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Science degree in Management Engineering from Ateneo de Manila University. You graduated two years ahead of me, and after college, you started working in the development sector. Now, you’re going to be pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration with a specialization in development practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Could you walk us through your journey? What made you want to work in the development space?
Kim: Well, first of all, thank you for the introduction! It’s great to hear about my work from a third-person perspective. Going back to my decision to join the development sector, I would turn to my university days, which, I think quite like you, Alex is where I discovered that I wanted to work in the development space.
We had a couple of development-related courses in my degree, even though it was primarily a business and math major. So, being exposed to courses in development economics, for example, really piqued my interest and made me interested in pursuing that kind of work after graduation. By some luck and opportunity, I managed to get into a development consulting job right after college, and that allowed me to be both in the business and development space at the same time because I worked mostly with private sector firms, but those that were progressive and were interested in working with development partners within the Southeast Asian region. So, I had a lot of clients in many sectors that are crucial to development, like agriculture, public health, higher education, WASH, and so on and so forth. And I had a really nice exposure to the different fields in development. I also got a lot of exposure to the very initial stages of the project lifecycle, so things like partnership development, looking for financing for co-funding, stakeholder mapping, and even program ideation – I remember drafting up a lot of initiatives for my clients for how to say solve woman engagement in farmer fields in Indonesia. So, I got a really nice exposure within the region and, from there, also discovered my interest in agriculture, food, and nutrition. I started to learn more and more about the development space and what I could do beyond, you know, the initial stages of a program.
During this process, I got introduced to the evidence-to-action space through a friend who actually worked in IDinsight, or rather interned at the IDinsight Office in Kenya before, and from there, I read the book “For Economics” by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee and God, I fell really hard into this hole of the data and evidence space! That’s when I encountered the organization that is IDinsight. Coming from that experience with the start of a program lifecycle, I was really keen to join IDinsight because I thought that it would really help round up my skills as a development professional to not just focus on the beginning of a project but also see how the implementation is done, what about the results and what kinds of impacts are these development projects making. So that was the motivation for me to apply, and luckily, I got in, and you know, three years here at IDinsight has really given me a good learning experience within the M&E or the data-to-action sector. I’ve got to experience what evaluations or assessments or surveys and data collection looked like. And even though I haven’t done all of IDinsight’s services, since there is a lot in our toolkit, I was able to understand how an impact evaluation happens at the end of a project or a process evaluation in the middle or needs assessments, which I did a lot of with DoH, which is when we try to figure out the problems at the beginning of a potential policy or program.
So, a lot of really great experiences and IDinsight has given me the chance to work with a lot of government agencies directly here in the Philippines, which I did not get to do before in my previous job. And I think that, for me, was really instrumental in my decision and some of the choices that I made when I was applying to grad school. Of course, the decision to go for a Masters was kind of a natural one, being a development professional. That is something that is quite an advantage to have in this space. But, I think that IDinsight has kind of shaped the choice of my program a bit because of my experience with national government agencies that I have. And so that’s why I chose to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration to go to policy school, basically because I wanted to build on what I have started at IDinsight and also to, you know, pursue academic training after a lot of the professional work that I’ve done in the past six years cumulatively.
So that’s been my journey. I would love to pursue my interests in agriculture, food, and nutrition in grad school within kind of a multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral curriculum, and I believe that the experiences I’ve had at IDinsight have prepared me well for that. So yeah, that’s that’s my journey so far!
Alexandra: Thanks, Kim, for sharing that! I think that we at IDinsight are very lucky that you ended up at IDinsight, and just broadly in the evidence and the development space as a whole. I’m very interested to see your journey so far and how it continues to progress with this exciting new step.
You spoke a bit about how your experience with national government agencies informed your decision to take up a policy program for postgraduate studies. I’m particularly curious, I guess, if there is a specific experience or a specific incident or event in your IDinsight journey that had a particularly strong impact on your decision-making process for grad school.
Kim: Yes, of course! I mentioned earlier my work with national government agencies, which I have to say made up maybe 80% of my client portfolio at IDinsight. Before coming into IDinsight, I had never worked directly with government. I had always worked kind of indirectly with them in other Southeast Asian countries, and getting the chance to work with planning, monitoring, and evaluation teams within two, actually, three national government agencies, including the National Economic Development Authority, really allowed me to see things from a national and high-level perspective. In particular, my experience working with the Department of Agriculture during my first year at IDinsight was really impactful for me. As I mentioned earlier, I am quite passionate about the agriculture and food space, and I met a lot of really passionate and very idealistic, even young people in that department, or at least in the program and the program team that we were working with. I saw how there was so much potential to improve policies that affect so many people at a national level just by working with national government agencies. So, I think that, for me, left a really big impact in terms of the kinds of work that I would like to do.
In the future, I would like to still work with government to help with national and big programs that have a wide scale and scope. And working with an agency in the sector that I’m interested in also gave me the drive to learn more about the sector. Luckily, even though I didn’t get to work with another national government agency team within agriculture, I got to do that with a social enterprise in Myanmar. So, now it’s the hunger to learn more about the sectors there, and that’s really influenced the choice of my program because the program that I’m taking has a really good agriculture, food, and nutrition track. Again, amidst this really great and well-known public policy curriculum. I’m really looking forward to that! And I’d say that that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve considered while applying for grad school.
Alexandra: Thanks, Kim. Yeah, I think that one of the most interesting parts of the IDinsight experience is just getting this kind of broad exposure to all different kinds of sectors, and I’ve seen how it does play a role and how it shapes career decisions moving forward.
Speaking of your career, you spent a good chunk of your career so far at IDinsight, actually, and you’ve, in a sense, risen the ranks. You started out as an Associate, went on to Senior Associate, and finally to Manager. You saw such immense growth of the Southeast Asia team, from its early stages to the bigger team that we have now. A lot of our work at IDinsight is driven by Associates and Senior Associates, so I’d like to ask how did your experience of working in an organization with this kind of structure help you grow professionally and personally.
Kim: That’s a really great question! I mean, I have a small sample size because I only have one other work experience to reference. But, based on what I have heard from other development organizations, the structure of IDinsight really is quite unique in the sense that it allows young professionals to take on these big responsibilities and to learn how to drive projects very, very early on, basically, from day one. And that has always been part of our job description.
Whenever I give interviews to people who want to join IDinsight, I always tell them that it’s a very dynamic role that will require you to be really independent and proactive – which I think is a challenge in itself but also a really great way to train folks who are quite early in their career and in this space. For me, having experienced that from the beginning as an Associate was really helpful in my progression and overall in my development as a working professional. I had to learn how to manage up – which basically means driving the projects with my manager, helping my manager to push forward our work streams, and making very good planning decisions and execution. It also has taught me to be proactive and to be independent. I think that sometimes that can be a little scary, but most times, I feel that the autonomy that is given to us is quite empowering because then you are free to sort of, you know, use your own ideas and your ways of working. I think that’s something that IDinsight provides to Associates quite a lot.
We are also encouraged to help with overall organizational improvement – to voice out our ideas, which I think is a very unique culture to have! Not all organizations are as open to ideas as IDinsight, and I think that has allowed me to also share my own – to share blog posts internally, to do things in the Southeast Asia office that I probably would not have otherwise done if there wasn’t that openness to ideas. And so, I think that all of those things have helped me to grow professionally and will serve me well in other environments, whether it be in grad school or another organization. I think that’s the real strength of the structure and what Associates can really look forward to when they join.
Alexandra: Thanks, Kim!
So, young professionals at the Associate level or at other similar career stages may be grappling with the idea of going to grad school and may be asking themselves if grad school is the right next step for them. Some might even be intimidated by the idea of pursuing education outside their home country. Do you have any advice that you would give to folks who are working in the development space, who might be thinking about pursuing a graduate program, or are interested in exploring education outside their home countries in general?
Kim: I’m sure many have come before me to give advice and tips, and I might be sharing quite pithy statements. But the two things that I usually say to people who ask me this question within IDinsight or even outside – just colleagues in the development space – is, first, to know what you want – to have a really clear why, and the second is to take your time and to really reflect and discern, and build up your work experience.
So, the first advice is quite straightforward, right? I mean, it’s very easy to choose a program and choose a really good school that everyone wants to get into, but it’s going to be hard to stick to it if you don’t have a good and strong why. Especially if you want to pursue graduate school abroad or outside of your home country, it’s going to be very difficult to adjust and move to a new place, to build new relationships, and meet new people, and I think that it might be easy for people who don’t have a strong why to lose sight of why they’re doing something, and they might get bogged down in a lot of the challenges of living away from home. That’s why I always say to people that having a really strong why is crucial before you start your journey. And that why might be different to someone else’s why. I don’t think that there are completely similar journeys in this space just because there are so many different ways you can be engaged in the development sector. We are called to serve in different forms and avenues. One person actually said to me before that “the problems in development are too many to solve all at once by a single person.” So, it’s really worth discerning which problem you want to focus on or which space you want to be in within the larger development universe and to devote your time and effort to doing that while others do complementary work alongside you. I really stand by that. It’s always good to have a Northstar and to use that as your motivation when things get really hard – you’re trying to study for your GRE, for example, which is a long, gruelling process, or when you’re trying to figure out your visa applications or trying to find housing, and all of that. You can really get so bogged down by the details, and that’s why it’s very good to have a clear goal and a clear reason for why you are in this space to begin with. So that’s number one.
I think what sort of follows after that is to not rush, and for me, at least, I took a long time for me to fully form my why, and that’s fine! I think a lot of people find it after working for a bit. Some people are really lucky, and they find it immediately, or they know from a very young age that they want to work in a particular sector, or they want to work in a particular kind of organization, for example, government. I think that no matter how much time it takes for you to find that, I cannot emphasize enough the fact that you do need to at least take some time to think about it and not rush into it. My advice, actually, is to wait until you have a good enough body of work to reference and to sift through to see where your interests really lie. And not just where your interests lie, but where your strengths are, where you think you can offer something that other people around you aren’t really providing or filling in. I think that’s going to really help you down the line because when you do have your applications, it makes you even more competitive in the admissions process.
Obviously, it’s quite different if you want to be if your why is to become a researcher. Sometimes, going straight to grad school makes the most sense because the academic process is something that you build on immediately. But, if you’re like me and you want to be more of a practitioner or someone who’s looking to do things and implement and create action, it’s worth building your career in your work experience. Because then, when schools, especially professional schools, look at your resume, they see that you can offer a lot in the classroom and that you can come in with a lot of first-hand experiences and reflections about things that you might discuss in class that are primarily theoretical.
When I met my programme director, he noted the same advice. He said that “the real-world connection to theory and classroom is so much stronger when you have that first-hand work experience to anchor in.” And he was right! When I’m doing some of my pre-reads for school and when I read some of the things that I know I will be studying, I instantly think of all of the work that I’ve done with my clients at IDinsight and even in my old job. I think of how they’re related, the things that I could have done better before, and the things that I could potentially do better in the future. Those linkages you just can’t really get without having the experience set in place. So, I would say that you know, take your time to discern and to really build up your experience because that will really help so much in the application process. Those are the two tips. I think there are many others out there given by other people, but just my two cents.
Alexandra: Thank you, Kim. I feel like you’ve always been really good at giving advice that’s very insightful and thoughtful but also very actionable and concrete. So thank you for sharing that advice, which I’m sure it’s going to be very valuable to whoever’s listening to this podcast at this stage of their life.
I have one last question before I let before I let you go, Kim. And that question is, what is something that you learned in IDinsight that you still bring with you today or that you’ll continue to carry with you in this new step of your professional journey?
Kim: I’ll say two things. The first is that IDinsight has really trained me to have this keen sense of detail. To not be afraid to go into the weeds and to really have a critical eye for the data and the results that we find. At the same time, IDinsight has really taught me to always ask the “so what” about the data or about the work that we’re doing overall. And I think that it’s good to have both of these hand in hand, no matter where you go in the development space. And it’s definitely something that I will carry with me.
So we have this zero defect mentality, and it’s something that we place a really high premium on in IDinsight. We really place a high quality on our deliverables, and we try to be as rigorous and as precise in our process as possible. And I think that in my three years here, I’ve become a much more detail-oriented individual. I have been trained to veer away from vague terms and broad motherhood statements that don’t have teeth. A lot of my supervisors and RED Team members have trained me to veer away from that kind of practice, and as a result, I think I’ve become a professional who is as clear and specific as possible when I can, and I really appreciate that. This has made the quality of my work much better, especially since I want to continue working in the data and evidence space that’s such an important skill and mindset to have – that you look at every single bit of the data and like you’re not afraid to go into the weeds.
At the same time, though, also, again, through my managers and supervisors, I’ve learned to always ask the “so what?” and I think this is very important in the data and evidence space because the data is only really as good as your ability to help the end-users use them. Whenever I was writing up a questionnaire or interpreting results, making slides, or creating reports, I was always asked to ground them in the context of our client, what they’ll be able to do with the data, and whether that will help the people that they are serving or the people who are their beneficiaries. To me, that was a little hard at first because when you’re being trained to look into the details, it’s hard to zoom out into the big picture, but I really admire the constant push for that from my managers and my supervisors. And I think that from now until grad school and beyond, I’ll always have, in the back of my mind, when I see data and evidence presented to me, I’ll always be asking critically what that means for a particular organization or person. I think that will serve me well while I continue to find my space in the data-to-evidence sector. So, I think those two just having this big picture thinking, coupled with a keen eye for detail, it’s something that I think you naturally will be trained to do at IDinsight, and at least I got to hone those two skills here, and I will be carrying them with me to grad school and beyond.
Alexandra: Thank you, Kim!
Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation with me. I and all of us here are so excited to see what you continue to achieve in your development journey. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, as I have all previous ones of this nature, and I’m so glad that others will be able to benefit from this conversation as well. So, I hope that our listeners will find this as valuable as I have. Thank you very much, Kim!
Kim: Thank you so much, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what IDinsight has to offer as an alumni. Bye, for now, Alex!
Alexandra: Bye Kim!
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