Daniel Mason, Senior editor
April, 2016

You can make a difference to the lives of people all around the world by starting your career with a Masters in disaster management

In the era of 24-hour news and social media, we see disasters unfold on our screens with grim regularity. From floods and earthquakes to terrorist attacks and plane crashes, most of us watch powerlessly from the sidelines.

However, if you want to do more - to help prepare for these events, minimise their impact or be involved in the emergency response when they occur - then a postgraduate qualification in disaster management could be for you.

Dr Simon Bennett, director of the University of Leicester's Civil Safety and Security Unit (CSSU), explains, 'The world is a better place to live than it was a century ago. Infant mortality is falling, literacy is on the rise, and social and geographical mobility are improving. Real income is increasing and women are being shown more respect.

'Nevertheless, as the Ebola pandemic, Syrian and Iraqi civil wars and female genital mutilation demonstrate, life can still be "nasty, brutish and short" - to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes.'

So what can we do about it? According to Dr Bennett, 'One way to help resolve these problems is to give motivated conscientious people the knowledge and skills to make a difference. Studying risk, crisis and disaster management at postgraduate level does just that.'

Career paths

A postgraduate qualification in this subject will prepare you for many different careers within the field, says Dr Ilan Kelman, graduate student advisor at the University College London (UCL) Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction (IRDR), a leading course provider.

'Graduates are now working in academia, business, government and non-profit organisations. Some found jobs in London, while others have been placed overseas, in positions ranging from humanitarian relief to development.'

He notes that successful efforts to tackle disasters tend not to make the news - 'the major earthquake that causes disruption but not deaths, or the storm leading to flooding but not a flood disaster' - and that jobs will always be available to sustain this work.

At the same time, he says, 'When disasters do unfortunately hit the international headlines, then candidates with the knowledge and background will be in high demand.'

On many courses you'll be given the opportunity to gain work experience to help you decide which career path you're most interested in.

For example, students on the University of Portsmouth's MSc Crisis and Disaster Management have the chance to undertake a voluntary placement in the emergency management or humanitarian sectors. The employment rate for graduates is more than 90%, says course leader Dr Richard Teeuw.

Highlighting the variety of careers options, he explains that these jobs are 'typically in emergency planning, crisis communication, infectious disease management, risk analysis, reinsurance, business continuity, security management, emergency logistics, civil defence or humanitarian management'.

Entry requirements

If these challenging but rewarding careers appeal to you, then you'll need to ensure that you're eligible for a course.

Entry requirements vary between universities, but you'll typically need at least a second class degree in a relevant subject. If you don't have this, you may be able to win a place if you've done extensive work experience or relevant volunteering.

For instance, the University of Leicester's MSc Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management is a two-year course delivered by distance learning to students in more than 50 countries.

'The Masters has broad appeal, attracting students from the public sector, local government, the civil service, business, industry, international bodies like the United Nations (UN) and the military,' says Dr Bennett, the programme director.

He adds, 'A first degree is desirable but not essential for entry. Provided you can demonstrate relevant experience and can pass an assessment, you will be offered a place on either the March or September intake.'

Several UK universities offer Masters-level study in disaster management and similar subjects, with full time and part time options available. To find the programme that suits you best, search postgraduate courses.

Course content

You'll usually be assessed through a mix of essays, exams and possibly a dissertation. However, the course content will depend on the institution, with some focusing primarily on theory and others on practical management skills.

Dr Bennett says that, at the University of Leicester, students discuss historic and current crises including global warming, mass migration caused by resource depletion and civil war, the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster.

Broader issues are also raised, such as the impact on security and development of international organisations including the UN, European Union (EU), African Union, Arab League and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

You'll typically have plenty of opportunity to learn from specialists. For example, the MSc at the University of Portsmouth incorporates a unique three-day real-time international disaster response simulation exercise.

Dr Teeuw explains, 'This is run in conjunction with Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and the emergency response NGO, Serve On. Other players or observers are the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DfID), the British army, paramedic Hazardous Area Response Teams (HART) and crisis mapping experts from Map Action or Medicins Sans Frontieres.'

He adds, 'Understanding hazards, vulnerability and risk of disaster - underpinned by an awareness of emergency planning and logistics - are at the core of this Masters degree. The course is a mixture of taught units and a research project covering: hazard, vulnerability and risk assessments; business continuity; community resilience; humanitarian emergency management; and techniques such as Geographical Information System (GIS) applications.'

Skills and knowledge

Meanwhile, the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction (IRDR) offers several courses in risk, disasters and resilience. 'The degrees provide students with the skills and knowledge to meet the ever-increasing need for dealing with, and preferably preventing, disasters,' says Dr Kelman.

You'll gain an in-depth understanding of the two elements of disaster risk, he explains. The first of these is vulnerability, which covers the reasons why people end up in harm's way with few choices to redress their situation. 'Most vulnerability processes are political, requiring social science,' says Dr Kelman.

The second is hazard. 'Environmental examples are earthquakes and hurricanes but technological hazards are incorporated too, so the grounding comes from physical science and engineering.'

Among the topics you'll learn about are insurance, emergency management and gender equity, while you'll be tested on skills including statistics, group collaboration for crisis management, oral and written communication, and formulating and conducting scientific research.

Dr Kelman concludes, 'The opportunities will never diminish for students with disaster-related qualifications. The need for abilities across topics, disciplines and methods is especially important for preventing disasters.

'Disaster-related degrees instil flexibility, creativity and confidence in being able to help when others might be experiencing the worst time of their lives.'