Why should you study disaster management?

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
January, 2023

With an increasing need for experts to provide solutions to complex situations happening across the globe, a Masters in disaster management would be the ideal preparation for entry into this fast-paced career

If you want to play a role in preparing for disasters - such as floods, earthquakes and terrorist attacks - and minimise their impact, or get involved in the emergency response when they occur, a postgraduate qualification in disaster management could be for you.

'As the COVID-19 pandemic, Syrian civil war, scandal of female genital mutilation, refugee crisis, Grenfell Tower disaster, Boeing 737-MAX 8 losses and the attempted coup by seditionists in the USA and the Russia-Ukraine War demonstrate, life can be "nasty, brutish and short" - to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes,' says Dr Simon Bennett, director of the University of Leicester's Civil Safety and Security Unit (CSSU).

'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,' he says.

Postgraduate entry requirements

You'll typically need at least a 2:2 in a relevant subject to gain entry onto a disaster management Masters, although entry requirements will vary between courses. If you don't have a degree, you may be able to get 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.

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.

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 students at the University of Leicester discuss historic and current crises including global warming and mass migration caused by resource depletion and civil war.

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

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

Course tutor Professor Richard Teeuw explains, 'This SIMEX is run in conjunction with Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and the emergency response NGO, Serve On. There are many other players or observers, such as United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) staff, the UK Medical Response Team (testing a field hospital), UK International Search and Rescue (ISAR) teams, paramedic Hazardous Area Response Teams (HARTs) 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.'

The university's teaching staff may also have their own areas of expertise in disaster management. For instance, Dr Bennett has carried out research into flight-deck human factors with the National Police Air Service (NPAS), which provides air support to police forces in England and Wales. By observing operational sorties, Dr Bennett has been able to record crew interactions with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of teamwork under conditions of physical and psychological stress.

Skills and knowledge

The University College London (UCL) Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction (IRDR) offers several courses in risk, disasters and resilience, explains Professor Ilan Kelman, graduate student advisor at the IRDR.

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

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,' he says.

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.

Professor Kelman adds, '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.'

Disaster management jobs

'A postgraduate qualification in disaster management prepares you for many different careers within the field,' says Professor Kelman.

'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, candidates with the knowledge and background will be in high demand.'

On many disaster management 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, Masters students at the University of Portsmouth 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 Professor Teeuw.

Highlighting the variety of career 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'.

If you're interested in pursuing a disaster management career, consider becoming an emergency planning/management officer.

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