PS21 Report: Making it in DC and beyond


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  • Overseas experience is incredibly important for foreign policy careers
  • You will always be competing, so you need to set yourself apart
  • No task is too small at your first job or internship
  • It’s not always necessary to be in DC
  • There’s no one path to a successful foreign policy career

On Tuesday, July 14, 2015, PS21 held a discussion on “making it” in DC and elsewhere.

A full transcript can be found here and video here.

Participants were speaking as individuals, not representatives of organisations.

Negar Razavi (moderator): social anthropologist and PS21 global fellow

Sarah Arkin: senior policy advisor to Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Ali Wyne: member of adjunct staff, RAND Corporation, and PS21 global fellow

Darya Pilram: field anthropologist and social scientist with the US military and lecturer at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, Fort Leavenworth

Kathryn Floyd: visiting lecturer, Department of Government, College of William & Mary

Key Takeaways

With rising tuition rates and no guarantee of a job for those with advanced degrees, many young people are questioning the value of a postgraduate education.

But graduate school can lead to a lot of opportunities that otherwise aren’t available, and can be really valuable if you know what you want from it.

Arkin: My senior year of college, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I decided that applying to the Master’s Program was the best solution and I put all this time, I got all these recommendations, and I went to the interview. During the interview, she asked me a very simple question, “What do you want to do and why is this degree going to help you?” I came up with something on the spot but I came out of the interview like, “I don’t know!” I didn’t get in and it was great because it was the same sort of thing where I shouldn’t have gotten in and I didn’t know what I was going to get out of that and it made me refocus.

Floyd: …I suppose one of the most honest answers…about why I initially, and I’m going to say initially, chose to pursue a PhD is they offered me a full ride and said that you get live in Singapore but it afforded me the opportunity to stay very involved in my studies and academic interests and it opened the door. To teaching at a top university like the College of William and Mary, which really wasn’t part of the plan at 21 or 22. I did not fancy myself to be an academic but it’s been phenomenal because I can keep a hand in consulting, because public education doesn’t pay that well, and continue with my research interests and try to figure out what is going to happen…

But there’s really no substitute for work experience in your field, and you don’t need to be in DC to get good foreign policy experience.

Arkin: So the first thing I always tell people who want to get into foreign policy who are coming right out of undergraduate is that there is nothing that can substitute field experience… Having substantive experience abroad is something you cannot replicate anywhere else…

Being in the Civil Service at the State Department, you don’t have the opportunity to go abroad and get different postings like Foreign Service does… Even now in my job where I’m not directly in the foreign policy community in the same way, even just the two instances that I have living in the Middle East set me apart from a lot of people who work in the space that I do. It’s really insightful and really helpful when I do engage with the policy heavy community that really now doesn’t look at me as someone very policy oriented. I do have that experience abroad and I do come with a little more gravitas when I’m talking about these issues. There are a lot of different ways you can do that; starting to teach English abroad and working for something from that…

Pilram: …You know, I did my rotation through DC and thought that I wanted to do anything I could to come back to DC. But I’m from California and I got my start in defense at the Naval Postgraduate School completely by accident. I found out that by being out at NPS, anyone from DC interested who wanted to work with us would come to Monterey (because they wanted to get out of DC and some loved the opportunity to golf out at Pebble Beach). I learned that I didn’t need to be in DC, in fact I climbed much quicker being outside of the bubble of DC because I wasn’t competing with anyone and I could find and pursue opportunities. I was the only one who looked like me, who was doing what I was doing, who was enthusiastic about learning new skills and experiencing new environments. Although I’m now based in Kansas City working at Fort Leavenworth, I still find ways to connect to DC by teaching at the Pentagon or by engaging with leaders who come through here. I’m still in without having to be in DC. Being outside of that competition frees me up to continue finding interesting opportunities, broaden my skills, and bring fresh skills and perspectives back into the government from outside the beltway.

The best way to stand out in such a competitive field is to make yourself truly valuable to those above you.

Arkin: No task is too small and do it with a smile. It’s no fun to make the coffees and to go run the errands, but if you need to make yourself valuable, and a lot of times the staff that you’re working for and with are overburdened and they have a lot going on and you being there helping with the tasks with a smile and doing it graciously means so much because it really shows. And most of the time, and if you’re working for someone who’s respectful and understands what the value you bring is, they know and they’ll acknowledge that what you’re doing is way above your non-pay grade.

And even so, no task is too small, and you never know how that’s going to play out in a longer term. It’s just so important to do every task graciously. And just don’t be an asshole. You are in competition, to a certain extent, with everyone you’re around with, but don’t be a jerk because that person who you’re sitting next to for your internship today, could get a job at a place that you want to work tomorrow. And that person could be your next ticket. That person could introduce you to someone else who might hire you for another job. So be respectfully competitive, but acknowledge that you do have to be competitive but you don’t want to do it in a way that’s going to paint you in a bad light in the future.

Wyne: I think one [necessary skill] is the ability to synthesize information quickly and I think I learned this particular skill because I spent two and a half, three years, at the Development Center for International Affairs… I came with certain topics that I knew about–such as China-US relations in particular–but a big part of the job was becoming an expert, so to speak… A very typical assignment would be, and I imagine we all had this experience in different capacities, but the assignment was you get a phone call from the boss that goes “Ali, I need you to put together a memo in light of today’s deal, a timeline on nuclear diplomacy with Iran, what are the pitfalls, what are the major achievements.” So you have to get up to speed very quickly.

Ultimately, there’s no one formula for success. Perhaps the best advice for graduates is to do what you want and seize opportunity wherever you find it.

Floyd: [One] thing that I find sets people apart on their applications is to have something really kind of unique and quirky that is genuine. So I enrolled in Thai classes after learning I needed to speak it. And I got a lot of call backs in the immediate years after graduation because that was something weird and different, but legitimate… I have a lot of students coming to me and saying, “I’m going to learn Mandarin to help me get a job.” And I say to them, “Are you interested in taking that?”, because otherwise it’s really not going to materialise, in my opinion, the way that you think it will.

Pilram: I rely heavily on personal relationships, because that’s where my passion is. I love people. My advice is to join a club, form a trivia team, volunteer, go to meet-ups, book clubs and events. Find your tribe and connect with people who like what they’re doing—it is a more authentic and fun way to network.

I was a surfer, and then a sailor, so I joined a yacht club while I was at NPS and in DC I volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation on the weekends where I met really cool people. I’ve always met people outside of the traditional DC happy hours because I was doing stuff I love doing… Everyone on the Hill has a hobby. You’ll meet people at the gym, you’ll meet people through your spin class, you’ll meet people at yoga, you’ll meet people surfing: do what you love and you’ll meet really interesting people doing it too…Find your tribe.

Also, being a connector is just as important as being connected. Introducing new people to each other from seemingly disparate circles and helping others connect the dots to identify and solve problems is an invaluable skill. Rely on your network to help others succeed and you will build your understanding of how things really work, who’s who, and how to get deeper into The System to improve it.

Wyne: …When you look at someone’s resume, there isn’t a section about your failures. You should remember when you look at people’s resumes, when you look at their biographies, omitted from those are many detours, many wrong turns, or many instances when things didn’t go right.

Also, increasingly, peoples’ paths are not linear. People go from one sector to another, they go from one profession to another. So again, there is certainly something to recommend in having a general sense in where you want to go but you can also get too rigid and say, “I have to get this position or I have to get this internship.”

Report by Carrie Cuno. Transcript by Yaseen Lotfi, Gabrielle Redelinghuys and Claire Connellan.

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