On a December morning at 8 a.m., myself and fifteen or sixteen other Carleton students were sitting down bleary in Washington D.C., about to listen to a Carleton alum and two friends talk about their experiences with Save the Children and how they ended up working there. It was the first of about 20 organizations we would visit in the next three days in a blitz of information-gathering about careers in public policy.
I won’t bother you with the details or specifics of the different agencies, but there were a number of very generalizable lessons the sixty or so people’s lives had in common. Here they are:
Follow Your Love. Yep, college romances are usually short, bittersweet, and end with the conferring of an undergraduate degree, but many of those who were successful got their start in Washington simply because they had significant others heading there themselves. It seems like it’s the combination of having no set plans mixed with the safety of a relationship that allowed these people to find jobs in fields where they had no previous interest. Most of the time, the jobs were short, but anchored to a place by another warm body, they kept finding new jobs until one stuck.
Leave the Country. It really doesn’t matter where you go, but get out of the country for at least a year or two. And Canada/Mexico doesn’t count. Whether it’s getting a reporting job in Rome, graduate school in Australia, or wandering around Asia finding yourself, the people we talked to traveled far and wide. Most of the time they planned ahead and got fellowships or jobs, but quite a few also just showed up in country and found a way to make ends meet.
The traveling had two great benefits for their post-traveling Washington jobs. First, they knew a foreign culture the way an expert does. They spoke the language, knew the customs, and knew who to talk to in the country to get information if they needed it later. Secondly, the experience made them smarter and more adaptable. Without the benefit of the security of a permanent residence or job, these travelers were more open to suddenly moving again if the opportunity arose.
Don’t Immediately Go to Graduate School. Not a single person argued that after college, they were happy immediately returning to grad school. Only one man argued to attend grad school as early as possible, but that was predicated on knowing, and I mean knowing, what you wanted to do with your life. After four years of college, Law school or Public Policy school is three more years of the same critical thinking and improving of writing. You’re burnt out now, seniors, why do you expect that when August rolls around you’ll want a fifth, sixth, or even seventh year of this? See the two above lessons, make some mistakes, go to Alaska if you want. Find what you want to do, then go back to school to really learn to do it.
Is grad school useful? Opinions varied from a minority saying it was harmful to most saying they learned a lot, but they could have done without it. Grad school exists to prove you went to grad school. It’s the credentials. Maybe physicists and economists need graduate schooling, but it seems like lawyers and public policy experts learn most of what they need to know doing their jobs and experiencing new places and difficulties.
Never Waste an Opportunity to Make Friends. This applies to all people, but it especially applies to Washington, where we were told over and over, it matters more who you know than who you are. The people we talked to got their jobs because they were in the right place, knew the right stuff, and knew the right people. No one asked for GRE or LSAT scores or all those numbers. If you were an intern, you would get the job the next year. If you showed up in NPR’s offices every day touting your journalistic skills and experiences, you’d eventually get a job. In D.C., there’s a lot of turnover, and while college grads may think that hiring takes place only once a year, every year, the reality is that often times, whomever is there to fill the interim will end up staying if they like the job and are liked themselves.
Write Write Write Write and Learn to Speak Speak Speak. You might have the best ideas in the world, deep ideas that would progress humanity to the next epoch of evolution, but if you can’t write out or speak your thoughts, they’ll go nowhere. Look what I’m doing now. Hopefully someone reads this and see my name, and says, “That Alex, he can sure reflect and generalize from his experiences. And not only that, he can write an article about it!” The more you write, the better you get and the more likely people will read your work. The more stuff you put out, the more likely you’ll find an audience. So if your dream is to work in development, start a blog about development, submit your comps paper to journals, turn it into an article for a magazine. It won’t be the New York Times or Newsweek, but you’ll eventually find an audience. The same goes for speaking. Learn to speak well and succinctly. People can skim an article, but they’ll quickly get bored listening to you ramble about all the great lessons you learned while visiting Washington D.C. Make it brief, to the point.
Seriously though, we met more than a few people who got jobs because of their amateur blogging. It’s not completely without precedent.
Be a Problem Solver. A journalist mentioned that 90% of people out there are mediocre and cause more problems than they solve. Don’t be these people. If you dependably make your boss’s life easier, he’ll love you for it. The fewer questions and micromanagement decisions the boss has to make, the better you’ll look.
Find Your Love. Bouncing from job to job is fine. Some of the people we talked to haven’t held a job for longer than two years, but the jobs just slowly get better. But through all that bouncing, you’ll eventually discover what you love to do and everything else. The task then is to find the jobs and tasks that are that narrow column of love and avoid the rest. But you need to know what you love before you can know what to go after.
Whew. I didn’t expect this to be so long. Sorry dudes, but it was a crazy three days jam packed with meeting really interesting people.