Career Exploration in D.C. by Emily Wiseman
One week before the official start of second semester classes, I traveled to Washington, D.C. and met up with 3 other bi-co students: one Bryn Mawr sophomore, and two other seniors from Haverford. We spent the day trekking around the city, making it to five different Think Tanks and Research Institutes where Bryn Mawr or Haverford (or sometimes both!) alumni have established their careers. I’ll start by detailing the events of the day, and then making some observations about my experience.
First we met Dottie Rosenbaum (HC ’88) at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She explained the Center as a sort of watch-dog non-profit, founded in 1981, which keeps on eye on Congress’s policy decision-making, with particular attention to tax and budget proposals. The Center also engages in policy advocacy geared toward “reducing poverty and hardship,” and has distinguished itself in its ability to churn out complex analyses in short periods of time – a strategy aimed at gaining influence through media. The Center highlights its description by CQ Today as a “socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and academically rigorous,” which matches my impression fairly well. Dottie had gone to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, which she described as a “very different place” compared to the bi-co. She recommended that anyone interested in policy research and/or advocacy gain work experience before attending graduate school. She advised us to pay attention to work/life balance, even if it seems inapplicable at this stage of life. And she reassured us that plans will always fall into place (hers did!), and to always go with that gut instinct in making life decisions. She really enjoys working at the Center, and even gave us information about the (paid!) internship program.
Next, we optimistically set out on foot for the American Institutes for Research to meet with Becki Herman (HC ’87). 30 minutes later, we arrived (freezing & pretty exhausted) at the organization referred to as AIR. Since this is my take on things, I think I get to say that AIR was my favorite stop on our trip. Basically, it is a non-profit organization that takes on clients for start-to-finish research projects. Clients can range from individuals, private organizations, to even government institutions like the Department of Education. Founded in 1946 and currently located in 42 US and international offices with about 1500 employees, it operates with a corporate consulting business model. All projects are done in teams and all employees operate with a very clear hierarchy (a benefit if you like a sense of opportunities for growth). AIR does “applied research,” so while about 60% of its employees have PhDs and most of the entry level positions have an expectation of continued education, the work does not feel removed from reality. If you’re someone who wants to do research, but also wants to use it as a problem-solving or evaluative tool in a very direct way, this is a great organization to consider.
Becki directed us to the taxi area for our next stop, the Urban Institute. We stopped for lunch before heading up 5 floors to meet with Kaitlin Franks (HC ’09) and Mary Winkler (BMC ’90). Kaitlin has been working at the Institute for a year and a half, and she really enjoys it. Most of what she does now is preparing data for statistical analysis, termed “data cleaning.” She remarked that she essentially “gets paid to do homework.” She was an economics major at Haverford and feels like she’s getting a sense of the more social aspect of her quantitative work at the Urban Institute. Mary told us a hilarious story about how she got involved with UI, and then asked us to pick her brain for career/life tips. My general sense of her career thus far was that she pursued a master’s degree in something that interested her, and serendipitously ended up working at a place that she loved. (Side note: if you are someone who does not like ambiguity in life plans, do not contact Mary or Dottie). Kaitlin, on the other hand, said she applied for a lot of positions during her senior year of college and ended up fortunate enough to choose between a few different opportunities. She added that there were many rejections in between the offers, such that her and her suitemates created a “fail wall” to jokingly commiserate. Her basic career advice was to be persistent in pursuing things, especially at this stage (halfway through senior year).
On we went to the Brookings Institute to meet with Alice Rivlin (BMC ’52), which was a totally exciting opportunity as she has accomplished so much in her career. We learned a little about the Brookings Institute, and how it fits onto the “think tank” to “research institute” to “action tank” spectrum. Apparently it’s one of the best examples of a “pure” think tank – note the relic of the educational affiliation of the Institute in its “.edu” website and email addresses. Alice still works for Brookings as a senior fellow (in economic studies) and as the director of the Greater Washington Research team. She took us through her awe-inspiring life story, which includes being the appointed first director of the Congressional Budget Office, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and governor of the Federal Reserve. She has been working on economic policy issues since Lyndon Johnson’s Presidential term, has authored several books (and is currently working on one right now at the age of 80), and has truly blazed a trail for women in the public sphere. You can read more about her achievements here.
To round out the day, we headed to Virginia (who knew it was so close to D.C.?) to meet with Elliot Diringer (HC ’80) at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Eliot is the vice president for international strategies and gave us a brief overview of the organization. The majority of our time, though, we spoke with Eliot and another Haverford Grad, Jim Kapsis, who showed up from across the street, where he works at OPOWER, a private consulting firm that works on energy efficiency. The two of them relayed life/career stories which involved a lot of chance encounters, effective networking, and hard work. The two of them each said to pursue whatever sounds appealing at this stage in our lives, and to not be afraid to move on to the next thing if something isn’t working. Both alumni said that they took big risks in terms of their careers in their early years, and most paid off (though of course some didn’t). The four of us undergraduates were exhausted by this point, so their high energy dialogue kept us going through the last meeting.
Reflecting on the day while waiting for my train back to Philly that night, I realized that one of the most helpful things about the day was actually visiting the organization’s offices. I don’t think I would have gotten a sense of the culture of the organization, or of how I would fit in there as a prospective employee, without having experienced the actual setting. The alumni were eager to share their stories with us and in a few cases made the extra effort to bring in others who were currently employed in the entry-level positions for which we would be eligible. Finally, I learned to save business cards. I never realized how helpful they are in recalling names/organizations/addresses when the time came to write thank-you notes. I don’t think I would have made it through that task without them. Every alumnus encouraged us to contact him or her with further questions, so I wouldn’t hesitate to do so yourself!