by Sourav Chatterjee, American University graduate student
At APPAM's Regional Student Conference in DC, I had the pleasure of sitting in on the Job and Career Tips panel on Saturday Morning. In attendance were 4 speakers representing the spectrum of policy work: Adam Briskin-Limehouse from Optimal Solutions Group, Liana Fox from the U.S. Census Bureau, Katie Gan from the Lab@DC, and Sarah Tahamont from The University of Maryland at College Park.
As the panelist's first speaker, Adam had some great advice from the perspective of an outside consultant: Namely, read your work and speak with your audience in mind. To quote him specifically, “English is a terrible language… Don’t get lost in the weeds.”
Adam elaborated: When working with technical material, speak in plain english, keep in mind units of scale such as those between billions and trillions of dollars, and ultimately don’t shy away from grunt work. It can help you to build up a sense of the public policy industry and may open up opportunities. One especially great suggestion he offered was to have an industry outsider proof read your technical work to help highlight writing shortfalls.
Next to speak among the panelists was Liana Fox, offering government work insights based on her experience at the U.S. Census Bureau and in past positions. Her advice centered on where you see yourself within an organization and the source of your happiness. She asked us to question our motivations and to understand what drives us. If we feel that we need credit or affirmation as opposed to a sense of purpose while doing work that may not result in credit, then - according to Liana - that will determine our ideal placement. Additionally, Lina suggested finding the best people you can to work with and finally, always negotiate your starting salary. She notes that this may not always be possible in the realm of government work but it can be managed in other ways, often through perks/benefits or advancement in GS scales. Something that may help in this area is to have other competing offers - though that may not always be possible.
After Liana spoke, Katie Gan from the Lab@DC presented two key points of advice:
1. Do (or see) it yourself.
2. Make it easy to say yes.
Elaborating on those pieces of advice bit, she explains that the best thing one can have is first hand data or experience. Often people may sell themselves short or may focus on the negative rather than on the positive. Frame the issue in a way that makes it easy for them to give you what you need, katie says. The mantra “keep it simple stupid” came to mind as I listened to Katie.
And, from academia, we had Sarah from the University of Maryland as the final panelist. Her advice was was to grow your network, though to not necessarily by aiming for the older or more established industry players but on your peers. She explains that many times we may find ourselves following much more experienced and renowned leaders in the field when in reality the best potential growth may happen when we collaborate with peers in different areas of expertise that overlap with our own. She gave an example of a peer reaching out when they needed assistance with a grant proposal involving research in a complimentary field. In keeping with this theme, she also suggested that we dig deep in understanding where we see ourselves making a home and what we feel constitutes success.
In all, much of the advice revolved around a key concept, one that appeared simple on the surface but has depth: Ultimately, we need to address what our motivations and needs are, and to build on our strengths while not just identifying our weaknesses. We must find the best people to complement us while acknowledging our own weaknesses.
Finally, during the Q&A, an audience member asked the question of whether one should prioritize internship opportunities or if they are really just opportunities to explore the breadth and depth of the industry. The panelists made arguments in support of affirmative answers to both parts o fhtat question: Internationships allow for that exploration and more, and they can also just be an opportunity for us to better understand our own needs. The panelists also highlighted the benefits of going on a “walk about” at organizations and further applying what we learn to what we do.
In short, there are no bad opportunities for early career professionals in public policy - just more opportunities for learning.