SPP Faculty Practitioners Share Career Lessons Learned

March 14, 2017

As a professional school, SPP has faculty with rich experience in the world of policy practice and activism. Four of the School’s faculty practitioners shared insights from their personal experiences with CEU students during a series of career talks this term. “We spend a lot of time telling our students to think strategically about the future and to plan ahead as they chart their individual career paths,” said Ann Gagliardi, Director, SPP Career and Alumni Programs. “We realize that people may unfortunately take this to mean that we think career development is as simple as ‘make a plan and follow it.’ Of course, that’s rarely the case! We know full well that in addition to thinking strategically about the future, you also need to be prepared to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.”

In the inaugural talk on January 19, SPP Acting Dean and Professor of Comparative Politics Julia Buxton spoke about how her decision to work on Venezuela when many others were focusing on Chile or Mexico meant that she was one of very few western academics with expertise on the country when Hugo Chavez was elected its president in 1998. SPP Assistant Professor Cristina Corduneanu-Huci described her decision to do an MA at the University of South Carolina as a “random choice” – and yet it was that decision that gave her the chance to work with a “great sociologist” who had an enormous influence on her career. For SPP Assistant Professor Cameran Ashraf, who spoke on February 12, it was the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 that triggered a career change – one that ultimately led him to co-found AccessNow, an international human rights organization dedicated to defending and extending the digital rights of users at risk around the world, and to pursue a PhD in the geopolitics of Internet censorship and cyberwar. Ashraf stressed that he got involved with digital activism because he wanted to lend a helping hand and certainly did not see it as a career move. SPP Associate Professor of Practice Kirsten Roberts Lyer said she had always been interested in human rights and activism, but ended up doing a law degree “by accident.” She went on to say that this decision ended up being the catalyst to a career working in human rights and international humanitarian law.

The four faculty practitioners were generous in recounting the twists and turns of their careers, speaking honestly not only about their accomplishments, but also about challenges they faced and some of the hurdles they overcame. They urged public policy students to, in the words of Corduneanu-Huci, “value all of their experiences,” pointing out that you can learn important lessons and skills even while doing jobs you hate. Both Corduneanu-Huci and Ashraf mentioned the importance of approaching one’s career with a creative mindset, while Roberts emphasized the role luck played in her own path. Buxton mentioned the way that encounters with specific people shaped her choices. All four speakers stressed the importance of taking risks.

There was also plenty of very concrete advice. “Don’t be intimidated by the job description,” urged Roberts. “If you can do 70 percent of it, apply. Always apply.” Mundus MAPP student Michele MacMillan appreciated hearing from Roberts that it is important to “have confidence in yourself, even if you don’t always feel very confident.” Roberts also advised students not to lie or exaggerate on their CVs. “Be honest about what you have done.” This was advice that students heard during all four practitioner career talks. “These talks were a great opportunity to hear from our professors about things that we could never learn from reading books or articles,” commented Hla Aye (MPA ’18).