ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, CAREER DEVELOPMENT | WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS
What do you do as Assistant Director, PreGraduate School and Career Development at Washington University in St Louis?
At the Career Center at Washington University in St. Louis, we support students and alumni as they transform their passions, education, and skills into purposeful career paths by teaching lifelong career development strategies and by connecting our diverse students, alumni, and employers. My particular focus is coaching students who are passionate about issues that relate to policy, advocacy, diplomacy, international affairs, development, and relief. I also specialise in graduate school discernment, application, and success. Most of my work revolves around coaching, teaching, and developing opportunities for them to connect to specialists whose backgrounds match their interests. I meet with students, one-on-one and in groups, on-campus and in DC, and I teach and guest lecture in courses on topics such as Buddhism, Irish culture and The Troubles.
You focus on students who would like to follow careers in international relations and the like. What would you advise our readers who would want to work in the field?
Skills, knowledge, abilities, and experience can be built in numerous ways. You can take courses, but also you can teach yourself skills like Excel as well. Consider studying one or more foreign languages, and travel, study, or live abroad. If you’re in an undergraduate or graduate programme, join relevant discussion groups so you can practice presenting your thoughts verbally. Focus on your writing, explore different types of writing, and build an initial portfolio. Even if you’re not that interested in quantitative analysis, learn enough about statistics that you can engage with the data. Once you’ve identified an area of interest, figure out who’s who in the field – analysts, authors, policy makers, organisations, publications, etc. Consider connecting with the field through internships, informational interviewing, volunteering, research, shadowing, and social media. Experiment and take risks.
From your vantage point, what do you think the advantages and barriers to women working in foreign policy are?
So many advantages – one is constantly learning, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. I’m exposed to the fullness of the human experience and my assumptions are challenged on a daily basis. I get to explore and live my values and bridge my intellectual and personal passions with paid work.
There are still so many interrelated, complex barriers, but I will just highlight a couple that I witness regularly in my role.
One is a lack of knowledge of the range of options in foreign policy and international affairs. If you don’t know what the foreign service is or what a nongovernment organisation does, how can you even consider it as an option? One of my personal missions is to expose students to the variety of career options. Women in Foreign Policy is providing a great service by promoting the stories of female foreign policy professionals.
Two core challenges I experience in the United States are the lack of diversity in the foreign policy experts featured in the media and the narrowness of the foreign policy issues that the mainstream broadcast media outlets cover. It sends a message about who is welcome at the table of 'experts', and what are worthy subjects of discourse. I am encouraged by campaigns like #heforshe, efforts like Foreign Policy Interrupted, and the recent commitment by David Rothkopf, CEO & Editor of Foreign Policy Group, who pledged not to speak on male-only foreign policy panels. Some of the most compelling dialogues in foreign policy are happening on social or alternative media outlets.
Finally, a core issue is socioeconomic and not confined to women. Most internships in the field are unpaid, and internship experience is a prerequisite for entry-level positions. Many students are not able to take unpaid internships thus limiting the candidates who are able to enter the field. Having witnessed this struggle, I try to pair students with alumni who have negotiated these issues so that they can gain insight into how they made it work. Washington University in St. Louis also has a number of competitive opportunities to receive funding for unpaid internships. I encourage those who are able to consider pairing with their undergraduate or graduate institutions or employers to develop stipend programmes to help fund student internships. This could go a long way to increasing the overall diversity of our field.
There is a lot of debate about how useful doing a Master’s degree can actually be for your career. What is your take on it for the foreign policy field?
In my opinion, this entirely depends on your interests, where you are in your career, and what skills, knowledge, and experience you want to enhance. I find that deciding on graduate school is a highly individual process that involves many interrelated factors. My main advice is not to attend graduate school just because you don’t know what else to do. Consider it both an investment in you and your future.
Having said that, I would offer that if working directly for a government agency is your goal, then having a graduate degree gives you an advantage, especially through the Presidential Management Fellowship. Many think tanks will hire candidates with undergraduate degrees for research assistant positions, but scholars/fellows often have graduate degrees and/or distinguished careers. Journalists come from all kinds of backgrounds, and nongovernmental and consulting organisations are all over the map.
You are also a PhD candidate on Transformative Studies - gender, religion and conflict. Why did you decide to pursue a PhD, and would you advise our readers to pursue one?
Personality wise, I live with the tension of having interests that sit between being service and research oriented. Most career advisors have counselling degrees, but my masters programmes were in Buddhist Studies and Women’s Studies and Religion. Though I love my role at Washington University in St. Louis, I began to miss research and writing, and I realised that the questions I wanted to research required experience with sociological and anthropological methods. Until I found the Transformative Studies PhD programme at the California Institute of Integral Studies, I thought I would have to compromise some part of my research interests if I went for my PhD. The transdisciplinary approach allows me to move across disciplines and is field rather than discipline focused.
Ideally, a PhD is a commitment to consider carefully, but I would encourage your readers not to dismiss it outright. It is in so many ways a gift you give yourself. The most important thing is not to get caught in the trap of thinking that what you might gain from the degree is irrelevant to 'on the ground' problems or that the only option after you graduate with your PhD is a career in academia. A PhD is about learning how to generate new knowledge in a field, and there are so many skills that a PhD builds that are highly valuable in foreign policy.
You have dedicated your career to education, whether at Washington University at Saint Louis, now of previously working at Lesley University. Why this choice?
Perhaps it is because I always loved school so much that even after a brief hiatus in the business world, I made an intentional shift back to higher education. Higher education is one of the few places that combines my two passions – service and research, and frankly, working with students at the cusp of stepping into the broader world outside of academia is such a gift. They inspire me daily.
What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?
If she is still in school, I’d encourage her to visit her institution’s career centre and see if they have any student positions for which she could apply, especially positions where she could advise other students. We have a Career Peer position where students get to experience coaching and can specialise in a particular area if they choose. I’d also encourage her to bring her whole self to the table. When I started at the Career Center, there wasn’t anyone who specialised in these fields, and I built that expertise based on the connection between the needs of students and my personal interests.
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it that's still relevant today?
My first job outside of waiting tables was as an Assistant to the Director of Security at my undergraduate institution. I managed a group of 20+ student workers, and I learned key management skills that I use every day from how to prioritise projects to getting buy in from others. I also learned how to manage individuals who I also consider friends, which isn’t always easy. My manager, Fred Abernathy, taught me the value of being mentored and mentoring others. You’re always in a position where you can serve others even in some small way. I also learned what systemic racism is and that those who work in higher education are not immune to racism or homophobia by virtue of their graduate degrees.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
Most rewarding – building lifelong relationships with students and colleagues. I’m so blessed to work at an amazing university whose motto is 'know each student by name and story'.
Least rewarding – email is a tough communication medium for me because it feels so impersonal, and I spend 90% of my time away from my computer.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Strategic thinking and planning – I have a knack for generating ideas and seeing patterns, connections, and alternative ways of proceeding. The prospect of sorting through large amounts of information thrills me. Though I believe this is somewhat an inherent skill, I enhanced it through debate in high school and undergraduate and graduate degrees in the humanities.
Communication and group facilitation – practice makes progress on this one. I swallowed my fears and volunteered to chair committees and meetings early in my career. I’m super-extroverted so I have had to really work on slowing down and trying to pick up on nonverbal communication. I learned different decision-making styles and observed excellent communicators.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
If you’re not losing some of the time, you’re not playing in the right league. Also, just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you should do it. I was a very good, but very miserable technical writer.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
Almost five years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My children were 2 and 7 at the time, and I worked throughout the process, bald head and all. Having cancer was tough, but continuing to work and walk through the buzz of life as a mother even with an amazing partner and family was a real challenge. It absolutely transformed my life by revealing just how interconnected we are as a species and a world.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I’m an educator at heart so I live for those light-bulb moments, especially when the moment empowers a student to make change personally or in the world. Also, a group of students, a colleague, and I developed a model of career advising that is really unique because it evolves with student interests and collaborates with our alumni and faculty who teach related coursework. Finally, a few years back I won the Washington University in St. Louis ArtSci Council Faculty Award, for which I was nominated by a student and selected from among my peers. I was so touched that a student took the time to nominate me, and it was a huge honour.
Why the interest in foreign policy?
I grew up in a very multicultural environment as a small child and then moved around age 10 to a pretty homogenous white, middle/upper class suburb of St. Louis. As an adult, I realised just how out of sync I felt after the move and how I mourned the vibrancy of an intercultural environment with multiple languages, foods, religions, and cultures surrounding me. Being embedded in immigrant communities as a young child really fostered a sense of questioning assumptions that lives in me today.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I admire my Mother’s toughness, resiliency, and warm heart and my Father’s strong principles, dedication, and interpersonal skills.
Claudia Christie – Claudia was a feminist historian, educator, and journalist with whom I worked at Lesley University. She taught me how to teach and helped me question my assumptions about education. Students would give her a standing ovation on the last day of class. She died of cancer in 2004, and she showed me that it's possible to live with cancer with grace and vivacity.
Julia Child – what can I say? I’m a foodie. I took My Life in France to my first chemo treatment. Her vivacious zeal for life, food, and family and her daring to follow her heart is contagious.
Amy Heath-Carpentier | Assistant Director, PreGraduate School and Career Development | Washington University in St. Louis | PhD student in Transformative Studies: Gender, Religion and Conflict
13 years' experience
CV in brief:
Studied: PhD in Transformative Studies - Gender, Religion and Conflict at California Institute of Integral Studies; MA in Women's Studies and Religious Studies at Lesley University; BA in Religious Studies and Art History at Webster University
Previously worked at: Lesley University, i2 Technology
Find her online
"I am encouraged by campaigns like #heforshe, efforts like Foreign Policy Interrupted, and the recent commitment by David Rothkopf, CEO & Editor of Foreign Policy Group, who pledged not to speak on male-only foreign policy panels."
"Also, just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you should do it. I was a very good, but very miserable technical writer."
"Once you’ve identified an area of interest, figure out who’s who in the field – analysts, authors, policy makers, organisations, publications, etc. – consider connecting with the field through internships, informational interviewing, volunteering, research, shadowing, and social media."
"Two core challenges I experience in the United States are the lack of diversity in the foreign policy experts featured in the media and the narrowness of the foreign policy issues that the mainstream broadcast media outlets cover. It sends a message about who is welcome at the table of 'experts' and what are worthy subjects of discourse."
"Deciding on graduate school is a highly individual process that involves many interrelated factors. My main advice is not to attend graduate school just because you don’t know what else to do."
"The most important thing is not to get caught in the trap of thinking that what you might gain from the degree is irrelevant to 'on the ground' problems or that the only option after you graduate with your PhD is a career in academia."
"If you’re not losing some of the time, you’re not playing in the right league."