FROM THE ARCHIVES: What SAIS Must Do For Our Careers (2005)

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This article was published in The SAIS Observer in 2005, and is part of our “From the Archives Section,” which aims to digitize consequential stories from the past.


March 25, 2005

Just a year ago, SAIS Dean Jessica Einhorn noted at an Alumni Council Meeting that, “SAIS doesn’t prepare you for your first job after graduation, but for your third job.” If this is indeed SAIS’ mission, it has been a failure.

SAIS may not be a business school, but it does offer a professional degree for which many students take on huge debts to cover the $85,000 cost of tuition and expenses. What’s more, according to a survey conducted last spring, 90 percent of SAIS students are seeking to transition to a new career, and 83 percent lack experience in the new field they hope to enter.

That means that what we do at SAIS — the specific skill-building classes we take, the internships we take on and the the ways we learn to identify and market ourselves to employers in our intended career fields — all have consequences not only for our individual career prospects, but also for SAIS’ reputation.

In 2003, only 42 percent of second-year students had jobs by graduation. That alarming data spurred last year’s SGA, the Career Services (CS) staff, and the Dean’s office to action.

The SGA Career Services Committee drew up a plan for student-led Career Clubs to promote professional development by linking students and alumni in specific sectors. CS hired a team of three students with consulting experience — Jay Scanlan, Nichole Giugno and Ulla Rickert — to conduct a survey to assess students’ career goals and to benchmark SAIS’s CS against its counterparts at our competitor schools. The responses to these steps were several.

First, Dean Einhorn approved a new CS staff member responsible exclusively for employer outreach. Second, CS developed a standardized SAIS resume template, and launched a new effort to identify students’ career interest early in their SAIS careers and to channel them into career clubs.

Yet these changes, while beneficial, miss the point. The low rate of employment among SAIS graduates is not the fault simply of CS, or even of SAIS student culture. The shortcomings encompass everything from admissions to academic requirements.

That’s why Dean Einhorn has approved a new committee comprising three tenured faculty, three students, the Dean of Student Affairs, and the directors of the offices of Admissions and Career Services. The committee will examine what kinds of larger structural barriers there are to improving professional development at SAIS.

As outgoing SGA President, I will not sit on the committee. In the remainder of this space, however, I’d like to offer five suggestions that reflect more than a year’s work on what, in my view, is the most serious challenge facing SAIS.

  1. SAIS needs to allocate standard weekly blocks of time to professional development. Many business schools, for example, reserve Fridays for career-related programing. Here at SAIS, no classes (language or otherwise) should be scheduled during this career-related time block, nor should brown bags and other non-career oriented presentations.
  2. The faculty at large must recognize that SAIS is a professional school. This has three implications: 1) that taking an active role in helping students with their career planning is a faculty responsibility; 2) that class assignments should be weighted toward the kinds of research, writing and presentation tasks that students will face in the workforce; and 3) that admissions decisions — in which faculty should continue to play the principal role — ought to give professional experience and career focus at least as much weight as academic excellence.
  3. SAIS should follow the lead of other MA international relations programs and offer credit for internships undertaken during the semester. The opportunity to gain internship experience in Washington, D.C. is one of SAIS’ principal attractions, but one that is currently undermined by the school’s academic requirements. A modest but extremely helpful step would be to allow students to replace one course each academic year with one part-time internship.
  4. Language departments should be prohibited from imposing strict requirements on homework and attendance. To be sure, the obligation to achieve proficiency in a foreign language is one of SAIS’ great assets. Admissions should continue to select students with experience abroad that suggests that they either already possess proficiency or can attain it with modest work over two years But embarking on a new language is an extremely poor use of SAIS students’ time, given the academic and professional development opportunities afforded by the regular course load and SAIS’ location. Therefore the academic demands of the language program should be adjusted to reflect this.
  5. SAIS must engage in a comprehensive program to locate and involve alumni in the SAIS community. There are thousands of SAIS alums in the Washington, D.C. and New York areas, and yet few of them ever attend SAIS events relevant to their areas of expertise or assist in mentoring current students. Alumni relations should go beyond fundraising, and should include an effort to engage recent graduates (1-5 years out) who are often the best-positioned to provide current students with career advice. Career Clubs can play a role in this outreach, but the Development Office, CS, and the individual academic departments should also coordinate and expanding their efforts and direction.

Finally, SAIS must leverage better the experience of its own current students. At SAIS we have many former bankers transitioning to government work, and former Peace Corps volunteers hoping to become bankers. While much informal mentoring takes place, SAIS needs a formal database of students’ previous experience and career interests — which could be opt-in and jhem password protected — to allow students to assist one another in managing their career transitions.

As all of you know, SAIS possesses enormous strengths, including an outstanding faculty, a prime location, a dedicated staff, and a diverse and brilliant student body. Together, we can make the professional outcomes that SAIS encourages equally successful.

Dan Tobin is a 2nd year M.A. student, concentrating in China Studies. He is also President of the Student Government Association and co-chair of the SGA Career Services committee. This article represents his personal views and not necessarily those of either group, or of the SAIS Observer.

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