Life after SAIS: Dialogues with young alumni at the International Monetary Fund

September 24, 2019

By Yilin Wang

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, the SAIS Observer sat down with four recent SAIS graduates who shared a common interest in macroeconomics despite their different backgrounds. They shared stories of how attending SAIS changed their lives—often in ways they had not expected—and which courses from SAIS’s extensive catalog have had the greatest impact on their careers.

For Miguel Mendes, a 2017 MA graduate who concentrated in Latin America Studies, his path to his current job in the African Department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was all but linear. “My first job out of college was a financial auditor, and then I also worked as an economic adviser in the Portuguese cabinet for a while. My work at the government focused on private sector development and export promotion, and it was through this experience that I first got to engage in work related to the emerging markets. I kind of built on that experience later when I pursued a specialization in emerging market at SAIS; I also did an internship at the World Bank office in Brazil through my concentration, which was a valuable on-ground experience that allowed me to observe different worlds and see different realities.”

While at SAIS, Miguel took a broad variety of regional studies courses deepening his knowledge of Asia, Africa and Latin America, along with coursework in emerging markets. “I think courses where you could learn hard skills are important, but it’s also imperative that you understand the story behind the numbers. In that sense, the regional courses at SAIS are very helpful,” he said.

Fellow SAIS alumna Mengyi Li, who graduated from the MA program in 2018 and recently joined the Commodity Unit at the IMF, also found that her career aspirations changed over the course of her time at SAIS. “I initially wanted to work in the development field. In the past, I had some experience researching [the] poverty trap and working on microfinance projects. I enjoyed the work in international development and believed that people in the field had very respectable ideals, but I had my reservations. Over time, I thought that getting out of poverty required a lot more than just external aid; people in poverty need to have motivation on their side, and what we could do was limited.”

At SAIS, Mengyi took several classes that proved to be imperative for her later career development, one of them being “Energy Markets in the Middle East and Central Asia”—a class she took simply because, she said, the subject material sounded interesting. “I never thought that I would end up working on the commodity team here at IMF, but you know, things just happen like that. Another class I really liked was called ‘Financial Market Development,’ in which I wrote a paper about the financial sector of Saudi Arabia. I was just curious at the time when I chose the country, but it turned out that at my first job after graduation at the World Bank, I was assigned to research Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. My advice to current students is that, instead of only picking those ‘practical’ classes, it might be a good idea to explore a little bit and choose classes out of your personal interest—you will be surprised by how they will come to influence your career later.”

Of the four alumni interviewed, perhaps 2019 SAIS MIEF graduate Manchun Wang, who currently works in the African Department at the IMF, experienced the biggest change in her career trajectory while at SAIS. “SAIS gradually changed my views on how I should plan my career, and it was the first time that I had ever considered working in the public sector,” she said. “I didn’t know about other choices but private-sector jobs when I first arrived at SAIS. After talking to several SAIS alumni working at multilateral organizations, I learned about public sector jobs. Then, I started to realize, it’s very important to keep your options open. And this would probably be my only chance to work at a job like this—I could always go back to work at securities or corporates at a later time. Therefore, I made up my mind to pursue a position in the IMF.”

Manchun found the courses in the MIEF program extremely helpful in preparing for her job at the IMF—especially the four econometrics courses she took. Nonetheless, she stressed that for students seeking solid, quantitative theory training in preparation for a Ph.D. program, they might need to take more advanced economics courses than those offered at SAIS. When asked about her future plans after the IMF, she said, “I am now doing research as part of my job while learning more skills to help me in my research. I still did not make up my mind if I should pursue a Ph.D. degree, an MBA degree or even take other options. After all, people choose differently at different phases of their lives.”

In contrast to the other three alumni, Simon Paetzold, who graduated from the Tsinghua-SAIS dual degree program with a concentration in International Political Economy (IPE) in 2018, said he had a clearer sense of his career plans before attending SAIS. Simon, who joined the Finance Department at the IMF after graduation, said, “Prior to my undergraduate study, I lived in China doing a cultural diplomacy program and thus formed strong connections with this country. I was specifically interested in dual degree programs in international relations between a Chinese university and a university in the United States or Europe. Among all programs that met this criterion, the one at SAIS had the strongest quantitative and economic component, and that’s what I valued.”

Of the IPE program at SAIS, Simon said, “The IPE discipline is, in my understanding, and especially the way it was taught at SAIS, a very academic discipline. But there were also classes at SAIS that focused more on applying economic and political analyses, one of them being ‘Financial Market Analysis in the Public Sector.’ We looked at how political processes and financial markets interacted in the real world and it was truly fascinating. Nevertheless, I do find the academically-oriented classes in IPE as well as econometrics courses taught at SAIS very important, as they allow you to speak more intelligently about the literature and quantitative research methodologies.”