10 Tips for a Successful Professional Career
Alan Bersin, Assistant Secretary of International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the Department of Homeland Security, visited OCS in March and April to meet with Harvard undergraduates. Alan addressed students’ questions in a casual setting, each visit punctuated by wit and wisdom:
1. Be bold and take charge of your life situation. Even if it’s a job you know nothing about in the beginning, burrow into it and learn about it. Never sell yourself short on the ground by saying that “I don’t know anything about it” or “I don’t have any experience with that.”
2. The only way to gain experience is to seek it out and to live it. Experience can be designed as well as dreamt.
3. Don’t telescope your life. The key requirement is to develop a background of general skill and knowledge, and a constitutional willingness to be flexible. The economy will dramatically change in the next three or four decades and there will be ups and downs to negotiate and adjust.
4. Get knocked down and rebuild yourself. You have to have the professional and personal core solid enough to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. You can only get there from failing periodically along the way.
5. True: experience is what you get when you’re looking for something else — don’t be afraid to take risks and make left turns.
6. Take an extra year or two before the outset of business or professional life to do something you want to do. In the long run it isn’t going to make a difference. Explore the world. Don’t be too harsh on yourself to budget time for travel on Robert Frost’s road not usually taken.
7. Remember that this is not about a linear path. Sometimes you make left turns, sometimes you zigzag, but you don’t get to write the novel before you live it. Young men and women do not make great biographies.
8. Follow your instinct with your education. Right now your education is about developing a way of seeing and forming a framework of perception. Don’t tell yourself “I need to major in this so I can do this.” Follow something that can prepare you to become the most educated person you can be. Your major won’t foreclose any options.
9. But you do have to take care of paying bills. Graduate school involves adding debts to your life before you get to pay them off. You should make that fact a part of your career plan. Don’t be ashamed of saying that or of making money. That freed up half my career for public service.
10. Don’t be afraid to change your point of view when you realize you’re wrong. Don’t be afraid to be wrong.
Julia Eger, ’14, with Alan Bersin
“Academia is under attack,” said Alexandra Lord at OCS’s May 13 event exploring careers in public history, humanities, and the arts. Like many who pursue a PhD in a particular field, Alexandra always expected to work in academia after earning her degree before learning of the wide assortment of other options available to her. At this event, both Alexandra and fellow panelist Katja Zelljadt discussed how they shaped their post-graduate careers around their PhDs in History.
After completing her PhD at Harvard in 1995, Alexandra went on the academic job market to find a tenure track job. “It was what I thought I had to do,” she explained. “I got a job teaching in rural Montana, which was miserable for me because I’m a city girl.” After holding that position for two years, she got a visiting professorship in upstate New York. “I didn’t like the hierarchy of it. I didn’t like the prospect of teaching the same courses every year – that made me want to hyperventilate,” she said. “And it was depressing to realize that my research only really mattered to a handful of people.” After breaking out of the traditional track of academic jobs, she now works as a Branch Chief/Historian for the National Historic Landmarks Program with the U.S. National Park Service. She also runs two websites that help users find non-academic careers.
“If you were brought into the mindset that you are supposed to sacrifice everything to be a scholar, that’s wrong,” Alexandra said. “You won’t be happy sacrificing so much. Think about your priorities. You never know where your career is going to take you. Look for a job that allows you to have what you want most.”
Alternatively, Katja Zelljadt is a daughter of two professors and “never had any illusions” about the life of a professor. “I came to love history from the perspective of non-academic history – places like Sturbridge Village are so interesting to me, to think about how history manifests itself outside of the academy,” she explained. “That’s what made me want to go to graduate school.”
Currently working as the Associate Director of the Stanford Humanities Center, Katja gets to engage with the academic world from a unique perspective. “Changes in university structures haven’t occurred since what feels like the Middle Ages,” she said. “I’m skeptical about change in big universities. The hierarchies are dependent on people in power keeping their power. Where I do see change is in the fact that a lot of universities are funding programs for area studies, many of which do not have curricular functions but have space for discussion and learning.”
Although traditionally a PhD is supposed to prepare you for a career within the confines of the academy, both panelists argued that writing your dissertation hones a variety of skills that prepare you for a career outside of professorship, too.
“Your PhD will make you good at research and good at deadlining. It will teach you to write in a variety of ways and for different audiences,” Alexandra said. “In searching for a career outside of the academy, definitely make it clear that you are prepared in these areas.”
“Your time in graduate school will make you good at project management, and make you able to manage your time and others’ time,” Katja added. “You have to figure out how you’re going to put a stamp on something that other thousands of people have done before.”
Apart from the professional qualifications, it is important in the search for a careers in the humanities and public history – as with all career fields – to build your network. “In graduate school, it’s fairly easy to build your network to become a professor. But if you’re thinking of other options outside of the professoriate track, it’s up to you to seek out a network,” Katja said. “One thing leads to another and another and there’s no track, so getting away from the mindset of the tenure track or other tracks is really important. There are stepping stones you have to build for yourself and the best way to do that is just to start.”
“Find good mentors, people who have neutral attitudes towards your career trajectory but who want you to succeed,” Katja continued. “They will be tremendously helpful to you.”
Julia Eger, ’14
There’s more than “Lights! Camera! Action!” to the show business industry, and panelists at OCS last week had the chance to share their work experiences in this field.
“It’s a pushing game – it’s a pushing industry,” Madison Greer ’13, a recent intern at Red Wagon Entertainment, said. “If you want something you have to really go for it. This is not one of those industries that really needs you. It’s all about personality. People want an intern with a smile on their face who can have fun and who is really engaged.”
“As an intern I was doing script coverage at Red Wagon, but also had to do things like wash dishes and staple lots of things too,” Madison said. “I think as an artist I was like, “I want to do something more creative!” and sometimes felt bored. But if you want to do something truly creative, you just have to be vocal about it with your bosses. I would ask, “Do you mind if I come see the scoring session for Halo 3?” And then I got to go.”
Since this is an industry about who you know, it’s helpful in the long run to meet people outside your department while in your internship. “In the middle of my internship, I made an effort to sit down and chat with every department and find out what they do,” Marlee Melendy ’14, an intern for the 2014 Super Bowl Host Committee, said. “And I’ve been able to keep in touch with people from different departments, which is awesome.”
Linxi Wu ’14, a past intern at SONY Pictures, echoed this statement. “People don’t always take the time to mentor you. In Hollywood you really have to reach out yourself. You need to be a self-starter.”
Nicole Delaney ’14, who interned at Maven Pictures in New York City this past summer, liked working in a small office because it meant she had a greater daily impact. “I did script coverage every day, which means I would read scripts every day and write critical summaries of them to give to the development team,” she said. “It was really hands-on and nice to have the power to say “this is good” or “this isn’t.”
Use your network
Although many of the panelists said that they had found their internships through family or friends, Marlee found her internship working for the 2014 Super Bowl Host Committee through the Institute of Politics. “The IOP Director’s Internship is a great program because you know your applications are being read and that you’ll get a $4,000 stipend,” she said. Crimson Compass, the alumni mentoring website, is also a great resource for finding internships in the entertainment sphere – as well as programs like Harvardwood 101 and the Harvardwood Summer Internship Program.
In any case, don’t underestimate the scope of your network. “It’s a connections industry, but whether or not you have a family member in the business, there are plenty of kids at Harvard who have worked in this industry who are connections for you,” Linxi said. “Any connection that your close friends have is a really a connection that you have. Don’t be afraid to reach out – the worst that could happen is they say no.”
Julia Eger, ’14