Harvard FAS Office of Career Services

Career Chat with Alan Bersin

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