Archive for experience


One buzz word you’re likely to hear a lot during your time at SIPA is “networking.”  We talk about the power of networking and its importance all the time, but even the most experienced SIPA student can feel intimidated at the prospect. Networking like any other skill, improves with practice and the better you get, the more comfortable you’ll feel using it. Here are some tips to exercise your networking muscle:

  1. Network Before You Need It.  Networking is not about “using” people, it’s about fully participating in your professional community. One of the great joys of my professional experience has been connecting people. A former intern wants to go to intern and the state department and I happen to know a SIPA grad who works there. A classmate wants to work for the Sierra Club and I attended a training session with someone who works there. Not only have I helped my colleagues find jobs or staff, but I know that there are competent people working for the causes in which I believe. By building a network before you need it, you enable yourself to help shape your professional community and people are more than happy to return the favor when the time comes. (And you’ll feel better about asking).
  2. Value Yourself and Your Experience. You have every right to reach out to your colleagues and people you’ve done good work for.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If a friend of a classmate wanted to pick your brain for advice or you were in a position to forward your former intern’s resume, wouldn’t you be happy to help?  Why shouldn’t you expect the same professional courtesy?  Public policy people tend to be especially giving in this capacity because we understand what it takes to be a committed and effective advocate and we want to promote those traits. Assuming you’ve done good work in the past, there is no reason for them not to help you unless a) they are insanely busy b) they are being a jerk or c) they don’t feel you’ll use their time wisely (see below).
  3. Ask For Advice.  People like when you ask for their advice. It makes them feel admired and important. (Hello, advice column I am in the midst of writing.)  Asking career advice is a great way to get useful information and establish a relationship at little cost to the advisor. Good questions to ask include, “Who should I be talking to?” and “If I want x job eventually what kind of experience do I need?”  Asking these questions is a useful exercise in and of itself.  You should only ask questions to which you genuinely want the answer. That said, you may find that your questions are rewarded with an offer to help. If not, once you’ve established a relationship you can follow up with “That’s a great idea, do you know anyone there? Would you mind forwarding my resume?” etc.
  4. Do your homework.  I will let you in on a little secret, it drives me CRAZY when people email or message me asking questions that I have already answered on my blog.  Likewise, when they ask me questions that could be answered by Google. Don’t get me wrong, it is my absolute privilege to be a resource to my professional community, but as such I get a lot of requests for help or advice and I expect my time to be respected. Value the time and energy of your prospective sponsor or mentor. Don’t ask questions you could have figured out on your own. Don’t go on an informational interview without having done a little research on your interviewee or their company and…
  5. Follow up.  Just like it takes time to give advice, it takes time to do a favor. If I offer to look over or forward your resume, don’t take a week to send it to me.  If I respond to your email by offering advice, follow up thanking me. If you don’t, not only will I feel disrespected, I will doubt your professionalism and therefore be disinclined to link my name with yours. The way you treat someone after they do you a favor impacts the likelihood that they’ll do you one again.

I hope this helps get you thinking about ‘networking’.   Remember, you are worth it! Be respectful and I’m sure others will be more than happy to help!  Happy Hunting,


Not Your “Average” Profile: Things to Consider as a Young Applicant to SIPA

The following post was submitted by Brittney Bailey.  Brittney is working in our office this year and she, along with several other students, are contributing posts throughout the year.  Another helpful entry on this topic written from an administrator standpoint can be found here.


One of the most common questions we at admissions are asked is:

“What are my chances of getting into SIPA if I am a younger applicant?  Do I even stand a chance?”

Usually these questions come from prospective students who have been out of school for 1 or 2 years or those who are in their final year of their undergraduate program and want to transition straight into graduate school.  And many times, these specific questions are deferred to me.

I entered SIPA one year after graduating from undergrad and was commonly marked as the “baby” of every group assignment or SIPA bonding-experience.  The reality is that SIPA does lend itself to students who exude a certain clarity and confidence in what they want to do and know how their degree program will specifically fit into their career goals. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but older students with more professional experience generally fall into this category.

So, from one “young” student to another, I wanted to list a few key tips to keep in mind when approaching the admissions process to professional schools like SIPA.

Be aware of the statistics

  • About 5%-10% of accepted students come directly from undergrad each year. These students tend to have extraordinary academic records, significant internship and/or study abroad experience and a fairly clear idea of what career path they want to head on.   Note, the more substantive the internship experience, the better. Yes, having lots of internships at big name organizations can look good on your resume.  But keep in mind that the Admissions Committee does more than glance at this section.  They expect to see a CV longer than one-page (see resume entry here), unlike a typical job resume, and are really looking at content.  So, making sure that even a few internships, fellowships or part-time jobs can better demonstrate your ability to handle relevant and substantive work is vital.
  • In many cases though, students with very strong academic backgrounds are not offered admission but are in fact, encouraged to reapply after gaining a year or two of relevant work experience.  Applying for competitive or prestigious short-stint programs like Teach for America, the Peace Corps or Fulbright and Luce Scholarships are a good stepping stone into graduate programs that can further give you the hard skills, connections and credentials you need to advance in an international affairs career.

Think Quant!

  • I could not stress enough the need to familiarize yourself with quantitative analysis before applying to SIPA.  Honestly, I avoided quant classes like the plague during my undergraduate career, even though basic economics courses were required as part of my international relations degree.  This was definitely to my detriment! Although I ended up loving my economics courses at SIPA, especially those that applied to development, I have always felt as if I were playing “catch up”.  Having a few courses in Micro and Macroeconomics, statistics, and mathematics under your belt are incredibly important tools for the SIPA experience and any international affairs or policy career.  Not only do they make your transition into graduate school much easier, but they serve as a form of “leverage” in the application process when being benchmarked against many students who have years of applied, practical knowledge.

Be clear about career objectives

  • As a young student, you inevitably have less “tools” to work with.  Your CV will most likely have less pages than an average SIPA student who was the Director of an NGO on the Thai/Burma border working with refugees for five years or who moved up the ranks as a Senior Analyst at Citibank in New York, Hong Kong and New Delhi offices.  Not to worry! Even if your goal is to essentially become one of your peers, a SIPA degree can very well enhance these career paths. Being as clear as possible in your personal statement about how to achieve this path is imperative.  Ask yourself regularly: What do I think I want to do? Have I already taken all of the basic steps to get there?  And how will this degree at SIPA and many of its components – from the concentration, specialization, professors, locale to the potential student body – help me to get to this goal?It’s not a simple question to answer at whatever age.  But, it’s an imperative one to address and drive home in your personal statement, particularly as a student with limited professional experience.

Don’t be afraid to “stay out of the game” (for a bit)

  • I know that this is usually not the answer people want to hear.  But speaking from personal experience, had I gone through the admissions process all over again I would have spent another year or two working in international development.  In fact, after my first year at SIPA, I took off some time, in part, to do just that. Gaining the additional professional experience helped me to really refine my objectives at SIPA.  I am much more confident in what I have to offer to a future employer and what I need to take from the program here.  Staying out of the SIPA game for just a few years can really enhance how well you play once you’re in it.

Having said all this, it is possible to be a young student at SIPA and make the most of your experience.  I hope these tips, at the very least, help out some of you who have asked this common question.

SIPA Faculty Member and Students Return from Haiti

One key part of the education SIPA students get is professional experience.  SIPA students travel all over the world during the summer, winter, and spring breaks and are often in the middle of where news is happening.  This was the case with Haiti as well.

Six SIPA students and SIPA faculty member Elisabeth Lindenmayer are safe after becoming trapped in Port-au-Prince, Haiti during the devastating earthquake that struck that country on January 12.  Lindenmayer, director of SIPA’s United Nations Studies Program, and the six students were in Haiti on a UN study trip. After evacuating by helicopter to the Dominican Republic, all returned home on Friday, January 15.

Everyone at SIPA is greatly relieved to hear that all involved in the development exercise are home safe.  For a more detailed article please visit the Columbia Spectator site.

Capstone Workshops at SIPA

The following was composed by John Hughes, a second year MIA student studying Political and Economic Risk Analysis.  Please note that in the past, only MPA students were required to complete a workshop.  Starting with the fall of 2010, all MPA and MIA students will be required to complete a workshop to graduate.


This year SIPA has doubled the number of Capstone workshops available to students to 32, assuring that a wide range of students will be able to take a workshop this spring.    MPA students are required to take a workshop as part of their degree, as are concentrators in Economic and Political Development and Energy and Environmental Policy.  With so many workshops on offer this year, however, many students not in one of these groups should also have a chance to participate.

The workshops range from one implementing global food security priorities with Booz Allen Hamilton to one looking at how America should deal with non-state terrorist groups for the Center for American Progress.  Each workshop gives students the chance to work directly with a real-world client, is limited to six students, and is assigned a faculty advisor to help facilitate interaction between the group and the client.  Thus, students have an amazing opportunity to work on a real project for a client in an intimate setting, ensuring that each has a chance to interact with the sponsor.  For a list of this year’s workshops check out this link:

The Economic and Political Development (EPD) and Energy and Environmental Policy (EEP) concentrations, as mentioned, have their own set of workshops, separate from the list above.   This gives students in these concentrations the opportunity to choose from a number of workshops directly related to their field.

The EPD workshops, in particular, are always highly regarded, as they give EPD students the opportunity to go abroad for a couple weeks to work in the field.  Many EPD students cite the workshop as the highlight of their SIPA education, providing them with valuable field experience that gives them a leg up when applying for development positions.  For more information on the EPD workshops check out this link:

Age and the Application Process: Youth Considerations

I apologize in advance for the length of this entry, however I think it is important as the questions addressed come up quite frequently.  I wrote it while on a long train ride recently.  If you are still in school or have less than two years of work experience, this entry should provide some helpful information and insight.

Each application season one of the most common inquires we receive is something along the lines of the following:

“I see that your Web site notes that the average age of a new student at SIPA is 27 but I am young and motivated and wish to apply to your program.  I believe that I am a wonderful fit for SIPA and have performed well in school and have participated in activities outside the classroom.  Can you provide advice on how as a young applicant I can put together a competitive application?  Further, as a younger applicant, is it worth my time to apply to your program?”

This question is often accompanied by a résumé, a list of activities/accomplishments, or a personal story about commitment to the intended field of study.

Let me start by stating that the Admissions Committee looks for the same thing all applicants, regardless of age.  We seek to answer two basic questions when reading applications:

1)    Is the applicant prepared/capable of performing well in our rigorous curriculum?

2)    Is the applicant a good fit for our program?  This roughly breaks into whether the application as a whole provides a clear idea of what an applicant wants from our program, what s/he will add to our program, and the contribution s/he hopes to make after leaving our program.

Our goal is to admit applicants who are able to address the points above in a convincing manner, regardless of age.  However, to provide some context let me elaborate on some of the characteristics concerning our typical applicant pool.  Roughly 70% of those that apply to our program are 25 years of age or older.  These individuals usually have 2-3 years worth of full time work experience.

Those who are able to focus full time on work after leaving school have a few things in their favor.  One is the ability to contribute professional experience to the classroom environment at SIPA.  In a professional program like ours, faculty will often ask students to integrate their personal experience into classroom work and assignments.  Two, full time work helps individuals to learn more about what they want to do, and equally as important, what they do not wish to do.  Thus, applications from those who have been out of school for a few years allow an applicant to speak from experience and not just desire and short term experiences such as internships.

Because of the value of experience, applicants that apply during their senior year of college or those with little work experience certainly increase the chance of being admitted if the résumé shows a history of interesting experiences.  To state it another way, we are looking for applicants that are unusually mature compared to others in the same age group.  Examples of such experience/abilities can include:

  • Internships
  • Volunteer Work
  • Student Leadership
  • Study Abroad or time spent working/volunteering abroad
  • The ability to speak multiple languages
  • Focused academic/professional projects
  • A gap year between high school and college, or during college

In sum, we are looking for experiences outside of the classroom that help to demonstrate maturity and focus and as a result will create a rich learning environment at SIPA.  Just as our students wish to learn from faculty members with experience, our faculty look for students who will be able to create synergy in the classroom and increase the value of group projects that are integrated into our curriculum.

Regarding preparation for our core curriculum, we do pay particular attention to quantitative training/experience.  The reason for this is that our core curriculum requires a full year of economics, a quantitative analysis class, and a financial management course.  We feel that in order to succeed in these courses, applicants need some previous experience or demonstrated ability with quantitative methods.  This can be demonstrated through coursework, professional experience, and standardized testing.  Courses in the following areas can help to demonstrate quantitative competence:

  • Mathematics
  • Statistics
  • Quantitative Analysis
  • Economics
  • Science/Engineering coursework

Some younger applicants will also ask about the relevance of academic major/minor.  The Admissions Committee is more concerned with fit and competence than academic major, but it is true that young applicants with a major that is seemingly unrelated to the proposed field of study at SIPA face stronger scrutiny in the admission process.  Thus, young applicants with a major that is somewhat related to the proposed field of study at SIPA are more likely to receive favorable consideration by the Committee.

Let me address a few other common follow up questions from younger applicants.

“Is it possible for you to tell me my chance of being admitted by reviewing my materials before I apply?”

We are unable to tell anyone their chance of being admitted because the admission process is relative.  Each year hundreds of applicants apply and thus the pool is different each year.  There is also turnover in the Admission Committee each year.  The best thing you can do is closely review our FAQ page and put together the most competitive application possible.

A competitive application is one where all of the parts fit together.  By this I mean your personal statement, letters of recommendation, résumé, etc. should all combine to tell the story of why an education at SIPA will allow you to accomplish your goals and how your experience to date has prepared you to succeed in our program.

As a younger applicant, is it worth my time to apply?

In one sense there is never a bad time to apply to SIPA.  If you think you are ready and you want to go for it, nothing should stop you.  One reason I say this is that the Admission Committee does not look down upon or penalize applicants that are denied who choose to reapply at a later time.  As a matter of fact, the Committee sometimes encourages applicants that are denied to reapply at a later time.  Admission to SIPA in quite competitive and often times the Committee will encourage applicants to pursue additional experience or coursework and reapply.

Do you treat domestic and international applicants differently in the admissions process?

Just like the Admissions Committee looks for the same qualifications in an applicant regardless of age, we look for the same things regardless of whether a student is domestic or international.  Of course applicants that do not speak English as a native language must submit an English langauge test result.  The Committee also understands that domestic applicants may achieve higher scores on the GRE.  This is one reason we do not publish average GRE scores.  Each applicant is different and we do not have any GPA or test cutoffs or recommendations.

Many international applicants will also state something like the following:

I think the Committee should understand that in my country a Masters degree is required to apply for jobs, and yet your program prefers applicants to have professional experience.  It is hard for me to get professional experience in my country without a graduate degree.  Does the Committee take this into consideration?

The Committee does understand that this “Catch 22” exists, however we are concerned most with creating the best learning environment possible at SIPA. Our advice is to try to get as much experience as you can outside the classroom while pursuing your undergraduate degree.

In the end please realize that the Committee does not set a limit on the number of people we will admit from certain age groups.  We simply look for the most qualified applicants.  The reality is that the majority of those that apply have experience and it is thus statistically more difficult for those with little or no experience to gain admission.  Each year 5-10% of those that enroll in our program do come directly from college so a small percentage is able to convince the Committee of preparedness for our program.

If you feel you are ready, please do apply.  There is no downside to doing so because we will not penalize you if you choose to reapply at a later time.

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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