San Francisco Career Trek: "What's SAIS?"

A Taiwanese shuaige pose in Mountain View, CA, moments before being reprimanded by Google security. Over spring break, I participated in an energy, technology and finance career trek in the San Francisco Bay Area. We visited sixteen companies, including: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Pattern Energy, First Solar, California Public Utilities Commission, Google, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Tesla, McKinsey and the Federal Reserve.

The career trek was a great opportunity to visit the diverse workplaces of SAIS alumni. And for someone who had never left the East Coast, it was a mind-boggling introduction to the culture of Silicon Valley perks.

One of two smoothies shamelessly consumed at Dropbox.

However, the career trek was most instructive for another reason. In Washington, D.C., the SAIS degree is well-regarded: SAIS graduates dominate the World Bank, State Department, International Monetary Fund, and Massachusetts Avenue think tanks. In an article for the Atlantic, "The  Surprising Similarities Between Beijing and DC's Elites," a fellow at a Washington think tank visited the foremost research institution in China:

"It instantly reminded me of the fabled 'SAIS mafia' (this is probably too niche a term for those outside the beltway) that seem to permeate various facets of professional life in the American capital."

But in San Francisco? We were lucky to encounter a non-alumnus who had even heard of SAIS. Companies in the energy and technology sectors know what to expect from a computer science major or an MBA student. An M.A. in International Relations and International Economics, on the other hand, is much more difficult to grasp.

Yet SAIS students have a multidisciplinary skill set that matches or exceeds any MBA program. Students enroll in courses related to statistics, econometrics, corporate finance, project finance, economic development, renewable energy, environment policy, and regional history and politics. They gain advanced proficiency in a foreign language. They have a keen understanding of political systems, regulation and international trade, and can translate their understanding into opinion editorials or 40-page research papers.

The career trek taught us that we cannot take these skills -- or the reputation of SAIS -- for granted. We must learn to clearly articulate our passions, comparative advantages, and unique backgrounds. But we should also learn from MBA students: Many SAIS students cannot speak in the language of business, and struggle with case study-style interviews. Additionally, while companies like McKinsey promote the 80-20 rule -- 80 percent of the impact with 20 percent of the effort -- many SAIS students can become lost in the details, unsatisfied until they reach a 99 percent correct solution.

I accumulated some serious company swag in San Francisco. But my newfound perspective on my degree -- its advantages and challenges, and my own areas for self-improvement -- was the most valuable take-away of the trek.

Sampling San Francisco's infamous toast and Blue Bottle coffee.

Xiaolongbao at Shanghai Dumpling King after a morning of disc golf.

Not on the level of Din Tai Fung, but I'll take it!

DIY Education

I have been following Karen X. Cheng's journey for several months, ever since she released a video illustrating how she learned to dance in a year. I am not a dancer, with the exception of occasional Zumba classes and a summer spent memorizing K-pop music videos. Yet Karen's message is inspiring to anyone who dreams of maximizing their potential, but is unsure of where to begin:

This isn’t a story about dancing [...]. It’s about having a dream and not knowing how to get there — but starting anyway. Maybe you’re a musician dreaming of writing an original song. You’re an entrepreneur dying to start your first venture. You’re an athlete but you just haven’t left the chair yet.

Karen's passion and persistence also guided her through a career change. In an article for Fast Company, Karen describes how she got a job as a designer without going to design school. I am a believer in do-it-yourself education -- though historically not quite confident enough to commit myself! -- and Karen's advice rings true. Her education took place on weekends and evenings, and was structured by books on theory, online tutorials, mentors, and building her portfolio with pro bono side projects.

This year, I am committed to DIY education. During winter break, I will get reacquainted with my high school-era computer science skills, and tackle several lessons on Codecademy. Additionally, I have been piecing together a DIY graduate degree in Energy, Resources and Environment -- a popular concentration in my graduate program that turns away outside students from oversubscribed courses, but that doesn't mean I can't access the assigned reading.

Next week, my commitment to DIY education will be put to the test. After a year-long vacation from formal classes, I am scheduled to take my Chinese proficiency test. I have been religiously writing and re-writing vocabulary words, reading old textbooks, and listening to podcasts on ChinesePod (a great resource!). May this be the first step in a successful year of self-improvement, side projects and do-it-yourself education!