Alum-spiration: “Setbacks are a must for any career”

Naomi C. Woods talks about her experience looking for a job after graduating in a time of global crisis.

Coming into the Hertie School Master of Public Policy programme, Naomi had a background in Economics and Political Science, and had worked for three years on an HIV policy reform project in Southeast Asia. After graduating in 2009, she went on to work on emergency response and multi-site public health projects throughout sub-Saharan Africa, for both non-profits and the private sector. In 2019, Naomi completed a second master’s degree on infrastructure in conflict zones and implications for state formation, and is currently Head of Office of the Catholic Relief Services in the Lal and Dakyundi Province in rural Afghanistan, overseeing small-scale agriculture and irrigation rehabilitation/watershed management projects. Her real passion lies in field research and teaching, and she plans to return to academia in 2021 to pursue a PhD.

You graduated from the Hertie School during the global financial crisis. What were the main challenges you had to face?

The public and non-profit sectors were delayed in contracting after the financial crisis, and there was a lot of variation in what was affected, how and when. As such, I didn’t feel challenged by the effects of the financial crisis and drawing parallels with the COVID-19 contraction and immediate restrictions on travel might not be possible. What is similar is the impact these crises are having on the economically vulnerable across the globe – and where public policy specialists and professionals fit in that discussion. 

Do you have any advice for graduates searching for a job during a global crisis? How can they navigate the crisis?

A few ideas come to mind!

This is temporary. COVID-19 may be here to stay, but the current lockdown is not. Intentionally surround yourself with plans, hobbies, memes, Instagram, friends, family, colleagues – whatever elements that are going to be motivating and affirming and give you good support and counsel on your next steps. I have regular check-ins with friends who I know are good sounding boards, rely on my family to be there to make me laugh but also support me to make productive decisions, and I follow a ton of women’s entrepreneurship and feminist Instagram accounts which flood my feed with positive messages, reminders and cool ideas for developing my thoughts into actions, circumventing low spots, etc. Mood board your strategy and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture!

Play the long game. At the best of times, the first job out of a graduate program is often not what you want – it’s some combo of what is available, and what you needed to take by a certain time because you needed to start working. Rarely do you land your ace job straight out of grad school – but of course, it can happen! For most cases, finances are a reality, and don’t be upset if you end up taking a job which isn’t exactly what you want, because you need to pay the bills – this is part of what is going to grow you as a professional. Often, it’s the second or third job out of grad school that is more meaningful and a reflection of what you want to be doing. Keep in mind that the process is not always linear, will be different for everybody, and may take some time – even without a COVID-19 situation. Don’t get discouraged. 

Stay in motion. Do things that help you stay balanced and focused on your priorities, and not to lose sight of your priorities and goals if you have down periods where finding work or a next step seem impossible or daunting. Take these times to develop positive coping mechanisms, challenge yourself and stay connected with people who will support you and challenge you in this.

What are the most important skills to highlight in an application?

Take the time also to tailor your CV to the job description and do your research on the organisation/opportunity you are applying for, rather than highlighting any particular aspect of your CV. Think critically about how your profile matches the position you are applying for, and work those angles. Don’t shy away from self-promotion – have a friend or colleague give you feedback on your qualifications if you are struggling to make the case. Quality over quantity!

Naomi's post-it mantra

Do you have any tips on how to deal with setbacks?

Not getting an interview or having a job prospect fall through is disheartening, but this type of experience is as constructive for your professional profile as landing the job right away. Being able to deal with professional let downs in a balanced and positive way is a major skill that will be useful for the rest of your career. If you never experience setbacks, you will never learn how to bounce back from them, and this is a must for any career. Furthermore, you can apply this solution-oriented attitude to issues that might arise in your future workplace – treat it as an opportunity for professional development, and anything that doesn’t work out was meant to be. Take it as a learning opportunity, have a moment/pint of ice cream to be sad if you need to, then commit to moving forward after a good night’s rest (don’t underestimate it!). 

“Being able to deal with professional let downs in a balanced and positive way is a major skill that will be useful for the rest of your career. If you never experience setbacks, you will never learn how to bounce back from them, and this is a must for any career. ”

In what way was the Hertie School network beneficial to you during your job search?

My career interests fell somewhat outside of the geographic and sectoral strengths of Hertie at the time. What I really valued about Hertie, and continue to value, has been the alumni network, the alumni team at the school, and the connection with teaching staff that has spanned now over a full decade. There were many times when I touched base with my cohort, or former thesis supervisor, or other faculty, to ask for advice or commiserate or just meet up for coffee when passing through Berlin – which I have attempted to do at least annually. Hertie is a supportive and active community, and I have found being a part of this network motivating, empowering and productive for how I have framed my career trajectory. 

From your current standpoint, how has the difficult situation after your graduation set you up for the career you pursued? Do you have pearls of wisdom you would like to share?

I remember sitting on a panel at a Hertie career event some years after graduation and saying there was value in setting boundaries and prioritizing all your life goals, not just those related to your career. Prior to Hertie, I had been a consultant and had many late nights, practically sleeping with my laptop on assignments and deadlines, giving very little thought to my personal life or well-being, or even other hobbies or pursuits. There is perhaps a time and a place for this, and I have no regrets. But the financial crisis, or any unusual situation like the one of COVID-19 now, is a great opportunity to examine your priorities holistically and decide where your boundaries are. You are the best judge of what’s best for you! Sometimes, we lose touch with this aspect of ourselves, and a time like this is a great chance to revisit. 

For instance, consider a post-COVID-19 12-month timeframe. Where do you want to be at the end of those 12 months, in certain areas of your life like career, personal life, finances, etc.? Take some time to think about these things and write them down, considering what steps you will need to take to get you on that path. Revisit these goals throughout the timeframe and revise them as they become more or less relevant. This exercise can give you a good ‘baseline’ of what is important to you, to weigh opportunities against and evaluate next steps. Having this set of written goals can be especially useful at a time when there seems to be so many uncertainties, and lack of clarity or control over what is happening next. 

In this series, Hertie School alumni speak about what it was like to enter the job market around the time of the 2008/09 financial crisis, offering words of wisdom to the Class of 2020, which is facing similar challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.