Alum-spiration: “A job interview should be a two-way street”

Kate Saslow says that connecting with people on an emotional level is just as important as connecting with people professionally.

Kate Saslow (MIA 2018) is the project manager at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV) for the topic “Artificial Intelligence and Foreign Policy,” which looks at AI and specifically machine learning (ML) technologies and their impacts on various aspects of foreign policy. In addition to this work, Kate is also an expert on the “machine learning and information security” working group as part of the Transatlantic Cyber Forum at the SNV.

Kate holds a Master of International Affairs degree from the Hertie School, where she specialised in topics of digitalisation, economic development, and governance, and concluded her studies with a capstone thesis on artificial intelligence and gender inequality in the United States labour economy. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  

Tell us a bit more about your professional background and how you got to the point in your life where you are right now.

When I came to Berlin, I was pretty set on going into the foreign service after getting my degree. I thought my path would be: grad school, Peace Corps, then a lifetime of diplomacy. It wasn’t until my second year that I realized that I don’t think I consider myself a very diplomatic person…  (It also didn’t help that I knew I could never feel allegiance to the current American President and wouldn’t want to represent him abroad). I had to decide at the beginning of my second year at the Hertie School between accepting a position in the Peace Corps, which would mean missing graduation and moving to Moldova for two years, or committing to my life in Berlin and trusting that I would find a job in a completely different field than I ever imagined for myself. I am still 85% confident that I made the right choice.

I started to get really into tech policy outside of my coursework at Hertie School and I used the master's thesis as a way to get my foot in the door in artificial intelligence (AI) policy and the tech scene in Berlin. While doing research and writing my thesis, I used interviews as a way of mapping who the interesting organisations in Berlin are and really asking myself where I could imagine working after my master’s. I knew I wanted to continue doing research and I just happened to find a perfect fit in a tech policy think tank here in Berlin. And here we are, two and a half years later.  

What role does your knowledge of German play in your professional life?

Speaking German is a huge part of my professional life here. I work in German, and the office language is German. I’m lucky because I’m still able to write papers in English and get invited to predominantly English-speaking events, but the day-to-day work is in German. I don’t think it would be impossible to find work for someone who doesn’t speak German, especially in Berlin, but I think the willingness to at least attempt to speak and better understand your co-workers and teammates in their native language is important on an emotional level.

I think one anecdote highlights how important it is to really put in the effort from day one in a new job. After more than a year of working at the SNV, we were eating lunch in the kitchen one day and speaking German, and I feel like I had only recently started to warm to the idea of participating in group conversations and not caring so much about making a mistake or not knowing 100% of the words in every situation. I made a joke in front of everyone, and my one co-worker turned to me dead serious and said, “Did you just make a joke?” And I nodded and he just looked at me shocked and said, “I’ve never heard you joke before.” For anyone who knows me at all, you can understand how telling that is. Granted, we weren’t working on the same project, so I didn’t interact with him so much. But still, I feel like humour is such a crucial part of my personality in English, that I was so mad at myself for letting it disappear from my German personality for the first year of working in a new team. Since then I have tried to force myself to care less and remember that connecting with people on a human - or emotional - level is just as important as connecting with people professionally.

What were the most important resources for your job hunt? Did you use the Hertie School’s network?

Yes! I knew of two classmates who were working at the SNV as work-students, and I asked one if she could put me in touch with the Project Director working on AI so I could interview him for my master's thesis. In the interview, I remember looking around the office and feeling like I knew I had found the organisation I wanted to be a part of after graduating. I spent the majority of my final semester at the Hertie School just monitoring their website l to see if any jobs had been published, and when a position on AI finally went on the site, I asked Career Services to help edit my German cover letter. Stefanie [Eisenächer] was so sweet and helpful and told me that she decided to leave some of the minor grammatical mistakes in the cover letter so that they would know that I’m not a native German speaker, because I didn’t want to “trick” them and then show up at an interview with a different level of German than what they were expecting. This was such a small detail, but for some reason it really stuck with me and I remember feeling so grateful that someone cared that much about helping me with the specific hurdles I (as a non-native German speaker still trying to prove I had professional proficiency) was facing.

Kate sent us this meme reflecting the challenges of the German job hunt.

What makes job hunting different in Germany than the country you are from?

I haven’t had much experience job hunting in America. I moved to Germany right after my Bachelor’s and have been here ever since.

How did you prepare for job interviews?

I think there are some things that everyone does before an interview, such as familiarising yourself with the organisations “brand” or output, drawing parallels between your past experience and points written in the job description, asking yourself why you specifically are a good match for the position, etc. But there are other ways of preparing, which I only really started doing right before finding and being offered my current job.

I think one of the most important things to remember about a job interview is that it should be a two-way street. I feel like we are so concerned with being likeable and intelligent and trying to tailor all our answers to what we think a specific organisation will want to hear, that we forget to even ask ourselves how we feel about a potential employer after an interview. Is this even somewhere I can imagine myself being happy? Were the interactions genuine and welcoming? Something that I now try to do before an interview is to really think about aspects that I want or need in a job. Having questions ready about not only the thematic side of the job, but also about the organisational culture is so important.

What advice would you give international students who are looking for a job in Berlin or Germany?

Find a way to not hate networking. Or rather, try and re-frame the concept of “networking.” I used to say that I hate networking, because I am not the sort of person who feels comfortable walking up to a table full of people and inserting myself into a conversation. But I think networking comes in so many forms, and what works for one person doesn’t need to work for you. Finding a way that you connect with people best is a good first step, and then try to leverage that. I, for example, found that I was the most successful or confident reaching out to people doing interesting things by asking if I could pick their brain over a coffee. This allowed me to comfortably connect with people on a one-on-one basis, learn a lot about so many different professions or organisations, and then along the way, you also meet people who may be able to introduce you to other experts, or even keep you in mind if a position opens up. Building a network of professional connections in a foreign city is a good way to really establish roots somewhere. So, I think that for international students who want to stay in Berlin or Germany, building these connections is super important. Berlin is also so international, and I think since everyone has been job hunting at some point in their life, people are so willing to help and share their experiences!

In this series, our international Hertie School alumni speak about entering the German job market and share some advice on how to best go about job hunting.

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Views expressed by the author/interviewee may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.