Alum-spiration: “Good things take time to develop”

Akash Uba recalls how the Hertie School network helped him to strengthen ties in the community.

Akash Uba (MPP 2017) has worked with public and private sector actors across Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Previously, he worked as a project manager at Endeva, where he carried out research and consulting projects for several international development organisations. He worked on topics such social entrepreneurship, impact investing, sustainable finance, inclusive businesses, and development policy in general. Before moving to Germany, he worked in the financial sector in Mumbai. In 2015, Akash received a DAAD prize for outstanding achievements of international students studying at German universities.

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

My professional background has been full of twists and turns. After finishing my undergrad degree in Economics from the University of Delhi, I started out in the financial services sector in Mumbai. It was right before the financial crisis of 2008 hit. There was an air of uncertainty even though things did not go terribly bad in India. While working, I also earned the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) qualification.

Yet, a part of me was deeply interested in issues related to poverty and inequality, particularly from the policymaking and implementation perspective. This perhaps also coincided with the phase of “policy paralysis” in Indian politics at that time. I decided to quit my job and take a small break to reorient my trajectory in this direction. I was accepted to the MPP programme at the Hertie School. During the second semester at Hertie, I landed a student job at Endeva in January 2015. It is the job that I continued until May 2020, with small breaks in between. I carried out research and consulting projects for various international development organisations such as GIZ, UNDP, SDC, WFP and DFID.

I have now taken another break to re-reorient myself. My engagement in the development sector made me very curious about the role of international development actors in modifying or reproducing social structures in areas where they carry out “development”. I hope to be able to dig deeper into this in the coming years through research and practice.

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

One aspect of it is purely in terms of the language in which the work output is delivered. In my previous jobs in Berlin, English was the official language. Most of the research and consulting projects – for international development organisations – happened in English. At the same time, most of the work for clients in Germany – both from public and private sectors – happened in German, for which I found my German skills to be inadequate.

There are also other aspects to professional life. For instance, there are communication nuances involved in everyday professional life, there is bureaucracy that one needs to deal with. There are also social aspects for which the knowledge of German plays a big role. To a large extent, all of this depends on the composition and diversity of team members at the workplace.

My key counter strategy has been to deepen my thematic or topical expertise which could compensate for the lack of German skills. Indeed, I still stay committed to improving my language skills but that takes time.

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

Even before I moved to Berlin, I started mapping who was doing what broadly in my areas of interests. I started to keep a track of their activities online. Once in Berlin, I went to a lot of events focused on these topics. Within Hertie, the role of the student clubs and the events organised by them was also important. This always gave a good platform to reach out to people and seek collaborations. After some point, it started to feel like a small community – I would often meet the same people which helped to deepen and strengthen the ties.

I also met with the Hertie School’s career development team a few times. I was introduced to some members of the alumni community. It was through one of these introductions that I met my then professional mentor. He helped me navigate the intricacies of field, guided me through my insecurities, and also put me in touch with other contacts with whom I ended up doing some projects later on. If I remember correctly, I also found the job announcement by Endeva on Hertie Connect. So, indeed the Hertie School network was a door opener for me in some ways.

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

I think in addition to “merit”, social networks play an important in job hunting in general. While looking for jobs in India, the community of friends and family that I was “endowed” with helped me to snowball relevant contacts. This community also provides a safe space and a cushion in times of insecurity and uncertainty. In Germany, I had to devote a lot of efforts to build that from scratch.

As I indicated earlier, language still does play a role, which of course is not an issue in one’s home country. On occasions I found jobs which seemed like a perfect thematic fit, but my knowledge of German language became a bottleneck.

Indeed, as a non-EU student, one has to take into account several issues related to visa and residence permits. One often gets a fixed amount of time to find a job upon graduating. The job and the salary levels need to match one’s educational and professional backgrounds.

Lastly, what goes often unnoticed are the internalised demeanours and intuitive dispositions that one acquires by the virtue of being born and living in a certain culture – and the socialization that it engenders. This could manifest itself for instance in terms of communication and writing styles, working styles that one often learns by doing. These might differ significantly between one’s home country and in Germany.

How did you prepare for job interviews?

As far as the content and technical aspects are concerned, I tried to look up the latest trends and developments in the field that I was applying to. I tried to find out who were the main actors and what they were doing. This gave me a sense of the relative position of the organisation and reflected a nuanced understanding of the field to the interviewees.

I also tried to find out what I could bring to the organisation and what the organisation could provide me. I did a lot of desk research to see what the organization was doing, what its staff composition looked like. I also tried to speak to someone who was familiar with the organisation, although sometimes it was not possible. This helped me to find synergies for positioning myself within the organisation’s trajectory and also seeing how well it fit my own plans. It also helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses related to the role.

A practice I still continue to do is to always go over every aspect of my CV in detail and stitch it all together in a well-knit story, not just in retrospect, but also with my planned trajectory and goals.  

I always tried to think of a few questions to ask the interviewees when given a chance. This helped me to give a conversational flavour to most interviews.

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

A few important things come to my mind. First, there is always a trade-off between going broad or narrow. In my view, it’s very important to narrow down the thematic field in which one wants to play. It is driven by personal interests, objectives and experiences, and requires an honest internal reflection.

Unfortunately, that is the reality. Based on the narrowed down shortlist, map out the key actors and institutions. Find out what events and conferences are taking place and find a way to participate. Make use of Hertie’s network. Write to as many people as possible and go for coffee meetings even if in the beginning it might seem daunting. I have often found people to be very open and empathetic towards the insecurities of job hunting. All of this would help to build the social network which one, as an international student, might lack. But in addition to building, it’s also important to keep the network warm – in that finding a way to stay in touch. Also, as an international student, one needs to understand that some fields might not be very welcoming for non-German speakers.

Find some of the unique points which make one stand out. This could include a certain thematic focus, a certain skill or function. Highlight that through past experiences. Keep the public profile updated. I see a lot of jobs openings now being communicated through LinkedIn. In the recent past I have also been directly approached by some headhunters. If possible, try to find a professional mentor: someone who is experienced and can help you navigate the field. This could be really helpful!

Lastly, be patient if the circumstances allow that. Good things take time to develop.

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.