By Jane Marie Ford, Financial Analyst, City of Portland Budget Office
I graduated with my MPA from Portland State University in March 2015, and ended up fulfilling my destiny to become a fourth-generation bureaucrat by working in Portland’s City Budget Office (or, as we sometimes like to call it, CBO West). I am lucky to spend my days with a group of bright, creative, and thoughtful people tackling some of our community’s most complex challenges. I am grateful for an excellent graduate school experience that led me to this role, and am excited for those of you taking the plunge back into the academic world! I encourage you to:
Make friends with faculty. Go to office hours, ask your advisor to have coffee, take time to chat before or after class. This can feel awkward to initiate, but faculty are (almost always) happy to connect with graduate students who reach out to them for advice and feedback. (Feeling shy? Take a glance at some of their publications, and ask them to tell you more about their research!) These relationships will not only enrich your academic experience, but may also lead to other opportunities and connections. I was fortunate to find a variety of paid work during graduate school based on the recommendation of my advisor and other faculty who knew me outside of the classroom.
Initiate informational interviews. If there’s a specific organization or job title you’re after, try to find a connection to someone who can give you the scoop. When possible, use your network – faculty, fellow students, alumni – to get an introduction. A quick phone call, email, or intro at a happy hour can go a long way. Make sure to do your research before meeting: look at their organization’s website, poke around the news, and check out their social media channels to help spark questions. And be prepared with your (30 second) pitch about who you are and why you’re interested in chatting with them. People are much more interested in chatting with eager graduate students than desperate job seekers, so now’s the time to have these conversations!
Keep an open mind. I specialized in nonprofit management during graduate school, and had zero interest in local government. I was super mad surprised that the City Budget Office was interested in having me work there as a Hatfield Fellow after graduate school. (Really?! I went to graduate school so I could work in the most boring-sounding place possible??) Fortunately, folks I really trusted in my network told me that I would be crazy to pass up this opportunity. I took an eight-month chance, and two years later, I can’t stop gushing about how much I love my job and the team I get to work with. Was my nonprofit specialization a waste? No way. Good organizational practices transcend sectoral boundaries, and I frequently apply insights from my nonprofit management courses to my role in local government. MPA programs are increasingly recognizing the fluidity that exists between sectors, so take advantage of courses and learning opportunities outside of your area of focus. Cross-sector is the new public administration.
Avoid buying textbooks. As a budget analyst, I would be remiss not to include this money-saving tip – in addition to perusing your school’s library shelves, also check out your local library systems. I was able to borrow almost all of my textbooks for free this way. This also forced me to get out of the habit of highlighting text (libraries generally frown on that) and instead start taking detailed notes as I read. At the beginning of the term, I created word documents with the prompts for each paper or assignment in the course. As I read, I added relevant quotes and insights from the readings into those documents. By the time I was ready to sit down and write those papers, I had already done a lot of prep work. It made my life a little bit easier in the 10-week quarter, and I better integrated the course material with my own external research. Bonus idea: at the end of my graduate school experience, I worked with our student association to create a small MPA textbook reserve library with donations from current and former students.
Graduate school: you got this!