By Anna de Cheke Qualls
For international graduate students, finding a job usually involves walking a complex path. COVID-19 has brought this even more into focus, as many graduate students now struggle with navigating the job search in the virtual landscape.
And yet, networking and career exploration can still happen. Job-searchers can do informational interviews, attend discipline-specific virtual programs/meetings, and evaluate and develop their digital identities. Graduate students can also obtain career support through one-to-one counseling and workshops.
There are also lessons to be learned from the experiences of UMD alumni—like Dr. Rodolfo Tello, who successfully managed to find fulfilling and impactful work in the U.S.
Originally from Peru, Tello is a senior social development specialist at the World Bank, currently working in countries of the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) Region. He obtained his PhD at American University after a master’s in Applied Anthropology from UMD. Prior to the World Bank, he was a social safeguards specialist for the Inter-American Development Bank, and worked with indigenous peoples in the Amazon region through various other organizations.
Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Tello is also the author of several publications on social sciences, international development, and sustainability.
What led to your field of study/career, and how did you follow your career path?
One of the most important decisions in my career was defining a field of study. I choose cultural anthropology because of its ability to combine theory with practical applications to understand social issues. I particularly valued the opportunity to use a comparative approach to analyzing the culture, behaviors, and strategies of people in different geographic contexts, ecological settings, and points in time.
One of the most influential books I read in my freshman year in college was Cannibals and Kings, by Marvin Harris, which opened up my mind to new ways of thinking about the adaptation of societal norms, and values in response to different economic and ecological conditions, and how sociopolitical organization and consumption habits led societies to flourish or decline. While many of his claims have been superseded by newer analyses, the book helped me see things from a broader perspective.
Throughout my career, I felt a strong calling toward the practical application of anthropological theories, its top-notch research methods, and to contribute to the solution of practical problems in society. Problematizing social processes and understanding their complexity was an important first step, but I felt that this exercise by itself felt short of its real potential if it stopped there without issuing relevant recommendations, and identifying practical solutions to countless societal problems. In that sense, I gravitated toward graduate programs known to have an applied focus, like the one at UMD, and have followed those studies with a career where my knowledge of anthropology could be readily applied.
Does your current job have a specialized skill set? If yes, what is it?
Specific activities I normally cover as part of my work as a social development specialist are managing the social risks and impacts of investment projects with multilateral financing. In many cases this involves turning risks into opportunities for development in areas such as involuntary displacement and resettlement; exploring opportunities for social inclusion; conducting due diligence on social assessments, participatory processes, and grievance mechanisms; and advising clients on the planning and implementation of management plans and measures related to indigenous peoples, livelihood restoration, stakeholder engagement, gender-based violence, universal access, labor conditions, community health and safety, socioeconomic development, and inclusive finance.
These activities involve frequent communications with government officials, policy analysis, and project management tasks. Also necessary is a knowledge of the socioeconomic and political realities of the countries in the region where we work, fluent understanding of the language spoken by our clients, and having the necessary background to understand the complex social realities found in projects. Since we often need to explain the policy requirements of our organization to government officials, knowledge and experience with comparable international standards on social risk management are also helpful. A few years ago I published a book on social safeguards, which provides more information on this topic.
How did you prepare for your initial job search?
The first step was defining an industry I wanted to work in, learning what type of knowledge and skills the organizations within the industry are looking for, and then seeking to align my skills in a way that met the needs of those organizations. I started doing that when I was in graduate school, learning about different types of industries and their likely career paths. I initially explored avenues such as nonprofits, the private sector, grassroots organizations, government agencies, and multilateral organizations.
The first stage in this effort was to learn about their work by researching their websites, talking to some people with knowledge of these industries, and reading online articles about the contributions, priorities, and common challenges associated with each of these paths. One of the things I learned was that some of these organizations have inspiring development goals, but lack the resources (financial and otherwise) to fully realize these goals, which often has implications for their working environment and their ability to provide steady work for their staff.
After developing a broad understanding of the different industries, and identifying the main career paths I would be most interested in following, I compared them against my skills and experience. This comparison allowed me to recognize those aspects I already had in my favor, like speaking a second language and having work experience in a developing country, which are important in international development. This exercise also allowed me to identify the areas that I still needed to develop, or acquire experience in, to be better prepared when the time came to seek a job.
Since the industry I chose was international organizations working in development and sustainability, I started conducting informational interviews with people in the organizations I was targeting, which usually worked better when I found a mutual acquaintance, like a professor or a classmate that knew someone at that institution who could introduce me. LinkedIn also helped me identify professionals working in those organizations. For the LinkedIn contacts, sometimes I was able to identify a common factor between that professional and me, like the person being from the same region I am originally from, or the fact that I was attending a program at the same college that the other person attended at some point. This allowed for an easier introduction to a conversation with that individual, where I expressed interest in learning more about their work, which eventually led to an informational interview.
What experiences as a graduate student contributed to finding a position at your current employer?
As a result of these informational interviews, I was able to identify some areas where I felt I needed to strengthen my skills, both in academic/analytical and practical terms. Since my program was mostly oriented to qualitative factors, I needed to strengthen my skills particularly in quantitative research, policy analysis, and project management, so I took university classes to fill those gaps.
I also learned that specific experience in the sector where I wanted to work goes a long way in terms of making a candidate competitive for a position, so I set out to gain practical experience by completing internships with organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and the UN Environment Programme’s Regional Office for North America. I applied for them in the same way as I would apply for a job. Those experiences, along with my previous work with indigenous peoples in the Peruvian rainforest, helped me obtain a contract as a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, which allowed me to acquire specialized experience in the LAC Region, and eventually translated into a staff position. After a number of years, I moved to the World Bank but continued working in the LAC Region.
What strategy worked well as you searched for a job?
Networking was particularly helpful when preparing for my job search and obtaining relevant references for the specific positions I was applying to. I also invested a significant amount of time in conducting background research to make sure that my cover letter and resume were specifically tailored to the position I was applying for, and highlighted the right strengths, skills, and applicable experience. A targeted, personalized approach for each application helped me get interviews, even though that process was time-intensive.
How did you work on your resume and interviewing skills? What was the process?
I did some online research on the different ways of presenting information in a resume, and after finding one that worked for the type of experience I had, I used that as a template. I also attended career development and resume writing workshops, and had my resume reviewed by the specialists in the university career services center, which helped me tweak my resume so it was in optimal condition. For each application I prepared, I edited my resume further, to ensure the right information for that position was included and portrayed in the best light.
As for the interviews, I found it helpful to conduct mock interviews, which are often offered by the specialists in the university career services center. These interviews provided a realistic simulation of what I would encounter in the actual interview, so they were tremendously helpful for me to feel more confident and gather valuable feedback.
Further, I made a list of the most common interview questions and reviewed the position description for each specific job I was interviewing for to add questions that I could be asked for that position. I then prepared and rehearsed answers for each of those questions. This process was also beneficial when preparing for an interview.
What was the interview/application process like? Any surprises?
I have had many interviews and all of them were different, so allowing for some flexibility in terms of what to expect of the actual mechanics of the interview was important. In some cases, such as applying for internships, a 20-minute phone interview was enough, but when applying for staff positions at larger organizations, there were often panel interviews with five or more people. There could also be more than one round of interviews, personality tests to be completed prior to the interview, writing samples submitted in advance, or case studies that needed to be completed in less than an hour on a computer provided by the prospective employer.
Preparation and planning for the different likely scenarios was helpful, but it is also important to allow room for unexpected situations. In one interview that happened on a rainy day, I arrived early, so I had to find a place to stay out of the rain until it was time. When I arrived to the conference room assigned for my interview, however, there was no one waiting, and I learned that the person coordinating the interview was on leave that day. So, I contacted the other person copied in the email chain to get the correct room number. In the end, I was late for that interview, but the interviewers were kind about it. The mishaps didn’t end there, since before we wrapped up my interview, the emergency alarm went off, forcing us all to leave the building. I received a briefing on the next steps in the hiring process on the way down the stairs, with other people around. How did this saga end? It all worked out, since I was invited to a follow-up interview with the hiring manager, who eventually offered me the job.
What are your long-term career aspirations?
I have some ideas under consideration, but for now I am comfortable with the fact that as part of my work I am able to help improve people’s lives, particularly the ones of vulnerable populations in developing countries in the LAC Region, ensuring that they are covered by the benefits offered by the safeguard policies of my organization, which are designed to restore and/or improve their living conditions. The measures implemented as a result of my work often place people in a better position to access available opportunities, both in the context of the projects I am supporting and also as part of the national systems. Seeing the practical results of my work in improving their living conditions is one of my main sources of inspiration, particularly when I can observe the positive changes on the ground.
How has COVID-19 changed this work?
I was able to telework since the beginning of the outbreak, which was very straightforward from a technological stand point; the main challenge was posed by the closure of daycare centers. Likewise, the adaptation process during the initial weeks of the stay-at-home period happened at a moment when there were multiple requests from clients to prepare emergency operations. There was a first stage focused on the acquisition of medical equipment and healthcare supplies within a short timeframe, and a second stage when the activities I supported diversified to include broader mitigation programs to address the economic and social impacts of stay-at-home orders, particularly on vulnerable populations.
For me, that experience provided lessons on many fronts, starting with the realization that projects could be actually prepared within a few weeks when using streamlined procedures. Also important was the recognition that, under the right conditions, home-based work could provide an effective way of doing business. Among clients in LAC, most of them quickly adopted videoconferencing as the new way of conducting meetings. The main challenge was that many people lacked reliable internet connections at home, mostly due to systemic limitations on the side of service providers. This highlights the crucial need for telecommunications infrastructure to enable online connectivity, which in a pandemic context was not just a nice-to-have feature but a central factor in the productivity levels of many organizations.
Any advice to other graduate students preparing for their job search?
There are different ways to go about a job search, so it is helpful to identify what might work best for an individual and their circumstances, including the expectations and conventions in their field. Once a career path has been defined, it may be helpful to start with a goal in mind, and determine the necessary steps and milestones to get there. Identifying the intermediate steps needed to reach a certain goal can help disaggregate a larger task into smaller pieces, and those intermediate steps can act as stepping stones to reduce the gap between the starting point and the desired end. Optimism, perseverance, lots of background research, the ability to communicate clearly, and a focus on quality rather than number of applications can be helpful in this process.
Find more information about Rodolfo Tello, PhD here.