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Advice? SAIS -- No Funding/Little Experience


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I realize this is late to the game, so I'll try to be as brief as I can.  I'm 24 years old, and I've been out of undergrad for a few years (~2.5) with relatively little experience to show for it (and certainly none related to IR).  I did do some additional studying in Italy between graduation and now -- beefing up languages (I speak Italian and Spanish at intermediate levels now) and taking additional economics works -- but otherwise, I don't have any real world experience.  I graduated with honors in Political Science with a 3.76 GPA (though I got I think a 3.91 or something if you only looked at my last two years and/or Major).  For the GRE, I got a 154 on Quant and a 159 on Verbal, both lower than I wanted.  I got a 5.5 for the analytic writing section.  I had strong recommendations, but otherwise I felt my application was decent in some places, lacking in others, and by no means extraordinary.  


I ended up applying to American SIS, GWU Elliot, SAIS, and a few lower ranked schools.  I honestly thought my odds of getting into anywhere we relatively slim, but I somehow ended up accepted into all.  American and GWU weren't a shock to me, but I was a bit surprised at SAIS.  I know none of these schools boasts a 10% acceptance rate or anything, but I still thought my lack of experience would have hurt me.  All that said, I got no funding assistance from any program I applied to (including the much lower ranked schools).


I originally saw myself working within someplace like State (I know, 80% of people probably say that at some point), Defense, CIA, etc or doing work with a think tank, but as I come down to the wire on committing to the program, I find myself with a lot of doubts. This is a decision I personally need to make, but I was curious if anyone on here (I've been reading all the threads for a long time but never posted) has some advice on a few questions that are causing me anxiety:


1.  Is SAIS worth 90k plus living expenses for two years for someone without any experience (at least going into the program) in the field?   Through a set of unfortunate/fortunate circumstances, I wouldn't necessarily need to take out loans and have them hanging over my head after graduation, but it is still an incredibly large sum (by their own admission, SAIS estimates total program cost is just over 70,000 a year so potentially 140,000 total leaving the program, depending on how one budgets living expenses) to swallow for a policy career.


2.  When I look through SAIS placement stats, I see a lot of people going into private consulting and banking.  I've become more interested in business since applying, but I wonder, should that be the path I ultimately go down, if an MBA or Masters in Finance or Economics or something wouldn't be better suited.  I think this is where my lack of experience shows through.  I had a general concept of what I wanted to do, but I haven't spend any time actually doing it.  I'm terrified to take the offer without a clear picture of what I'm going to do, but I'm equally terrified to not take the offer, be unable to get any experience in the year or two before applying again (assuming I'm still interested) and being rejected by these programs on the second attempt.


3.  Lastly, since applying for the programs, I've grown less and less interested in the area of D.C. while still maintaining my interest in the policy aspect of the programs. I've lived (albeit very briefly) in D.C. before, and I fear the lack of geographic mobility coming out of the program.  I'm not sure if anyone knows if people coming out of SAIS (or the other similar programs) have any luck finding positions outside of the normal D.C./NYC box.  



Apologies for the length.  I always end up typing more than I mean to.  If anyone can offer advice on any of my questions, I would be incredibly appreciative.  I've been going through a sort of quarter life crisis with all of these questions

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It seems like you're very uncertain on the direction you want to take in life, but I think you're asking all the right questions. So that's good. 

It's hard to give advice without knowing the particulars of your situation, but what has stood out to me is that you have relatively little work experience. Do you have any? (regardless of whether it's not in the IR field). I ask because you mentioned concerns about finding work after the program without any experience in IR beforehand. I would say that it's not strictly necessary to have experience in the field, but I do think it's very important to have experience in general. In addition to demonstrating skills and that you are reliable in a professional context, working any job at all is invaluable in helping you figure out what you want to do. 


To answer your questions, your first concern was whether SAIS is "worth it". I think only you can know that, and it's of course all very wrapped up in what your personal debt tolerance is. For me, I decided I couldn't live with anything over 6-figures total (meaning both undergrad and grad loan burden put together). So I personally did not want to take out more than 70k in loans for any MA program, because I have 24k-ish undergrad loans, and I spent a lot of time saving in order to make that feasible, because I knew many of these programs are not super generous with aid. However, that is just me. Many other people have a much higher or much lower tolerance for debt. For me, I think my total debt burden is going to be somewhat high, because I'm right up to my tolerance level, but that's mostly due to my undergrad burden, which I can't do anything about at this point. Speaking more generally, do I think six-figure DEBT is worth it for a policy career? No. I do not. Six-figures is a law degree. It's a medical degree. It's an MBA. And while policy is just as WORTHWHILE as any of those things, it does not command the same salary. Not by a long shot. You are looking at 65k starting salary IF you go to the private sector (and you seem to have some reservations about that). Maybe you'd get lucky and get a bit over that, or maybe you'd get a nice holiday bonus or signing bonus. But it is a lot of loans with a salary that will make it difficult to pay off. So in short, I would say the cost is worth it, but not the debt, if that makes sense. In other words, if you have the funds to go, and you want to go, do it and don't look back. If it's your funding or your money, it's your right to spend it how you choose. I am a bit more hesitant to encourage doing it on borrowed money, however. Many other people on these forums don't give it a second thought. And if they have that tolerance, then more power to them. But I think many people also don't understand what it means to carry that much debt, so you have to consider it carefully.


Your second question was about career. I think that's only something you can learn through 1. talking to people and 2. experience. ANY professional experience will help clarify what it is you want to do. Internships, jobs, talking with your colleagues. Those are all things that will help you formulate your thoughts. You seem to have some idea of what you might be interested in, and that is good! Be proactive and ask the career offices of your programs to get you in contact with some alums or current students  that have worked in some of the places you're interested in. Talk to them about their internships and their experiences and what they learned, what made them successful. Evaluate their experiences against what it is you envision for yourself. Your concern about career has very clearly mirrored my own. SAIS is very econ heavy, so I began thinking about development, and business, and finance. Many people I spoke with said that I would want to leave the option of an MBA open. There is a SAIS dual-degree program with Tuck or Wharton for people who do want to go down the MBA path, and you can apply during your first year. It caused a lot of anxiety in me, because I didn't want to get a degree that wouldn't be worthwhile without an MBA propping it up. But after looking at my goals, I decided that I did not want to do finance. And while I'm interested in development, and emerging markets, I'm not interested in Wall Street. If that changes later in life, then maybe I will pursue an executive MBA program. But for now, that's not what I want. I think you're right to be thinking about this now, but remember that this is not the end of the road. You will have many experiences that change your goals. And I would recommend being open to that. For me, I know I am interested in development, and I am interested in emerging markets. At the moment I am open to whatever form that takes, and I am open to being influenced by my cohort and the classes I take in school. Maybe I will decide I want to do conflict management in Africa. And I'll go down that path. But I think it's good to go in with a clear, general direction of what you want, but to be open to being influenced by the experience that a Masters program at SAIS will offer you.


As for location, I'll admit I find it a little puzzling. If you are interested in State, CIA, Defense, or Think Tanks...that is DC (and to a small degree NYC). Your self-professed interests are all located in DC, so I'm not sure why you're not interested in being IN DC, when the connections and people and opportunities for all your interests are there. If your worries are more that you don't want to be limited to DC, then I would mention that State department, for instance is all over the globe. Many US government organizations aren't based purely in DC. A lot of environment and energy things are based in Texas, for instance. I think you have a lot of mobility in terms of organizations, but it also depends on what you're interested in. If you are interested in certain jobs, then those jobs will probably be tied to a location, but I think that is true of ANY profession. You go where the jobs are. 


I tried to answer your questions as fully as I could, and I hope it helps. This is a very stressful time, so think about what you want and make your decision carefully. But once you make your decision, commit to it.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've seen a lot of people without prior work experience in a relevant field struggle to find jobs or even worthwhile internships during and after SAIS. You'll get much more out of it if you get some relevant work experience first. As good of a school as SAIS is, finding jobs after graduation is not a cakewalk for most people. 

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