Career Advice From the Top


By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by Kyle Wehner '14

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg

For students anxious about entering the job market without having received professional training in college, the message delivered by a high-level diplomat might assuage some concern.

The morning after delivering the 2010 George J. Mitchell Lecture to a standing-room-only audience at Colby Oct. 21, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg sat down for breakfast with about 20 students to talk about careers.

Steinberg’s message to the group, made up primarily of government majors? Colby students are getting the best form of job training right now, right here. “I feel very strongly that the undergraduate years are not professional education years,” he said. “They’re years to develop habits of mind and tools of thought that you can use no matter what you end up doing.”

Young people feel a lot of pressure to start doing professional work, he said. “You’ll have plenty of time for that. You’ll never have the chance again to read Plato and Aristotle, to study the history of Africa.

“I think when you look back you’ll find that those were things that were most useful to you, and then you can develop the more technical skills as you discover and find that they’re relevant to your careers.”

Students, so appreciative of the opportunity for an informal breakfast with Steinberg that they made it to Dana dining hall by 8 a.m. on a Friday, asked questions ranging from what his job entailed to how they might proceed with their educational and career goals.

There’s no set path into public policy work, Steinberg said. “The wonderful thing about the world in which we live and the way in which it’s changed is that there are lots of ways … to public service and working on international issues.” He encouraged students to get out and try something, which he said would help them determine the type of work they enjoy, from working in the field to being on the “idea side.”

For Steinberg, years of domestic policy work preceded his somewhat accidental entry into foreign policy. “In one of these sort of small twists of fate,” he told students, “I happened to be in the office on Sunday morning, November fourth, nineteen seventy-nine, which is something you won’t all remember but was the day that the Americans were taken hostage in Iran. It’s about seven-thirty in the morning and, like a good young public servant, I was in the office. … My boss was not.”

The attorney general of the United States called and, before he knew it, Steinberg was at the White House working on negotiating the release of the hostages. “I thought it was pretty good stuff, and it opened a whole new window to me,” he said.

Perhaps that served as more reassurance that getting up early for the breakfast was, indeed, a wise choice.

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