Ostwald, Kai

 Kai Ostwald   Kai Ostwald


Personal Information
Rutgers University Class: Class of 2001

Major(s)/Minor(s):  Political Science/Economics

Date of Questionnaire:  August 2009
Career History

I am currently a PhD student of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. My main area of academic interest is comparative development, particularly in E. and S.E. Asia. I began the PhD in the fall of 2008, and hope to become a research professor in some years.

My path back into academics after graduating from Rutgers University in 2001 has been both varied and indirect. I spent most of the seven years in between the BA and PhD in Europe and Asia, first working in the private sector (as a project manager in an engineering company in Singapore and at a pharmaceutical company in the US), then working independently as a researcher and editor (both for a number of universities in Europe and within the United Nations), and finally, continuing with academics at the MA level in Switzerland and Singapore. Besides being wonderful experiences in their own right, the value of broadening my perspective and deepening my understanding of the places and ideas that are important to me far outweighs the cost of not taking the most direct route.

I left Rutgers with some vague ideas about what I ultimately hoped to do, but these were overshadowed by countless unanswered questions. Many of the political science classes I took at Rutgers fascinated me, and this drove a desire to stay involved with the field and the concepts that made it so interesting to me. I had little doubt (and this has been confirmed in all of the areas where I have worked) that the training and guidance I received in my political science classes and in my contact with faculty from the department comprehensively developed the most important skills I’ve needed in all of my endeavors – the ability to critically analyze complicated issues and effectively communicate my position. But I also wanted to experience more of the world outside of an academic setting before beginning with graduate school, as I didn’t feel adequately connected to many of the issues that fascinated me. I knew, for example, that I wanted to work with questions like why some countries have managed to develop as efficiently and successfully as they have (while others who have pursued similar strategies clearly haven’t), but I felt that until I had some first-hand understanding of how everything from business, to politics, to social interaction worked in the parts of the world that interested me, I wouldn’t be in a position to meaningfully contribute to the issues.

And so what might look like a series of detours from the BA to the PhD was for me a journey that gave greater substance to my interests and brought a deeper understanding to my questions. I needed to live in different parts of the world, work with people of very varied backgrounds, and immerse myself in the issues that interested me to arrive at a place where I was fully prepared to dedicate several years to graduate school in the short-term, and my life to academics in the long-term. But, of course, journeys are very individual, and this path worked for me because it matched my background, my needs, and perhaps most importantly, my interests. Considering the career progression of my present and past colleagues makes one thing abundantly clear: there is no single formula for success in any field, and the best opportunities often come from the most unexpected places. There is then, I think, no better advice that to discover what you enjoy, and to be as flexible and open as possible in getting there. The most direct line between two points may well be the shortest, but it isn’t necessarily the one that will see you arrive at your destination with a clear idea of where to go next and how best to get there.   

Career Advice

Transitioning through different types of work has given me many opportunities to reflect on my education and career progression. What has impressed me above all is that regardless of how different the individual tasks of a particular job have been, the most critical underlying requirements for success have always been the same. Acquiring new knowledge and learning new specifics are an integral part of any type of transition, whether it is into an entirely new field, or just into a new position. This mastering of specifics, whether it is the individual skills of a profession, or the intricacies of a region, or the nuances of a particular science, is an ongoing process that will continue through the course of your career development no matter what you end up doing. Clearly these specifics are important, but they are a distant second to a more critical and fundamental set of skills: the ability to methodically and critically analyze an issue, and then effectively communicate a position both verbally and in writing. Ultimately, it is this foundation that your undergraduate years should be developing. No one will expect that you leave Rutgers as an absolute expert in one particular area, and pursuing that end narrowly can make it difficult to develop broader fundamental skills. 

In many respects the discipline of political science is wonderfully suited to helping you develop along these lines. Nearly all of the courses you will take will challenge you to critically analyze complex and multi-dimensional issues. The papers you will write and the debates you will have will challenge you to formulate clear positions, even when the topics resist that. The research methods you will learn will force you to think in a methodical and structured manner, and will prove useful in many endeavors beyond the classroom. Gaining a basic understanding of how states, markets, and societies operate and interact will give you a framework through which to interpret many of the issues you will encounter in your future personal and professional lives. A university education, after all, is not just about qualifying you for a better job, but much more so about helping you to better understand the world and your place in it. Recognizing this, and understanding that memorizing facts and figures is a part of the educational process but not the ultimate goal of your degree, will help you make the most of the classes and prepare you ideally for your future endeavors.

Of course there is a limit to how useful this big-picture advice can be, as practical day-to-day decisions constantly need to be made, whether in the form of choosing classes, deciding on projects or internships, or sorting between the many extracurricular offerings. There is no formula that captures how to ideally do this, but there is plenty of good advice available from senior students, faculty, or other advisors.  I’ve often found it useful to look for a balance between pursuing my interests and acting strategically, as following either path too narrowly has proven to be a recipe for making life unnecessarily difficult.

There is little mystery in the advice to follow your interests: If you don’t enjoy the subject matter you are pursuing, and if you can’t relate to it personally, it will be exceedingly difficult for you to excel in it over the long-term. So when you find a particular subject matter, or concept, or region of the world interests you, by all means, take whatever relevant classes are available, regardless of which discipline they fall under. Remember as well that the opportunities at Rutgers extend far beyond the classroom and formal academics. There are tens of thousands of students around you, and many hundreds of clubs and other resources – seek them out and use them! If you find yourself fascinated by a particular region of the world, find the appropriate organizations or clubs, look for other students from that region, and perhaps even begin to learn the language. If it is a sector of the economy or particular profession that you want to work with, explore the available internships or contact that area’s professional association. The opportunities for direct exposure are nearly limitless, and combined with genuine interest and motivation, the rewards can be immense. In most cases you won’t even need to look very far, as the faculty members of the department are a fantastic resource and one of the best places to turn to. Many have a great interest in sharing their experiences with you and helping you succeed. The only caveat is that the size of the department requires you to be proactive in making your connections and showing your interest.

Of course some critical skills will not align so neatly with your interests, and where that is the case, you will make life far easier for yourself in the future by being strategic and plugging those gaps with the relevant classes. Regardless of whether you hope to work in the private sector, with the government, or within academics (even political science has long ago ceased to be a place of refuge for those who want to eschew anything math related), acquiring certain quantitative and analytical skills during your undergraduate years will prove to be of great benefit later on. This doesn’t mean that you need to take up a second major in math, but you will find the future payoff of taking at least one rigorous statistics course and one econometrics course to be immense. Likewise, understanding the basics of economic analysis will have many uses, so at least one micro- and one macro-economic course should be built into your schedule as well. It’s important to understand that these quantitative and analytical skills amount to a unique language and way of thinking, and that this language is central to many professions (academics included). Regardless of whether you believe in the methods and ways of thinking, being able to partake in this dialogue, even if only for the sake of criticism, will open many doors to you. Of course, the more proficient you are, the more effective your participation in the dialogue will be. Find your balance, and take as many courses as you can manage to do well in. For those interested in working on international issues, this holds for languages as well, as it is remarkable how many doors speaking the relevant language will open. One last practical thought: despite the fact that grades often seem arbitrary and trivial (and in many respects probably are), if you plan to go to graduate school, they do matter – so do well! Finally, do try, as much as possible, to enjoy your time at Rutgers. Not only because (as you’ve likely often been told) you may never again have the same freedom to explore your interests and passions, but more importantly because enjoying your time will make your experience richer and your success far more likely.