Michael Wulfsohn, Research Officer, Development Policy Centre (Australian National University)

Name: Michael WulfsohnMain country of residence: Australia Current Position: Full-time student, and part-time Research OfficerOrganisation: Development Policy Centre, Crawford School, ANU
Qualifications (and University): Bachelor of Business Systems, Business Systems, Monash University.Masters of International and Development Economics, Australian National University.
Years of experience (development/overall): 1.5/6  
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address: http://au.linkedin.com/pub/michael-wulfsohn/76/740/486
Languages (and level of fluency): English (native) French (elementary proficiency)  

 I chose to become a development economist because it would draw upon many of the skills I had developed working as an actuary.

What is the nature of the organisation you currently work for?

The Development Policy Centre is an international development think-tank based in Australia. It provides thought leadership and commentary on issues relating to Australian aid, the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, and global development policy. It does this by maintaining an active blog (devpolicy.org), conducting research, producing a variety of publications and organising events and forums.

When did you first start working in international development?

January 2013

What was your first international development role?

My current role, as a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre, is my first international development role. As I have been studying full-time since July 2012, it is a part-time role where I am mainly involved in looking at development policy from an economics perspective.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get your first role? Was the role paid or unpaid?

I obtained my first via networking. Specifically, the Australian National University (ANU) hosts public lectures on policy-related issues, with many of them focusing on development and the environment. I attended a presentation by an ANU epidemiology researcher on her work with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The presenter often works closely with the Director of the Development Policy Centre, who also attended the presentation.

While chatting to them both afterwards about a question I had asked during the presentation, the presenter mentioned she was looking for an economics student to do some research assistant work for her. A few months later, I spent two weeks doing some (paid, but not economics-related) related work for her, which then led to my role at the Development Policy Centre.

If you had previously pursued a non-development career, describe how you made the transition and the extent to which your existing skills were transferrable.

I previously worked in investment consulting as an actuary. Investment consulting is like financial planning but for organisations instead of individuals, so my work was finance-related.

Once I decided I wanted to work in development, I chose to become a development economist because it would draw upon many of the skills I had developed working as an actuary – financial/economic modelling, data analysis, as well as all the more generic skills such as consulting, professional writing, etc. Nevertheless I felt that I needed to undertake a master’s degree in development economics as:

  1. I perceived at the time, I needed to develop my knowledge in the development field:
  2. I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to making the transition; and
  3. As I felt that studying development economics at ANU would be a great way to make contacts, both in the development industry as well as with students from other countries.

What was the nature of the first organisation you worked for?

My first job was in investment consulting. The company I worked for, Towers Watson, was a global consulting firm with a variety of lines of business, for example insurance, pension fund and HR consulting, as well as the investment consulting area in which I worked.

Do you consider field experience important in obtaining your first development role?

I think it is definitely a plus, but not essential; actual skills are more important. However I still don’t have field experience so I can’t comment in detail on this.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

I think job security comes from your skills, your ability to market your skills, and your networks. So networking is very important. For me networking was how I obtained my role with the Development Policy Centre. From an employer’s point of view, there often isn’t time to go through a full-on recruitment process, navigate bureaucracy etc. It is much easier to recruit based on recommendations.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

Main advantages: good experience and exposure, flexible with respect to my study schedule. Main disadvantages: can be difficult to achieve policy impact from a think-tank, research work can be fairly autonomous and thus less interactive.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

Networking:

Attend events relevant to your interests; ask the presenters smart questions if you can; talk to people afterwards.

Try to take any opportunity you can to cold-email someone and ask for a lunch or coffee meeting. I have had a fair bit of success with this, and I think Australia’s culture is particularly conducive to senior people being open to this, as long as you’re not asking them for a job.

If you do get a short-term assignment, like my two-week stint with the epidemiologist that I mentioned above, make sure you prove yourself by producing top-notch work so that your employer will be keen to help by recommending you to others. There is no better networking opportunity than directly showing someone what you’re capable of doing, and this was helpful in getting into my role with the Development Policy Centre.

Career strategy:

Be clear about what you’re doing and why. For example, if you have existing professional experience, think carefully about if/how you can use your skills in development, and how you plan to develop any new skills you think you need. Forming a strategy is actually a lot harder if you don’t yet have full-time professional experience, in which case you could focus more on pinning down what you want to get out of your career overall (social outcomes? interesting work? money? status/influence? travel/no travel? live in a particular country?), and look for a role you can use as a springboard into other lines of work if you decide to.

The main reason for doing this is that you are more likely to achieve your goals if you understand what they actually are, or if you have an overall plan for making any transition. However it is also attractive to employers.

Definitely be prepared to show your resolve by doing some unpaid work, if necessary to get past the “we can’t give you experience because you don’t have experience” paradox.

Development economics:

If your interests lie in the economics of development, I’d recommend reading Why Nations Fail (Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson) and The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier) – two excellently-written and non-technical books that cover many of the most important macro-level issues relating to poor countries. In fact I  would even recommend these books to non-economists.

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