Graduate Skills Courses Equip Students with Tool-Kit for Success

June 17, 2015

With more than 30 course offerings focusing on practical skills, Elliott School students graduate prepared for real-world careers in the international affairs field. From formal briefing and cross-cultural communication, to financial statement analysis and negotiation, the mission of the practical curriculum is to equip students with a set of skills applicable outside the classroom.

"The Elliott School was the first professional school of international affairs to offer its graduate students skills-focused courses that help students succeed as practitioners in their careers,” says Lisa Stephenson, associate dean for academic programs. She says that the skills covered are often in response to employer requests, in particular, “the ability to write in a professional environment.”

Christopher Kojm, visiting professor of the practice of international affairs, teaches one such course — “Writing for International Policymakers.” With a career that has included posts at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the U.S. State Department, and most recently in the intelligence community as the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Professor Kojm understands the power of writing well. As Deputy Director of the 9/11 Commission and Senior Advisor to the Iraq Study Group, he played a major role in the pivotal publications that emerged from these entities.

In his class, Professor Kojm helps students hone their writing skills by drafting concise pieces on complex policy issues of their choosing.

“Professor Kojm identifies breaches in logic that may exist in an argument and guides his students toward filling those gaps,” says Michael Hanna, a master’s student in the Security Policy Studies program who took the skills course last fall.

The students’ final project was a written op-ed that they pitched to media outlets; nine students were successful in publishing their pieces in publications ranging from the Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun to The Hill and Popular Archaeology Review.

 One of the challenges students faced when drafting their op-eds was approaching their topics from an innovative perspective. “The topic I chose was very current and so many perspectives were already discussed,” says Mian Zahid Hussein, a visiting research fellow in the class. “To write the policy memos and op-ed with a new recommendation in a comprehensive way was a real exercise.”

Beyond bringing a unique take to a policy issue, Rachel Rizzo (M.A. ’15) says timing is everything. “You could write a great op-ed, but if you miss the news cycle, your piece may not be relevant anymore.”

Udunopa B. Abalu (M.A., ’15), who took “Writing for International Policymakers” this past spring, has already seen her practical skill-set pay off. “I have walked into job interviews where potential employers Googled me and commented on my published op-ed piece from the course, and how it demonstrated what they were looking for in strong applicants — the ability to organize ideas and communicate them clearly in written work.”

“Few practitioners in the world of public policy have the time to read in depth, even as they may wish to do so. There is a premium on the ability to present complex ideas in a manner that is precise, concise and accessible to the lay reader,” said Professor Kojm. “No skill is more important for students' professional success than the ability to write clearly and succinctly.”