Welcome to the Hunger Games, Knauss Edition

by Leslie Irwin, NOAA Research Communications Fellow

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since the 2013 Knauss Fellows descended on D.C. like a plague of locusts, ready to stake our claim and eagerly devour any tips and tricks for succeeding in marine policy. Unlike the locusts, we’re still here. We survived the sequester and the government shutdown, and as we prepare our next moves, we are ready to pass on some words of wisdom to the next horde of type-A researchers and lawyers.

This is my unofficial welcome to the Knauss 2014 Finalists.

We know that you’ve put in a ton of hard work and determination to get to this point, and you should be beyond excited for the opportunities that await you! You waited six months to hear about the status of your application, and another five just to find out where you will be working. One of the most frustrating things I remember before I started the fellowship was not being able to fully explain to family and friends what I was actually going to do in D.C.

But first you have to get through Placement Week*. Placement Week will be the most intense sharknado of interviews and informational overload you will ever experience (I hope this is true for both our sakes).

While executive and legislative fellows will have slightly different schedules, I believe the takeaways are quite similar.

If you are reading this, and are not a Knauss Fellow or Finalist, but are currently in graduate school and think you want an experience in Marine Policy, you can apply for the 2015 class and learn more here.

The Presentations

You will sit through a ton of presentations (over 50 on the executive side) as each host office gives you the 101 on its role within its particular agency, and what you can expect to gain from working with them. This is the kicker: each office is competing FOR YOU. I can’t think of any other time you will have the opportunity to interview for a job pool that has fewer applicants than positions. Take advantage of this.

You will obsess over the written position descriptions before you hear the presentations. You will think you know already which positions you want to interview for. Please, for the love of Triton, throw any of those thoughts out the window. Pay attention to who is speaking during each presentation; most likely they are your potential supervisor (though not always). Picture yourself working with them. Picture yourself really fitting into the picture of the office they are describing. Just because you like the sound of a host-office’s write-up doesn’t mean you will thrive in their actual office culture (this is good advice during interviews as well).

But it’s still good to prepare.

“Review the structure of NOAA and the other agencies ahead of time, it will help you get a sense of the big picture of where all of these offices are, and allow you to get a sense of the huge diversity of options for placement! I tried to chart out (pre-placement week) on the NOAA org chart where the offices were that I was interested in to keep everything straight.” – Leah Fisher

The Interviews

You will schedule no less than 12 interviews in 48 hours, and some of you will be crazy and try for 18. You will find it hard to limit the positions you interview for. Be realistic, but also choose a few that are outside of your expertise and comfort zone. You will think you know exactly which one is for you, but so might another fellow. You will find that sometimes the best fit for you isn’t what you first expected.

Be strategic with your interviews. Pay attention to where they are located and how long it will take to get there. For the executive finalists, you may be rushing from Silver Spring, MD to Arlington, VA and back, and then stopping in downtown D.C. Taking the metro is usually reliable enough, but if you aren’t familiar with the lines it’s easy to get turned around. I can promise that you will be an expert in D.C. transit by the end of the week. Legislative fellows will be sprinting between various House and Senate offices, which aren’t necessarily close even when in the same building.

Some tips for the interviewing days:

Mistakes are ok.

“Placement week was an opportunity for me to stumble through several interviews, it was great! In all seriousness, it is likely the only time where you are able to bomb an interview and immediately afterwards have another interview to improve your performance. Use it as one of your first learning experiences of the year and imagine it as a workout, your professional physique will improve immensely even just after the first day. Don’t be too hard on yourself during interviews and enjoy the process. Mistakes are our friends as long as we learn from them.” – Sepp Haukebo

Food is your friend.

“Bring snacks! The interview schedule can be intense and the long days are always followed by happy hours. Chelsea will have candy and granola bars but if you want something more substantial make sure you bring it! Also remember to be yourself and that the people you interview with will be people you interact with throughout the year regardless of your placement. And have fun! It will be the longest, most exhausting, most exciting best week of your life. Enjoy!” – Erica Ombres

Ask away.

“Don’t assume the people who interview you are the people you will be directly working with. Don’t assume that what the current fellow is working on has anything to do with what you will be working on. Ask. “ – Tara Dolan

The Happy Hours

Nametags are critical. You will forget names. Wear yours, look at everyone else’s, everyone’s happy.

Go to the happy hours. Talk to everyone. This is your chance to interact with current fellows and your potential hosts outside of the office, and ask them things you may have missed during the interviews (those 30 minutes go by faster than you think). If you’re coming to the Knauss with a primarily research background, you probably aren’t much of a networker. This is your crash course, because once you move to D.C. you will be at receptions and networking events all the time. Not everyone is a people-person, and talking to new people does not always come naturally. You are going to have to get over it.

Some great happy hour advice:

“Put on your big girl (or boy) pants and pretend to not be introverted. You can then proceed to go home to your hotel room, eat dinner at midnight while communing with a fellow fellow introvert, and revert to your hiding tendencies.

Go to all happy hours, be enthusiastic, and engaging (or sedately enthusiastic). Make sure to touch base with the offices that you are interested in as early in the week as possible at the happy hours (even if you aren’t interviewing with them until later). You will have much more control over this conversation and you can gain information on the personalities in the office.

Additionally, if an office seeks you out at a happy hour, that’s a good sign. However, if an office doesn’t seek you out that does not mean that they are not interested, since all personality traits of hosts are different.” – Rachel Fontana

The happy hours aren’t just to network with host offices. Current fellows will be at all of the events (except for Monday). This is your opportunity to learn about life in D.C. and good neighborhoods. Get a feel for what your next year will be like, because it is so much more than what you do in the office. We are a pretty close-knit group and know the low-down on other offices too.

“Take advantage of us to hear about our time in D.C., offices you are interested in, and to see if any of us know about an office that may not have a fellow or if the fellow is out of town! Getting the inside scoop ahead of time helped me make a decision on Friday.” – Leah Fisher

And because a drink or two (but don’t go overboard) can help get you into a more social groove for chatting up current fellows and hosts:

“Eat BEFORE happy hour because you really can’t get food out and you don’t want to mix exhaustion, alcohol and low blood sugar when you are trying to impress people. It is better to be a half hour late and make a good impression rather than be on time and be miserable.” – Kate Nixon

Choosing your Host Office

So it’s finally Friday, the last day of Placement week. You are physically, emotionally, and intellectually strung out. And now you have to make a pretty big decision. You will have ranked your top three host offices that you interviewed with and called them on Thursday. Just narrowing down your top three was hard enough. Now you get to see how you ranked in the eyes of the host office, and begin the trickle-down choosing of where you will spend the next year. Your best bet is to not assume it will go one way or another, and embrace the outcome. You will thrive and have an amazing experience in any of these offices, and I struggled to make a choice. The whole process is crazy and complicated sounding, but I promise you, it works out.

For me, one method that helped was to imagine flipping a coin over two positions. Which position will you most regret letting go?

More great advice:

“Don’t choose a position just because of cool travel opportunities. Travel money can run out at any time. Your Sea Grant funds will provide you with the opportunity for work-related travel anyway. Don’t be afraid to ask the interviewers what they’re looking for in an ideal candidate right off the bat and then proceed to describe why you have those skills. Leadership, organizational management and communication skills seem to be well-regarded. You all have those, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Work what you’ve got!

You might feel pressured to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new. Don’t do this just for the sake of it. Think carefully about where you want to be after your fellowship and what connections/skills certain positions will provide you. It’s totally OK to take a position that is well inside your comfort zone. However, if you end up somewhere unexpected, don’t despair. With determination, you can mold the position to obtain the skills/connections that you want. And you can always reach out to the Knauss network to make the connections your office can’t help you with.

Most importantly, don’t listen to friends or mentors who try to warn you against certain positions or offices. Go to the interview and see for yourself! I avoided interviewing for several positions I probably would have loved just because a mentor told me negative things about the office. As scientists, we know all about bias… avoid it.” – Tara Dolan

Welcome to the Knauss Mafia (we are everywhere).

Remember, you are all awesome and accomplished young professionals. You all have a unique story and background that has brought you to this point and will make you successful. Don’t forget to make friends and know the other finalists. They may seem like your competition, but they will be your support system for the rest of the year. Don’t undervalue those relationships.

“Above all, be yourself.  You came to this Fellowship for a reason.  Don’t lose sight of your aim, but leave room to make new insights and strengthen existing connections.” – Theresa Davenport

So buckle up, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

*A full guide to placement week and dress code tips can also be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Welcome to the Hunger Games, Knauss Edition

  1. The notion that more offices than the number of applicants is great but just do not rely on it too much. I mean still prepare yourself for selling yourself during interviews and come prepared. Open up your horizon and choices as wide as possible not to just one or two departments. There tremendous opportunity out there that we do not realize yet. Good luck!!

  2. While the immediate goal of the interviews is to land a great placement (which will happen regardless — trust the process!), keep in mind that these are people you will be working with during your fellowship year and beyond. This is true regardless of whether you get placed in that specific office. If it helps, try to remember that the interviews are an opportunity to meet a lot of great people and learn more about the awesome things that are going on across the Federal government. Start building your professional network on day one.

  3. Make sure you interview with the host offices outside of NOAA too! And don’t worry about finding your way to interviews — I would recommend downloading the DC Metro Transit app so you can easily access transit schedules on-the-go. And to pass on some advice given to me last year before Placement Week, you are going to meet a lot of people and collect a lot of business cards. Try to jot down a few words or a sentence on the back of so you can later remember key points about that person or their office.

  4. Pingback: Welcome to the Hunger Games II: Catching Hires | Knauss in the House

  5. Pingback: 2014 State of the Fellowship Address: We have joined the Knauss Mafia | Knauss in the House

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