How'd I Get Here? Confessions from a Checkered Past

Christopher Sabatini | Professor of International Relations and Policy at SIPA | November 19, 2016

When I was asked by one of the editors of The Morningside Post to explain how I got to where I am, I first felt a surge of pride.  Who doesn’t want to be asked that?  (I hope it’s something all SIPA students who are reading this get asked too when they’re my age.)

But then I realized I didn’t have an easy answer.  Truth is: I never expected to have the combination of jobs, contacts and activities that I have now.  And I suspect there’s a reason for that.  The odd combination of jobs I have didn’t exist when I was growing up—or at the very least I wasn’t aware of them.

So, first, let me explain what I do. I’m a full-time lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) teaching policy and political development.  It’s a great job at a great school with a great student body.  In addition, I have a small nonprofit research institute, Global Americans, funded by the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy.  The institute conducts research and advocacy on foreign policy and human rights and on social inclusion in Latin America.  I also regularly write for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, provide commentary to CNN, PBS and other media—all on issues related to Latin America.

But I didn’t plan on any of this when I went to graduate school.

My career path was driven as much by what I wanted to do as by what I didn’t want to do.

My career path was driven as much by what I wanted to do as by what I didn’t want to do.  While doing my PhD at the University of Virginia I knew: 1) that I liked and wanted to continue teaching; 2) that I didn’t want to teach full time (too isolating); and 3) that I wanted to concentrate on practical, real-world issues of policymaking,  The three goals were related.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, most universities don’t hire someone who is focused on policy.  Most universities seek academics who conduct more theoretical or academically-focused research.  That was never my goal; and it was driven home to me when I was writing my dissertation and found myself in my apartment alone, crunching numbers, writing, editing… and depressed.  Though for many of my friends that was the ideal job, I realized then that I was never meant to be a solitary academic researcher.

Work in policymaking

That personal epiphany led me to work in a number of non-academic-related internships and, when I was about to finish my PhD, apply for a post-doc fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS fellowship is intended to provide academics an opportunity either to try their hand at and apply their knowledge to policymaking and/or jump ship from academia to join the world of policymaking.  The program places scientists in the U.S. Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).   For me the problem was that it was intended for “hard” scientists: biologists, chemists, physicists, etc.  Luckily they decided to make an exception for me.  The decision was based in no small part to the political appointees in the administration of then-President Bill Clinton whom I knew and who drew me through the program.

After two plus years in the U.S, government bureaucracy I was confronted with another choice: stay in the bureaucracy (by converting to a foreign or civil service officer) or return to academia.  Miraculously, since neither path appealed to me, another option opened up: the director of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) had left and asked me to apply.  At the time I was a relatively young 32 years old—though my future boss later admitted that if it were not for my gray hair she wouldn’t have hired me for the job.

Things got political

The position was far more political than I expected.  I worked with the institutes of both political parties (the National Democratic Institute—NDI—and the International Republican Institute—IRI) as well as the union institute (American Center for International Labor Solidarity—ACILS) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce institute (Center for International Private Enterprise—CIPE). In addition, I suddenly found myself directing a deeply political program to promote human rights in Cuba.

I had never been prepared to be so political. My original idea since graduate school was to stick to principles and rely on logic, to rise above partisanship.

It largely worked, except when it didn’t.  I still remember a Republican congressman from South Florida calling me into his office after I had refused to support a conservative journal dedicated to human rights in Cuba.  I discovered later that his father was on the board of the journal—but that wasn’t why I was not supporting the project.  It was quite simply not effective.

After he calmly explained to me why I should support it, and after me insisting that it really didn’t fit our mandate, the congressman suddenly burst out of his chair and towering over me on his soft sofa, he shouted “I’ve never asked you for anything. All I ask is that you f***ing give me this” as he slammed a proposal on his desk.  (I didn’t give it to him, and he hates me still.)

Supporting democracy in Venezuela after the election of former President Hugo Chavez was also politically trying.  Media, pro-chavista activists and others accused us of supporting only the opposition.  At the time, as I said, the civil society groups we supported—as in any democracy—are never in favor of any one government and stand opposed to policies that stand against their interests and principles.  Today, many of those who criticized our support for human rights and freedom of expression groups are at the forefront of raising concerns about the deteriorating conditions for democracy in Venezuela.

After eight years at the NED, I left to build out the policy research function of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA).  Hopping from job to job can be scary.  But since I left academia, my goal has been to never stay in a job more than 10 years—not because I have attention deficit disorder (which I may), but because I believe you have to always innovate and move forward.  If we don’t do the former you stagnate; if you don’t do the latter then you tend to believe that you “own” what you’ve created.   Founder’s syndrome: it’s a dangerous delusion.

Creating my own journal

When I was being interviewed for the AS/COA job in New York, my future boss asked me if I had ever wanted to create a journal.  My response—entirely truthful—was that I had always wanted to start a journal/magazine.  So, with little knowledge of what I was getting myself into nor how one started a journal I took the job and moved to New York.  And wow, what a great job. There I created a policy journal, Americas Quarterly, and started a series of policy working groups on rule of law, immigration and U.S.-Cuba policy.  The latter helped produce and support President Barack Obama’s December 2014 policy changes on the Cuba embargo.  I left after nine years, feeling it was time for a change and afraid that I was coming to personalize what I had created with a great, capable team.

I started teaching at SIPA-Columbia in 2009.   But after leaving AS/COA I became full time and formed a think tank/research institute to do what I wanted to do before.

I’m glad I’m here

How did I get here? I’m not really sure but—as silly as this sounds—I’m glad I’m here.  I guess part of it was deciding early on what I did and didn’t want of my career.  (I remember telling a woman I was dating in grad school that the “choice is between having some minor voice in a policy that oozes from a bureaucracy like a gray slime or setting the agenda from the outside.”  Then and today I have opted for the latter, and as unstructured and uncertain as that is, I feel both that I’m happier because of it and have had more of a policy impact than if I had opted to toil away in the bureaucracy.)

There’s no real key to all of this.  It’s about—as my soccer coach once told me—“always keeping your feet moving.”   That means that even if you’re in a semi-bureaucratic job, keep writing, keep researching, keep networking.   Don’t settle in.  Hard work, knowing what I did and didn’t want to do, and the amazing possibilities created by the new economy are key.  Twenty, even thirty, years ago my job—at least by me—was unimaginable.  My advice: look for opportunities.

The job world today isn’t the one that existed when I was in college.   That’s a great thing.  The world of advocacy, research and nonprofits and semi-academic positions were not a career option 30 years ago. Today, I would argue, they are the best option.  The trick is to pursue your interests, be flexible, continue to research and write even when your job doesn’t require it, and always keep your feet moving.

Oh yeah, and avoid that Cuban-American congressman I mentioned—unless you want to be yelled at.