John Simeone, who received an M.A. in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies at the Jackson School of International Studies, as well as an M.S. from the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, has been busy working with clients from across the world on issues related to international trade, ecology, and resource management. Now based in Alaska, Simeone has taken the research skills he learned at the University of Washington and used them for consulting work with organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and as a researcher for various publications. Simeone sat down with the Ellison Center to talk about what drove him to pursue a dual degree in International Studies and Sustainable Resource Management and how he transitioned to his current career as a consultant.
“What drove me to grad school was the fact that until up this point, I had never focused my studies on Russia — Russian language, Russian literature, Russian events, or area studies broadly,” Simeone said. “I studied natural resources and development sociologies as an undergrad. I was always drawn to how societies develop and what that means for natural resource extraction. So in graduate school I tried to marry my interests in Russian area studies and understanding of natural resource consumption and ecology. This program for me was a way to bring those things together.”
The UW Jackson School offers the option of pursuing a concurrent degree in another department. Doing so typically takes students three years, after which they receive two master’s degrees. Simeone said the concurrent degree program fit both his academic interests and his career goals.
“I’ve found that doing a concurrent degree — whether it’s an Master’s of Public Administration or natural resources — is really enjoyable for people who want some time to really invest in their research. That was certainly the case for me.
Like many graduate students, Simeone said making the transition from graduate studies to the professional world was not always straightforward.
“When I graduated, like everyone, I was looking for work that was interesting,” Simeone said. “There is lateral work and there is work that is diagonal or forward. Ideally, you find work that isn’t lateral — you don’t take a step back but continue to move forward. I was heavily in debt, so I needed to find something.”
According to Simeone, it was his UW connections and his willingness to think outside the classroom that helped him find his first consulting jobs following graduation.
“Something that really helped me is that during my last year here, I went to a conference at the Monterey Institute of International Studies,” he said. “They had a conference on Asia-Pacific area studies. I spoke on a panel at the encouragement of my advisor, Judy Thornton from the Department of Economics. It turned out that a man on my panel was a senior research fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute. He had written about all kinds of global issues.”
We started chatting after the panel, and he told me that he liked my work,” Simeone continued. “He told me he might have a research project or a book deal coming down up and that he was looking for a research assistant. If there is one thing we are good at coming out of grad school, it’s research. So that was my first contract. I was only working for him five or so hours a week, but I was looking at Russian news, and pouring over data sets, and doing research.”
Simeone went on to do consulting work for the World Wildlife Fund, researching how crab meat makes its way to the US market from Russia and identifying places where it is being caught and processed illegally. He said he never thought about working on projects related to the seafood industry during his studies, but his background in Russian language and area studies, as well as his research into trade economics, helped him dive right in.
“The experience researching how crab is processed and shipped helped me understand how the supply chain is structured. I learned a new skill that could be applied to trade.”
When asked what advice he had for current students considering a career outside academia, Simeone suggested thinking about ways the skills learned in graduate school can be applied in the real world.
“I hate so say it, but nobody really cares about your research,” he said. “They won’t really want to hear about your thesis — maybe a quick line about what you did, but that’s it. What they want to hear is how you can apply the structure and the research skills you have. Think about about how you can use those skills to help them.”
Simeone also encouraged students to consider requesting informational interviews to get to know people from different industries and to get a foot in the door. “Even if you are submitting applications [for jobs], try to do some informational interviews,” he said. After some time doing job interviews and informational interviews I started getting calls asking if I would be willing to work as a contractor and take some work related to Russia.”
However, Simeone cautioned that working as an independent contractor can be difficult to manage financially, especially when just starting out.
“The one thing I will say is that there is no way I could do what I do without my wife — without someone I’m attached to with a stable job,” he said. “I get health insurance through her job. Living in Alaska now, it would cost us so much more for us to be on the open healthcare market there now. It’s kind of the same way in grad school — you need connections. So I would say it’s really important for people to aware of the hands that have been extended to them. There are some practicalities of being an independent contractor that can be difficult.”