Hannah Babiss, GSS ‘21, has recently earned a Presidential Management Fellowship from the United States Federal Government, where she will work within the Department of Transportation as a Budget Analyst in Washington, D.C. A former leader of GSS’s Student Congress, Babiss sat down with us to speak about her upcoming opportunity, as well as some tips for future MSW graduates on how they can nail their next big interview.
How did you hear about this opportunity?
The Presidential Management Fellowship is something I had heard about a long time ago. It’s pretty well known for people who are interested in government or policy work, so I had heard of it by word of mouth. When I was applying to my masters of social work programs I knew I wanted to go into policy, so I was really looking for a university that had a lot of policy classes; I knew that that was the trajectory that I wanted to go.
When I was in my second year of my MSW program at Fordham, I got a field placement doing policy analysis and I knew that I wanted to do a fellowship when I was finished, particularly in policy and government. I would suggest the website Pro Fellow. That’s a good resource; it has a listing of all the fellowships you can imagine.
That’s also how I found out about the fellowship that I was doing this year, which was a local government management fellowship. I was placed in a local municipality working in their local government.
Can you explain a bit more about what a fellowship is, and what the job entails? And what comes afterward?
“Fellowship” is just a broad term; there are a lot of different types of fellowships. There are tons of fellowships that enable people to get higher education degrees that are fully funded. But the fellowships that I was particularly looking at were fellowships that gave people job opportunities or internship opportunities. The idea is that these types of fellowships would transition into a job afterwards.
The whole intention of the PMF Fellowship is that the fellow gets converted to a regular employee afterwards. And how the PMF differs from other kinds of government fellowships is that there’s a really clear promotional pay scale jump year-after-year. I think that that’s really important, especially for young professionals or people who are starting off their career in government. It’s good to know that, after a certain amount of time, I will be making X amount of salary per year. It’s different from other fellowship opportunities, where there isn’t as clear of a career ladder. I think that it shows how much they value the fellows in the program and I really appreciate that.
How important do you think it is for students to seek out a field placement in a field they’re interested in, to see if they really still like it after being in it for a while?
I think it’s super important. Especially in my case, I was doing a career change by way of my MSW program. I was working in educational services before my MSW, so getting a job or getting an internship or a field placement in the career that I wanted to transition into, I think, was really important for my resume. It gave me a lot of real life on-the-job experience.
In my fellowship applications and interviews, I was always referring back to projects that are related or tasks that are related to the job that I was applying for. So I think it’s really important to seek out a field placement in a career path you think you want to do, and if it turns out that you really don’t like that, then it’s great that you took that opportunity and learned what you don’t want to do. That’s equally as important as learning what you do want to do.
What are some things you chose to highlight from your MSW experience to help you get this fellowship?
The number one thing was Student Congress. I wanted to go into local government or government in general, and Student Congress gave me a lot of foundational knowledge about how it all works. Also, if you’re able to take on a leadership role in Student Congress, that is huge on a resume. That will really make you stand out. A lot of these fellowships are extremely competitive, so if you’re president of a Student Congress, or in a higher up position, it really helps.
I think that’s pretty standard across a lot of these fellowship applications — people who are applying for these fellowships are people who tend to take leadership roles. So I think Student Congress was really important foundational knowledge for me, and it also integrated me into the Fordham MSW Community. It gave me some of my closest friends that I still have today. I think it was probably one of my best experiences at Fordham, and one that I always highlighted on resumes and interviews. The other thing too is like my policy classes, those were really important.
Also, I would tend to find a professor whose style of teaching I really like, and I would continue to take their classes. I would recommend that for other students, as well. I think that’s a good way to approach your MSW — find the people you get along with and continue to utilize their mentoring. The knowledge and skills that I developed in the policy classes, I would say, really helped me in my second year field placement, where I was doing policy briefs and op-eds and things like that.
Nancy Wackstein, former GSS Director of Community Relations and Advisor for Student Congress, served as one of your references for this fellowship application. How important is it for students to stay involved and in touch with faculty members and administration from their programs even after they’ve graduated?
I think finding mentors is one of the most important things that anybody needs to be doing as a young professional. Even if you’re doing a career change, it’s super important to have somebody who has experience in the field that you’re wanting to go in, who can give you that guidance. Keeping up with those connections that you made along the way is huge, because you never know who’s going to be able to help you out down the road.
So, whether that’s sending two emails a year and just giving them an update on your life, it’s really important to stay connected. And Nancy is amazing. She was like a big advocate with Student Congress, so we met regularly during my MSW, and we still meet up for coffee. She’s just the greatest.
I even do that with some of my professors at Fordham. I’ll ask them to meet for coffee or a 30-minute zoom just to see how they’re doing. I think it’s really important to always look for mentors because you never know what opportunities they could help you find.
What is it about a career in government that is so rewarding?
So, I was doing direct service social work many years ago, before my MSW. And in that work, you’re working with individuals, one-on-one, trying to support them, get to where they want to be, and reach their goals, but sometimes there are these structural barriers around who is allowed to receive benefits.
And it’s really not like a “one size fits all.” [The structure in place] uses this one size fits all model and in practice, that doesn’t actually work. So, at a certain point, as a direct service worker, I felt like I could only do so much with the client, and I really started to see the big picture that there are these huge structural issues that were posing like huge barriers for individuals and communities. So that’s what motivated me to go into policy, to affect change at a bigger level. I think that’s rewarding.
But I think having that direct service experience is 100% essential. It allows you to really be in touch with the community that you’re maybe hoping to serve at the federal level. I know a lot of federal employees say that they feel very removed from the communities that they’re serving. So I think getting that foundational experience early on is really important, and will only help propel your career in government or policy further, and give you a better understanding of how policies really do affect individuals.
Another thing I’ll add that I’ve seen over the past year is that change happens very slowly over time. So it’s also important to celebrate the small wins and not to get discouraged [by the challenges]and know that what you’re doing is still making an impact, regardless of whether or not that day or that year you’re having the outcome that you want.
What are you most excited about for this fellowship?
So, my role is titled Budget Analyst in the Department of Transportation, and that’s at the Federal Transit Authority and theOoffice of Budget and Policy. So I am really interested to get that hands-on experience with the budget. In my past fellowship, I did help with the budget, but not as much as I would have liked.
I think that if you ever want to be a director, or if you ever want to be high up within an organization, you really need to have that foundational knowledge about how a budget works. So I’m really excited to see where gaining these skills takes me.
I think the budget that the DOT manages is around 40 billion. It’s astronomically large. I’m a little intimidated, but I’m excited to see what it’s all about.
How do you handle that feeling of intimidation on a day-to-day basis? I’ve spoken to other alumni about impostor syndrome before. Is that something you’ve ever experienced?
Yeah I think anybody who’s new to a career path or switching careers will likely experience impostor syndrome. And I think the best way to overcome that is really by creating a strong network of colleagues and peers who support you. And then going back to mentorship, making sure that you have a good relationship with your supervisor, one that’s really open and transparent, and if you’re feeling nervous or a little bit of self doubt, you can express that to them so they can give you honest feedback.
When I first started my first fellowship in Pennsylvania, I was this 20-something year-old girl going into these meetings, and I think the youngest man there was like 50. So it was this huge age and career-level difference, so I was a little bit shy to speak up a lot in those meetings at first.
So one day in my supervision with my boss, I said that I didn’t feel very comfortable voicing my opinion in these meetings. I wondered what if these people don’t take me seriously. He just said, we hired you because we need a different perspective.
So I think it’s important that you speak up. After we had that conversation, I did start to speak up more, and seeing how people embraced my point of view was encouraging for me to continue to speak up.
The application process for the PMF Fellowship seemed to have a bunch of meet-and-greets and interviews. What did you do to help yourself stand out in those rooms, especially as someone who isn’t initially drawn to public speaking?
I will say if you’re planning on applying for a fellowship, just be aware that applying to fellowships is a long process. You’re going to have to do a lot of networking; you’re going to have to write essays.
In the case of the PMF Fellowship, you have to take a series of timed exams, and once you’re a finalist then you can apply. And there’s no guarantee that a finalist is going to get placed. You just apply and you do interviews. So I think a really important piece of this is having a solid resume. Fordham has a lot of resources. It has a fellowship office where I did one-on-one writing sessions, and they helped me with my personal statements and my cover letters. I also utilized Handshake, which has people who do career development and they will help you review your resume. Those sessions were the most helpful thing that I did. My resume was so bad before my first Handshake meeting with a career developer. I pretty much had to start it all over.
For interviews, I think practice helps. So whether you’re just sitting alone in your room or in the bathroom with your mirror, I always go over Why am I here, Why do I want to apply for this job. If you have a good friend or mentor who’s willing to do some trial interviews with you, that’s really helpful. The other thing I would say is that, say you have an interview for the Department of Health and Human Services — go on Linkedin before your interview and find someone who works there. Maybe they are an alumni. Just say, hey I’m applying for this job, do you have 30 minutes, so we can do an informational interview, and then you interview them about how their experience has been.
Having these informal networking meetings will help you build your confidence when you go into that interview. And it’ll also give you more information about the department and it might affect what types of questions you’re asking during the interview. It’s very important to prepare many questions before you go into the interview, of course.
The other thing I would say is, before going to an interview, it’s really important to do a lot of research on the organization you’re applying to. Research what policies they have been coming out with; research as much as you can and then try to drop the research that you have done into the interview so that they know that you are informed.
What are some of the most important questions you have asked during an interview about the organization you’re interviewing for?
One really important question to ask is: how has COVID changed your workplace functioning or your workplace culture? This will give you an idea about how open they are to hybrid policies, and how adaptable they are. Another important question is: what are the promotional opportunities in this role? So you can have a clear understanding about where they see you in this role in five years. Are you going to get a raise? Are you going to get a higher position? It’s important to know what they have planned long term for the role.
What does the ideal career scenario look like for you, 5, 10, and 20 years down the road?
I think every year your goals are changing, so it’s hard to know exactly. Today my goals are to stay in the federal government long term. I would like to work up to a director level. I would say that’s my long term five-to-10-year plan—work my way up to a senior analyst and then eventually become a director hopefully.