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Rising Stars: From Russian Studies to Saving the World

By Erdin Beshimov

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Ellen fell in love with politics and international affairs. Majoring in history and Russian studies, she now works as a foreign area specialist in nuclear security.

Name: Ellen Pfeiffer
School: BA - Dartmouth College; MA - Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Major: History and Russian Studies
Years Out of College: 5-10
Title: Foreign Area Specialist
Company: National Nuclear Security Agency, U.S. Department of Energy
First Steps

Ellen's first job out of college was teaching history at a private Catholic high school for girls. She says she loved it. "The job reconfirmed my desire to work in a field where I felt connected to world events, where I felt I was impacting individuals as well as society, where I would learn something new everyday, where I could be creative, and where I could have lots of fun and stimulating interaction with other people."

From Then to Now

"As a history major, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer or a diplomat. I tried working for a big international corporate firm in New York City one summer, and everyone there was miserable and bored. That summer it dawned on me that I wanted to be a professor - which would combine all my intellectual passions and love of performance and people. I pursued that goal until I realized that the job market for Russian history professors is slim to none these days, and that I?hated the perverse competitive pressure to come up with esoteric but original topics that are driven by academia and not real world needs.?

Now I have switched to nuclear non-proliferation diplomacy, which so far I love. Let's keep our fingers crossed. Mostly, I think I have grown up enough to realize that everyone loves to complain about their work, so take complaints with a grain of salt before discarding a profession on that basis. Also, I have grown up enough to know that there is something to complain about in every job - work is work after all, so the best we can do is look for the optimum excitement to counter the annoying parts."

Ellen says her defining moments were "the revelation that I was destined to be a history professor and explore the soul of mankind; the painful realization that no, I was not destined to be a history professor; my first real excruciatingly torturous job search." She identifies winning a Fulbright to Russia and being hired at The National Nuclear Security Agency as her big breaks.

Challenges Faced

"Figuring out what I wanted to do. My biggest challenge was my first job search here in DC.?Even with a Master's degree, you are a dime a dozen. A great resume got me in the door, but still didn't get me a job. The combination of connections and talent was essential."

My Experience

"A typical day: working on new strategies in our office to engage Weapons of Mass Destruction experts. Writing reports for congress or the president on how we are succeeding in our mission to combat the proliferation of WMDs. Managing our program to transition former WMD scientists to civilian business work.

How am I inspiring others? I am keeping the world safe while empowering these scientists to develop their own peaceful businesses."

Next Steps

"I really like where I am working now, though I probably would like a little more creative freedom in my next job. In government, everything has to be approved at least three times before you can go forward."

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

"I did seriously think I would end up in international relations and diplomacy in some capacity, but I always thought I would be more on the offensive peace-making rather than national security. Government is a great place for people with history and area studies majors. I love it!"

Advice for Others

"Best advice so far: get out there, network, and talk to people. I had a wonderful time and learned so much just writing to alumni and asking for informational interviews. It was great to hear all these different life experiences and potential opportunities. If I were to do something differently, I would probably have taken more economics and quantitative classes. The world is more and more quantitative these days, so one can be much more flexible in one's career if one has those tools to work with. I would probably also have interned on Capitol Hill and worked one job in Washington before going back to grad school. That way I would know much better what I wanted to take in grad school and it might have saved me from going down the professor path."

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