By Tim Wyman-McCarthy, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


As students across Columbia—both graduate and undergraduate—settle into the Spring term a series of questions echo around campus: What are your plans for the summer? Have you begun your dissertation? And, most dreaded of all: what’s next? It is this last question, of what comes after graduation, that seems to produce the most anxiety. This is especially true for students interested in fields characterized by less-than-clear paths to employment or uncertain job prospects. One such example is human rights, and so it was of great benefit to many that on February 26th the Institute for the Study of Human Rights held a career panel about what it means to pursue human rights as a profession. The event was comprised of a panel discussion with five human rights professionals followed by an open question and answer session.

Sheree Bennet and Zeke Johnson responding to questions at the Human Rights Career Panel.
Sheree Bennet and Zeke Johnson responding to questions at the Human Rights Career Panel.

The speakers were qualified, interesting, and informative. The panel consisted of: Antonio Cisneros de Alencar, Program Coordinator for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Guatemala; Rose Anderson, a Program Associate for Protection Services at Scholars at Risk and an HRSMA alumnus; Sheree Bennet, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale who is working for the International Rescue Committee; Zeke Johnson, the Managing Director of Amnesty International USA’s Individuals at Risk Program; and Amanda Klasing, a researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.

To this diverse group were put questions about the content of their work, the specific challenges it poses, their career paths, the skills and personal qualities it requires, and what they look for if hiring for their own position. We heard fascinating accounts of the complexity involved in the OHCHR’s work on the rights of indigenous peoples in Guatemala; how research and practice come together in the IRC project in Haiti; and what is involved in identifying and protecting scholars at risk. While it would have been useful to get a sense of a ‘day-in-the-life’ of each of these individuals, the accounts they provided of their work and that of their respective organizations did communicate the variety of experiences, directions, geographical locations, forms of advocacy and research, and professional positions available through a career in human rights.

Specific advice was also offered for those thinking about pursuing further education. When asked about the role of research in human rights practice and the value of embarking on further graduate work, Bennet cautioned that “being a great student is not a good enough reason to do a Ph.D.” It is important to remember, especially for current students, that the Ph.D. is about contributing to a body of knowledge and requires a “tenacity that is hard to imagine”. Similarly, Klasing spoke to the benefits and drawbacks of the MA and JD. While the JD gets the attention of those at the table—perhaps more so than the anthropologist in the room—the MA can provide one with the critical tools to approach human rights work with sensitivity and intellectual rigour. Ultimately, both pointed to the fact that certain kinds of graduate-level education are not for everyone, though most kinds can be valuable in some way to a career in human rights. At the end of the day, what is important is that you find the kind of contribution that is most closely aligned with your goals and interests. Along these lines Mr. Alencar insisted that students follow their passions and avoid framing themselves by what’s most demanded by the market, for at the end of the day human rights is about believing in a cause and working on something that drives you. Additionally, he pointed out that you can work on human rights issues from many different types of organizations, and that, in fact, limiting your career path to only one sector is often less effective than gaining experience by going from one sector to another.

The panel was mostly in agreement on the kinds of skills, experiences, and qualities necessary for many of their positions or the human rights profession in general: languages (at least 2, if interested in international work), applied research, writing and communication skills (distilling ideas in a way that resonates), being a team player, showing that one is serious and respectful but also friendly, strategic thinking (seeing all the moving parts of a process and knowing how to synthesize them), quick thinking, methodological training, problem solving and sound judgment, world experience (living abroad, experience with other cultures), and drive, to name the most frequently mentioned. How does one gain such skills and experience? This was less fully addressed. The panel did suggest the importance of networking, internships, putting the word out that you’re looking for a certain kind of work, having mentors (informal and formal), error-free applications, and to “be a star intern!”

While it is useful to be reminded of the value of these skills and the strategies for showcasing them, looking back it is clear that the list of skills, experiences, and qualities the panel assembled is not unique to the human rights field. Even if the embodiment of all these qualifications does make someone an exceptional candidate, these skills and experiences fall in line with similar lists that one could imagine for virtually every profession. So even as these individuals all offered unique perspectives and valuable advice, I felt that an audience feeling ever more pressured by an ever-increasingly corporatized and bureaucratized human rights field would be better served by a more creative or reflective approach to ‘careers in human rights’. What I would like to hear, then, from those in the thick of the profession is what (academic, intellectual, social, cultural, etc.) backgrounds and skills they feel are underrepresented in their field? What kinds of individuals have surprised them by their contribution to their shared work? When have unexpected convergences of perspectives, individuals, or groups lead to fruitful collaborations? When have existing structures proved inadequate to the tasks of effecting change and how might these moments of failure point to potential spaces for innovation? What are the mechanisms by which a human rights perspective might be creatively introduced to all sorts of spaces—governmental, educational, corporate, personal, recreational? What are the limits or weaknesses of their organizations?

These broader conversations about creative solutions to pressing problems would enhance the value of human rights education and further complement a full CV.

Tim Wyman-McCarthy is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research focuses on indigenous rights in settler colonial settings, human rights discourse, and disability rights.


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