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Alumnus Chris Colijn on his traineeship at a think tank, his master’s degree and advice for other graduates

What does life look like after International Studies? For Chris Colijn who graduated in 2018, it involves working on his master’s in Russian and Eurasian Studies, in combination with a bustling traineeship for “Raam of Rusland”, a think tank, focusing on Russian and Ukrainian politics, economy and culture. How does he do it?

Q&A session at Leiden University with Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Working as a trainee: Raam op Rusland

Chris, you currently work as a trainee at Raam op Rusland; can you tell us a little bit about the organisation?

Raam op Rusland is a small think tank specialising mainly in Russian and Ukrainian politics, economy, and culture. It consists of four experienced journalists, one of whom lives in Moscow. Between them, they have several decades of experience working as journalists and writers in the former Soviet Union. As a trainee at Raam op Rusland, I am closely involved in the daily activities of the think tank, such as writing and editing articles, organising events, and doing research about recent developments in the area.

What are your tasks at Raam op Rusland and what do you like best?

I mainly write and edit articles for Raam op Rusland's website, both in Dutch and English. I have written many editorial news reports, which are aimed at informing a Dutch audience about important developments. For example, I reported on the presidential campaign and inauguration of the new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. This includes keeping a close eye on Ukrainian media, but also understanding how experts and politicians from Russia and the West react to current events.

Besides writing and editing, I am involved at organising events such as lectures and Q&A sessions, thereby bridging the gap between experts and the audience. This allowed me to improve my organisational skills and meet experts who can give new insights into the topics I work on. 

What are the most important things you have learned at Raam at Rusland?

I learned many things at Raam op Rusland, but two of them really stand out. First, I had the chance to use the knowledge I gained in International Studies and my current MA Russian & Eurasian Studies in a practical setting, and to place a current event in a broader context. I learned to understand the relationships between events, and to get a better overview of developments in Russia and Ukraine. 

Second, working at Raam op Rusland gave me a chance to develop my writing skills, particularly in Dutch. Although an entirely English-taught university program is very useful, I had never used my native language in a professional setting before. The experience of my colleagues allowed me to develop this and improve my professional Dutch writing. Moreover, it was very useful to learn how to write as a journalist, as this often differs from the academic writing I learned in university.

My proudest achievement at Raam op Rusland was also my final major contribution. I had the honour of organising a Q&A session at Leiden University with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian captain of industry whom I previously learned about in class during my time at International Studies. Khodorkovsky played an important role in Russia's post-Soviet economic transition, and was a strong critic of Putin. He spent ten years in prison, and now works to support democratic initiatives in Russia. The opportunity to meet and speak with someone whom I had previously only encountered in academic literature and news reports was very special, and showed me how valuable my traineeship was. Around 500 people attended the Q&A session, which took place at Wijnhaven and was directed at students, so the event itself was also a great success. (A report on the event can be found here).

How did you find your traineeship?

I found my traineeship through the cooperation between Raam op Rusland and Leiden University. The think tank agreed to train a student and spread an application for this position. I was fortunate enough to be a good match for what the think tank envisioned. I could show the knowledge and skills I gained at university, and demonstrated a willingness to learn. I maintained that attitude throughout my internship, and that really gave me a chance to get the most out of it and develop myself.

Choosing your master's

Why did you choose the master's Russian and Eurasian Studies?

I chose this MA program because I wanted to specialize further after completing International Studies. My bachelor’s laid the foundation for this, but I didn't feel like an expert in the region yet. Furthermore, this program is the only one in the Netherlands that allows students to delve into Russia and Eurasia from a range of perspectives. 

My interest in the Russia and Eurasia area arose from my personal experience. I grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine for 12 years while my parents were working there. During (and after) that time, I learned a lot about the local culture and history. At first, I was not sure about pursuing this at university, but after International Studies, I decided to specialize more in that area.

Is it possible to combine your traineeship with your Master’s?

Within my Master's programme, Leiden University facilitates the possibility of doing an internship and allows students to obtain credits for this. I decided to prolong my studies by one semester in order to focus myself fully on my traineeship. Otherwise, I would have written a thesis at the same time. While some others did choose to do so, I enjoyed the opportunity to dedicate more time to my traineeship.

Could you tell us a bit about your future goals? How do you see your career path developing?

Currently, I am still enrolled in a master’s programme Russian & Eurasian Studies, from which I plan to graduate in January 2020. This summer, I will be working as an intern at the Dutch embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. This will be a great way for me to get a taste for work in the diplomatic/government sphere, an option I am also interested in besides journalism and research. After graduating, I will look for a job that matches my expertise in Russia and Ukraine, but employment options in this sphere can be very limited, especially in the Netherlands. This might mean that I will look for something outside of the Netherlands or outside of my main expertise.

'At International Studies, I learned to place things in a broader context'

What would your best advice to Graduates of International Studies looking for a job be?

My advice to graduates of International Studies is to look for places that ask you to use what you learned at university, but also leave plenty of space for you to develop. It is important to have good 'teachers' who can help you transition from university to the labour market. As many graduates are still young, your BA is only a starting point. Regardless of which direction you want to take your career, you will have to adapt and learn new skills. Try to learn from experts and make use of their network and experience.

You are working for an think-tank and non-profit organisation, what do International Studies graduates need to know about working in this sector and which approach should they take to find a job here?

I work for a think tank that focuses on the provision of information about the area I studied in the BA International Studies (Russia & Eurasia) for a Dutch audience. In this sector, which has ties to journalism, academic research, and public event organisation, it is important to be enthusiastic about your topics. As current events can develop very quickly, you will need to keep up to date constantly. If, as is the case for me now, your work is closely related to an area you studied in International Studies, it is important to keep developing your language skills. This gives you much greater access to the latest information about your area of interest, and allows you to engage in your area of expertise directly, rather than through others. Besides using the knowledge and skills you acquired in International Studies, it is very important to meet new people and learn from their experiences. By attending events, volunteering, and listening to experts, it becomes easier to connect with people working in your field. This could lead to finding an internship or job.

Looking back at your time at International Studies, which are the most important lessons you learned here, which prepared you for your future career?

At International Studies, I learned to place things in a broader context. No field stands on its own, and no country or region operates in isolation. Thus, what happens in Russia or Ukraine is important in the Netherlands, but also in the U.S. or China and may affect what happens in other countries. It is important to focus not only on what happens in one place or one sector, but also to think about the effects this has on other areas or sectors. In this context, I learned to dive deeply into my area and interests, while also maintaining a view of the bigger picture.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and journalist Kysia Hekster at the Q&A session at Leiden University

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