Heather Wickramarachi is a Senior International Economist in the Office of industries at the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), an independent federal agency. She has a PhD from the University of California – Irvine. Prior to the USITC she worked for three years as an economist at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank.
What kind of work do you do at the International Trade Commission? What energizes you about your career?
The Commission has several trade-related mandates, of which research and analysis is one aspect. My office in particular provides quantitative and qualitative analysis on a diverse range of issues affecting trade in goods and services. In general my job is to develop and foster research across several cross-cutting themes that are relevant to my office and the Commission. I also work alongside other Commission staff on fact-finding investigations as required by statute or upon request of our customers (the President and Congress).
What energizes me is that there is always something new to work on and the topics can be very different so you are ALWAYS learning new things. But perhaps more importantly, you feel that your work makes a difference and contributes to ongoing discussions regarding international trade. That sounds really cliché, but it’s true!
What did you study in graduate school? Can you say a little bit about your research?
My primary focus was international political economy and quantitative methods, so my course work ranged from traditional international relations survey courses, to political economy, statistics, and network analysis. My research then and now is primarily related to foreign direct investment – what are the determinants and distributional consequences of FDI, what are the impacts of investment treaties and free trade agreements on FDI, and the relationship between trade and investment.
Why and when did you choose to pursue a government career?
This probably sounds weird, but I have kind of always wanted to work for the federal government. Of course, as a kid, that meant becoming a spy and working for the CIA. But when I started the PhD program it was always an option, as well as working for a think tank, and working in academia became the second or third best option. If you are really interested in the intersection of economics and policy, then the government offers the best opportunity to be engaged in both of these topics.There is demand for PhD level expertise in government and at think tanks, but a good number of them require strong quantitative skills. Courses in data analysis, statistics, or econometrics (if your research interests skew toward economics/political economy) will be invaluable.
In what ways did your doctoral training help you in your career?
First, it provided me with the technical skills to do my job. I approached the program as a professional school – the field I wanted to be in required a certain skill set so I took as many courses as possible in quantitative methods and political economy. It also provided the theoretical foundations of the subject matter. So both of these helped inform my research and were key to getting the job I have now.
Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career in government?
Yes! There is demand for PhD level expertise in government and at think tanks, but a good number of them require strong quantitative skills. Courses in data analysis, statistics, or econometrics (if your research interests skew toward economics/political economy) will be invaluable. So will becoming fluent in a statistical program like STATA, or a programming language for statistical analysis like Python. Also, take the opportunity to help organize conferences whenever you can – a number of think tanks and agencies organize conferences or roundtables for stakeholders, so having that experience is a bonus. Finally, in DC, a lot of people intern for agencies before getting hired permanently. If you are able to do so for a summer or two before entering the job market, that could only help. And a lot of them are paid!
APSA’s Career Paths series explores the wide range of career trajectories that political science PhDs can take and provides specific career advice for graduate students entering the job market, as well as other political scientists at all career levels who are looking for new career opportunities. Individuals interested in contributing to the series should email Dr. Tanya Schwarz, APSA’s Director of Teaching & Learning, email@example.com.