Looking back on it, my career tells a much more cohesive story than it felt like at the time. We usually think about a career as a series of sequential decisions, each building logically and systematically towards an end goal. However, that narrative is more often created in retrospect than prospectively. My, like many, careers felt haphazard and disjointed at each step. As BRAIN SIG members will know, we are plastic individuals with gradually (and sometimes rapidly!) shifting identities, interests, desires, and goals. This is not to say that our paths dart randomly about. Our previous experiences shape our future desires, and as you will see below, some of my most valuable educational experiences came from being a teacher. For me, and others writing in this issue, professional development itself is inseparable from my profession.
I started out in education as a TEFL teacher in the United States Peace Corps, serving in Kyrgyzstan 2008-2010. After I’d spent two years working in a secondary school, and my service was coming to a close, an ethnic conflict broke out, resulting in hundreds dead and thousands of homes and businesses burned. In the ensuing humanitarian response, I found a job managing emergency shelter construction for an international non-governmental organization (INGO). It was odd transitioning from being a teacher using 30-year-old textbooks from the Soviet Union, complete with anecdotes about the evils of American capitalism, to managing a four-million dollar program funded by the U.S. government. But despite the difference in dollars spent, I feel like my teaching in a village school made a bigger impact than any shelter I helped build. Moving forward, I knew that I wanted to be in education.
I also had a natural reason to be in Japan—I had met a Japanese woman serving as a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteer in Kyrgyzstan who became my wife. It certainly was not expected, and we have yet to meet another American-Japanese couple to have met there, but it sparked a desire to understand her culture, language, and background. With ample opportunities to teach and learn, it felt like an unexpected but productive next step. That led to nearly four-and-a-half years in Japan, engaged in a variety of education-focused roles. I taught pre-school, elementary school, university, and adult students. I wrote and edited textbooks and EFL podcasts, and helped design digital language learning software. It was also during this time that I became interested in the BRAIN SIG and helped edit the first issues of MindBrainEd Think Tanks. While working in Japan was a fulfilling experience, my wife continued to work in international development, and I yearned to be back in that sector. That led me to seek out opportunities to combine my international development interests with my education interests. Because I had started as a teacher in a developing country and worked for an INGO, the International Education Policy program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education was a natural fit. A year and $45,000 later I graduated and refocused my career on the evaluation of education programs in developing countries.
The field of education evaluation really spoke to me: it combined my love of and appreciation for the power of education with a focus on using evidence to better understand what truly works to improve educational outcomes. It’s a field that balances adventurous travel with statistics jokes and passionate nerds. I was lucky enough to find a role immediately with Save the Children designing and implementing field research to understand the efficacy of their early childhood development programs. After three years there, I felt like I had reached another fork in my career: I could continue to learn and develop on my incredibly supportive and engaged team, or I could go all-in and get a research-focused PhD. An excellent piece of advice I received was that there are only two truly good reasons to go back to school: 1) you really need to; or 2) you really want to. I clearly fell in the latter category—I was in a wonderful and fulfilling job where I felt both valued and supported. I could have easily spent my remaining career there. But I was also filled with so many questions and didn’t have the tools to answer them with.
So that brings me to the present day. I’m completing my first year of my PhD in Education Policy and Program Evaluation at Harvard (though at least for the rest of the year, it will be online!) and focusing on the measurement of early childhood developmental outcomes and causal inference strategies to better understand what programs work, where, and for whom. I still question on a daily basis whether or not it was the right decision, but feel tremendously grateful to be where I am.
Jonathan Seiden is a Ph.D. student at Harvard focusing on measuring early childhood developmental outcomes to understand the effect of programs and policies. He previously worked as a teacher, materials developer, and program evaluator internationally. He is incapable of being serious and loves corny jokes. Follow him on Twitter at @JonathanSeiden.