caitlin, analyst

congressional research service

My name is Caitlin. I currently serve as an Analyst in Asian Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s nonpartisan policy “think tank.” I am 31 years old.

My career in national security and international affairs began to take shape on August 24, 2008 when I was 21.  I arrived in Chengdu, China for a study abroad program on the day of the closing ceremonies of the historic Beijing Olympics. The Games were viewed by the world as China’s “coming out party,” an indication that China had attained a place among the world’s major powers. During my time living in Chengdu, the electric feeling that China had “arrived” was palpable.

Although I was fairly ignorant of global politics at the time, I remember feeling on several occasions that we were on the cusp of a new era in which China would profoundly change the world. This fascination with China’s rise and the implications for U.S. interests and the global balance of power fueled my pursuit of a career that would allow me to keep studying this dynamic, confusing, always-surprising country.

I landed an internship with the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan Congressional commission tasked with tracking the national security implications of China’s growing influence in the United States and beyond. A combination of hard work, supportive colleagues, and sheer luck allowed me to advance through several positions within the organization. In my eight years there, I had been an intern, an assistant, an analyst, a research director, a manager, and finally an acting executive director. One of the benefits of cycling through so many different roles was that I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses. I found that my love of learning, attention to detail, and inclination to always question my and others’ assumptions made me a keen analyst, and I both loved and excelled in this role. Although the pay and the prestige of the management and director positions were exciting and fulfilling, my happiest years at the Commission were spent as an analyst, reading and writing about my favorite topic: China. In fact, I recently took a pay cut to accept an Asian affairs analyst position at another Congressional advisory organization, the Congressional Research Service. I’m not sure what the next step will be, but for now, I couldn’t be happier.

For most of my life, the concept of “national security” always felt far-removed. I didn’t know anything about the military, terrorism or war. I thought “national security” was the purview of generals and admirals and intimidating old men sitting at big desks in the Pentagon. But national security is more than this. Yes, national security is about maintaining militaries and advancing strategies for national defense. But it’s also about defending public health against epidemics and biohazards; it’s about defending vulnerable young people from radicalization; it’s about defending women and girls from trafficking and slavery; it’s about defending our environment from destructive climate change and natural disasters; it’s about defending cyberspace from thieves, traffickers, terrorists, and adversaries; it’s about defending refugees from oppressive authoritarian regimes; it’s about preventing the horrors of war. In the end, national security is about people. For me personally, as a China specialist, it’s about helping policymakers cultivate a relationship with China that allows the 1.7 billion people living in the United States and China to live in peace even as the two countries increasingly compete in the international arena.

If you were to look at my resume, you might be under the impression that my career has been carefully designed and logically executed in a series of sensible steps. But in reality, the seeds that have given life to my career were planted haphazardly (and usually not by me). Some of the most pivotal moments in determining the path of my career included a snafu over college course credit hours (forcing me to switch my study abroad destination from Malta to China at the last minute), and an erroneous Google search by my dad (who, in trying to look up the website of the Congressional commission on China with which I was seeking an internship, ended up finding an entirely different Congressional commission on China of which I had never heard; I ended up spending eight years at the one my dad stumbled upon). So if you’re ever worried that the path of your career seems incoherent or out of your hands, don’t worry. In my experience, career paths look tidier looking backward than they do looking forward.