Public or private?

By Piotr Rozwałka
As I have just graduated and I am about to start my first full-time job, it seems like a good time to take a look back and reflect on my experience as a Wallenberg Fellow.
Upon arriving in Washington last summer, I had a tough nut to crack. Specifically, I hoped that my time in the district would help me find an answer to the elusive question of which job would best suit my wide array of diverging interests. As a Wallenberg Fellow, I received the best aid possible: an amazing internship at an environmental think-tank, dozens of events and seminars at top-notch institutions, lunches and meetings with knowledgeable people in leadership positions, and superb classes at the School of Foreign Service. They all helped me to discover my passion and excitement for the energy sector. It brings the economic, political, social, commercial, and environmental together, not to mention its growing relevance as we go forward, offering an incredible combination to be working on.
Finding my focus ensured that I was full of excitement throughout the fall semester and inspired me to continue working hard to understand the energy sector as well as I could. Together with Hannes Tordengren, also a member of the First Wallenberg Cohort, we started a research project on the Ukrainian gas sector and prepared to move to Ukraine in the spring to pull it off. I attended Paul Sullivan’s class on energy and security, began co-operating with the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and was meeting various experts asking them to share their experience with me. Another crucial question, however, was looming from behind the corner. Upon graduation, should I go into the public or private sector? Some of my friends already had a strong preference from early on—I on the other hand found myself deliberating between the pros and cons of each. Would I go for a higher sense of urgency, a chance to fulfill my civil obligation to give back to society, a better work-life balance, and, most importantly, an ability to take part in the policy-making process—which the public sector seemed to be offering, or opt for a higher career pace, wider responsibilities, a more dynamic work environment, better remuneration, and finally an excellent occasion to get market and industry expertise—all promised by private sector companies.
Stuck with this dilemma, I decided to take the opportunity which the Wallenberg Program offered and reached out to people I respected for their expertise. I made an effort and managed to personally meet with a former US ambassador and an energy expert, a former foreign minister of one of the EU countries, managers from the energy private sector, executives from the EBRD and the World Bank, and think-tank energy experts from the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council. While I expected the private sector managers to praise their sector, I must admit that I was taken aback by some of the other experts telling me that although they advise me to go public, I should not do it upon graduation. Their argument was rather simple in its nature: the transition to a public or non-governmental job is always possible once I have acquired the market expertise, but the transition from public to private could prove much harder. As I began to appreciate, a proper exposure to the private sector could only add to a better understanding and more effective execution of policy-making or non-governmental work.
In other words, I realized that my choice was not as dichotomous as I may have initially assumed. After some years in the private sector I may revisit my ambitions and—should I one day decide to switch—my experience on both sides will likely make me a better policy-maker than if I had gone directly to a think-tank or a public institution.