Dena Sholk, a MAERES graduate (2015) and Senior Research Analyst in Russian and Caspian Energy at IHS Markit’s office in Astana, Kazakhstan, returned to Georgetown as a panelist for a CERES Conference on Central Asia on March 22nd. While at the Hilltop, she shared how her CERES experience has contributed to her work in Central Asia today and offered advice for students who want to study the region.
Tell us about what your work and your educational background at Georgetown.
I am a Senior Research Analyst at IHS Markit, a global advisory consultancy that specializes in “Data, Analytics, Expertise.” I was in the five-year BSFS/MA program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and received my BSFS in 2013, majoring in International Politics, and my MA two years later.
I was always interested in the culture, history, and economies of the former Soviet Union and tailored my education accordingly.
As an undergraduate, I twice received the US Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) for Russian language study in Vladimir and in Ufa. Following graduation, or between my fourth and fifth year, I lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan as a Fulbright scholar. I conducted research on the prolific bazaar economy. In order to understand the informal (yet highly institutionalized) nature of trade, I actually worked in the bazaar alongside migrant workers. It was a great experience and probably one of the best years of my life. I then returned to the Hilltop, completed my Masters degree, and participated in the Alfa Fellowship program in Moscow (2015-2016).
I was interning at IHS Markit’s DC office while in graduate school, when I learned that I was awarded the Alfa Fellowship, a fully-funded internship and exchange program for young professionals in Russia. I decided to continue working at IHS Markit while on Alfa and transferred to our Moscow office. This allowed me to refine and strengthen my analytical and quantitative skills and ultimately provided a framework for future career development. During the internship, my boss approached me to help open an office in Astana, Kazakhstan.
I am currently the head of representation on the ground for TOO IHS Markit Kazakhstan, as well as a research/ consultant. My job is two-fold. My on-the-ground responsibilities as head of the office involve business development, contracts, compliance, and administrative work. As a researcher, I continue to author reports on relevant topics in Russia and Central Asia and engage in consulting projects. For example, we recently completed the National Energy Report for the Kazakhstan Association of Energy Producers (KAZENERGY). While the workload can be overloading at times, covering both the administrative and substantive sides has helped me understand how we can best leverage our resources to satisfy market needs and ultimately secure new business.
How did you get interested in Central Asia?
I have always enjoyed history and in high school, I read a lot of books and articles on Russian and Soviet history. I came to learn that the Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic empire and became infatuated with the southern tier (aka the Central Asian countries). My undergraduate college application essay was about why Central Asia is an important region for global security (and this was before I read Mackinder). My active participation in High School Model UN also cultivated my interest in international affairs.
After I passed my BSFS foreign language proficiency in French at the end of my sophomore year, I knew I wanted to study Russian, and in Central Asia. That summer, I participated in American Councils Eurasian Regional Language program in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where I studied Russian at KIMEP and lived with a family. It was an experience! But the immersion really helped to kick-start my Russian and helped me approach the language almost like a heritage speaker when I enrolled in Russian classes at Georgetown the following fall.
How does your Georgetown and CERES experience help you in your career today?
I definitely would not be where I am today if not for Georgetown. First, as an undergraduate in DC< I was able to attend loads of free events at think tanks and embassies and this helped me cultivate professional relationships that I still maintain and cherish to this day. I graduated with a professional network. Second, the professors are really spectacular educators, concerned mentors, and impassioned professionals. As my career developed, several of my professors have become my colleagues (both directly and in the abstract sense that we are all focusing on the region and learn from each other). Standout professors include Dr. Thane Gustafson, Dr. Vadim Grishin, Dr. Daniel Burghart, and Dr. Roger Kangas. I also highly recommend James Millward’s courses on Central Eurasian history. Central Asian history is extraordinarily complex and difficult to master, given the dearth of written texts, diversity of languages, and range of perspectives, and Professor Millward’s courses present intricate material in a coherent manner.
Are there any particular Georgetown courses that made a difference in your career?
Dr. Theresa Sabonis-Helf’s STIA course on Energy and Environment in Eurasia was helpful and introduced me to the energy industry. Thane Gustafson’s courses cover political developments in Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia with an unparalleled level of objectivity and factual rigor. Dr. Harley Balzer’s (retired) course on informal institutions also influenced my Fulbright research, and was quite enjoyable. The Russian language department is also phenomenal.
Even though CERES encompasses Eurasia, Russia, and Eastern Europe, the field often has more resources for students who concentrate Russia. During the course of your studies, was it hard to focus on Central Asia in a Russia-centered world?
Central Asianists are very few and far between, and Central Asian studies has always been underdeveloped due to language barriers and the limited number of written records left my nomadic peoples, among other regions. There is naturally much more material on Russia and Russian history, politics, and economics. However, there are also various NGOs, boutique firms and public servants in DC that focus on the region and are often happy to respond to random emails with research questions or take an intern.
While any academic program focusing on Russia and Eurasia will likely have more Russianists than Eurasianists, Georgetown retains a formidable faculty focusing on Eurasia (both adjunct and permanent). Also, there are always interesting speakers on the Hilltop and CERES does a great job attracting Central Asian scholars and professionals.
It is also important for students focusing on Central Asia to be industrious and seek out their own academic and professional opportunities. For example, during my time at Georgetown, I had done a variety of freelance writing jobs on Central Asia and was a research fellow with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy where I conducted research on the denuclearization of Kazakhstan. Rarely, if ever, will there be a job listing for a Eurasian specialist. Anyone who is seriously interested in Central Asia and regional affairs as a career choice must be ready to do their homework to first and foremost understand the region, and then to identify and secure opportunities.
Also, Central Asianists should not dismiss Russian studies. Given historical connections, there are a lot of similarities between Russian and Central Asian economies today, and often the analytical and policy models are first applied in Russia before being applied in Central Asia (both in terms of academic publications and even in government policy, specifically with respect to economic transitology).
What is your advice to students looking for a career in the region? Why should people study Central Asia?
Regional studies in general are invaluable. How can governments formulate coherent policies, businesses determine strategies, and organizations appropriate resources for a region they do not understand? Regional studies is important for the basic reason that entities and individuals need to understand where they are working, how to best respond to unforeseen developments, and how to anticipate potential repercussions. It is also important to understand causal mechanisms-- why are things the way they are? The reasons are usually not obvious.
In order to be a professional Eurasianist or regional specialist, it is important to know the region as well as an industry. While I am a specialist on energy, I could have easily opted to pursue a career in consumer goods, construction, law, or even medicine, among other things. Regional knowledge is most valuable when it can be applied to a sector and compared in the context of a global economic landscape.
Central Asia is a labyrinth—it is endlessly intriguing. Every time you think something will turn out one way, something happens, and the situation turns out completely differently than expected. The region is complex and challenging, but that is the lure. If you are a person who is attracted to adventure and appreciates the “hunt” for the essence of a problem or question, then pursue Central Asian studies.