Political Science at 60 Minutes (feat. Andy Bast)
Alumni Aloud Episode 5
Andy Bast is an Associate Producer for 60 Minutes at CBS. He earned his Masters of Arts degree in Political Science in 2009 from the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Andy talks with us about how he landed his job and how his time at the Graduate Center helped his career. He also offers some advice on how to leverage skills from graduate school in a competitive market.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud. A new podcast by Graduate Center students, for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they would give current students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: Today, I went across town to CBS Studios to meet one of our graduates who is an associate producer for 60 Minutes. Andy Bast got his Masters of Arts in Political Science in 2009. He talks with us about how he landed his job, and how his time at the Graduate Center helped his career. He also offers some advice on how to leverage your skills from graduate school in a competitive market.
ANDY BAST, GUEST: My name is Andy Bast, and I am an Associate Producer at 60 Minutes, which is the news magazine of CBS News. It’s on every Sunday night; it’s been around for almost 50 years. And my job includes going out and finding stories, finding characters, reporting stories, and then doing all of the television production work, which is setting up shoots, directing shoots, you know, bringing all that material back. Then going through all the material, editing it, writing a script, and hoping to somehow get it on TV every Sunday night.
TURNER: That sounds like a lot of work. And very exciting work, too. I was really excited to come into the office today. So, let’s talk about your graduate school experience. What did you go to the Graduate Center for?
BAST: So, I had been working in media in New York for a while, and I was a freelance journalist, and I knew that I wanted to do something more in journalism, but I wasn’t sure what the next step was. And the political science department at CUNY had a specialization in writing politics, and it was kind of this, “Well teach you masters level political science, but at the same time, we’ll make sure that you don’t get lost in some kind of academic writing, writing 25 page political science papers. But, we’ll make sure that the education that you are getting is going to help you write op-eds, or write magazine articles.” So, it seemed like the perfect fit for me. And so, I spent two years there, and wrote a master’s thesis, and focused on international relations.
But, the whole time, everything that I was doing at the Graduate Center in the political science department, I was trying to channel back into journalism. So, I kind of went in with the goal of figuring out how the graduate degree could help me professionally. So, I knew that going in. But then, along the way I got an internship at News Week over the summer, because I just kind of did four straight semesters. And I really used everything from the Graduate Center that I could to make myself a better journalist, and more informed in what I was doing. So, that’s really what I took from the program.
TURNER: So, you didn’t originally plan on going in to TV, you were thinking about more writing?
BAST: No, back then I wanted to be a print journalist, I wanted to be a writer. And I had done freelancing for a bunch of newspapers in New York, and then I got the gig at News Week and went to work there for a while. But, you know, journalism and media in the United States is changing so much now, that eventually news week kind of went out of business, and I went over to the council on foreign relations and worked for their magazine Foreign Affairs for a while. And there, I was doing more editing. And then kind of , you use each job to build on to the next one. And then somehow I ended up over at 60 Minutes, and now I’m producing television.
Although, I’ll definitely argue that a lot of the research skills, and writing skills, and just the intellectual tools that you get in something like a master’s program, at least for me have ended up completely informing the way that I produce television, you know? It seems like two entirely different worlds, but I just don’t think that they are, you know?
TURNER: So, the graduate degree that you got really complements the kind of work you do in TV?
BAST: Yeah. I mean, most people get graduate degrees to go write a thesis, or go on to become a professor or something like that. And I think that – well, I guess this is the point of the whole podcast, right? That folks can go and use their degrees to do other things. it’s not easy though, you know? Like, it wasn’t necessarily, “Oh, now I have a master’s degree, so CBS News is going to think that I’m going to be a great producer, and they’re going to bring me on.” But, I do think that going and getting the advanced degree was easily – it was easy to translate those skills, and make them applicable to some other field.
TURNER: How did you communicate that in say, your resume or your cover letter? Did you think a lot about that? How you would angle your research skills into a TV production career?
BAST: So, it didn’t really matter, because – and there’s something good about – do you want to wait for that to go by?
TURNER: No, we have it in some other ones too.
BAST: Okay. You’re in New York City, there’s no escaping New York City and the sirens.
TURNER: It makes it very realistic.
BAST: No. And here’s what’s particular I think about journalism, is that you could have a bunch of different degrees, but this is a field I think that just really relies on the actual work that you’ve done, right? So, I think that in television production, or in journalism more broadly, at the top of my resume right now has the top stories that I’ve done, and the ones that I’m most proud of. And actually, and I shouldn’t say this because I’m very proud of the time in CUNY, my education is actually at the bottom. But, I don’t think that’s a function of the schools that I went to.
In fact, I know that it’s not. It’s just that when I looked at kind of what I’d done, and the education that I had, and the job that I was going after, it was marketing yourself, or selling yourself, or just presenting yourself to the people who might want to hire you, you need to think about what they’re most interested in. And the thing in journalism is, “Well, what have you done?” You know? “What articles have you written? What news have you broken? What have you edited, and what projects have you put together?” And because those projects tell so much about you in the same way that a dissertation would tell so much about you when you go out on the job market, that was what I kind of put at the top.
So, how do I square that with what I just said? That you know, it really matters that I got the master’s degree? The master’s degree, I really think having been out of the program for a couple of years, that it was the tools that I got there that allow me to do better work now, you know? I’m not putting forward, “AndrewBAST, MA” or anything like that, because it helps me on a day to day basis with the work that I’ve done. So, it’s almost like, I don’t want to make it sound too functional, or too utilitarian that I just kind of went and got these job skills, and now I’ve become an accountant or something like that.
But, I feel like taking the new knowledge and knowhow from the program was what I got most out of CUNY, and then translating that into some other job field.
TURNER: And can you talk more about how you built these skills that you’re finding so useful now on the job market? What did you do in graduate school that you benefitted from most?
BAST: You know, it surprised me after I got out of graduate school that I didn’t even realize the skills that. So, you know you sit down to write – I’ve never written a dissertation, probably never will, thank God. But, even writing a master’s thesis, which is something like 75 pages, it’s quite a bit of research. That process, while you’re stuck in it, it’s kind of like a morass, and you’re trying to get through, and you’re doing all of the work, and it’s really difficult. But, the research skills, your organizational skills, and then the writing and presentation skills that you come up with.
When I left, I almost didn’t even realize how much I had taken on, and how much I had learned. So, then when I stepped into a couple of jobs afterwards where folks hadn’t necessarily gone through that process, it became very clear that, “Oh, wow. I can spend five days on a subject, collect everything on it, basically catalog it, divide it, organize it, understand it, and then lay it out in a methodical way.
TURNER: And you had taken it for granted, previously?
BAST: Completely taken it for granted!
BAST: When folks around me then would look, and they’d say, you know, “You did a good job on that, now let’s move on to the next one,” when I didn’t even realize this was something that was really, really valuable. So, one of the suggestions I would make is, while you’re in the graduate program, there are so many things that you’re getting really good at that a lot of the rest of the world isn’t very good at. And if you recognize those things in yourself, and those abilities that you have, then if you go out and you decide that you don’t want to the academy, or you want to find a different type of job, those skills can become really valuable.
TURNER: Can you talk about your teaching experience, and how teaching in the CUNY system also gave you some good professional skills development?
BAST: I got to teach two semesters at Baruch, the American foreign policy class there which I loved, because I love the subject matter. And there were a gazillion students – you’ve taught, anyone who would listen this as probably taught too. So, you have like, 40 students, and it’s insane. And it’s like, at 8 p.m. at night, and everyone’s tired, and everyone works another job. And I loved all of that. The experience was great. But, it kind of follows on the point that I was just making about the research and organization. Teaching, well there’s two things.
One is, you know, if you can organize an entire syllabus over an entire semester, the way I thought about it – I never wrote a book – but I always thought, “Wow, when I’m putting together a syllabus, really what I’m doing is putting together an outline for a book.” You know? “Here’s your 14 weeks or whatever it is, and here are the main themes that you’re going to address, and if you’re putting even half a brain into the course that you’re teaching, then you’ve kind of got an overarching argument that you’re going to be making over the course of the semester. Well, that sounds to me like the makings of a book, you know?
And anyone who can sit down and plan out a semester and then keep the students engaged in a way that they get from the beginning, to the middle and the end, I mean that’s a heck of a skillset to come up with. So, you know, that’s kind of the same as what I was saying on the research front. The other thing though, and this is something that I really tried to make the most of when I was teaching, is no matter what you go into later, whether it’s journalism, or of course if you’re going to become a teacher or a professor, but it really doesn’t matter. You know? Whatever field you go into, you’re going to need to be able to capture people’s attention and keep them engaged.
And there is no better training than standing up in front of those 40 students at 8 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday night at Baruch where everybody’s been working, that you need to learn how to talk to people in a way that completely draws them in. And keeps them there. And I try to make the most of that, because I hadn’t done a lot of it, and you don’t get an opportunity to just kind of practice getting up in front of a lot of people all the time, and talking, and having to look good, sound good, and deliver on the material. You know, serious intellectual material that you’re trying to engage.
So, that was the other thing that I did with teaching, was I really tried to get up every evening, and not put on a show, but do the best I could so that I could get that practice. And it’s paid off. Because then, whatever you do professionally after that, you’re always in front of people. You always want to keep their attention, you know? You don’t want to be a bore, you don’t want to sound dumb, you don’t want to become some kind of fool, because then you don’t get hired, or you don’t get your story on the air, or whatever it is. You know?
TURNER: Yeah. You’re right, teaching at the very least gives you practice with public speaking, which some people never practice until their job asks them to do it all of a sudden. So, we’re very fortunate to get that –
BAST: And it’s not easy to do, either. It’s really hard.
TURNER: Yeah, yeah. So, I was thinking back to, you participated in our event, our panel called “Careers in Media and Communications” a couple of weeks ago. And you were talking to students who came from all fields, who wanted to get into media. And your advice was to become an expert on what you’re good at. Can you speak more about that, for our listeners who weren’t able to make the panel?
BAST: So, I’ve worked with a lot of really, really great journalists at this point. You know, being at 60 Minutes is spectacular; these are the best journalists in all of journalism. And News Week was a great place, and the Council on Foreign Relations was great, and you know, there are a lot of folks in journalism who have journalism degrees. You know, Columbia, uptown has a great Masters in Journalism. The CUNY system has a journalism program. But, I think I’d argue that best journalists that I’ve worked with are people who either did, like by practice, or studied something other than journalism. So, they went out, and they decided, “You know, I want to learn about business.”
Or, they were a business person. Or, they became an attorney, and practiced as an attorney for several years. And then came to journalism, or turned to journalism after that. I’m not saying journalism programs are no good, of course they’re great. You know, you have to learn about fairness, and accuracy, and all the things that are the tenets of what we do. But, I feel like when I went and studied political science and international relations, when I came out of there and was working on the foreign desk at News Week, I could sit down to a story, and I could know what questions needed to be asked. Because I knew how the subject matter worked.
If we were doing a story on the general assembly of United Nations, or if we were doing a story on violence in Africa, I knew the structure of the United Nations and the way it was governed, because I took Weiss’ class. Like, I knew it in and out. You know? Conflict and civil war in Africa I had spent an entire semester studying. So, you know, when I came to edit a thousand word article in News Week one week, which folks are gonna read, I felt like I had a baseline knowledge on what I was doing, in addition to getting the words right, and being accurate and fair, which are purely journalistic skills.
TURNER: And what tips for those that aren’t focusing on journalism now, they’re either in a master’s program or a PhD program at the Graduate Center. If they want to get into media, what kind of recommendations would you make for them? Maybe, to develop their writing?
BAST: Yeah. I think it’s all about writing.
BAST: And this isn’t me saying this, this is the folks here at 60 Minutes and the way this place was build and the way CBS News was built was on really hard, fearless journalism. But, what this place prides itself on, and I see it, is that these journalists are spectacular writers. And whether you’re writing, you know, we’re sitting here at a desk where there are 60 Minutes scripts sitting around, this is what was on TV last night. That writing which is six pages, which turns into 12 and a half minutes on Sunday night, I am 100 percent convinced that this is just as hard to write as a 250-page dissertation. Writing is very, very hard, across the board.
And if you can write a dissertation, it doesn’t mean you can write a 60 Minutes script. If you can write a 60 Minutes script, it doesn’t mean you can write a dissertation. But boy, if you get to a place where you can write a dissertation, and you could write a really solid op-ed that a newspaper would publish, and you could write I don’t know, campaign materials if you’re involved in politics, the more formats, and venues, and different styles of writing that you can master, well you don’t ever really master them. But, that you can get good at? It’s the key to everything else. I’m convinced of that up and down.
TURNER: And what’s the best way for graduate students to practice these other types of writing, since they’re mainly doing academic writing?
BAST: Is to just do it. And you’re going to be really bad at it. I think I tried to make this point the other night when we had our talk, but look. Everybody in a graduate program has to write a lot. So, we all already understand how hard it is. You know, it’s very hard to sit down with an empty page, and start writing sentences, and make paragraphs, and then make chapters, and make it all make sense. We all know how hard that it. So, if we accept that it’s just going to be hard, and a lot of it that we do is going to be really bad, well then you should have no fear whatsoever of branching out and trying to write whatever else it is that you enjoy, you know? If you enjoy politics, try writing some analysis pieces.
Try writing something in 1000 words that a newspaper would publish. If you really enjoy poetry and music, try writing some songs, you know? I’m trying to think of what another great – look, people to love personal essays, you know? If you enjoy thinking about your own life and reflecting on what you do, start a blog, and write really honestly. You know? Which would just draw in so many other skills that you’ve got other than explaining the literature review of this particular field. I mean, just imagine if you do that for a few days, right? And then on the weekends you actually sit, and you turn out like, eight or ten blog posts about things that had happened to.
Publish them or not, but you’re still going to be walking through all of these skills of taking your ideas and putting them into words, which is so hard. But, the more that you do it, the better you’ll get at it. And I think that’s true for going into any field, because I think that we all rely on writing so much, but certainly if you’re going to go into any kind of media, the better you can express yourself in the written word, the better off you’re going to be.
TURNER: Good. And just to clarify, I was wondering earlier. What was your master’s thesis on? What was the specific topic?
BAST: I wrote… let me see if I can remember exactly the year that I wrote it. I wrote it in late 2008 and early 2009, and it was in international relations, and the title of it was “Stability Operations…” Something like, “The Challenges and Costs of State Building in Afghanistan.” And so, you know in 2008 and 2009, this was the end of – you know, the draw down in Iraq was happening, Obama has just been elected, and he was, I don’t know if you remember, but he pulled this fast one where he basically deployed more troops to Afghanistan at the same time he said that they were going to come back. And I thought that that was just such a complicated policy decision. And I was wondering at the time, what in the world those soldiers were going to accomplish? So, inside the army, they had just developed this new doctrine called “Stability Operations” which is essentially how soldiers can do state building. And so, I basically took that manual, which was a couple hundred pages, maybe. And went through it, applying everything that political scientists have figured out about state building, and about civil war, and about how civil wars end, and how you reconstruct states afterwards. And so, I basically did a critical reading of what the military was doing in Afghanistan using political science. And it was great to sit down and write that through. I had a really good time.
TURNER: And do you have plans to – it sounds like maybe this is not something you’re currently working on still – but have you thought about turning your research into a book? Or, are there any plans to continue writing in that way?
BAST: I think that the research I did is probably dated, right? One thing that did do was I managed to convince the editor of a really smart international affairs website to – I was writing a weekly column for them, as I was doing my master’s thesis. So, I would write a chapter, and then I would kind of adapt it into a 1,200 word column for them. So, I was kind of publishing. A lot of that material I kind of published at the same time as I finished the master’s thesis.
TURNER: Wow, what a great idea.
BAST: I think if I were a lot smarter, if I was a lot smarter than I am, I think that that time in American foreign policy, of early Obama, of drawing down Iraq, and escalating in Afghanistan, I’m sure that there is a spectacular book to be written about the decisions that they made, and what the military did. And the other great thing about doing stories about the military was the pentagon turns out so much of its own research. And over that period was doing so much soul searching about what it was doing, that they were doing – I remember sitting in the political science department one day, researching, and I found this website where they had interviewed like, it must have been 300 or 400 officers who had participated in the war in Afghanistan, and each interview was like this.
It was like an hour long, and they had transcribed all of them. And I was like, “The research is done! Oh my god! All I need to do is…” You know, no one else in the world is going to read all this stuff. So, you know, all of that kind of material is out there on this period time, and now you’re really making me mad because it does sound kind of like a fun project to go back and take a really deep dive into. Because you know, I was kind of writing it in real time, trying to assess what they would be able to do, and what they wouldn’t be able to do. And now of course, you would have – here’s where I’m going to prove that I’m not a really good social scientist, because I still don’t understand all the independent causal variables, or whatever.
But now that it’s kind of shook itself out, and we’ve largely withdrawn, you could have the yardstick of what happened in Afghanistan, and then you could go back and check on what happened or what didn’t. That would be a great book to write.
TURNER: So, going back to landing this current job that you have, what were some, maybe challenges you had in applying to jobs, or maybe some wins that you had, and some opportunities that came about? Like, what helped you get here, specifically the job? You know what I mean?
BAST: Yeah, totally.
BAST: I don’t know if it’s true to just journalism, it might be – I guess it’s probably true in any field. I don’t know about in academia. But, I’ve found that in journalism, moving up has never necessarily been about finding a job posting, and sending in your resume, and then kind of going in for the interview and getting the job. So, in coming to 60 Minutes, I think I had identified it as a place that I wanted to come to. And once I did that, I did a lot of research on my own to figure out kind of, who ran the place? Who was in charge? And what the jobs there were like. And then, I just kind of put my best foot forward.
And I knocked right on the door, and I said, “Here’s who I am. I have no idea if you have any open jobs, but here’s who I am, here’s what I’ve done. I’ve gone to school; I’ve done a lot of writing. I’ve worked at News Week; do you think we could talk?” And that initial kind of letter that I wrote got me a meeting, and I had a meeting with one of the bosses over here, and then I think it took maybe like, two years. Maybe two and a half years until I finally actually got a job here. And I ended up talking to a lot of people here, and you know, I just don’t think it’s ever kind of an overnight thing. You know?
Especially if you’re going after a job you really want, it’s going to take a while to get there. But, if you have the place that you want to be, or a couple of places that you want to be, I think you just have to be relentless. Because they’re not going to come find you, you know? You’ve really just got to go out and decide what you want to get, and keep bugging them until they’ll let you come in. And then, if it’s the right type of job for you, and it’s the right next thing in your life, I do believe that there’s a little bit of serendipity in these things.
That if you’re making the right decision and you see, you know, “I want to be in this field, or I want to go work…” You know, I could imagine somebody listening to this coming out of the Graduate Center and being super smart on some certain topic and wanting to go work at a museum, you know? So, you identify like, the four museums. I mean, if there’s not a job there now, there’s no reason not to introduce yourself and make sure that you’re the person that they’re thinking of when that job does open.
TURNER: And you spoke a little bit about this at the panel too, that you feel like you should find your fit and then wait? Did you express it that way, if I remember correctly?
BAST: Well, I think there’s two things. One is, you should find where you want to go, and try and go there. And that’s kind of the really positive message, you know? Like, choose your place, and head for it. But then, the kind of downside of that is that there’s a good chance that when they do call, the job is not going to pay what you wanted, or it’s not going to be exactly the job you wanted. And if you’re in a place in your life where you can do that, you know you might take less money, or you might work different hours than would be ideal for you, if you don’t have kids or mortgages or things like that, you have a little bit more freedom, then I would suggest completely doing it. Because once you get inside some place?
BAST: Then you can do anything after that. Because then, you don’t have to worry about sending letters and getting meeting, you just walk down the hallway, and you start talking to the people in the organization that respect and that you think are great, and then you just build the relationships once you’re on the inside. Now of course, sometimes you have to make the money that you’re going to make, and you don’t have that freedom. But if you do, I’d suggest just trying to get into an organization, and once you do that, then you can do a lot more.
TURNER: Great, great. What do you now know that you wish you had known as a graduate student?
BAST: That’s a great question.
TURNER: How about that one? Yeah?
BAST: That’s a great question.
BAST: And let me think. I wish I knew – my work and research in graduate school was very important, but I shouldn’t let it become more in my head than it actually is. Because I know that being there, when I was there, it was just like, it’s a whole world. You know? Like the entire research, and the entire field is all way… but the fact of the matter is it’s not. And I think that if I would have given myself a little bit more wiggle room, and kind of moved through things that I would have lessened this kind off impossible bar on yourself, and I think I could have freed myself up to kind of explore a little bit more, and not been so rigid and so unforgiving in the field. And look, that’s part of the academy, you know? The way that it’s so specialized, and that’s part of the way that it’s set up. But, I’ll tell you on reflection and looking back, I don’t think that that was – that wasn’t the best way to go about it. I understand it’s the nature of the system.
TURNER: I think most students feel like that, that they’re – you have so much tunnel vision on your thesis, or your dissertation, that you forget there’s other things that you could be working on.
BAST: Even though I haven’t gone into the academy, you know the people that I’ve looked at who I admire, like the top dogs in big fields at the best schools, those aren’t the people – I would argue –most of the time who are completely tunnel vision-ed into one, tiny little thing. They’re the people who understand their field, chapter and verse. But then have a view that goes way beyond maybe event their entire field, right? Like, those are the people who become really interesting scholars, you know? It’s not the person who – I don’t want to single out any one thing – but you know, like in political science, then you get into a subfield, and then you get down into the super specialization.
And like, it’s not only your dissertation, but look 20 or 30 years down the road. Like, the deeper into the rabbit hole that you go, it just seems like you’re having a conversation with fewer and fewer people. And even at the graduate level, the more you’re able to stand up – and I’m trying to answer your question and what I wish I would have done was if I was able to look around, and look wider more often, I think I could have – I had a great time at CUNY, and it was wonderful. But, I think I could have gotten even more if I would have given myself the freedom to do that. And I don’t think that it would have come at the cost of good scholarship, or good research in any way.
TURNER: I totally understand what you mean by that. And I think that will relate to a lot of people listening to this.
A big thanks to Andy Bast for taking the time to share that advice, and his experience with us today. He has been an active participant in our career events at the Graduate Center, so if you want to attend one for yourself and hear from more graduates in person, you should check out our Twitter, Facebook, or website for event announcements and updates. You can also enjoy more of our episodes of Alumni Aloud, where we bring our graduate’s stories to you. Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, or your other favorite pod-catcher, and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. And, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @careerplangc. Thanks for listening!
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