top of page
  • Writer's pictureINSMS International Network for Students of Migration Studies

PhD Student and Subject Matter Expert at the ICF International

This week we talked with Kelsey who is doing her PhD and works as a Subject Matter Expert! She tells us more about her starts in the field when there were not so many positions and study programmes at all, and her struggles as a non-EU resident trying to work within the EU. Despite the challenges, she advises us to keep with it, as it is some of the most important work out there!

Kelsey is from the USA, and has a very abundant academic background. She holds an MA in Counseling Psychology from Michigan State University, with a specialty in providing trauma counseling to refugee women and youth, and is currently working on her PhD in Migration Studies from Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. She also completed a 6-month post graduate certificate course through the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, and a short course through Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center.

She currently works at a federal consulting firm with the US Office of Refugee Resettlement, called ICF International. The firm provides technical and consulting services to US government offices and other government entities, including the department of defense, and sciences and technology. She works within the public service division which includes child welfare, human trafficking and now the office of refugee resettlement. Kelsey works as a Subject Matter Expert, designing and opening the first technical assistance and training center for unaccompanied migrant youth across the US.

Her normal work day consists of research, talking with government officials, working with the programme staff on providing best practices to unaccompanied refugee and migrant children and refugee resettlement, informing policy, training on laws, and governing policies

She also writes a guest column for The Week, India on international affairs issues in areas of conflict and migration, and sits on various panels, boards, and initiatives on policy, research, and technical assistance related to refugees and other migrant groups.

"There are so few of us out there"

Initially Kelsey found it very difficult to find a job since she knew she wanted to work with refugee and migrant populations, and there were not so many opportunities. This meant she had to physically relocate on different occasions throughout her career. Nevertheless, she often says to students who are interested in this line of work to stay with it:

“There are so few of us out there, and committed professionals are needed on all levels of migration!”

Her career path was a bit more circuitous, as she initially worked as a social worker for refugees and unaccompanied migrant youth after her masters degree. From there, she worked her way up over many years to the Director of Resettlement Programmes and Shelters.

While still studying, she began volunteering as an ESL tutor for unaccompanied refugee minors:

“I worked with some amazing youth who were not much younger than I was at the time, including the Lost Boys (and girls) from Sudan, Afghan and Iraqi youth, survivors of trafficking and torture, and child soldiers. After only a few months volunteering, I was offered a part time job as a social worker with the same population, and from there my career took off.”

Define the population you want to work with

Kelsey thinks that it is essential to define the population you want to work with, and learn as much hands on as possible about the position you want to achieve while still studying. Take the time to gain experience directly, as this can make all the difference in your career. As a PhD student, she is now leveraging her direct field and clinical experience with research and policy work, the majority of which she currently does on a volunteer basis.

Early in her career, she also struggled with defining where to go within the migration field, as at the time there was no degree in the field, and hardly anyone was doing this line of work. She often had challenges moving up or around within a position or company, and found herself wanting more training and opportunities to grow. This is why she often needed to change her course or position.

Because of this, moving around and testing positions and programmes was really the only way for her to learn and grow, which yielded positive results:

“I’ve been able to now inform policy on a state and national level, and am asked to be a ‘thought leader’ on many different aspects of migrant integration and support.”

The job she currently has, she says, is more than she ever thought was possible:

“I am in between the civil society programs serving the population I feel so passionate about and the government, so I am able to work as a thought leader and an advisor on all levels.”

Struggling against Eurocentrism on many levels

Her experience as a migrant worker herself was a struggle. After she arrived to Portugal, she thought she would be able to work as a consultant or a researcher within the UN or another international organisation, but this was not really feasible as she is a non-EU resident:

“I was unable to work within many offices, and those which did not require EU citizenship or residency required physical movement to that country (Switzerland, Belgium etc.), and thus I was barred from applying to most positions. I also found my experience often wasn’t transferable in Europe as well, which was a shame because I would have loved to move away from working exclusively in the US.”

In the broader sense, Kelsey would love to see more accommodation by international organisations in the field of migration, and those organisations serving migrant populations to be less bordered.

“On a global scale, it seems the bars against professionals and researchers outside of Europe to be incredibly problematic to negotiate, which leaves the ‘international’ community which is responding globally to migration issues to remain quite Eurocentric. This includes research and policy work, and would love to see growth of such institutions be developed in the Global South, and accepted more eagerly into the migrations field.”

Tips for success

“Keep with it, again we need more professionals in this field. It is rewarding, interesting, continually changing and perhaps I’m biased, but probably some of the most important work out there.”

*INSMS is always looking for interesting career paths of former migration students. If you would like to share your professional history with the network, please contact us by email:, Subject: P2P campaign

80 views0 comments
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page