By Morgan Courtney
…Some hard truths and advice for the job search
Over the years, a lot of college students and young grads have come to me asking how to get a job in international affairs or development. They have bright hopes for a first job at a think tank, or a position writing legislation, or field work in a developing country — but they don’t know how to get there. I, too, was that bushy-tailed graduate once, and over time, I learned — from myself and the travails of those hewing similar paths — that despite the myriad ways people build careers in this field, there are some best practices.
Here’s a synopsis of the advice I have passed on to new graduates:
Unpaid internships are the WORST, but they are usually the path to getting hired.
There’s a lot of talk about the inequity of unpaid internships, and how they enable those with means to get better jobs — simply because lower-income individuals have a much harder time affording to live while providing free labor. This really stinks. While I applaud those organizations that have opted to pay their interns, the unfortunate fact remains that many (perhaps most) organizations continue to only offer unpaid internships. Unfortunately, and especially in DC and New York, supply and demand enables this: there is a high supply of willing labor, and a relatively small number of internships available.
Get ready to tighten your belt, sustain yourself on ramen, and get a night job bartending. I worked as an intern at a top think tank, and found that online job postings for entry-level researchers or program assistants were purely perfunctory; nearly all hiring was done from internal candidates. Why? Because the organization already knew the quality of their work, their personality, and they were already trained for the job. So if you want that prestigious research job, you’ll probably have to start as an intern.
Get field experience.
Many field jobs in international development require prior field experience. It’s a Catch-22. How do you get field experience if jobs require you to already have field experience? There are a couple of different ways.
Firstly, your summer or semester in South Africa doesn’t count as much as you think it does. Sorry. What employers are looking for is real work experience, not classroom time, in another country. (What IS good is language proficiency from your time abroad!) So what can you do after college to get field experience?
In my estimation, the very best option is Peace Corps. Stop shaking your head — I know what you’re thinking, but two years is NOT as long as you think. I know it might feel like an eternity now, but the first year is all about building trust and learning the language well enough to do your job, and the second year is when the magic happens. On top of that, they give you housing, skills training, language training, health care, and a stipend that’s enough to live on. Basically, it’s a whole experience, packaged and with a bow on it, that will enable you to get field experience. Bonus: my unscientific observation is that about 40% of the people who work in international development NGOs and the U.S. Agency for International Development are returned Peace Corps Volunteers….and that is a powerful network.
You can also volunteer for an organization (see #1 about unpaid jobs), which is what I did, until I ran out of money, quite literally. But I managed to get myself some field experience and had to do everything myself (arrange housing, pay for my airfare, buy a sketchy medical plan online, teach myself the local language, etc.). I loved my experience, but also would have appreciated the kind of support that Peace Corps provides.
A note about volunteering. There are now pay-to-volunteer programs (“volun-tourism”) that will arrange your housing, food, etc. and you essentially pay for the privilege of volunteering somewhere. Here’s what I’ve seen: 1) These are usually rackets, and you could do more good just moving into a community and working with a local NGO, and 2) this does not carry much (if any) weight with hiring personnel. So if you want to do it for personal growth, cool, but if you are doing it to get field experience under your belt, save your money and do something else.
You can also work for a development contractor. Keep reading for specific suggestions.
You can get “international” experience even if you don’t have the means to go abroad.
I’m really sympathetic to this crowd — traveling overseas is a huge privilege. There are plenty of organizations domestically that have an international bent. Try to find ways to work with international populations through them. For example, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has a great program for newly-arrived refugees; volunteers help teach them the fundamentals of living in the U.S. — from turning on a light switch, to looking both ways before crossing the street, to English lessons, to opening bank accounts. It’s incredibly important work, and can provide a powerful cross-cultural experience here at home. There are many organizations like this.
Wait to get your Master’s degree.
Yes, yes, they say the “Master’s is the new Bachelor’s,” et cetera, but here’s the big secret that no one talks about. The longer you wait after college (hence, the more you work), the greater the chances that you will a) be accepted to a top-flight graduate program in policy/development, and b) get a scholarship. Boom. My biggest piece of advice on grad school.
But Morgan, you entreat, I need a Master’s degree to work at [insert organization here: the UN, USAID, etc.]. Go get yourself some field experience, or real world experience, before you get your Master’s degree. The UN will always be there. USAID, too. When you’ve worked for a while, you’ll start to learn how policy and development work FOR REAL — that is, not policy and development theory. For example, you may think you know how a bill becomes a law, but it’s only when you work on the Hill that you can see all the machinations, and the backroom deals, and the horse trading. Or you may think that you know how food aid works, but until you see what that looks like deep in rural Tanzania, all you know is theory.
Grad schools understand this. They want the coolest, most interesting people with real world experience who can create a dynamic class. Most schools will pay for that, via scholarships. Be that cool person. Amass real experience. Get a scholarship.
There are plenty of international affairs jobs that don’t require a Master’s degree.
Interested in foreign policy? Try the State Department, the Defense Department, or the Commerce Department. If you have difficulty getting into the civil or foreign service, see whether they hire Personal Services Contractors (PSCs) or Third Party Contractors (TPCs). State and Defense definitely do. There are also tons of think tanks, in DC and beyond, that hire researchers without a Master’s degree.
Interested in development? Try a development contractor. USAID doesn’t (generally) implement their own programs anymore — it hires development contractors to go out into the field and get their hands dirty. So if you want field experience, that is a great option. Some of the development contractors also have entry-level leadership training programs. The following list of development contractors is not exhaustive, and it’s worth looking at the development NGOs as well: Development Alternatives, Inc.; Research Triangle Initiative; Chemonics International; Creative Associates; IREX; Management Systems International; Palladium; Winrock International, etc. Check InterAction’s website for even more ideas.
The UN is nearly impossible to break into…..if you’re an American.
If you’re from Suriname or the Gambia, you’re golden. The UN has quotas for personnel of different nationalities. There’s an entry exam issued every year, and many years, it’s not open to Americans (or other industrial nations that have already reached their quotas). My American friend — who ultimately DID get a job at the UN — told me that she was exhausted from throwing herself at the door of the UN repeatedly for 2 years after her Master’s degree. So yeah. Not impossible, but certainly not the easiest. Interested in working for the UN? Try UN Volunteers (contrary to the name, they do pay); the jobs are really interesting.
Be strategic about your focus area. What are tomorrow’s problems?
A mentor once gave me this great piece of advice because I worked on conflict, mostly in Africa. He offered, “Don’t work on today’s problems. Work on tomorrow’s problems. What’s simmering today that will be a big problem tomorrow?” Because when something does happen in that country, he said, you will be well-placed to make expert commentary and analysis on it. (For the record, I chose to work in Burundi, and I’m sad to say that I was right.) This is not just true of specific countries, but also of topical areas. For example — we know that climate change is getting worse. So perhaps you should focus on water conflicts (“natural security”), or climate change adaptation innovations, or geostrategy around the melting Arctic cap, or agricultural productivity in harsh climates, or tropical diseases that will increasingly flourish. Another frame is to think about new kinds of solutions — from the realms of science and technology, for example. The intersection of tech and almost anything (defense, aid delivery, aid effectiveness, etc.) is a growth industry. Think forward.
Move overseas and find a job when you get there.
This works better in Phnom Penh than it does in London, because you’ll have to live on your savings for at least some period of time. But it’s often easier to network with organizations once you’re actually there; many organizations find it burdensome to recruit from overseas, especially if they can find talent locally. So be that local talent.
If in the U.S., pretend you live wherever you want to work.
Many domestic organizations and companies want to hire talent locally, too. They may want someone to start immediately, or may not want to pay for relocation expenses — so if you’re job searching from somewhere else, you may be at a disadvantage. So if you’re in California and looking for a job in DC, find a friend in DC and use their address on your resume.
Learn a language. Learn two. Learn five.
I thought I was a big deal coming out of college, with fluency in French. Then I started at an international security think tank, and the first person I met (another intern) was a citizen of three countries who spoke five languages fluently. Then there was the other intern who spoke several Slavic languages. And the interns who spoke multiple Chinese dialects. I was, most assuredly, not a big deal. In fact, I was an underachiever.
Languages open doors in international affairs. You can hardly be a Russia expert without Russian, or an East Asia expert without Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, or an Africa expert without French, Portuguese, or Swahili. When I was at the State Department, we actually had trouble finding French and Spanish speakers. And no, I don’t mean people who studied it in high school once. That doesn’t count. We needed people who could interact with foreign government officials with ease. Some organizations, like the State Department, give you a boost in the Foreign Service Officer application process if you speak a critical language (not French, but Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, etc.). Go and learn a language!
Political appointments are a rocketship, but make sure the cargo is loaded before you take off.
There’s a lot of bad policy, and bad policy recommendations. Not all of that is the fault of political appointees; that would be unfair. But it is the fault of policymakers (career and political) and policy influencers who make recommendations in a vacuum, based on theory rather than on how things actually work on the ground.
Good international policy is made by people who have field experience.
This is why I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to work in international policy that they get field experience. You want to make Russia policy? Go live in Russia first. Or somewhere nearby — Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan. You want to make China policy? Move to China and learn about Chinese history, philosophy, their perspective on their place in the world. That’s how good policy is made, rather than policy built on rhetoric and fear.
PS: You want to get a political appointment? Go work on a campaign. Yes, you have to make phone calls and knock on doors. It stinks, but it works, and that’s usually where campaigns need the most help. Bonus points if you work full time for a campaign.
Be Humble and Always Seek Feedback.
I can hardly believe I have to write this, but I have talked to way too many people who have said they are going to be the next George Kennan right out of undergrad. I’m sorry to say it, but you might have to make that coffee, or that photocopy, or organize some events. It will pay off in the long run. Build trust with your bosses, offer to write or do extra research for them, and you’re more likely to build a good portfolio. Oh, and by the way, this work doesn’t really pay, so keep your salary expectations reasonable. After all, it is public service.
I’ve also worked with a number of people, both Gen Y and Millennials, who neither seek nor are particularly receptive to critical feedback. This is the key to growth, and when I first received it, it smacked me in the face. When I graduated from college, I thought that I was a fantastic writer. After all, I had a liberal arts degree! I spelled perfectly and had great grammar! So when I was given my first task — to write a policy piece on Iraq — I was smugly confident that my boss would love what I wrote and publish it wholesale.
Whoo, boy, was I wrong. That 4-page policy paper came back to me covered in red. Fifteen-dollar SAT words that my college professors had loved were slashed in favor of simpler words that communicated ideas more directly. Whole sections were crossed out. By the end of multiple rounds of editing, it was 1 page of tight analysis.
What that illustrated to me was that I had enormous blind spots — that what I thought was a strength was perhaps not. The only way to know is to ask. Ask often, ask everyone — not just your supervisor, but your colleagues and subordinates (if/when you have them) how you are doing. Ask them honestly, and truly be open to potentially painful feedback. And then change if you need to.
Why does this matter? Because if you don’t, you could slow down your career progression. I once worked with a guy (we’ll call him Tim) who thought he was a great writer and public speaker. He was put on an important project, where his supervisor noted that he was unable to string a cogent argument together, either in writing or in public remarks, and therefore was prevented from doing either. Tim dismissed these criticisms, and guess what — he was subsequently passed over for other opportunities, as people in the office were nervous about the quality of his work and his response to criticism.
Don’t be like Tim. Ask for an honest assessment of your performance, and work to improve.
Never burn any bridges, and don’t be a jerk.
That brash intern in the next cube may just become an influential political appointee in the next Administration, or your boss may become an Ambassador. In my case, an ex-boyfriend (whose bridge I would normally have burned) got me in the door of one of the best jobs I have ever had. You never know who might be able to help you — and you should always help others along, too.
Foreign policy circles are small, and will only get smaller as you continue in this field. Cultivate a reputation of being competent and a good colleague. If you have to choose, though, prioritize being a good colleague. There are a lot of competent A-holes in Washington, and no one wants to work with them.
The best networkers are those who build real relationships.
There is nothing more annoying in Washington than someone whose only interest in meeting you is knowing what you can do for them. It’s fake and transactional, and the other person is deeply unlikely to actually help you (as much as they may grin through the lie). The best networkers don’t network at all — they have real conversations. They don’t talk about business until they need to or it makes sense. They show interest in who you are and why you do what you do. All of the rest follows from that. Don’t indiscriminately hand out your card. Have a real conversation.
If I were to give one more recommendation, it would be to stay positive. Despite the difficulties you might initially face getting a job in policy or development, remember that it will be worth it in the end. Fortune doesn’t just favor the bold; it favors the persistent. Keep pushing toward your dream job. The policy community needs new blood and bright minds, and you have real value to add.