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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Tips for finding an international relations job

Updated: Sep 15

Job seekers often ask for advice, especially graduate students and those hoping to break into the international affairs profession. Following are some reflections to help young professionals begin their journey in Washington or other world capitals.

Getting a job in foreign relations or international human rights issues takes a lot of work. It's very competitive, and with human rights, underfunded. To succeed, your mindset must be, "How can I separate myself from the crowded field of applicants?" It can be tough sledding at first. Here are some valuable tips for getting started in foreign policy or human rights.


First, learn a foreign language. I am probably the last generation of professionals in international relations who can survive without speaking a foreign language. (I've tried French and Russian, but they just didn't stick.) A foreign language opens many doors and equips you with a tangible skill throughout your career. It will differentiate you from the pack.

Second, get published. Foreign policy work is about writing and conveying ideas. When in a hiring position, I had hundreds of resumes on my desk. Young professionals with a publication section on their resume always rose to the top. Being published validates you as a writer. Employers need someone who can make an argument, describe a situation, and highlight solutions. It immediately demonstrates that others have found your writing persuasive. (Note: potential employers will not read your 30-page dissertation.) Be careful not to write anything provocative because it will follow you for the rest of your career. So, unless devoting your life to one burning issue, write on timely technical topics that are not too interesting. You'll get in print (or more likely on the web) and show potential employers you can use the written word to advance ideas.

Third, network, network, network. In my experience, the old saying, "It's not what you know, but who you know," is only half right. You certainly have to know something. You need to have earned an advanced degree, specialized in a subject, or lived abroad in a country of interest. But at the same time, knowing people is vital. Many jobs in the "small town" of Washington, DC come through professional relationships. Having someone further along in their career vouch for you is priceless, helping your resume rise to the top. It won't guarantee a job, but it increases the chances of an interview. Interning is a great way to get your foot in the door, even if unpaid. You can build a professional network by staying in touch with internship supervisors, asking professors for help, and requesting informational interviews.

Additional thoughts:

Your first job won't be your last. Maybe it's not perfect, but use the experience to build the necessary skills (management, budgeting, networking, etc.) to land your dream job.

Continually improve your writing. I recommend The Elements of Style and the Grammarly writing assistant.

Get a security clearance. These are priceless. A Secret level clearance lasts ten years, and a Top Secret lasts five. Again, this can separate you from the pack.

Help others along the way, and lend a hand to those behind you on their career path.


Good places to look for jobs:

  • Foreign Service Exam — If you want the exciting life of a diplomat, this test is for you.

  • Civil service jobs at State — There are several pathways into the State Department reserved for recent graduates.

  • Rangel Program Offers graduate fellowships to outstanding seniors and college graduates who want to join the Foreign Service.

  • Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program Welcomes the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the State Department, women, and those with financial need for Foreign Service careers.

  • Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship Program Seeks individuals interested in pursuing careers in the Foreign Service of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

  • Gilman International Scholarship Program The program provides grants for undergraduate U.S. citizens of limited financial means to study and intern abroad, thereby gaining skills critical to American national security and economic prosperity.

  • Critical Language Scholarship An intensive overseas language immersion program run by the State Department for American students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities (no prior experience studying critical languages required).

  • Other language programs The U.S. government offers an array of programs to help U.S. citizens learn foreign languages.

  • Presidential Management Fellowship — Great way to break into government straight out of grad school, with potential placement in any agency.

  • www.USAJOBS.com — Every job available for the U.S. government, but a difficult application process.

  • Congress (House and Senate) — While committee jobs are tough to get, the constant turnover in Congressional offices creates opportunities (especially after an election). Find a member you can support and take any job. I had a friend who went from answering the mail to Legislative Director in less than two years.

  • Peace Corps — Joining the Peace Corps demonstrates toughness and exceptional dedication.

  • AmeriCorps — Domestic Peace Corps; you can find jobs related to international issues like refugee resettlement.

  • Contractor — Working as a contractor, you gain invaluable government experience, obtain a security clearance, and start building your professional network; here are some examples Cherokee, KTG, MSI, PM Consulting Group.

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