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  • Knox Thames

Tips for finding an international relations job

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

I am often asked for job advice from graduate students and those hoping to enter the international affairs profession. I thought I would share some reflections to help young professionals begin their journey in Washington or other world capitals.

It's hard to get an IR job, either in traditional foreign relations or on international human rights issues. It's very competitive, and with human rights work, underfunded. To succeed, your mindset must be, "how can I separate myself from the crowded field of applicants?" It can be hard starting out. What follows are some useful tips I have observed or experienced for getting your start in foreign policy circles and/or human rights.

First, learn a foreign language. I am probably the last generation of professionals in the international relations field that 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 writing well. 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. (BTW potential employers won't read your 30-page dissertation.) Be careful not to write anything too provocative because it will follow you for the rest of your career. So unless devoting your life to one burning issue, I would write on technical topics that are timely but 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 and 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 you're not paid. You can build a professional network by staying in touch with your internship supervisors, asking your professors for help, and requesting informational interviews.

Additional thoughts:

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

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

-- Get a security clearance. These are priceless. A Secret level clearance lasts 10 years, and a Top Secret lasts five. Again, this can separate you from the pack.

-- Help others along the way. 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)

  • 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 US 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 — if you join the Peace Corps, you're demonstrating your toughness and your 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 and starting building your professional network; here are some examples Cherokee, KTG, MSI

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