International Affairs Careers in the 21st Century: “The New Washington”

This morning I attended a program  at the Cosmos Club on international affairs careers sponsored by the University of Washington, Jackson School and APSIA.  The program consisted of a series of panels of government, NGO, and academic professionals discussing the current state of careers, mostly looking at the DC environment.

Opening the session, the moderator Resat Kasaba posed the question on what is the “the new Washington” when it comes to careers, a reference to how the current administration is limiting access to careers, particularly in government as well as the changed emphasis in global affairs.

The first panel focused on government opportunities, with representatives from DIA, DOD, State, and the U.S. Trade Representative. The moderator asked the panelists about specific skills abilities that are important today.  They included:

  • Writing well, particularly the ability to write concisely and in the style of the agency.  Too many graduate students are used to writing long research papers.  However, most agencies are looking for concise, 2-3 page reports that are well-constructed.
  • Diversity in academic and work experience, especially in bringing together various disciplines that might be seen as unrelated to each other, but will be connected in the future.
  • IT competence and how to use digital strategies to effectuate policy and practices.
  • Effective communication skills: knowing your audience in communicating was emphasized. The writer needs to recognize the expectations and conditions of the audience.
  • Problem-solving skills, especially in simulation based activities. Would-be professionals need to achieve situational awareness and understand case studies which can be achieved best through examining real world conditions.
  • The ability to think about how other people think.  This was echoed by several folks.  An international affairs professional needs to get into the “head” and “heart” of the internationals they work with.
  • Foreign language skills, which allows one to understand the cultural context.
  • Having a regional perspective: conflict today tends to be regional-based, not specifically state based.

A different set of questions was posed about courses and other perspectives that should be considered including:

  • Courses and skills that someone should take or develop: negotiation (you are always negotiating), program management, and strategic/operational planning.
  • A course in intelligence analysis.
  • Having applied experience.

One speaker remarked that the most serious problem facing  international affairs is the impact of climate change (including considering the fate of climate refugees).

Some advice from the government panel about finding work included:

  • Going to, for State work.  But recognizing that currently there is a freeze at State except for the Consular Fellows Program.
  • The representative from the U.S. Trade Representative encouraged graduate students (particularly law students) to look at fellowships.
  • Both the DIA and DOD representatives indicated that security work is a good avenue: there is not hiring freeze in these agencies.  The key is getting a security clearance.

The second panel focused on NGO work.  Some recommendations from this panel included:

  • Technical skills such as language is very important.
  • Once you have a sense of your interest, pursuing graduate education is important.
  • Working in both the not for profit and for profit sectors is valuable to an employer.
  • Say “yes” to opportunities, especially when you might be hesitant, but know you can get it done.
  • One panelist talked about her undergraduate study abroad, which was followed by the Peace Corps, and then working more abroad.
  • Being in Washington, DC is essential to advancing you career (or another major city, but DC is increasingly important).

One discussion topic centered on what one should take in academia that hasn’t been.  These ideas included:

  • Contracts management: how to manage grants and apply for grants, and working with the U.S. government.
  • Moving beyond the theoretical and working on “real” problems: develop a skill (but theoretical perspectives are still important).
  • Understanding the differences between the locals/residential missions vs. what the headquarters is trying to do – such the headquarters looking at funding, while the locals are focused on programming.
  • Understanding “practical” approaches to international organizations (what they do day to day).
  • The pressures put on organizations to get the work done.

One question focused on how young professionals are trained today.  One panelist believed that professionals are much better trained today than they have been in the past.  Many have on-the-ground experience, and have developed a flexible approach to their work. One commenter encouraged students to not be bound by the structure of government or academia, and be prepared to strike out on their own and be creative.  Finally, one panelist talked about the importance of reputation (and not just using LinkedIn).  Your reputation is everything!



Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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