You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 13: How to Get a Job in International Affairs

How to Get a Job in International Affairs

The School of International Service takes an enormous amount of pride in our students and their potential to positively impact the world. We believe that a crucial piece of preparing students to effect positive change is preparing them for landing a great job when they graduate.

In this episode of Big World, Cunningham joins us to give her insights on landing jobs in international affairs. She shares the types of experiences that students should acquire while they’re in school (1:29), ways to gain experience abroad (3:39), and the mistakes applicants should avoid when applying for jobs in international affairs (6:14).

Networking is an integral part of preparing for the job hunt, but how should students make time to do so (9:19)? And how can introverts and extraverts network in different ways (11:11)? Cunningham breaks down the different tactics for building a network.

Employers want to hire people with specific skill sets; Cunningham lists the skills that can bolster an applicant’s resume (15:25). She also suggests how students can figure out which jobs they should pursue (19:49) and discusses why paying attention to political landscapes around the world can help students in their international affairs job searches (24:05).

During our “Take Five” segment, Cunningham reveals the five key elements of a good job search strategy (13:31).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters.

0:15      KS: When President Dwight Eisenhower issued his call for a school of international affairs to prepare students to wage peace, he didn't go into a lot of detail about career planning. The School of International Service takes an enormous amount of pride in our students and their potential to effect positive change. We believe that a crucial piece of preparing students to effect positive change is preparing them for the goal of landing a great job when they graduate.

0:40      KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Shaine (Melnick) Cunningham. Shaine is the director of career education and employer relations for the School of International Service. She heads up our office of career development. Shaine, thanks for joining Big World.

0:54      Shaine (Melnick) Cunningham: Thanks, Kay. I'm really excited to be here.

0:56      KS: So Shaine, the catch-22 of the early job search has always been that while most positions, even entry-level jobs, require professional experience, it's always been difficult to gain that experience without first having had a job. For international affairs positions, there is an additional layer of whether or not that experience needs to be gained internationally and in the field. So let's talk first about job experience in general. What types of experiences should students be looking to acquire to be eligible for the international affairs jobs that they want?

1:29      SC: That's a great question, Kay. I think for undergraduate students, they can start with campus involvement. So joining relevant clubs, organizations on campus, moving up into leadership roles within those organizations. Starting to get logistical administrative skills, budget management experience, and working with large groups of people. They also should be looking for study abroad experiences, especially if they want to go into this field. Any chance to develop a little bit more regional expertise, develop language skills—I think is going to be very beneficial. And then internships. Internships are key, not only for undergraduate students but also for graduate students.

2:09      SC: Getting experience in the organizations that you want to work for, building your network of people that are working in the jobs and fields you want to be in. Also for graduate students, we hear often from our alumni that certain courses were really helpful—beneficial to them getting their first job. So thinking about the types of work you want to do and looking at courses strategically as a way to develop substantive knowledge in your specific field. Also working abroad, sometimes our graduate students have a couple years in between the time when they graduate undergrad and decide to come back for their master's. So looking for opportunities to get experience in the field, which is really important, are going to help them be more competitive for the jobs they want when they graduate with their advanced degree.

2:53      SC: And then also any certifications that they're able to earn over the time when they're students. So getting a certification in a certain data visualization software—something that's specific, again, to the job that you want to get. Using your time strategically to build up that skillset, looking for experiences that are going to help you do that.

3:13      KS: Okay, so for thinking about international affairs specifically, and that's the students that you work with obviously, and you mentioned this a little bit, but how important is field experience in different countries? I don't know if there's a sense that people feel like they need to go abroad or they can't really get a job that they would like if they haven't had that experience abroad. So how important is that, and how can a student in college best gain that abroad experience?

3:39      SC: It's very important, but it's tough because oftentimes to get international work, you have to have already had international work. So how do you get something when you need that same thing in order to be qualified for that opportunity?

3:52      SC: So we tell students to, again, think strategically. Look for fellowships that will take you abroad for an extended period of time. The Boren Fellowships are a great way to work on your language skills. There's also fellowships that take you to Germany, that take you to Russia, the Bosch and Alfa Fellowships respectively. For undergraduate students who are graduating, thinking about the Peace Corps. Those experiences are definitely going to make you marketable for the jobs that you want in international affairs when you return. And then also looking for opportunities with global organizations or companies. So a big international company will have locations around the world where maybe you can convert an internship into global work. Also, a lot of embassies abroad have internship experiences for students.

4:38      SC: And when organizations think about international experience, they're not thinking about something that happened over the course of a study abroad experience. They're thinking about extended time spent in the country where you can develop regional expertise. Again, that's substantive knowledge about the work that you would be doing that you can then apply on the job in a full-time position.

4:59      KS: And how long is extended? Is that six months? Is that a year?

5:02      SC: I would say at least six months—preferably, a year. If you want to go into international development, look for opportunities in developing countries. It's really tough because international affairs encompasses so many different job paths within this one big umbrella. So it's really important that you do some research ahead of time, that you look at job postings for your dream jobs, even if you're not yet ready to apply, and figure out what is it going to take to actually get that job.

5:30      KS: Shaine, you have a team of people who work in career development and meet directly with students one-on-one throughout the year. I'm just going to ask for a guesstimate. How many students would you say you speak with directly in say a month?

5:44      SC: In a month? Hundreds.

5:45      KS: Oh wow. Okay, so I'm going out on a limb and guessing that a part of your job involves helping successive years of graduates avoid making the very same mistake that the previous year's graduates make. Because for everybody, this is the first time they're doing it, but you're seeing all this happen again and again and again and trying to help people avoid pitfalls that they can avoid. Tell us, are there any common mistakes that people make when applying for jobs in international affairs, and what should applicants avoid?

6:15      SC: So this information is not only from my team of career advisors but also from our counterparts in academic advising, some of the other offices on campus, and feedback we've gotten from alumni who are now hiring managers. So bringing people on board in their organizations for their own teams, and recruiters, people who work for HR in these organizations who are oftentimes doing the first glance over of all the applications coming in.

6:39      SC: So of all of those people, we hear again and again that our students are starting to network way too late. Start early and do it often. Networking, I think, has this negative connotation that you're not being genuine and you're trying to get something from someone. The truth is that networking is just talking to people who have similar interests or some kind of commonality with you. It's sharing a passion and developing a relationship based around that passion. So starting early, looking to your peers, looking to your faculty, building connections, going out to coffee, and then each conversation that you have, always end it with an ask for a specific referral for someone else you can be talking to.

7:20      SC: Oftentimes, we'll see students their last semester of their last year getting ready to apply for jobs, and they're trying to figure out how to use a network to get their foot in the door. The problem with that is that it's a lot easier to build a relationship with someone before you're asking for something. And the truth is when it comes to using networking in your job search strategy, you never actually ask for anything. The way it works, people develop a positive impression of you. They think you're a genuine person who's hardworking and very passionate about this topic. You've kept in touch with them over months, years even. And when an opportunity comes up and you remind them that you're interested in those types of things, they're going to think, "of course, this person would be a great fit for the team." We all want to work with good people. So to be able to recommend a good person to a friend or a colleague who's hiring helps that person sort through all of the strangers that are applying for this job. So there's a familiar name in the sea of unfamiliar names.

8:21      KS: So I'm thinking, I'm trying to—sometimes I try and remember my college years, and it's getting too far in the rear view mirror at this point, but I know when people first get to college, they we're talking about undergraduates in this case—they spend a few months at least just trying to kind of figure out the basics, depending on how prepared they were for life in general. Figuring out just the basics of food, laundry, friends, all that. But you say that one of the common mistakes our graduates make is that they're waiting too late to start thinking about professional networking. So how does an undergraduate think about this? I know you said campus involvement is really important. Is there a moment when it becomes more of an idea of, "oh, I'm trying to build a professional network," or if you are out doing this kind of campus involvement, is it a little bit more organic than that? That you just build that network, and as you and your cohort move into different spheres, you sort of take that with you?

9:20      SC: I think it depends on who you are as a person. Some of us are more comfortable in situations being surrounded by people, and others of us get more energy being on our own. So if you are the kind of person who draws energy from being around a lot of people, it'll probably feel a lot more organic. Just every connection that you make, have an interesting conversation.

9:41      SC: We talk about something called the elevator pitch, which is a 60-second-or-less intro to who you are, a little bit about what you've done, and a little bit about where you're going. So having that prepped ready to go so that as you're meeting new people you can kind of frame who you are, tell them a little bit about yourself, and then just get them talking. I have colleagues—friends that I made my freshman year of college that I'm still in touch with—that I consider part of my professional network, even though they're not doing anything even remotely related to the work that I do on a daily basis. Every person that you meet has the potential to be connected to someone else who has the potential to be connected to someone else who is doing the exact job that you want to be doing.

10:22      SC: For people who are a little more uncomfortable in big group networking settings, you might have to be a bit more strategic about it. I recommend to students that they set aside maybe a couple hours a week when they're in the job search. If they're incoming freshmen, for undergrad in college, maybe a couple hours a month, and that's just focused on building your network. So it could be making a goal to find three people a month that you'll have coffee with and just talk to them about what they do, what their job is. Or if they're your peers, where they came from, what they're studying, and what their goals are. Setting these little goals for yourself—hitting mini milestones—so that by the time you graduate, without even realizing it, you'll have this incredible network of people who are such an incredible valuable resource when you are ready to move out into the workforce.

11:11      KS: And you were speaking the Myers Briggs language a little bit there with the introverts and the extroverts and where you get your energy. Highly expressed introvert right here. So I know that, for me, this type of thing is always easier if I have a purpose that I'm speaking to someone about, if I have a reason to be there, if we both have a reason to be there. So I'm wondering if, for students who are kind of in that bucket, if they might think about doing some volunteer work so that they are there for a reason and they're meeting other people for a reason and they don't feel like they have to kind of manufacture chat. That they can be talking about the common work that they're doing.

11:46      KS: And that's also a good way, I think, for anybody just to kind of spend their time and meet people who are interested in the same types of organizations that you're interested in. It could be anything. It could be a social service organization, it could be a religious organization, it could be athletics, it could be something like that that maybe you get a little more involved that way.

12:04      SC: Absolutely. I think one of the things that makes the School of International Service special and unique is the focus on service, that its students, its faculty, its staff all seem to share. Volunteering is a great way to build experience, to build important skills that employers are going to be looking for. And then also, like you said, to meet people that are interested in similar things. Also internships—part time, full time, paid, unpaid. Any type of experience where you are working with other people, you're coming into contact with people that maybe not only work only at your organization, but other organizations. Studying abroad, again, you're going through something very similar with your peers. You're going to be meeting maybe some new faculty members and maybe some other students from other schools. All of these are opportunities just to meet someone new, to do a quick introduction, right? Because again, you have to tell them just a little bit about yourself to get them talking about themselves, and then to just listen. I think that's one of the things that will be very beneficial to students during the course of their academic career. Active listening.

13:14      KS: Shaine, it's time to take five, time to reorder the world as you'd like it to be. I know if you could wave a wand, you would have every student at SIS land a great job immediately after they graduate. But barring that, what are the five key elements of a good job search strategy?

13:32      SC: Strong application materials, meaning your resume, your cover letter, and any writing samples that you're going to submit. Your network. Start early. Meet people who are doing interesting things, who have something in common with you. The search itself. So being aware of where to look for different opportunities, and how often you're going to have to check those sites or set up a search agent in order to know when something new is posted. Interview prep. A lot of people wait until the interview to start practicing for the interview. So using the STAR method to create specific examples that talk about the situation, the task, the action, and the results of what you did. And then offer negotiation. Making sure that you do your research on typical salaries for this kind of job in your market ahead of time so that you can come in prepared and hopefully negotiate a good starting point for you working in this field.

14:27      KS: I love that. I would totally support the one about making sure your materials are totally in order and make sure someone proofs them. I review a lot of application materials when I'm hiring, and there are a lot of errors that sneak in. So people please make sure you get a friend or your parents or somebody to read your stuff. It's really helpful.

14:43      SC: Yes. Make sure that you list the correct job title and employer name in your cover letter. We talked about how writing skills are so important. They look to your cover letter to see how you write. So attention to detail and, like you said, proofread, proofread, proofread. I can't say that enough.

15:02      KS: So, Shaine, you work with a lot of students, as we said, and the other piece or one of the other pieces of what you do is to also work with employers and employer relations and setting up site visits. And I know you do a lot more in this area that I don't know about. But really briefly, what would you say are skills that you see employers asking for again and again in international affairs specifically? What do they want?

15:26      SC: First and foremost, writing. They want good writers. Writing is so important. I can't stress that enough. Writing specific to the job you want to do. Obviously if you're going into a research position, you're going to have a little bit more room to elaborate on your points and to share the information you find to do some analysis. But pretty often we hear employers, and that's recruiters and hiring managers, asking for concise writing. So people who can take a lot of information and summarize it in a paragraph, in a page. That information will then be passed on to decision makers, and they have to be able to, again, pull meaning from something very quickly. So writing skills are really important.

16:08      SC: We've also heard from our alumni and from employers that research, analysis, having substantive knowledge— meaning issue and/or regional expertise relevant to the job you want—project management experience, so program design monitoring and evaluation skills are really big. Foreign language is important. For some positions, you have to have an advanced competency in a foreign language. For others, simply the fact that you've learned languages in the past will be enough to show them you have a willingness and aptitude to learn and will be able to do so in the future. Data analytics and visualization, we hear that one a lot. And related to that, computer skills, so not only Excel and PowerPoint, which are both still commonly used in the workforce, but also data visualization softwares like SPSS, Stata, Tableau. You don't have to necessarily be an expert, but you have to be comfortable and confident in your ability to come in and learn new things in these systems. And then I've heard recently the ability to do economic analysis, so understanding the implications for and of policy on the world economy.

17:17      SC: And then when it comes to soft skills, again, communication is key. We hear often that employers are looking for good public speaking skills, whether you're just communicating ideas to your team or if you're presenting them to a client. Critical thinking, adaptability, flexibility in fast-changing environments. Organization and attention to detail is really important. Inner cultural communication. This one has come up a lot, especially for international affairs career paths. Being able to work in a diverse environment. Interpersonal skills, so relationship building, whether you are doing consulting or again you're working for a nonprofit with a small team. The ability to develop relationships with other people in order to get your work done is really important. The ability to work independently and as part of a team.

18:04      SC: And then employers are often looking for someone who can take initiative and who is very willing and excited to learn. So having a passion for the field that you're going into and being able to translate that in your application materials, in an interview to show them that this is going to help you achieve some of your longer term goals.

18:23      KS: I love that the first thing you said was writing, and I would just second that. I worked for a large NGO for a time, and one of the things that was always being sought, it was like the holy grail, was the one-sheeter. Everybody wants a one-sheeter. And you're sometimes trying to distill down really complicated, in this case, scientific information. And I'm sure that goes the same for economic information or trade information or environmental information and science. And to be able to distill that down in a way that helps someone make a decision is such an important skill to have and really very difficult to do. So I'm glad to hear that.

19:07      KS: Shifting gears just a little bit, so you talk to all these students, as we've said, and I'm sure, just because this is the way people are so different in this regard, that there are students who come to you and they know they want to work in this field broadly and they don't really have a sense of where to focus their attention and energy. Should I be an analyst? Should I try and be dating someone who's doing monitoring and evaluation? Should I be in the field? Should I be in DC? So what suggestions would you give students when it comes to figuring out which jobs they should pursue with an international affairs degree?

19:50      SC: So there's this great book; it's called Careers in International Affairs.

19:54      KS: Well titled. Okay, good.

19:55      SC: Yes. You can find it on Amazon and purchase it for $20 or less. For our current students, you can get both the hard copy and an eCopy from the AU library. It's the ninth edition of the book. They have previous editions that I think are also very helpful. I really liked the eighth edition. But this book is phenomenal for breaking down some of the different paths you might follow within the bigger field of international affairs. In the beginning of the book, they go through these different fields and they talk about what it means to work in these jobs. They have little stories from people that are actually doing the work, where they talk about what their path has been like, what they actually do on a day-to-day basis. And then in the back of the book they have a directory of organizations that work across all these different fields. So, for example, if you're interested in risk consulting, political risk specifically, you can learn about it in the front of the book and then you can go to the back of the book and see a list of organizations that do that kind of work.

20:56      SC: And I think that's a great starting point for making a list of target employers of target job paths. And then from there you can go online. There are so many incredible public sources for gathering information. You can go to organization websites. So for example, if you want to be a foreign service officer, go to the State Department's website and learn about the different tracks of foreign service officers. Make sure that when you are talking to people about your goals, you're able to say I want to be on the economic track or I'm really interested in public diplomacy. All that information is already out there. You can also go on LinkedIn. It's an incredible resource, not only for finding people to connect with, but also for gathering information about professional opportunities. You can do a search for an organization, and on that organization's company page within the LinkedIn system, you can click on a link and see all of the people on LinkedIn that work there.

21:51      SC: So for example, if you wanted to work at the World Bank, huge organization with people that do all types of work, but if you knew specifically you were interested in human rights in eastern Africa, then you could type in those keywords and find people that are doing that kind of work. And so with that information, start to put together an organizational structure of what people who are interested in these types of things do, where they fit in within the bigger organization, and then take all of this information and start to have informational interviews or fact-finding conversations where, again, you can identify people on LinkedIn.

22:29      SC: DC, we're lucky it's a city where people are so excited and passionate about what they do that they're excited to talk about it, especially to students. It's never going to be easier than when you're a student, to reach out to someone to say, "hey, I think that the work you do is really interesting. I think it's something that I might want to do one day, and I would really love to learn from you. I think that you would be an excellent person to give me some advice and insight that would help me along my journey." That's an incredibly flattering thing to have someone say to you. So I've never heard of a professional coming back and saying, "actually, no, I don't really want to talk to you." If anything, they're really busy because of all of the great work that they're doing, so they may not have a chance to respond or just not be able to fit the student in right then. But having those conversations is then where you're going to learn what it really takes to get your foot in the door. There's no better way to find out about a particular job than to talk to someone that's doing it.

23:24      KS: So Shaine, if we pull back a little bit, we know there are hiring trends at the regional and national level, just in general. You know, hiring trends, we get our jobs report from the Department of Labor. It comes out I think every quarter. So to some degree every field's job market is susceptible to a specific set of influencing factors. Regardless of the national trend, a particular field like healthcare or education might be looking slightly different than the national trend. So my question is, is the job market for international affairs professionals more apt to change based on the US political landscape? Do you see an impact there?

24:06      SC: In the past few years, we've definitely seen more and more students going towards the private sector. But I think it's important to remember that, regardless of leadership in the administration, there are people in government that are just doing the day-to-day work to keep the government running. They're public servants regardless of some of the decisions that are made at a higher level. So I think, overall, across all careers, the job market is really good. There are actually more opportunities right now than there are good candidates to fill those roles. Being in DC, international affairs continues to be incredibly competitive. We have a lot of really motivated, passionate people that all want to do really good work. But the opportunities are out there, and I think it's paying attention to where those opportunities are.

24:59      SC: So I mentioned the private sector. If the government reallocates funding and isn't hiring as many people for a particular area, that work still needs to be done. So that means that there's probably going to be more money given to contractors, private sector, who come in to support that work to help facilitate the process and still achieve some of the same goals.

25:23      SC: Paying attention to what's going on around the world. We have a lot of students that want to work in developing countries. In some places a lot of great work has been done, so the need there is no longer as great. So looking to see where is the next need going to be and positioning yourself to have that regional expertise, the substantive knowledge, to fill a gap there to really make a difference.

25:50      SC: We're seeing, more and more, organizations who are doing development work are trying to create sustainable projects using people that live in the communities that they are supporting. So they're not bringing as many US citizens to those places and keeping them there. You might come and help start up a project, but then you're going to go home leaving those people to continue the great work that you're doing in their own community.

26:18      SC: So keeping those things in mind and I think using that to temper your expectations, not thinking it's going to be super easy to get a job working in country Y when the trend isn't really showing that there are a lot of opportunities there. Doesn't mean it's not possible, but I think going in with the right mindset, being aware of global trends in general as well as the US political situation is really smart. And our students are lucky because they're already interested in paying attention to those things.

26:53      KS: Shaine Cunningham, thank you for joining Big World and talking with me about how to get a great job in international affairs. I feel like our students are really lucky to have you and your team working for them and as a resource for them as they're trying to find a great job. Thank you.

27:07      SC: Thank you so much. I encourage students to come and chat with me. I feel like I have so much more to share. My team is available. We don't take a summer vacation, so come meet with us.

27:15      KS: You heard it. There you go. Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Shaine (Melnick) Cunningham,
director of career education and employer relations, SIS

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