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Pursuing a Career in Foreign Policy: An Interview with Aaron Schumacher

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The Young Professionals Interview Series is geared toward undergraduate students and recent graduates interested in learning more about how YPFP staff members have broken into the field of foreign policy, and what advice they may have for their younger colleagues. 

This week, Aaron Schumacher, Director, International at the FP Group, discusses strategies to land that dream job through conducting informational interviews, the crucial difference between success in college and success in the working world, and an avid appreciation for Niccolò Machiavelli and his enduring thoughts on governance.

Profile

Name: Aaron Schumacher

Members Since: May 2011

Current Job: Director, International at the FP Group (publisher of Foreign Policy magazine)

YPFP Positions:

  • Senior Vice President (current)
  • Director, Liaisons Program
  • Associate Director, Liaisons Program

Education:

  • International Economics and Latin American Studies, Johns Hopkins SAIS (2012–2014)
  • International Relations, Tufts University (2005–2009)

1) What did you want to do before you went to college?

I thought I'd work at a think tank like the Council on Foreign Relations, but I also knew there were a lot of interesting jobs out there that I simply wasn't aware of. So I was excited to go to college to discover what kind of then-unknown professional opportunities were available after graduation.

2) How did your career choice evolve throughout school?

I never quite knew which sector (public, private, nonprofit) would be the best fit, so I tried my hand in all of them at some point. My goal was not just to get experience in all of them, but also to bring the best practices from each one and apply them to the others, when possible. I have always been interested in U.S.-Latin American relations, so my academic and professional pursuits have for the most part remained in that arena, despite the shift in sectors.

3) Did you receive any special training or schooling that led you to your current job title? And if so, what was it?

I wouldn't say there was any special training or schooling that led me to FP. Rather, I have been an avid FP reader for a long time, but was unaware of the business side of the publication, which entails working with foreign governments and companies that want to use FP's media platform to promote their key messages to FP's high-level, influential audience. It's a mix of consulting, marketing, sales, and policy issues, so my experience in consulting, living abroad, speaking multiple languages, and international affairs more broadly was a major plus.

4) What area of the international arena interests you the most and why?

Regionally, Latin America has always been a fascinating place for me ever since I participated in a very intense volunteer program in Honduras during high school. I lived in a rural community and promoted youth leadership and community development programs.

On a separate level, I'm always fascinated by how leaders and people of other countries think—how they see the same issue so differently than others, and what implications those differences have for policymaking. This is where having lived abroad is so useful for a career in international affairs. Trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes is difficult, but necessary to be successful at diplomacy (and trust me, you don’t need to be an official diplomat to put to use diplomatic skills). Since I want to be a part of this world for the rest of my career, understanding how to address thorny situations, like negotiations between two countries that lack diplomatic relations or exploring the underlying structural reasons that allow terrorism to flourish in some places, will be one of my top priorities as a professional.

5) Where do you see yourself a decade from now?

Tough question. Perhaps I'll be serving as Adviser to the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, or helping a Bay Area tech company expand or improve its business in Latin America.

6) If you weren’t in the foreign affairs world, what would be your alternative, pie-in-the-sky dream job?

This may seem out of the blue, but I’d love to be a professional CrossFit athlete or mixed martial artist. I have experience in both, but have never come close (and never will) to being a professional in either one.

7) If you could meet a deceased famous historical figure who would it be and why?

Niccolò Machiavelli. Whether you agree or disagree with his vision of leadership, his ideas live on today and are embedded in countless issues we are currently tackling in the world. The debate over whether it is better to be feared than loved, as Machiavelli asserts, and the implications for the security of a country and its people, will likely never be over. That is why I'd love to pick his brain and gauge his thoughts on some of today's toughest security challenges.

8) What do you know now that you wish you could tell your undergraduate self?

That as long as you still take school seriously, grades don't really matter in the working world, which is where you'll be for far longer than you'll be in the academic one. And at the end of the day, the biggest difference between those two worlds is this: If you get a 95 percent on an exam in school, that's an excellent job. If you do 95 percent of the work in any post-college job, that 5 percent you didn't do (or did poorly) can mean that the entire project has failed. We will all make mistakes, but you will actually be held accountable in an office, whereas that same standard won't apply in college. So don't get caught unprepared for this when you graduate!

9) What should college students be doing while they are in college to ensure they get a job after graduation?

Finding ways to write beyond what's required for their classes (because if you can't write, you're in trouble), interning when they can (because you'll remember what you learned in an office more keenly than what you will in a classroom), and finding professors who will be mentors (because they will unlock doors for you that you never knew needed opening... and you need them to write your grad school recommendation letters).

10) What are your interests outside work and YPFP?

I grew up in a very fitness-conscious family, so I've been doing CrossFit for the last few years (after doing a number of sports for most of my life). I'm also an avid hiker and traveler, and have a long list of places to go to that keeps getting longer. And while I don't have as much time as I'd like or reserve as much time as I should for this, reading historical fiction and nonfiction, political nonfiction, and spy novels is one of my most enjoyable pastimes. Finally, I ride my bike so often that half the people I know in DC have told me they've seen me biking through the street at some point.

11) How did your career choice shape your job search? What do you consider to be the most important searching techniques?

This likely isn’t a surprise to anyone, but informational interviews are key because if no one knows you, you’re relying solely on luck to see if your application gets viewed. Most people don’t have the time to review all applications. When I was younger, coming out of college, I cold-emailed a lot of people I knew of in think tanks and other organizations to request informational interviews. You’d be surprised at how often people are willing to do this—people like to be in mentoring roles, so use that to your advantage! The hard part was how to stay in touch with them, and how to make sure you were on their mind when job postings were passed along to them. My trick was whenever I was applying somewhere, if it was in the same general field as that in which my informational interviewers were in (which was usually the case, as I focused on US-Latin American policy issues), I would let my previous informational interviewers know that I was applying to a particular place, and I was interested in getting their thoughts on this organization because I wanted to hear their expertise and go beyond what the website says. This almost always resulted in them saying that they knew someone there and would let them know that I was applying. That was the goal! You can’t directly ask them to connect you with someone without risking the request appearing unprofessional, so this is a clever way to make that ask. And at the end of the day, they will understand what you’re asking.

Later in my career, being in YPFP connected me to so many people doing interesting work, and I was able to learn a lot about jobs out there and cultivate a network of people I could rely on to help me with my job search. Indeed, YPFP’s founder was the first person to alert me to the job opening at FP, and he connected me to someone he knew there. After a few interviews, the rest is history, as they say. But without that connection, qualified candidates such as myself get skipped over by recruiters and interviewers all the time. So put yourself out there, introduce yourself to people at events (I know this can be daunting, but people admire it when you can do this), and always ask your informational interviewers who else you should talk to.

12) What was the most rewarding experience you’ve had while away from your home country?

In summer of 2012, I was living in Nicaragua and supervising a program with an NGO called AMIGOS de las Americas. The organization promotes youth leadership and community development throughout Latin America, and after volunteering in high school in Honduras and Mexico, I returned years later with the program to help supervise 60 high school students in Nicaragua. It was the perfect mix of management experience, creative thinking (how to get from one community to another one far away when the rain has made trucks and buses unable to use the dirt roads), interpersonal relationships, always speaking in another language, finding sustainable community solutions, and more. It was arguably the best summer of my life—I loved my colleagues, I enjoyed thinking through some of the challenges that my volunteers were grappling with, and being away from technology made me a much more relaxed person!

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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