Job Seeking in Foreign Policy: Advice from YPFP JobLink Staff

So you’re seeking a career in Foreign Policy. You’ve probably heard time and time again that you’re on the right path, that you’re doing something meaningful and important with your life, and that you have what it takes to make it. Well, I don’t know you, so I’m not going to promise you any of those things. But I can promise you this: if that’s all you have to go on, you aren’t going to get particularly far in a Foreign Policy career. There are some pretty serious misconceptions I’ve found in discussions with friends, colleagues, students and young people today when it comes to job seeking in Foreign Policy, from DC, Ottawa and London to NYC and Toronto. So let’s talk about those misconceptions, and what is at their root.

1) Treat a Foreign Policy career like a creative career. You see, Foreign Policy jobs are jobs that more or less everyone wants. They offer the potential for power and fame for the very successful, but “meaningful” (see: high status) and lucrative work for even those who fall short. As such, everybody and their cat has tried to enter the field. The average guy on the street has the same odds of making it as a foreign policy rock star as they do making it as a rock star in the music world. But it’s still treated in conversations with undergraduate students as if it’s as easy as getting an entry-level job in any other industry. Everyone talks about the unemployed Modern Art student. I’ve met plenty of unemployed Political Science students too. As with a creative career, you better be both naturally good at things like social skills and/or foreign cultures, and additionally be willing to put in far more work than the competition.

2) Nobody cares about your opinions on politics. You need to be willing to stuff your political rant right back into your high school locker for the next kid to pick up and wear as a fashion statement. Because in this field, that isn’t “being passionate about the issues.” That’s forcing everyone to write you off as someone not to take seriously, and forcing everyone to worry that you won’t be professional in your interactions with those of a different belief system or way of life. Foreign Policy circles, and politics in general, reward loyalty as a primary currency. Ideological partisanship isn’t loyalty, and it doesn’t suffice as a replacement.

3) Be over-qualified, and hedge your bets. Here’s something you were too stupid to do before reading this: find the bio of the person in your dream job. The dream job you expected to get within the next five years. Ok, so they have an MA, a substantial travel history, and they speak three languages. Why exactly did you, who don’t have that to your name, think the world owed you this job? Get out there and boost your credentials before discrediting yourself by announcing you’re even interested in a job like that. Worst case scenario? You end up an unemployed person who is far, far more employable in another field. As opposed to, the same number of years later, just as broke and unemployed, but with less to back you up in a career change.

4) Remember: You might be happier if you fail. You see, you right now think you want to work for an international NGO. You think you’ll go to cool parties and important functions, and think you’ll be happy to take the low salary if it means a job that gets respect and a job where you can be proud to go to work every day. The problem with jobs that fit this description (see also: journalism and a PhD) is that their ranks are a cesspool of disillusionment and half-careers. Meanwhile, ten years later that extra few grand (or 200%) you aren’t making is indeed going to be missed. But if you hedged your bets and ended up qualified for a career in, say, finance or PR, you could end up at even cooler parties and even more important functions, and you’ll be sent on fantastic business trips - and can afford to travel all you want with your vacation time. Plus, you might find that your coworkers in that sector are also interesting, vibrant, ambitious people in their own way, and in a way that much of the Foreign Policy sector isn’t. A large section of Foreign Policy writing and Foreign Policy jobs are part of the heavily politicized and highly partisan struggle for power involving Party Politics, corporate lobbies, and foreign money. Not exactly the starry-eyed idealists you think would take a pay cut for “fulfilling” work. The “good guy” jobs aren’t always held by the “good guys,” and my favorite people in the field tend to be found in jobs that are essentially impossible to get without security clearance or exceptional creative, intellectual or social talent. In areas of employment that are actually easier to enter, you are genuinely more likely to find a fulfilling life.

Jay Heisler is a PhD student at Louisiana State University and a long-time staff member at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He is currently pursuing a career in American intelligence. A prolific writer, blogger and journalist, his areas of interest include Middle East Politics, Counterinsurgency, Soft Power and Public Diplomacy.

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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  • commented 2016-04-19 15:26:31 -0400
    “Here’s something you were too stupid to do before reading this” – yikes! I do love the advice you have to offer and I think these tips are useful, but no need to bully your readers.
  • commented 2016-04-19 15:37:23 -0400
    Hi Kelsey! I did worry about that line. The tone was meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and having read tons of articles like this over the years I’ve decided that when forgettable they’re more or less written off entirely. I hoped to write something that gets a reaction out of people, as this is serious stuff for your life and your career and you’ve already heard enough vague and uplifting nonsense through the usual channels. That stuff does people no favors, and this is meant to be something of a humorous antidote. I did talk it over with other staff ahead of time, and after a “punchy” intro the tone will become more, um, amicable in future articles.
  • commented 2016-04-20 15:22:09 -0400
    Hi Jay, thank you for your article; it was a pleasure to read and I would like to explore some of your points further. In your first point, you talk about foreign policy (FP) careers as being lucrative and highly desirable, “Foreign Policy jobs are jobs that more or less everyone wants.” That is the first I have ever heard about FP being a popular industry. Perhaps this is because I am from the UK and resultingly further away from the community of political scientists. Irrespective, I would like to know what your idea of having healthy expectations towards landing your first job in FP would be given that I aspire to pursue a FP focused career either in academia or in government in the UK.

    I am particularly relieved to hear your advice on point two, “2) Nobody cares about your opinions on politics… in this field, that isn’t “being passionate about the issues.” That’s forcing everyone to write you off as someone not to take seriously”. I have been anxious over whether or not speaking about my own political beliefs or views would hinder or help me in the world of FP. On one hand I was afraid that refraining from sharing my political opinions would mark me as apathetic or disengaged in the eyes of future employers or colleagues but on the other hand I have been meditating on your exact point; would voicing my opinion detract from me being a professional in a politically charged environment such as FP? I already have reason to think so given the advice I have been given by a UK Civil Service representative. Though hearing it from you has settled my mind on the matter and I thank you for that.

    Now onto my favourite point of all; number three, “3) Be over-qualified, and hedge your bets.” Sounds like great advice to me. Again, hearing it from somebody experienced in the business is a relief and has now put my mind at rest. Further still, I will for definite be acting on this advice. I no longer have reason to think that I would be over reaching by pursuing a first class honours in my undergraduate degree or in pursuing a Masters and a Doctorate later on in life. You have also left me vindicated in my belief that studying a language is indeed a good idea, although I am still undecided on what language from the following I want to study; Japanese, Korean, Russian or Mandarin. Each nomination is born from equipping me with an advantage in the FP industry and to be of better value as a poltical scientist. You maybe pleased to know that you have also inspired me to do two more things towards pursuing a FP career; firstly, researching taking a year abroad in either the US, China, Japan or South Korea as part of my undergraduate degree (all inspired by my studies of the Cold War). Secondly, reaching out to those individuals that hold my dream jobs; I want to know how they did it so I can do it too.

    I’ve clearly had enough to say already and so thank you again for your article and best wishes,
  • commented 2016-04-20 19:27:51 -0400
    Hi Harsh,

    Happy to help! First of all, I’m confident that the UK Civil Service pro you talked to gave you the same advice I did for likely the same reasons. I’m happy to note that many of my views on standards for integrity in policy and political journalism were partially forged in the UK, as well as in DC and Ottawa. As for FP being a “popular” industry, it comes down to a core issue that I referenced in the original article – the significant gap between the realities of seeking a job in the field and the way that the field is talked about in the classrooms (and house parties) of an undergraduate education. The number of young people who announce that they would like to work as, say, a journalist, an academic expert or an international charity organizer are so high as to be frequently the majority in some majors when combined. Of the graduating class of my journalism school, arguably the top program in the country, the number who ended up finding a successful career in journalism was the minority by a significant margin. It’s overly “popular” in the sense that the number of young people who apply for a paying job with, say, the UN, compared to the number who get accepted is so ludicrous as to make job offers for jobs that young people qualify for on the UN website something of a joke. Not so much true of, say, job openings at a major consulting company if you have the right background. As for your own career, I’d recommend an MA but be careful with a PhD – it’s a tough market there too, as I warned. You could find yourself entering the job market too late with too little on your CV. An MA and job experience is worth more than a PhD anywhere but academia, give or take. It’s essentially impossible to argue against learning a language, but I will remind you that some languages are so difficult that if you aren’t going to commit to immersive learning for years you’re wasting your time and money. Certainly Mandarin and Arabic. Reaching out to pros is essential. If you can’t get the attention and advice of someone in your field, it certainly doesn’t bode well for your odds. It’s part of building your network, but also a good test of whether you can be taken seriously later in your career. Are you worth this person’s time? If you’re going to do a year abroad, East Asia is a very credible choice. The exact country is certainly up do you, but do check ahead of time with people who have lived in those countries to get an idea of what you’re in for. Hope this helps!

  • commented 2016-05-05 11:07:05 -0400
    Hi Jay,

    Thank you for your advice, it’s been a great help. I wanted to ask about your opinion on working in academia. I understand that an MA is a recommended choice but a PhD is a delicate proposition for those not seeking careers in academia. My question is; as I am seeking a career in academia, would pursuing a PhD be worthwhile? Likewise, I am enthusiastic about the prospect of reading for a PhD and have been looking all glossy eyed at the idea for at least eight years already. Further still, it’ll be an estimated eight years from starting in September to graduating with a doctorate and so I am wondering if that would be ample time for the job market to ‘soften up’ a bit?

    Thanks for reading,

  • commented 2016-05-05 17:34:15 -0400
    Hi Harsh,

    Happy to help! Doing a PhD was one of the most rewarding, enjoyable experiences in my career. If you’re serious about academic work and if you have an area of study that you’re happy to dedicate your life to on a very specific level, I wouldn’t want to talk you out of it past my previous warnings. However, it would be wise to prepare for a future in which an academic career doesn’t pan out. The job market may improve, but a wise gambler in politics will bet on volatility – even when combined with optimism. The academic job market in particular could conceivably never improve. Too many people saw it as a way to buy time during the recent economic downturn, and saw an academic career as an easy and cushy job if you just play it safe and regurgitate existing dogma. It’s created both a tough job market and a tough job market to breach if you are independently-minded, especially if you happen to be a political conservative. Which means I’d hope for the best and plan for the worst. If you are in politics or an “area studies” program like Middle East or East Asia, you’re in luck! Plenty of employers from DC to London would be happy to look at your CV if you have that PhD. But get talking to them early (as in now, early) and remember that the PhD isn’t always even necessary in that case. That includes think tanks and consulting, but also a lot of National Security stuff and programs run by or with foreign governments from those regions. Maybe it isn’t where you see yourself for the rest of your career, but it would help you land on your feet. Best bet would be to chat with people in National Security primarily, as those are the people you would most want in your network on that one. That and Finance, whereas Finance would usually be happier if you had an MBA, or even just an MA and some additional classes on relevant areas. If your PhD was in, say, the Humanities instead, you’d better have a pretty solid fallback through family connections or through hands-on career experience in other areas. If not, you’re taking a gamble that is only justifiable if you’re as dedicated to your field of study as an artist is to their craft – and if your work can withstand scrutiny on that level from a potential employer outside your field.