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.