Students Guide to a Career in International Affairs – Alexander Borum
Finding your footing in a field as competitive as international affairs, can be quite a challenge. It is a process that for many turns into a war of attrition, as progress can easily grind to a halt, making the job hunt turn sour. However, victory tastes the sweetest if you have struggled to get there, and at the end of the tunnel lies a field with a real chance to make a positive impact on the world around you through a rewarding and fulfilling career.
I am by no means an expert when it comes to getting through the tunnel that leads to a career in international relations, international affairs, or the broader political science spectrum. But I have gone through the stages; I made both mistakes and observations, and importantly, I have been good at figuring out how to maximise my efforts, often by asking for advice. Being a strong believer in the Pay it Forward concept, I have also spent a few years mentoring students and fresh graduates, focusing on how to meet the challenges that they face. A lot of the advice I give is general and thus repeated across many different mentoring processes, so to a large extent, I am providing those tips here, to save myself time in the future but also for the benefit of whoever might find them useful.
This is the first part in a three-part series on the journey into the field and focuses specifically on the early steps you can take during your studies, to get on the right track.
While you will most likely be too busy with studying as a student, there is still plenty of room to take a few crucial baby steps towards your career. With a slightly eurocentric perspective, then I assume that this stage is at the MA/MSc level and you thus already have a general direction through your chosen studies. Having a graduate degree will help you build your profile; your professional appearance. In some cases this will be a deciding factor; in most cases.. it will be a check-mark that simply needs to be in place ✓
Before you kick off any substantial efforts, I highly recommend that you sit down and reflect a bit on what you actually want to do with your degree. You might have gone into the political/social sciences with a specific idea in mind, and sure that might still hold, but for many the academic experience changes and shapes them, so please, pull some time out of your calendar to pick out a handful of relevant domains within international relations, that you are passionate and motivated about.
Personally, I like to approach this from an Ikigai perspective. Ikigai, or a reason for being, is a neat Japanese philosophical framework that can be used to create direction for both dreams and ambitions.
There are a lot of really great articles on how to map your way through the Venn diagram, by asking yourself basic questions about your skills, values, impact, and naturally, its sustainability.
Once you have a general idea of what drives you, then it becomes a lot easier to find a calling. For some, this might be a nice and easy process, but for others, this can actually take a substantial amount of time. Do not fret if you can’t get specific, it won’t be possible to narrow it down fully, but ideally you can get a fairly chiselled path to move down along.
Building your network can be an amazing time investment, both regarding access to elusive opportunities, but also in terms of establishing your foundation within your field. This does, however, require you to make use of it and to invest time and effort into it, else it’s a waste.
There are a few ways to go about it, but personally I can only recommend that you do it naturally. Get out there, attend events relevant to your studies, talk to people, get their card or grab their LinkedIn info, so you can hopefully reach out to them in the future. This can be incredibly hard if you are not a confident and extroverted person, but it’s just something that you will need to learn. There are hundreds of great guides on how to address networking issues and challenges, so if this is an obstacle for you, then google away, get tips, and figure out what works for you.
Event participation is great, but also situational. During my BA, I had access to very few relevant events due to language barriers and local conditions. During my MSc, then I found myself in an international hub, with a dozen think-tanks, international organisations and ministries so I kept myself quite busy by attending debates, lectures, workshops, and symposiums. Part of this is also about making your way into the event-cycle, as being a regular face that consistently attends, sometimes opens doors when it comes to limited or closed events, exposing you to more interesting topics, and in turn, more relevant experts and specialists from your field.
LinkedIn is also a quite valuable networking tool, and for many, it is the default platform to interact loosely with contacts in your network. There are many philosophies when it comes to using LinkedIn, and as with most things, I recommend that you research it and decide on whatever route you want to take. There are however, some basic steps that I can suggest if you want to get ahead of the curve from the get-go.
- Reach All-Star status on your profile (take your time, the effort pays off!)
- Add everyone you know (classmates, old colleagues, friends, family)
- Use My Network (import contacts, check recommendations and add if appropriate)
- Be active, but not obnoxious (self-critical on posting, comment & like, don’t spam)
- Signal Boost! (likes/comments are crucial for spreading posts, help your contacts)
- Follow! (make sure you follow organisations and thought-leaders in your field)
- Join groups (groups can be great, seek out relevant career groups and use them)
Again, LinkedIn is worth as much as you invest in it, and so is your network. If you create a serious profile, build your network steadily, and make yourself a good contact by sharing quality content and signal boosting then you can get a lot of support from it. It is for example perfectly okay to reach out to senior people, and ask them for advice on specific topics. This kind of sparring is crucial, especially down the line, when you are trying to get your foot in the door and your career lifted off the ground.
For many, the path leading up to a master’s degree is a lifetime of studies, and because of this, it is quite likely that many will find themselves on the streets, diploma in hand, with little-to-no experience. Increasingly, it is becoming more and more common for study programmes to integrate internships into the studies and this is actually a great way to get relevant experience, and also get a taste for working in a specific environment.
Internships come in all shapes and sizes, and while there are plenty of horror stories, the vast majority of internship experiences that are luckily still positive. If you are lucky, you can land an internship in your dream organisation, or within a niche domain that you are passionate about, and use this to expand your network vigorously. You might also use the opportunity to gain new insights in fields that are outside of your comfort zone; who knows, they might grow on you!
Sadly, internships still tend to be unpaid, and while I am a strong advocate for fair wages; also for interns, then I fully understand taking a non-paid internship too.
Multiple internships can be good, but I would caution against the diminishing returns of doing more than a few. I have heard plenty of concerns from HR specialists when they encounter candidates with more than a handful of internships behind them. Having done 2-3 is however not something that should raise any eyebrows, and if well selected, they will give you a broad range of viable experiences. However, if you opt for doing more than a single internship, then think long and hard about the possible impact it will have on your studies, and consider if it might be better to pursue additional internships when you have graduated.
An alternative is to hunt down a student job. These positions are typically compensated and can be a great way to bolster a CV with some relevant experience. If you study in an international hub, then chances are that you can find organisations, NGOs, think tanks, business, or similar, that could be of particular interest. If not, then generalist skills in project management, communication or administration can often be useful when moving ahead with your job hunt.
There are many good reasons why neither are feasible options and when this is the case, then it naturally becomes substantially harder to break into the field. It’s a sad reality, but you won’t be alone if this is the case… sorry!
This is part 1 of 3 in a series of articles on moving towards a career in international relations. Part 1 is focused on the early-stage efforts you can do as a student, while Parts 2 and 3 will focus on the graduate and young professional stages respectively. Overall, this series of articles provides general advice that tends to come up during my talks or mentoring sessions with students and young professionals, making them more broadly available for anyone considering these issues. My perspective and insights are gained through experience, advice, and research, but it may not be applicable for all, so please be critical of any guides you read, including mine, and determine which approach best suits you, your level of ambitions and the overall conditions you have for moving forward.
To get more, join Diplomacy Opportunities Facebook Group, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram
About The Author
Alexander Borum is an independent policy advisor focused on non-traditional security, diplomacy, and international affairs. Beyond serving in several national and international contexts, he dedicates part of his spare time to mentor both students and graduates on their early-stage steps into international relations.