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Graduates Guide to a Career in International Affairs – Alexander Borum

Graduates Guide to a Career in International Affairs - Alexander Borum

Graduates Guide to a Career in International Affairs – Alexander Borum

Two weeks ago, Alexander Borum wrote an exhaustive piece and guidelines on Students Guide to a Career in International Affairs following the success of this, The Graduate Guide is a sequel to the student guide.

After half a decade of academic struggles, having a diploma in hand marks the end of an era and the dawn of a daunting new future. Once the celebrations subside and reality kicks in, it can be hard to find your footing as long days of structured studies and working with a clear-cut purpose in mind suddenly give way to the sudden emptiness of unemployment. For a fresh graduate, there are lots of potential challenges out there, and many of these stem from the uncertainty and frustration related to entering the job market in one of the most competitive fields around, so minimizing this transformative period quickly becomes a critical endeavour.

In mentoring settings, I have found that fresh graduates tend to face a group of recurring challenges and, to a large extent, these challenges stem from the high entry threshold for beginning a career in international affairs. Entry-level positions are increasingly rare, and the playing field is often contested by over-qualified competitors: getting the ever-important foot in the door can thus be quite a struggle. For many, the interim period between graduation and landing the first job can be substantial so investing a bit of extra time and effort into minimizing this part of your adventure can really pay off.

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This article is part two in a series of three. The first part covered the preliminary steps that I can recommend taking when aiming for a career in international affairs. Part two continues the series by taking a look at some of the key challenges and approaches that I get asked about in mentoring settings and can pass on as general advice for freshly graduated students as they hit the job market for the first time. As a natural conclusion, the final part will revolve around life as a young professional, where a new set of challenges and opportunities arise.

Profile

Your profile is a catchy term for your very own professional brand, and it is important to develop this profile so it stands out sharply against the type of work you wish to do. As an example, if you wished to pursue a career in international security, then it would be important that your interest in the security domain alongside relevant skills would stand out to anyone picking up your CV. This can be hard to accomplish as it requires a lot of time and dedication, but sustained efforts can pay off immensely, and it is a method of cementing your role as a specialist, or even a fledgeling authority down the line. Having a sharp profile will make you stand out better against your competitors, and while it won’t land you a job on its own, its something that might help you move in the right direction.

Review

In my previous article, I put a particular emphasis on the importance of self-reflection and figuring out how your interests in international affairs can be matched up with specific career goals. This is a very important point to have clarified, alongside a firm understanding of your current profile, to determine which concrete skills and experiences are required to land your dream job, or at least, the right stepping-stone jobs towards it.

Once you know where you are heading and where you are coming from, you should look into specific positions that you wish to pursue, not only right away, but also in the future. Examine these for what skills, qualifications and experiences they require so you can compare them to what you have already. Ideally, you want to compile a concise list of skills that are oft required in the positions that you have ambitions for. A lot of these will be experience-based, but some skills can be gained through extra-curricular efforts.

Develop

Once you have a good overview of desirable skills and experiences relevant to your career path, then you can set personal goals for developing your profile in the direction that you wish to go. This is a time investment, but it can be well worth the effort, both because you are better prepared to deal with professional challenges as you move into your career, but also because it provides you with concrete anchoring points for arguing your suitability for positions.

There are a lot of really great resources out there, edX and Coursera being two key providers of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses that can provide you with both specialized courses and certifications that add to your profile. UNITAR and UN CC:e-Learn also retain some highly thematic and quite valuable courses that are of reasonably high quality, so it might be a good fit depending on your interests. For those of you interested in working in fragile contexts, then the UNDSS also provides some relatively basic certifications in operational security that might also be good to have. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I can only recommend that you look at what you might be able to find out there.

Furthermore, there are loads of intensive summer/schools, workshops, seminars and trainings provided by a host of organisations and government entities, some of which are incredibly good. A lot of the latter options will require you to pull out your wallet, and if this is the case then I can only recommend that you pay due diligence to the content, the provider and its value to you.

Another option is to pursue an internship as soon as you have had a chance to rest up. I discuss internships and the cost-benefit of doing multiple ones in part one of this series, and that naturally still stands. But assuming that this is only your 1-3rd internship, then its actually a really good time investment, especially if you can find one that is paid.

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Google

If you are seriously considered for a position, then its increasingly likely that you will undergo a bit of online scrutiny. This can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on what they will find in your google results and on your social media. If your results are filled with drunken party pics, controversial statements or inappropriate content, then I wouldn’t expect an invitation for an interview. However, if your results show that you are dedicated to what you do, or even that you retain a high level of expertise, then it might work in your favour.

I would recommend that you perform a critical review of your social media profiles as a first step. Your profiles don’t have to be entirely shut off to the public, but rather curate them so you know exactly what the world can see. LinkedIn should already be professional by nature, so we can safely skip that. Instagram is simple: consider what you post there, and if you post anything a potential employer shouldn’t see, then make sure you have a closed profile and an appropriate profile picture so the outward appearance is proper. Facebook can be a bit troublesome, but it does retain a view as feature that I can recommend that you use to check out what is visible to outsiders; again – it is perfectly fine to show off a few things to the public, but be critical and selective about it.

Lastly, I recommend that you google yourself to see what pops up when someone looks you up. When you do so, you will by default see a highly biased set of search results, this is due to the personalization settings that google uses and its default geographical settings. Geography we can’t change without a hassle, but personalisation can be avoided by adding the following to your search address.

&pws=0

This will make your search link look something like this if you search for “Your Name”

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk02f5zrZs4jx_giK3SO0QLT8VgbqzA%3A1591187901872&ei=vZnXXtfjNKXmsAeWv52IDA&q=%22Your+Name%22&oq=%22Your+Name%22&gs_lcp=CgZwc3ktYWIQAzIFCAAQywEyBQgAEMsBMgUIABDLATIFCAAQywEyAggAMgUIABDLATIFCAAQywEyAggAMgUIABDLATIFCAAQywE6BAgjECc6BggAEBYQHjoECAAQHjoGCAAQCBAeOgYIABAHEB46CAgAEAcQChAeOggIABAIEAcQHjoKCAAQCBAHEAoQHlDe9wFYzJUCYMuWAmgAcAB4AIABUogBqwaSAQIxMpgBAKABAaoBB2d3cy13aXo&sclient=psy-ab&ved=0ahUKEwiXtqXt1OXpAhUlM-wKHZZfB8EQ4dUDCAw&uact=5&pws=0

This removes your personalized settings and gives you a much more realistic perspective on the search results that others will get when they look for you. To a large extent, you simply have to accept how these results look, but google does maintain a few options to curate what is there if there is a good reason for it.

Invest

When your biggest selling point is yourself, then it becomes quite important to ensure that your most important asset is in top shape. Improving yourself as a person, as we discussed above, is a great way to increase your personal value, but it’s not enough. Routine maintenance is what will keep you going, and for many, this can be quite a challenge.

Care

Selfcare is crucial, so paying extra attention to your mental health and your overall condition is exceedingly important. Even from the get-go, it seems that many struggle with high levels of stress after graduating, in part be due to the change of routine, the pressure of unemployment and often, dealing with a rather systemic level of rejection during the job hunt. Feeling down over lost opportunities is quite natural, and it’s hard not to feel that a job is sure-fire if the profile matches, the interview goes well and you have already begun picturing yourself in your new role. Sadly, this is the likely experience of your competitors too, and there is usually only one person that lands the job. Taking up a meritocratic attitude and accepting this, is a great step towards a healthy job hunt, but it is not always enough.

Make sure that your priority is on your health, both mental and physical. This is a stressful period full of uncertainties, and if keep your machinery fully functional you also increase your odds of pushing through. Stress is not always a bad thing, but a lot of the stress you face might be negative. To combat this, there are several measures you can opt for. Granted, handling stress is individual, but the general advice is that you remember to take breaks, spend time on hobbies, keep physically active, eat proper food and try to focus on the positives.

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Share

You are not going to be alone in dealing with these types of challenges, so use your network to share in the challenges, trade lessons learned and vent frustrations. There is nothing wrong with calling your old classmates or letting them call you, so you can blow off steam and talk about moving ahead. Buddy help can be beneficial and it’s important to have people covering your back. Vice-versa, it is also in your best interest that your network is doing as well as possible, both because you might be an idealist, but also from a pragmatic standpoint, because a strong network might open new opportunities down the road.

Another option is to jump out of your peer-network and join external networks. These come aplenty, in both physical and virtual forms, on various social media. Usually, these groups lack a strict delimitation of focus, so there tends to be a bit of everything; call for papers, job offers, help requests, discussions, article sharing and so on. The broad nature of these groups has its charm, but visiting them for anything in particular, might be a swing and a miss! If you want something more concrete in terms of assistance and advice then try to hunt down a mentor. A mentor is, usually, someone with a bit more experience in your field, and can provide advice, sparring and critique in either a time-limited or ongoing fashion. Perhaps you need to formulate your brand a bit, and need sparring on how to stand out sharp in the way you present yourself? Do you have a quite niche interest that you wish to engage in, but you just don’t know how? Do you simply feel a bit lost, and want a bit of guidance? All are valid reasons.

Finding a mentor can be tricky for some. While some universities actively promote mentoring frameworks for their students and alumni, the majority do not. These frameworks do tend to be free and quite relevant but are limited to the student/alumni group itself. Professional networks in the international affairs domain also have mentoring options, often time-limited and highly regarded, but also dependent on being part of a specific demographic, having paid a membership fee or other conditionalities.

Engage

Social interaction often takes a hit after you graduate, as friends from class move in different directions, people around you get jobs, or life simply starts happening. Naturally, you will still have friends, but you may not always have the kind of friends where you can geek out over IR related stuff. To this end, I highly recommend that you invest a bit of yourself in civil society in a pro bono fashion.

Pro bono work, besides expanding your social circle and adding to your network, also gives you the option to gain highly valuable work-related experiences by running projects, managing teams or whatever else might be applicable. Often, organisations focus on specific aspects of IR, such as the UN/EU/NATO associations, IR networking groups and a plethora of thematic NGOs that fit with almost any interests. I have done this extensively myself, and I generally find pro bono work to be incredibly rewarding, so I can only recommend it for others too.

If your social network is top-notch, and NGO commitments fit poorly into your life, then I can also recommend pushing out a few articles, be they academic or more general writings. Getting your name out there is a great way to stand out, and it is a good way to keep your analytical mindset keen.

System

While the previous segments covered mainly soft-skills, several technical approaches can help you manage your efforts and streamline the overall process. Job hunting is, to a large extent, a mix of research, prep work and routine execution, so if you establish a firm framework for dealing with these things from the very beginning then you save a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Create

The first thing you should establish is a root folder for job hunting, this can be on your hard drive if you only plan to access your files from a single computer or, if you bounce between devices, a synced folder for OneDriveGoogle DriveDropboxiCloud or whatever your preference might be when it comes to cloud solutions. Inside this, you will want a few different main folders. I would make two: Applications and Toolbox. Inside Applications you should store every single letter of motivation that you produce, sorted however you feel, be it type, organisation or date. These are useful down the line, as points of reference for when you apply for similar positions or need materials for inspirational purposes. Inside your toolbox, you should have a folder system for all the supporting documentation that you could ever need. This being CVs, portrait photos, list of references, list of publications, written samples, letters of recommendations, exam papers and certifications. Keep your folders nice and neat, so you can always find them, and make sure you stick to your system.

At this stage in your life, it is quite likely that you have a CV already, but I would highly recommend that you take a critical review of it, and in most cases I would straight up recommend that you create a new one, just to ensure that it is fully up to date and conforms to contemporary standards. You are free to make your CV template if you are creatively inclined, but for the vast majority, grabbing a premade template is perfectly fine. Templates come in various shapes and sizes, and both free and paid versions. Personally, I had an illustrator do mine – while this is convenient, I can see plenty of great free options out there at places like herehere and here. The odds are good that you can find something that fits your overall style, and from here adjusting it to your specific needs should not be too much of a hassle.

For CVs, please keep in mind that you need to produce a document that is concise, relevant and intuitive. Read some relevant guides on tailoring your CV and please do your best to keep text density down, and make sure that a 15-second glance is enough to get a good impression of you. Relevance is also important, so cherry-pick what you put on your CV and make sure it adjusted to the specific needs of each type of position. LinkedIn can easily be referenced on your CV, and here you can go all out on adding details, big blocks of text and covering every single little bonus aspect about you.

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Search

Jobs in international affairs are posted at regular intervals, across a lot of different platforms and at varying levels of importance and relevance for you as a job seeker. Manually looking for jobs can be extremely tedious and quite a hassle, but if you systemize your process, then it becomes a much more approachable task.

To make things easier, then I recommend that you exploit a very basic browser feature that should be accessible in most browsers: creating folders on your Bookmarks Bar. Folders have the benefit of letting you execute a right-click + open all command so that you can access a vast array of potential job listings in a fast and efficient manner. Having multiple folders with 30-50 bookmarks that you go through a few times per week is a great way to stay absolutely on top of the job market, and it enables you to develop a firm routine in finding the positions that are relevant for you. Some sites such as ReliefWeb or IntJobs act as search engines that you can fill out before bookmarking, so it will perform an automatic search as you load the site each time. For organisational and corporate sites this is seldom needed unless you hit the IO level, but the process is the same: you bookmark straight to the content that you need. How you configure your folders is up to you, it can be related to the organisation types, job domains or preference, there is no wrong way of doing it, it’s entirely up to you and your preferences.

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A big starting challenge, however, is to fill these folders with relevant content and here you will have to set out a lot of time to build an index of relevant organisations and institutions so you can keep checking them in the months to come. It might be tempting to put all your faith on landing an amazing Junior Professional in Delegation (JPD), Bluebook Trainee, Young Professionals Programme (YPP) or Junior Professional Officer (JPO) position in the EUUNNATOOSCE or WB so you can jump straight into the field in the deep end (with guidance, learning and challenges aplenty) but these positions are incredibly hard to land and it’s a tough gamble to rely on. Chances are that you will have to branch out a bit, and consider ways to build up relevant experience more broadly so you can move in the direction that you wish to go in the longer run. This will all require a lot of google-fu as you move beyond the usual suspects; the international organisations, ministries, embassies, institutions and agencies, alongside the big NGOs. Think tanks, institutes, academies, interest organisations and a vast array of highly specialized NGOs are also great ways to get into the field, and it is often much easier to match genuine and highly motivated interests in a niche field with an entry-level position in a less competitive setting. Get creative, re-visit your favourite journal articles to backtrack to its publishers, go through your collection of business cards, ask around, figure out what organisations share your interests and get keep in the loop.

Log

Once you begin a systemic job-hunting effort, then it’s important to set realistic goals and maintaining a quality over quantity approach. I wouldn’t recommend going over the 10-15 applications per month margin – above that tends to turn the applications into mass-produced and ill-tailored products that won’t win you any favours with the HR Rep that needs to pass you through the system, so again, less is sometimes more.

While 10-15 applications per month don’t sound like much, it can be a quite tricky sustained workload, the reason being that you will have to work with a wide range of deadlines and application systems, some being rather complex and time-consuming. To help you keep track of these endeavours, then I highly recommend that you track it somehow, either through your calendar, journal or as I have done, though a specialized spreadsheet.

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For those of you who might want an off-the-shelf solution, then I have updated and ported my old Excel-based logbook to Google Sheets, from where it can easily be copied over to your personal Google.drive and be put to use. It has a bunch of small but smart features that might keep things nice and easy. You can check it out by clicking the picture below!

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Final words

As graduates are faced with challenges aplenty, in my experience at least, it’s only natural that part two of this trilogy turned out a bit heavier than its predecessor, and quite likely than its successor will be moreso. Speaking from experience, both from being in the very same shoes, and from mentoring a fair few fresh graduates towards getting things kicked off the ground, I know this can be a tough period to go through. There is no shame in admitting that – its just part of the game, and it’s a process that almost all of us have to undergo, so maintaining a positive attitude by making the most of it is a healthy way of dealing with the frustration. It might also help to adopt some structure and some firm systems for how you do things, as a laissez-faire approach is seldom the best for these things.

Lastly, since this is a bit of a puzzle to figure out, I can only recommend that you do your homework and research the things you find challenging so you can find a suitable way to manage them. This might be the cultural implications of CV building; should you use a photo or not? Should you include personal information or not? Or it might be tailoring your letters of motivation towards specific organisations. Whatever the challenge, there is bound to be a resource out there. If not, the option is always open to ask around. On a final note, this might all sound a bit grim, and yeah, I might not be the guy to sugar-coat things, but the reality is that this is just not an easy field to start a career in. But while it is not easy, it is also not impossible, so if you are willing to put in the effort and the commitment required, you will make it through. You might also be lucky and get an early break, in which case I hope you pay it forward and exchange lessons learned with your peers!

Read the first of the series here: Students Guide to a Career in International Affairs – Alexander Borum

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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.

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