Sep 30 2008

Why is it so hard to get a job in international affairs? Sherry’s take

by at 9:17 am under Sherry and Mark

In promoting Working World, we have participated in a number of round table discussions, often with interns at international nonprofits over sandwiches and soda. It has been striking to note that all too often the first question raised in these sessions is, “Why is it so hard to get a job in international affairs?” Today, Sherry gives her take on that question, followed by Mark tomorrow.

To answer this question, we have to start with the reality that the volume of jobs lost in the current economy affects every industry. The uncertain financial situation makes many people in most sectors cautious. For managers there is a temptation to postpone filling positions until revenue estimates are more predicable.

There is also tremendous competition for even entry level jobs because millennials, the current generation, are — thankfully — idealistic, and grasp the challenges of living in a world Tom Friedman describes as “hot, flat, and crowded.” And because they comprehend the gravity of these challenges, many have a well-developed desire to make a difference in that world. They are drawn to the type of careers we talk about in Working World.

Yesterday I hired a new program assistant for the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV). I have a small staff of seven, a part-time accountant, and interns whom we couldn’t live without. The program assistant serves as my assistant and the receptionist. (I still cling to the quaint idea that our hard-working and dedicated members should be greeted by a live, helpful person when they call the office — not plugged in to a time-consuming telephone menu).

After advertising at local universities and on Idealist.org, we received 55 applications for a position with an extremely modest starting salary, albeit excellent health benefits. After difficult vetting and deliberation, I had the luxury of hiring someone who appears “overqualified” for the job, with three years of office experience. That just reflects the reality that, at the moment, many overqualified people are glad to land a job with an organization whose cause they embrace — even if it doesn’t use the totality of the skills they have developed.

The key thing for you to remember is: forget all the grim statistics. You are only looking for ONE job. Most often, if you do very well in an entry level position, you will be the first choice for the next vacancy more suited to your skills. You may think I am advocating for “settling” for the first offer that comes along. Sometimes that is the right decision. Whether you are overqualified for a job is just one of the factors to consider when deciding to accept an offer. I always encourage job seekers to worry less about your title and much more about whether the mission is appealing, the office culture friendly, and your supervisor cares about your professional development.

Focus on finding organizations with missions that match the cause you wish to serve. Watch them closely. Just because you were passed over for one job is no indication that you should not apply for another. Most importantly, try and meet someone already working at or somehow affiliated with organizations having missions you find attractive. This is where the art of networking comes in. More on that in a later post…

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