Oct 01 2008

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

by at 9:46 am under Sherry and Mark

I struggle with Sherry’s assertion that sometimes it’s better to settle. She is correct to point out that the difficulties of our current economy are the grim truth, even though that truth, in the words of one 23-year old international job seeker I know, “kind of makes me want to kill myself.” So he was being a bit dramatic, but still, the comment is telling. Yet, despite these economic difficulties, I’m still not sure that the right advice is: “Take whatever you can get.”

I’ve struggled with this question for a while, even before it came out that the country, apparently, has no money. When I was searching for my first job out of grad school in 2005, I interviewed for a program assistant position at a well-known international education organization. I was concerned that the position might not be what I was looking for and that I was overqualified for it, but I figured I should go ahead and give it a shot. I came out of the interview, however, certain that it wasn’t the job for me, that I was overqualified for this entry-level position, and that what I actually wanted was the position of one of my interviewers, the program associate who was at the next level up.

But still I wrestled for the next week as to whether I would accept the job if offered it. True, the position was far less responsibility and money than I wanted. True, I didn’t think I would be happy with my day-to-day work in the job and would be bored after just a few months. But on the other hand, it was an organization whose mission I admired, that had a friendly office culture, and that offered (presumably) the chance to move up. And it was a job, which I desperately needed.

In the end, I didn’t get the job offer (because I was too qualified, I like to tell myself), so I was spared the difficult decision. But I still struggle with whether or not I would have “settled.” I’m not sure I would have. I agree with Sherry’s point that you shouldn’t worry about your title, but I don’t think, as she says, that the mission of the organization and the nature of the office culture can always trump the specifics of your position. In my mind, what you are doing is equally important to where you are doing it.

In Working World, I make the point that the search for your cause (the guiding force behind your career decisions) should have mission-oriented elements, as well as task-oriented elements. What I mean is that, while you certainly want to work for an organization whose mission you admire, you also need to find a job that will offer fulfilling day-to-day tasks. For example, if you’re uncomfortable asking people for money, then you probably don’t want to take a job as a fundraising professional at an international development organization, no matter how closely that organization’s mission matches your own cause. You might convince yourself that mission trumps all, but eventually, you’ll come to be ineffective and unhappy in your job if you don’t like your daily work, no matter the overarching principals involved.

In the same way, by “settling” for a job you’re overqualified for and you know won’t be fulfilling, even though it’s in a good place with good people, you’re setting yourself up for the same kind of difficult situation. I know many people who settled for jobs simply because they were jobs, only to find all too quickly that they despised their work and were back out looking for something else within months.

I guess in the end it’s important to balance Sherry’s thoughts and my own on this topic. I would never discourage anyone from taking a solid job at a good organization (especially in a bad economic climate/tough job market) if it’s the right move for that individual and/or your financial situation necessitates an immediate paycheck. But I would also encourage young people not to go into a job search with the mindset that they’ll have to settle or take a job they’re obviously overqualified for. Clearly you know yourself and your situation best and will thus be able to decide what move is right for you—but always aim for the job that is going to give you the most satisfaction and allow you to make the most difference.

So, after taking on Sherry’s thoughts on the questions, what about my own? Why is it so hard to get a job in international education, exchange, and development? In my view there are a few reasons:

1) There are a lot of qualified people out there trying to get the exact same jobs that you are. The hard reality is that while your resume may be pretty stacked, you’re not the only one with excellent qualifications looking for an international job. The Washington Post reported last year that the number of applicants to international affairs graduate programs at schools like Georgetown, George Washington, and Johns Hopkins has risen 63% since 9/11, and enrollment has jumped more than 30%. This indicates that not only are there more young people who are and will be looking for international jobs, but also that they will be more highly qualified than ever before. And all of us are competing for a limited number of jobs.

I agree with Sherry, it’s best not to dwell on the statistics—go forward with confidence!—but I think it’s also beneficial to know the reality of the situation and determine how that might shape your job search.

2) International education, exchange, and development are niche fields. When I was searching for my first IR job in 2005, I remember often feeling like I was running in circles. The search terms that I popped into Google and various job boards kept bringing me back to the same organizations and the same job postings. I got frustrated by what I saw as a very limited circle of jobs in international education, exchange, and development.

3) International education, exchange, and development are also “incestuous” fields. What I mean is that employers in the fields tend to hire those people that they already know and who have already proven themselves by doing an internship, volunteering at an event, participating in a conference, etc. These people are, as Sherry likes to phrase it, “known quantities” to the employer and thus a much safer bet than an unknown quantity. Many jobs go unposted on public outlets—they are simply circulated “internally” (within a single organization and/or within a network of similar organizations) and the position is often filled with a qualified candidate “from the inside.”

4) Sometimes it depends on the day. As Sherry has often told me, she might look at the same resume completely differently on different days. Her view of that particular job applicant might vary depending on her workload, her level of stress, the amount of sleep she had the night before, the amount of coffee she’s had up to that point, etc. This may seem unfair to the job applicant who has just poured his heart and soul into that cover letter, but it’s just human nature that we’re not always as objective as we might like to be.

In the same vein, a manager might read your resume and absolutely fall in love with you: but it just might not be the right day. That particular position may have just been filled, or perhaps the organization isn’t hiring at that time. While the manager would love to hire you in theory, she just can’t do it right now—you happened to hit her at the wrong time. Not your fault and not her fault. Sometimes it depends on the day.

So does this mean all is lost? Absolutely not. There are several things you can do to overcome these obstacles:

1) Do the little things that will make you stand out from those other impressive candidates. A particularly important one: write a compelling cover letter. In my mind, far too many young people underestimate the importance of a well-written and specifically-tailored cover letter. Many intern application cover letters I read at NCIV made the basic and completely unoriginal case that: “I am interested in international affairs, you have ‘international’ in your organization name—it’s a perfect match.” But this isn’t enough. Synthesize your experience into a compelling case as to not just why you want to work for any international organization, but why you want to work for that international organization. This effort can easily get you bumped into the interview pile.

2) Redefine for yourself what is “international” and what is not. My frustrations in my own job search were often self-imposed—I confined my international job search to far too small an area. But it’s not just nonprofits, the Foreign Service, and the World Bank that have jobs with international components. Think more broadly: universities, consulting groups, trade organizations and associations, think tanks, foundations….the line between the domestic and the international is increasingly blurred, so the number of jobs with an international component will hopefully be increasing too.

3) Make yourself a known quantity. I know it can be tough to take an unpaid internship when what you need is a job to pay the bills. But figure out a way to get yourself in front of the people who hold the jobs. Do an internship if you can; volunteer at a conference; attend a lecture or event and talk to people afterward, and follow up again with them later; schedule an informational interview with a leader in the field like Sherry and ask for advice. The more you put yourself on people’s radar screens, the less you will be just a piece of paper that looks similar to 100 other pieces of paper, and the more you will be a concrete and known quantity.

4) Be persistent. If today isn’t the day, then tomorrow might be.

2 responses so far | Categories: Sherry and Mark

2 Responses to “Why is it so hard to get a job in international affairs? Mark’s take”

  1. Franca Gargiuloon 09 Oct 2008 at 12:27 am

    Sherry — I don’t know if you would remember me from IDC in San Francisco and as a speaker at the NCIV meetings about 5 years ago — I was so delighted to learn of your book and look forward to reading it! After almost 20 years in the world of international trade and communications, there has never been more of a need for new graduates who have such a global background and interest in all things international to be plunging ahead into the work world! My only thought on the comments of how to expand a job search is not to overlook the “non international” job in private industry. In many cases, sales and marketing positions at the junior level require much interaction with key customers, vendors, etc and this will, de facto, include a huge global constituency. The title of the position may not say “international” but you can be sure that if you are acting as a program manager or coordinator, one will have a huge array of global exposure. This kind of experience in the private sector is worth its weight in gold and can be just as complelling as those jobs/positions with international organizations. The key is reading between the lines and asking questions about the position and the type of interaction one would be having in the role. So the message here — take a look at some hidden gems that might justhave a description of “sales coordinator” as a title. Sales for any firm is 50% international!

  2. Andreaon 20 Mar 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Great post! I think I might be doing an unpaid internship. Oh well!

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