Three steps to transforming a degree in international relations into a career overseas

A former intern, a very thoughtful and disciplined individual, sought me out recently for advice on looking for a career in international affairs as their master’s degree program comes to a close.

We sat and spoke for about an hour during a period of unholy cold and wind that laid low Washington, D.C., in the opening days of 2018.

Independent of the topics of conversation, our chat remains memorable because our original meeting place, the coffee shop next door to my office, had closed early for lack of customers.  The locked doors and lack of coffee obliged us to sit in a couple of chairs just inside the entrance to my building as the bitter cold seeped in.

We discussed a series of questions that people in this situation often ask, usually variants of the following:

  • “I’m graduating soon, and want to keep working on international topics that interest me, but I need to be able to pay rent.  But everything that I can find that pays enough are desk jobs near home.  How can I pay the bills and still follow my passion?
  • “If I take a stable, bill-paying job here, is there any way to transition to an international job that satisfies my passion — or am I doomed to trading passion for stability?
  • “I see people doing jobs that interest me, but they all seem to have connections in those fields that helped them get there.  How can I get there even if I don’t have connections myself?

The profile of those asking these questions also frequently follows a pattern.  Typically, they have invested a not insignificant number of years studying academic topics related to some branch of international affairs:  regional studies, terrorism, public health, drug control, human rights.

Most also already have some short-term international experience under their belt, whether it be study abroad, a volunteer position, or (less frequently) a paid summer job overseas.

But the sun is finally setting on their academic days, and an uncomfortable reality emerges from that youthful twilight.  While they retail an abiding interest in international affairs, they also need to pay their bills and make money.  A growing number also have significant student loans to pay off.

Still student loans

In short:  they are interested in international work and have some paper credentials, but little money or insider connections.

That means that engaging and “adventurous” options, like working for a developing-world NGO for little pay, become less feasible.

They also start to realize one of life’s hard truths:  Few people in the working world care about your international relations degree.

Unless you count among the few who have published acclaimed papers during your studies (that is, enough to earn you public recognition as an expert in the field), or are pursuing a career in academia/think tanks, your degree means little in terms of your employability, at least in highly industrialized nations.

We’ll get to why this is a little bit later. But you don’t need to take my word for it, either. A lot of other folks have found themselves in similar situations, or have been in the field long enough to realize that an international relations or similar degree (e.g., political science) ≠ marketable skills or a job:




Another strong indicator is that the U.S. diplomatic service has no specific requirement or preference for people with international relations degrees in its hiring process.  In fact, you will meet great U.S. career diplomats from all walks of life: former scientists, educators, lawyers, economists, and even artists.  That is not a coincidence.

First and foremost, don’t believe the hype about “dropping it all and finding yourself”

All of this can really suck people’s motivation away, in part because Hollywood insists on telling tales of people “dropping it all” and chasing dreams across the globe.

Unfortunately, those Hollywood stories are just that — from Hollywood. They often bear little relationship with real life.

For example, the protagonist of “Eat, Pray, Love” who “risked it all” to travel around the world (1) was already a well-off, successful writer, and (2) paid for her trip with a $200,000 book advance from her publisher.

In other words:  Gilbert’s “adventure abroad” was actually financed by someone else’s money.  Quite a LOT of someone else’s money.

That’s not a knock on her business decision — we should be so lucky to have the same opportunity. But it is very disingenuous to sell the story as “dropping everything and going overseas” to people without a $200,000 advance in their pockets.

That’s just Hollywood bullshit.

Your mess is a lot more “glorious” when it involves a $200,000 book advance.  Srsly.

So don’t buy the bullshit! Don’t think that in order to have a satisfying experience overseas you have to discard your current life and run off chasing enlightenment — or that your overseas experience has to include eating out every day in Tuscany.

Compare that to people who have really “dropped everything” without a book advance, and you will usually find a lot of careful thought and planning behind it — and a lot of drive and ambition.  That also isn’t a coincidence.

And let’s be honest.  Most people have real, serious responsibilities, such as saving for a home, their own children, or helping an elderly parent.  This is particularly true for those now in their mid-20s, facing an increasingly uncertain economic future in many parts of the globe.  The ability to indiscriminately travel without the benefit of other people’s money is a luxury, not a prerequisite to “authenticity.”

Plus, the job market is a lot more complicated and chaotic than it once was.  Even in stronger economies, stable jobs with good benefits are harder to find, especially for those just starting out:

Today is brought to you by the letter "U" for Unemployed

So don’t feel bad about having to weigh financial stability and money in the balance as you face life on your own.

The vast, vast majority of people on this planet must sacrifice for financial stability.  It’s part of the human condition, unless you are part of the “one percent.”

The good news, however, is that there is a way forward from a “normal” bill-paying job to an international career if you are persistent and methodical.

Plus, if you are reading this article you already have an advantage over most people:  since you (1) are actively seeking advice about following your dreams of international work, and (2) can read English, which will remain a dominant, if not the dominant, international language for your lifetime.

So what should I do if I don’t have a $200,000 book advance?

Don’t have $200,000 in cash lying around but still want to put your international relations degree to work?

Here’s a brief summary of what I told my former intern as the arctic cold slowly crept over us in the lobby.  It consists of three pieces of advice for someone in her situation:

  1. Build a toolbox of valuable skills for jobs in your area of interest.
  2. Develop a network of people that work in your area of interest and know you as a person, not just as a resume.
  3. Only after you have done #1 and #2, seek out “special sauce” speciality skills like foreign language ability — these “special sauce” skills are things that, while perhaps not particularly valuable on their own, greatly increase the value of other skills in your toolbox.  In overseas work, this usually means things like foreign language proficiency and local cultural knowledge.

Let’s go one-by-one.


#1:  Build a toolbox of valuable skills for jobs in your area of interest

Go back to today’s hard truth for a moment:

Almost nobody in the working world cares about your international relations degree.

Why might that be?  I certainly did’t understand this when I was fresh out of school, and it took some years in the working world to understand this dynamic for myself.

The reasons for this are actually pretty straightforward, even if they are not the most intuitive to the recent college graduate:

  1. There are an awful lot of people running around with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in these fields competing for the same limited pool of jobs.
  2. Generalized academic knowledge about an topic rarely adds much value to operational work in the field.
  3. As an employer, I can teach you the generalized academic knowledge pretty quickly — but I can’t teach you more fundamental skills like good writing, teamwork, and so forth.

Imagine a fairly typical entry-level job in the foreign assistance field.  Let’s say I am hiring a program assistant to help run a foreign assistance program that provides educational opportunities to migrants in South Asia.  The person hired will work out of a Washington, D.C., office, but travel to the region periodically.

Like most of these program assistant jobs, the position exists to do fairly basic tasks like:

  • Coordinating the work done by those in-country and make sure it is following the plan approved by the donor country or countries;
  • Writing coherent, well-organized, precise reports for higher-level management and donors
  • Tracking financial data
  • Assisting with necessary bureaucratic processes, like travel and procurement paperwork

Examine that that list of job duties.  Nowhere will you find a reference to academic understanding of or research surrounding migration issues or South Asian regional studies.

That’s because the donor has already set the goals of the project.  And it’s also because I can fairly easily take someone who can do all of the above tasks and bring them up to speed on the topical issues by giving them some background reading.  It is much, much harder to train someone who has a degree in South Asian studies but is a poor writer, bad communicator, and subpar Excel user.

Similarly, we hiring managers care a lot less about your  “passion” for the topic in question than you think.  There are a ton of people passionate about any international affairs issue you choose who are also crappy employees. If a passionate employee doesn’t have any valuable skills, he or she will just be passionately incompetent.


Yes, but at least the dude who painted this was passionate about it.

At best, “passion” represents an incremental advantage over others if you already have the requisite skills.  More on this in future posts.

Give me the good writer with a degree in finance and solid organization skills over the South Asian studies expert any day of the week.

“But what about the South Asian studies expert who is also well-organized and a good writer?” some will inevitably ask.

Yes, of course that’s even better.  But it’s not all that common. And when I am hiring at the entry level, I care a LOT more about the good organization and writing skills than I do about their expertise in the region.

The point is, your degree is of far less interest to employers than you may think.  What we do care about is:

  1. if you add value to the job in question, and
  2. whether you are reliable and trustworthy.

Adding value in a job is a function of your “toolbox” of skills. Every practical skill you have that is relevant to a particular job composes a tool in your toolbox.

(Some other writers refer to this as a “talent stack,” but the concept is the same thing.)

Each tool accomplishes something of value to an employer.  Good writing skills?  That’s one tool. Effective public speaker?  That’s another.  Ability to design and use a complex database?  That’s another.

Every skills adds some value to a particular job. How much value it adds depends on the job in question — public speaking skills are a lot more valuable to a sales or publicist position than for a back-office administrator.

But note that most skills in a skills toolbox are largely practical. They are about knowing how to DO SOMETHING.  They are less focused on general knowledge, largely because most jobs are focused on DOING and not simply KNOWING, and because it is easier to simply KNOW than to be able to DO. It’s the difference between knowing how to solve a complex calculus problem in a book and being a capable engineer, or the difference between passing a law school course on civil procedure and actually being able to litigate a case successfully.

The sum of the valuable skills in your “skills toolbox” or “talent stack” is more or less a good rule of thumb as to how attractive you will look to an employer on paper.

So, if you build your “skills toolbox,” and are able to effectively advertise it on your resume, you will go farther in your job search.


#2:  Develop a network of people that work in your area of interest and know you as a person, not just as a resume

Now add to this “skills toolbox” your qualities as a reliable and trustworthy person. Remember that hiring managers usually care about two things in a job candidate:

  1. if you add value to the job in question, and
  2. whether you are reliable and trustworthy.

Even when we are young children, we start to realize that even an incredibly skilled person can be a real drag to work with if they are unreliable or untrustworthy.

This dynamic becomes even more important in the working world.  If you can’t show up on time, don’t turn your work in when you say you will, or lie/cheat/steal, you are a liability to your employer even if you are tremendously talented.

What company wants to have a liar, cheater, or thief on staff? Or someone who simply can’t be trusted to do something when they say they will?

Those people steal ideas and bring them to competitors.

They make their colleagues furious and demoralized.

And they can’t be relied on to do things when they say they will.

As you start to manage other people, you realize that what Woody Allen and Thomas Edison said about reliability and hard work are quite true:

80 percent of success is showing up.

Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Intangible qualities like trustworthiness and reliability are tough to express on a resume. Moreover, the mere act of writing something like that down arouses suspicion, because trustworthiness is something you prove through ACTIONS and not WORDS. (Just pick among a number of movies where the villain is the hero’s false friend, only to later betray them.)

Putting a variation of “I am trustworthy and reliable” on a resume is the job-seeking equivalent to a stranger who stops you on the street to ask for a favor and says, “Don’t worry, you can trust me.”

This is where your network — basically the sum of people who know you as a person and not just a resume — comes in.

Good references and recommendations are critical for building trust with a prospective employer. These are people who have spoken with you, understand that you are actually interested in a job in international affairs and aren’t just another early 20-something with a degree but no idea what they want to do with it.

One of the secrets of the working world is that being well-known and respected in your area of interest is often more valuable than a good resume, when looking for a job.

That’s simply because we like to hire people that come recommended through our community of contacts, because:

  • You are a known quantity:  You are a less risky hire than a stranger (“better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”), sort of like buying a brand-name TV instead of an unknown brand. And if you are known as being particularly good and reliable in your field, you will find that others actually seek you out for jobs.
  • You don’t want to disappoint the people who recommended you:  Because you have a reputation to protect in the community, you are more likely to be reliable and careful — if you do a bad job, you will be on the outs with the people who vouched for you.
  • You have a future reputation to protect:  As you are already integrated into the community, if you do a bad job for us, your reputation will suffer in the future. We know other people in your industry, and won’t be a good reference.

This phenomenon is particularly obvious in the public sector — not because it happens more often than in the for-profit world, but because of laws that require open competitions to fill many public sector jobs.

These laws have the laudable aims of avoiding favoritism in the selection process and attracting the best talent.

Nonetheless, if you actually end up working in a public sector job, you may see a curious phenomenon take place:

  1. A public agency posts a job opening to the general public; anyone can apply.
  2. Lots of people apply for the job.
  3. Nonetheless, the supervisor for this job already has someone in mind. Often someone they have worked with before, or someone within the organization that people highly recommend.
  4. Lots of other people apply for the job, but this recommended person inevitably wins the competition.

Seem unfair? Seen through one lens, it sure does. All these other people applied for a job that they didn’t realize they had little chance of getting. They basically wasted their time.

But seen through the supervisor’s lens, this is all too human. The supervisor just wants someone he or she knows will get the job done. She’d rather not take the risk of someone off the street, even if they have a good resume, as there’s always the risk they aren’t what they seem.

(This is a very real risk, by the way — standard job interviews are notoriously ineffective tools to screen out bad employees. And having to fire an employee is very expensive in terms of lost productivity.)

I know exactly how it works because I have hired my fair share of people.  Here’s what happens in real life:

  1. We decide to hire someone.
  2. I immediately think of everyone I know in that field who has relevant experience and is reliable, and whether they might be interested in the job.
  3. I contact people I trust to see if they know of anyone in that field who has relevant experience and is reliable.
  4. I encourage those people to apply for the job.

In other words:  if the supervisor already knows a good candidate, or if someone she trusts recommends someone, that person will have a huge advantage over almost everyone else. Sometimes everyone else doesn’t even have a chance, even though they may not realize it.


How do you do that?  You need to build insider connections.

I won’t repeat ad nauseum the advice that is out there about effective networking.  There is a lot of excellent advice out there about it (just try here, here, and here, for a few good examples).

But what I will do is tell you some practical steps you can take right now to put all of that great advice into action…to get results.

  • Get an entry-level job in your own country that puts you in contact with people that hire for the overseas jobs you want.  You may not find that great international job at first.  So take an entry-level job in your own country that puts you in contact with people who hire for those jobs you want.  If you’re good at what you do, and people speak well of your work, believe me — those folks will think of you when they hire people for overseas jobs, and you will also have an advantage when you apply for them.
  • Publish on your topic of interest, even if it’s in minor journals.  People see those articles more than you might think.  It also shows that you are serious about your area of interest.  To a hiring manager, those articles show that you were willing to use some of your free time to write about something you are interested in — and are therefore more likely to go above and beyond working for them.
  • Join — and participate in — trade associations in your field of work.  This lets you get to know a lot of people in your field beyond your immediate area of work.  While just showing up at events may not automatically get you a job, it can be the gateway to meeting people that you can set up informational interviews with later.  Participating in the association’s activities as a member of a committee ups the ante more, as you will actually be working together with these people, and they will have a chance to see how reliable you are.  (People do pay attention to these things; a lot of these volunteer committees are filled with people who overextend themselves and then don’t participate or aren’t reliable.  That also means — don’t join a committee and then fail to do the work required.)


#3:  Seek out “special sauce” speciality skills like foreign language ability

Once you are getting #1 and #2 together (your “skills toolbox” and your network), you can think about adding those “special sauce” skills that will add that top-tier flavor to your resume.

By the way, I call them “special sauce” skills for a reason.  A chef adds a special sauce to a prepared dish make average food taste incredible.

But serving a bottle of special sauce on its own won’t win that chef any Michelin stars.

In most cases, things like language skills and local cultural knowledge are not very valuable when presented on their own, in isolation.

As referenced in a previous post, speaking fluent French alone won’t guarantee you a job in France.  That’s because if, as an employer, all I need is someone who speaks English and French, I will hire a professional interpreter, or find a local employee who speaks both languages.  (And note that in the European Union, that includes anyone with an EU passport, so you are competing against almost an entire continent.)  Why pay more to hire someone who needs a work visa or any of the other complications of coming from another country?

What gets you that job is a strong skill that adds value on its own, independent of language…plus the foreign language skills.  The dish plus the special sauce.

The point is:  first focus on becoming someone who has a skill valuable in your field of work.  For example, if you want to become an international human rights lawyer, get really good at legal research, writing, and argument.

Yes, add on the language skills, but first make sure you are the best lawyer you can be.

Remember, the ultimate goal of a lawyer is to get the best results possible for their clients, not to speak a language fluently.  If you win, no one will care that you incorrectly used the indicative instead of the subjunctive a few times.

Even in my job as a consultant, where Spanish and Portuguese language fluency was extremely valuable, it would have been useless without strong quantitative, presentation, and writing skills.  No one wants a management consultant that speaks three languages but can’t put together a good Excel model or present well to a client.

Incidentally, this is more proof Elaina Giolando knows what she is talking about:

I get a variation of this question a lot: “What foreign languages should I study if I want to have an international career?” “Do I need to study another language if I want to live abroad?”

I always say it’s “nice to have.” It’ll make you stand out. It’ll get you the interview. It shows you’re smart, curious, and relevant, but it’s your expertise that will get you the job.You’ll never be hired exclusively because you speak Spanish.

Even if you speak Croatian and the office has nobody else, they’ll probably pay for a translator and an expert rather than cut corners sending a less experienced person. And conversely, you might easily get sent to Japan without speaking Japanese if you have the skills the company needs.

All that being said, once you are getting your “skills toolbox” and network in order, think about what “special sauce” skills are important in your field.  These could include:

  • Foreign language ability
  • Local cultural/political/social knowledge and contacts in geographic area you want to work in
  • Bonus skills that add value to your profession but are not necessarily required (e.g., public relations skills for an attorney, graphic design skills for a consultant, advanced financial modeling skills for a development specialist)

You can often identify these things by looking at people who excel in your field and seeing what they bring to the table that is above and beyond excellence in the required skills for that field.  You may find, for example, that an international attorney became exceptionally well-known because they were good at getting media exposure to promote their practice.

This is where informational interviews can be your friend.  Use them to ask successful people these sorts of questions:  For example. “Above and beyond being a great attorney, what additional skills would you recommend for someone entering this field?”

That way, you can identify what extra skills are important, and dedicate your time to learning them.

Parting thoughts

Again, do not worry if you are in an international relations degree program, and genuinely enjoy it.  The purpose of this post is not to dissuade you from the degree program.  Just do not rely on the degree as your ticket to an international job.

Next, start thinking about and building your “skills toolbox” today. Your “skills toolbox” is what provides tangible value to employers.  That’s why, more than anything else, it will prepare you to go far in the working world.

Alongside that, start becoming a known quantity in your area of interest.  Do informational interviews.  If you can’t find that plum overseas job right out of the gate, get an entry-level job in your own country that puts you close to the people who hire for those jobs.  Join the trade associations they belong to.  And do good work in your entry-level job, so people know you as honest, reliable, and hard-working.  That’s how you get your name out there.

Then, and only once you have those two things in motion, think about the “special sauce” skills for your dream overseas job.  Remember, the “special sauce” may be the sexist part of a dish, but without the other ingredients, it is just a bottle of sauce you wouldn’t want to drink by itself.

Finally — take action!  Reading is well and good, but at the end of the day, you have to take a chance, get out there, and do something.  Start today.









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