17 Cool International Affairs Jobs I Didn’t Even Know Existed
Updated: Jan 10
When I graduated from university with a Master’s in International relations (IR), I’m embarrassed to admit, I had no clue what to do with my degree.
This might sounds crazy to some people, but I studied in the Netherlands where you’re basically expected to choose your major at 18 or 19 years old. You try to obtain a bachelor’s degree within three years and immediately top it off with a master’s degree in one or two more. So I was only 23 when I graduated and I had no work experience at all (apart from acting and waitressing).
But even if you go through the American system, where you’re forced to put more thought into your study choices because it costs more time to obtain a degree, costs way more money, and you have to write application letters, you may still end up with only a general idea about what kinds of IR jobs exist.
When looking around the web to find out how to put my IR degree to use, I found that many websites provide only general suggestions like “diplomat” or “economist“ that didn’t mean much to me and didn’t give me clear ideas about which skills to acquire, organizations to research, or how to apply.
So in this post I want to get specific about which fields and jobs there are in IR. I can't tell you about all the jobs that exist, because I don’t know them all, and I’m not going to say which jobs are the coolest, the best paid, or anything like that. It’s just an overview of the jobs people in my network got with their international degrees (in international relations, business, development, economics, law, public policy, health, etc.) by the time they were in their thirties.
1. “OTHER” DIPLOMAT
Many students of IR entertain the idea of becoming a diplomat. But the term "diplomat" shouldn’t be interpreted too strictly. To become a diplomat-of-all-trades (generalist) you have to take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), but your options for a diplomatic career don't end there. There are lots of different positions in embassies, as I explain in my blog post 12 ways to work at the embassy. Or check out careers.state.gov for current vacancies.
And besides embassies, you can be a diplomat for the UN, the IMF, World Bank, and other intergovernmental institutions. Most of these jobs require more specialized skills than a general degree in IR though, such as international economics, development or public health—so if you want to have options, that’s something to consider when choosing your major.
Development organizations, international companies, consultancy groups, foundations and think tanks working on IR issues all need people with good research skills. Because it involves data and statistics, economics is a good background to have if you want to get into this line of work, but you can also have a more general background in IR, history, or anthropology.
The best thing to do, if you want to be a researcher, is to incorporate courses on qualitative and quantitative research in your curriculum. Also look at the websites of international organizations you like and check if they need researchers or use the keyword “researcher” in international job search sites like devex.com and idealist.org.
Strangely, I didn’t hear anything about consulting during my studies, even though in the world of IR—and increasingly everywhere else—that’s one of the most common jobs to have. Many people either start out as a consultant to get experience (and because they’re not yet competitive for permanent positions at international organizations) or start consulting after they’ve built up a resume and a professional network.
Anyone with an education and/or experience in IR can be a consultant, but in my experience it’s easiest when you have both general skills (like research or communication) and substantive expertise. You can get substantive expertise by focusing your coursework, internships and entry-level jobs on typical IR fields like environment, education, children, health, transnational crime, or economics, or a “cross-cutting” theme like gender.
It probably helps to familiarize yourself with some of the biggest consultancy companies in your field and figure out what they’re looking for. In the field, I’ve run into consultants working for KPMG, Palladium, Chemonics, Aktis, Deloitte, Coffey and PSI, and there are several more (a Google search will reveal).
4. INDEPENDENT CONSULTANT
Once I entered my thirties, many of my friends who (like me) spent a decade doing odd jobs for a variety of companies and government organizations abroad, suddenly became independent/freelance consultants. Some of them started a business, complete with a cool name, fancy logo and a website. For example, a British friend who worked in HR for companies like Procter and Gamble now runs her own company from Chile (read about how she became an entrepreneur in my latest blog article).
I’m not saying it’s easy to start and run a business, but perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s easier—and more common—than ever. It’s never been cheaper and more accepted for young professionals to be the CEOs of their own small companies, working together with others on a short-term basis and chasing projects that inspire them and lead to the kinds of return they’re looking for (it’s not always money; it can also be contributing to important issues, or gaining exposure and experience in a new sector).
If that sounds attractive to you, it makes sense to focus on gaining some business skills from the moment you start your international career. Take business courses, gather like-minded people around you (you may want to start a business with someone else, or a small group), join a start-up so you can learn how to set up a company, and build a large professional network.
5. MONITORING & EVALUATION (M&E)
Monitoring and evaluation is an essential skill for anyone trying to have a career in IR, especially in the development world. The work falls somewhere between development work and doing research on it. Basically, you need skills in both areas. It’s unfortunate I never heard about M&E during my studies because I love what it entails: getting involved in lots of different projects; measuring progress and impact; and making recommendations on how to do things better.
I recently found this (external) blog post about how to get into M&E written by someone with experience that sounds pretty honest. It says there are different ways to get into M&E, and that there’s not one type of education that fits best. But the most direct way is probably to take courses on research methods, survey design and statistics, and if possible, to acquire some form of M&E certification so you can hit the job market fully equipped.
Not dissimilar from M&E in some respects, analysts are used in every sub-field and sector of IR to understand things better. Generally speaking, the work is less academic and data-driven than “research” done for institutes and large IOs and more focused on policies and projects that are ongoing—so perhaps it’s fair to say there’s a little bit more action involved.
The analysts I met in the field of IR had educational backgrounds in business and pretty much any other field—from Africa studies to history and biology. They worked on things like intelligence and data gathering and measuring the progress in programming (HIV/AIDS, employment initiatives, governance, etc.). They were very sharp people who knew how to gather, handle, connect, write and present information and ideas.
Another type of analyst is a “risk analyst”: someone who researches, reports and analyzes data and information regarding any potential risk threatening assets, sales potential, or success of organizations in the industrial, commercial and public sectors. This is the kind of job that can be international, for example when clients need research on different countries, cultures and customs.
7. CROSS-CULTURAL WORK
Who says you can’t get a cool IR job with a background in cultural anthropology, regional studies, or history? There are certainly jobs for people who love to work with people across the world on cultural projects, educational exchange, and language programs.
I met people who were education officers in development organizations, Foreign Service Officers working on public affairs, Fulbright (student exchange) program managers, language program coordinators, managers of cultural centers, and refugee integration specialists.
The number of these jobs is somewhat limited in the sense that you can’t easily start your own business in it (although I know someone who was a freelance student exchange coordinator), which means you’ll probably work for the government directly or indirectly (dependent on government funding). But as the world is becoming more interconnected, there are more and more opportunities in the field of enhancing cross-cultural understanding and cooperation.
You just have to look around and don’t dismiss a job because it doesn’t seem very “high profile” to work as a student exchange coordinator or a program manager at a cultural institution that’s not very well known. If your job is to work with foreign students and institutions, it’s likely to be challenging on a professional level and satisfying on a personal level. Working with people on tangible goals is something that not only feels very useful but also has potential for all kinds of related international projects and initiatives.
8. PROGRAM MANAGER/COORDINATOR
If you have great interpersonal skills and organizational talent, you might want to consider a career in program and people management, and get as much experience with managing teams and projects as you can before you launch your international career. After all, international jobs are more often than not “project-based.” You can become a manager and strategist working on programs on a regional or country-level, for example managing volunteers in the Peace Corps program, coordinating humanitarian projects at the Red Cross, coordinating humanitarian responses, health initiatives, research teams, etc.
9. (MICRO) FINANCE
More interested in economics? Fortunately, you don’t have to be an economic scientist to work on finance issues in development countries and there are lots of economically focused jobs that require only some economic background or work experience. For example, working on cool international development micro finance programs, like Kiva or Microsave, or international financial service companies like Mastercard and Western Union.
10. SOCIAL ENTERPRISES
Staying on the economic theme for a moment, there are many international organizations and companies nowadays that are a business but still want to help people in less developed country do business better and have a positive social impact. For example, they develop software so NGOs can fundraise better, or provide access to mobile and online banking to foreign governments and companies. There are also supermarket chains that do exciting things in this area, whether or not they call themselves “social enterprises,” as well as certain energy, beauty, and travel companies.
11. CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY (CSR)
Another way to work in business but have a job but that focuses, at least in part, on social, environmental and political impact abroad, or otherwise trying to making the world slightly better, is to work on corporate social responsibility (CSR) for an international company. These days, there are lots of them that are serious about their CSR work, like (just to name a few): Lego, Microsoft, Walt Disney, BMW, and Intel.
Honestly, I haven’t met a lot of people who work on CSR full-time. Those who do may be doing it largely as a form of PR and are essentially marketing managers. But if you look around in large international industries, like coffee, energy, and apparel, that make or grow their products overseas, you can probably find many companies that incorporate social responsibility as an integral part of their general strategy—or even their main strategy.
Large organizations always need good communication specialists, like people who are good at promoting, strategizing, branding, social media, and so on. The UN is a good example of that; they have communication managers all over the world. Regional institutions and large NGOs often have them, as do many large international companies, of course. I’m not saying there’s an unlimited number of communication jobs—especially not “in the field”—but the truth is that increasingly, international organizations want a good communicator on their team.
In the past, it was generally assumed that anyone who is a good manager, or writer, or strategist, is also a good communicator, able to produce reports and information necessary for business development and other forms of self promotion. Nowadays, people realize that in you have to fight for positive attention; that image is important; and that you can’t afford a bad reputation. So they’re going to love it when you apply with (proven) marketing skills.
I’m not saying IR students should switch their career to communications (yet), but I don’t think it hurts to add communication type courses to your curriculum if you want to have a big edge over others and see yourself as someone who could become an international marketing manager somewhere.
As a student, I never gave much thought to how humanitarian assistance was delivered in areas struck by war or disaster. Perhaps I thought it was just brought in by transport companies? And doled out by volunteers who just happened to be present at that time?
It wasn’t until I worked in the humanitarian sector in Pakistan that I came to understand the immense amount of management, organization, research, reporting and fundraising that goes into humanitarian responses; and how political it is (it’s very political); and how much money is involved (billions of dollars); and how many friggin’ humanitarian disasters there are at any given time!
Basically, you can be a humanitarian with any kind of educational background. You can work in sectors like health, protection, construction, education, nutrition, water and sanitation, and many others. I feel like if I had followed even one course on humanitarianism in college, I would have tried to get on with UNHCR or one of the many other organizations that work in this field immediately. But I didn’t know much about it so I didn’t work in on humanitarian issues until I almost accidentally stumbled on a job in it. It’s kind of a regret of mine.
14. BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT
Lots of jobs in international relations are somehow tied to the government, in which case business development is not something you have to worry about much. People solicit you for money, which is a comfortable position to be in. Companies and non-governmental organizations, however, constantly have to look for new projects and find their ways to new pots of money.
When I was told for the first time by my boss to start doing business development I was shocked; first of all because I knew NOTHING about it and second of all because I felt my job—advising, coordinating and researching migration issues—had nothing to do with finding new clients. I also thought “business development” sounded a bit dirty, honestly, because it implied I had to go out and beg for money instead of “wowing” donors with my work, which I felt was the thing I should be doing.
So, I was pretty naïve about business development. Anyway, I’ve since learned that business development isn’t always scary, and I’m not terrible at it. I’m not the most gifted salesperson because I find it challenging to convince people to hire me face-to-face, and perhaps I’m not great at discovering business opportunities, but I’m decent at writing proposals and recruiting teams, and coming up with workable ideas.
By watching people who were much better at all of these things than I was, I learned that you can be immensely successful if you’re a consultant, business owner, or work at organization that depends on external funding, if you’re good at business development. If you have a flair for it and a proven track record, you’re golden—and you can get good those things by working really hard at it.
I’m guessing a business degree wouldn’t hurt if you wanted to specialize in business development. But studying IR is also very helpful because it familiarizes you with the relevant issues and organizations, the lingo they use, how they’re funded, and how they manage and implement their grants.
15. MIGRATION EXPERT
With millions of people on the move at any given time, the topic of international migration is increasingly significant in political, economic, and development circles. In Europe, it was was basically ignored until 2015, because nobody knew what to do. When it suddenly became a hot-button issue, that meant lots of new projects had to be developed.
There are a number of international organizations doing interesting work on migration issues including UNHCR, ICMPD, IOM, and the Norwegian and Danish refugee councils (they hire international staff, I know several Americans who work there). In the US, the migration debate is different, and there are many different facets to the work; from sheltering refugees to working on economic migration policy to understanding and countering illegal migration.
16. GENDER SPECIALIST
In the international development sector, gender is an important cross-cutting theme. Every sector—health, education, nutrition, etc.—has a gender component nowadays, and there are several millennium development goals that are about women specifically, like “promoting gender equality and empowering women” and “improving maternal health.” So the UN, in particular, needs people who are good at this stuff.
And there are other gender-related issues in international affairs, some more developmental and others more political in nature. Think about the global fight against human trafficking; promoting LGBTQI rights; promoting and implementing anti-gender-based violence laws abroad, training law enforcement officials on dealing with gender issues, and advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights issues.
17. HEALTH, HEALTH, HEALTH
I never felt attracted to the health sector, so I can’t speak from experience, but looking around in the international job market, health is everywhere. To prove my point, I encourage you to go to www.usajobs.gov right now and enter the search term "health," or search for any country or level (like: recent graduates) and you’ll see that there are many, many health related jobs available, including: public health advisor, health scientist, physical therapist, clinical nurse, medical provider, physician, epidemiologist, and psychiatrist.