17 Proven Ways to Launch your International Career
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
I’ve written a lot about becoming a diplomat on this blog, but I just realized it’s also about something much broader than that; it’s about how to start a career in international relations in general and then maybe become a diplomat.
It’s fine if you’re a waitress or a stage actress (I’ve been both) and read these types of blogs to prepare yourself specifically for the Foreign Service exam. Maybe you’ve never seriously considered a career in international affairs and you just want to give it a try, see what happens. You’re not sure about what you want with your career and if it has to be international in nature.
But maybe—and I’d say probably—you’re already pretty serious about having an international career, whether you pass the foreign service exams or not. So in this post I want to talk about how to do that. Because launching an international career is not the easiest thing to do, and the way the way to do it isn’t exactly obvious. In my experience, it takes a lot of effort, out-of-the-box thinking, courage, creativity and persistence to make it happen. Part of that is because a lot of jobs in international relations aren’t well known. To get a sense of what kind of jobs are out there, read my related post on 17 Cool IR jobs you may not have heard of yet.
In this post, I talk about all the things I did when I studied International Relations (IR) and after I graduated to kick-start my career and, more importantly, I’ll talk about what the people in my network did: what they studied, which entry-level jobs they did and how they found them, and where they ended up working later.
Frankly, I wish I would’ve had an overview like this when I was just starting out. Sure, my university showed students some options for what to do after graduation, suggesting we’d go work for the EU (I studied in the Netherlands) or a multinational corporation. But I always felt like they were skipping a big, important step; they never talked about what we should do immediately after getting our degrees; or which skills we should focus on developing; or how we should use our networks to land a job.
So let’s talk about the 17 things that put me and other people I know on a path to a successful international career!
The first thing I did when I was close to graduating was looking for internship opportunities. It wasn’t that I thought internships would help my career per se; it was more that I felt that offering my services for free was probably the only way to get a job at that point.
Also, I wanted to do an internship because I was confused about where to work, and what various international organizations actually worked on, so I was desperate to get inside somewhere and see with my own eyes what it was really like.
I decided it would make most sense to apply for internships you can only get when you’re a student, which led me to the UN (and later to an embassy). I sent some letters, got an approval, took out a small loan to pay for travel and living expenses, flew to Nigeria, and settled into a cheap hotel for three months. Especially in the beginning, I had an overwhelming sense of cluelessness. It took me months to figure out how the organization worked. And even though I ended up making a small contribution to the agency I worked, I definitely didn’t move any mountains.
But the fact that I went to Nigeria was, in itself, life changing. I got introduced to expat life; became friends with like-minded people; and I met my future husband. After my first internship I got such a taste of life overseas that I continued to work in a variety of jobs and on several different continents. Without a doubt, internships started my international career (and life). But more importantly, most of the people in my network who have international careers did international internships—most of them several, like me.
Internships are pretty much the Holy Grail when it comes to launching an international career. I didn’t realize it at the time, but besides getting a chance to feel out a work environment, internships are really good for learning about international issues, gaining marketable skills; getting access to organizations that are notoriously difficult to get into; networking; and building your resume.
Want to know more? Read more about the do’s and don’ts of internships.
Ready to send your resume out to some interesting international organizations? Read about how to make your resume shine here!
2. OVERSEAS VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
One regret I have is not doing a long-term volunteering stint when I had the chance. I wish I’d done an overseas volunteer program, where the government sends you abroad for two years to work in a development country, right after graduation, or perhaps between my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
Over the years, I’ve met TONS of people with international careers who started out as volunteers in one of these programs. Volunteer programs like Peace Corps (US), VSO (Netherlands and UK) and JICA (Japan) offer all of the benefits internships do, and much more.
Two years abroad transforms you personally; allows you to become fluent in a foreign language; shows everyone how committed you are to your goals and to public service; develops your skills in whatever area you work in (eg. business, teaching or health); gets you familiarized with various international organizations and companies; teaches you valuable lessons about foreign cultures; and connects you with like-minded people.
The reason I didn’t do much research into volunteering programs as a student and never signed up was a mixture of ignorance, fear of being abroad on my own, and a sense of responsibility for paying off my student loans ASAP. In hindsight, I think I could have overcome those hurdles and I’m sure I would’ve had an amazing time. My husband did Peace Corps and, like many others I know, he remembers it as the best time of his life—plus he got to use the experience and skills he gained later in his career.
Go to my blog to read more about how to leverage volunteering into international careers!
3. GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS FOR GOING OVERSEAS
It seems like a mission impossible to find a cool job overseas when you’re sitting in your student dorm, searching the internet for job openings. When you’re still a student you probably don’t have a ton of connections in other countries, and sending out a resume that says “I just graduated and I want a cool job overseas” isn’t very effective.
Fortunately, governments across the world have programs (besides volunteering) to send their citizens overseas for work or study. They provide things like local contacts, scholarships and logistical support, which is important, because it’s difficult and a little scary to arrange everything yourself.
Some examples? Well, one idea is to apply for a Fulbright scholarship; everyone can apply, no matter your field of study. You can do your Master’s abroad but I know people who got a Fulbright scholarship after they already got a Master’s degree (to do another Master's). You don’t have to be an academic nerd or a straight-A student, although I’m not going to lie: it’s pretty competitive.
Another option is the United Nations Junior Professional Officer (JPO) program, used by many countries that are members of the UN to place their nationals in junior positions at various agencies. A Dutch friend of mine got in with UNHCR as a JPO—it’s a good way in, because it's 10 years later now and she’s still there. Incidentally, I saw that some governments also accept JPO applications from people from “developing countries.”
In the US, you can apply for the Professional Management Fellowship (PMF) program, which allows you to work in various federal agencies for brief periods of time. I met several PMFs who worked in embassies overseas, usually for six months at a time, some of whom later joined USAID or became Foreign Service Officers. And there are more government programs you’ll find if you do some research.
Now obviously, these paid positions are going to be more competitive than most internships and volunteering programs. But that's not a reason not to try. Besides, if you do some research you also might find other opportunities for short-term government contract work overseas—just go to USAjobs.gov and type in a country to get an idea.
4. HAVE A DAZZLING RESUME
So what do you do once you’ve done your internship and you’re ready to start applying for real jobs? How do you market yourself as an up-and-coming international affairs professional when you only have three months of relevant work experience? Having an awesome resume is an absolute must. And I'm not talking about formatting—I'm talking about content.
Part of making your resume shine is about thinking about your past experience and being creative; try to remember any experiences that prove you have skills your future employer is potentially looking for and write them down in such a way that they're relevant to the positions you’re planning to apply for.
You probably did a lot more stuff than you realize at first. I know plenty of people who told me they didn’t have work experience while in reality they’d had jobs since they were 13, were part of various committees, did some teaching, studied languages, helped set up a business, actively supported political campaigns, created or maintained websites, organized school trips, raised five brothers and sisters, or did other impressive things that involve transferable, marketable skills.
It's important to realize that these experiences can, to varying degrees, impress employers and prove that you have qualifications for the position you want, or at least for the entry-level position you’re applying for. It’s all about finding a way to show on your resume (and in your cover letter) who you are, what you care about, and what you’re capable of.
On the other hand, I also know people who are amazing at fluffing up their resumes—some of them kids who are still in high school. I met people whose resumes are so long and impressive it's hard to reconcile with reality, because I know who they are and how limited their experience is. But you know what? Good for them. You should never lie on your resume, but maybe there’s nothing wrong with glorifying certain experiences and making up a job title here and there—as long as you did the actual work you’re describing.
5. DO LOTS OF “CONSULTING”
Many international careers start and end with consulting. Consulting is a perfect way to get experience, build your resume, and get “in” with international organizations. Many, many internationalists I know did a number of short-term consultancies at the start of their careers and continued doing them throughout. They also tend to do them at the tail-end of their careers, cashing in on their life-long experience by doing short-term stints that earn them many hundreds of dollars per day.
I always found it counter-intuitive, though, for people to become consultants when they’re fresh out of college. Consultants are hired for their skill-sets and for specific tasks, often acting as advisors on important projects. So how come organizations hire people with little or no experience?
Well, I found out later that “consultant” is simply an umbrella term given to people who are, essentially, contractors: short-term hires who are brought on to get some task done for which nobody else in the organization has time, or to develop a new line of work. Many organizations are happy to hire recent graduates as consultants because they’re highly motivated and have modest salary demands. It’s also a way for organizations to see if they like working with you without having to “fire” you if you’re not a good match, or if projects fall through and they don’t need you anymore.
Typical tasks for entry-level “consultants” include information gathering, report drafting, proposal writing, project monitoring and evaluation, and developing social media strategies. Titles run the gamut of project advisor, analyst, developer, officer, manager, assistant, specialist, expert, and associate. Sometimes you can ask to have your title changed so it sounds better, e.g. “advisor” instead of “assistant.”
In the old days, it looked pretty bad on your resume to work at organizations for less than a year, and you would have had to explain the circumstances of your departure every time you applied for a new job. But now, if you put “consultant” as your job title, nobody bats an eye. They just assume the organization liked you enough to hire you for one of their projects and don’t worry about why they didn’t hire you again afterwards. Meanwhile, this allows you to rack up experience in lots of different organizations and in different fields!
6. GET AN “IN” WITH BIG ORGANIZATIONS
When I chose my internships, I pretty much did it based on how big and important the organizations were. I originally applied for smaller organizations because I felt I could learn more about different aspects of the work (I was interested in development work at that time) but I changed my mind once I realized having the “UN” on my resume could open more doors for me than some tiny NGO in the middle of nowhere; I would meet more people and I’d potentially have a leg up when applying for a real job there.
Looking at the organizations people in my network have worked for early in their careers, a number of them appear particularly popular with the development/humanitarian crowd. Perhaps it’s simply because they’re hard to avoid if you’re looking to go in that direction, but my feeling is that people seek these organizations out mainly for the three reasons I mentioned above: networking, resume building, and setting themselves up for future roles in those organizations.
The organizations I’m talking about are the UN (especially agencies like UNDP, UNODC and UNHCR), the Red Cross (both national and international chapters), the World Bank, and major national development agencies like USAID (the US national development agency) and DFID (the UK national development agency). Most people don’t get to work in headquarters right away, though; they have to prove themselves worthy by doing fieldwork in remote places before being invited to work in Vienna, Geneva, Washington DC or New York.
7. GET EXPERIENCE “IN THE FIELD”
Which brings us to field experience. Oh my, I wanted field experience more than anything after I’d completed my rigorous and rather academic 4-year degree called International Relations and Organization.
Fortunately, there are lots of development organizations and foundations that rely on young and eager people (read: without a family) to come work in their field offices for a while—usually for modest pay.
Of course, the more well known the organization is, the more competitive the jobs are likely going to be. After all, if you can find the job online, so can everyone else. In general, it’s always better to find tips and recommendations in your own network—but more on that later.
If you can’t find a job opening but you know which organization you want to work for, it’s also possible to send an introductory letter, telling them that you’re hoping they’ll contact you if they have a vacancy—but that’s probably only going to work if you have a very marketable skill, or if you manage to get in touch with somebody and build a rapport with that person.
Otherwise, you’re relegated to browsing job boards and the various websites that advertise jobs worldwide for multinational companies, foundations, and NGOs that have offices in many countries like Save the Children, Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, the International Rescue Committee, Church World Services, the Asia Foundation, ACTED, InterAction, IOM, OSCE, Oxfam, Terres des Hommes, and the Clinton Foundation.
I also noticed that many people in my network started out working for research institutes and think tanks. Honestly, there are many, many options beyond what I’m mentioning here. You just have to do research, talk to lots people who know anything about working abroad, build a network and follow up on leads, and trust that one day that job you’re looking for will arrive. If you persist, it will.
8. GO LOCAL
I also have a bunch of friends and connections who built an impressive career by moving away from their country of origin and establishing themselves somewhere totally different, becoming the “outsider with all the insider knowledge.” Like that Dutch volunteer in Nigeria I wrote about in How volunteering abroad leads to an international career who is now a serious businessperson at her company Naijalink and other people I know who did similar things.
So moving abroad is definitely a proven strategy to start an international career. Advantages of moving first, and figuring out what to do later include; it’s easier to find a job when you’re already there; you’ll have a good “launching point” if you interned/volunteered for an organization there that has a good image; you can get help from other expats who work and live there; and you can work and change jobs on your own terms (something which is much harder when you’re sent abroad as an expat).
9. GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
When I was looking for an internship abroad, I wasn’t looking at London, Brussels or New York. I knew that I would get the most value, in terms of experience and personal growth, out of going somewhere totally different. There’s really no other way to explain why else I went as far as Nigeria, right? Everyone around me thought I was crazy, including my doctor who—when putting a rabies shot in my arm—said she’d rather die than go there.
Once I landed in Nigeria, though, it didn’t take long before I found a bunch of awesome people to hang out with from a variety of countries (Argentina, Lebanon, France). When you’re in a totally different place and live under tough circumstances (no electricity, rampant malaria, no rule of law) you bond with other people quickly. Everyone I met was interesting, adventurous and passionate about what they did. When I look back at what became of those people I can only conclude that they’ve all been very successful in their careers.
Some have stayed in Nigeria (or returned there) to set up their own business—I’m talking about two amazing young women here who both, independently, set up thriving companies. Another one has a PhD in African studies now; one has an enviable job at an international foundation in New York; and another one is moving and working all over the world for her job in health and development.
So if you go abroad, I suggest you go someplace that will truly challenge you. That will force you to make connections, view the world from a new perspective, and make you feel like your stay there meant something. So go somewhere not everyone else is going—go someplace where you’ll stand out and deal with things you’ve never dealt with before.
10. LEARN A WORLD LANGUAGE
There’s language study and there’s language study. I don’t want to sound mean, but if you want to work abroad you should learn a foreign language—ideally a world language—and speak it well. If you're just messing around with it, you're wasting your time.
When you apply for an international job and you say you speak French, Arabic or Russian, you better know how to speak and write it. Otherwise there’s no way you can evaluate projects, draft reports, give presentations or make contacts effectively and efficiently—you’d be totally dependent on other people’s patience and ability to translate things for you. Knowing a foreign looks great on your resume, but it will catch up with you if you're actually a beginner.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that you should start learning a foreign language as soon as possible, and really commit to it. The benefits will be enormous and long-term. If you master a foreign language that's used in a big region of the world, it will open up job opportunities in various countries. It will automatically make you more competitive than others for positions that benefit from foreign language skills.
And you should definitely see language training as an opportunity. I’ve learned three foreign languages (and studied about six of them), and I found that learning a new language really opens your mind and makes you aware of new cultures, places and ideas. It’s not a boring, technical process. It challenges you to venture into new territory, make new friends, travel, and understand geography, history and other cultures better.
The best way to learn a new language is to go abroad for at least 3-6 months and totally immerse yourself in it; then continue learning and practicing that language with native speakers back home until you can dream in it. The process itself is challenging but makes you a smarter, more disciplined person. And you should do it as early as possible—you may not have much self-discipline at a young age, but you have more time to study and a quicker brain!
11. FINISH YOUR DEGREE—THEN MAKE IT INTERNATIONAL
Now let’s talk about education for a minute. Someone asked me what kind of education you need to become a diplomat. I told her it almost doesn’t matter. Most academic skills are universal. Diplomats come from all kinds of backgrounds. But it also got me thinking about education and writing a blog post with good and bad reasons to focus your education on your international career goals.
On the international labor market, levels of education vary. Bachelor’s degrees are the minimum, Master’s are the norm, and double Master’s and PhDs are not uncommon. But don’t feel too intimidated, because several people I know got their highest degree later in life, or they got them at overseas universities where you can earn a Master’s degree in one or two years.
When I thought about what the people in my network studied, I realized there’s a bit of a theme. Many of them studied something with the word “international” in it, like international law, international relations, international development, international public policy, and international economics.
Some have even more specialized degrees like international child education, gender and development, international public health, or environmental studies. The benefit of studying something "international" is that you get the international perspective plus a useful skill.
But I also know many people who work in foreign affairs who have more traditional backgrounds like in architecture, biology, anthropology and engineering. And several have general business degrees. You can gain knowledge about international work by simply going abroad, either through an internship or working for an organization or company that works overseas. It's not that difficult nowadays!
Want to know what kinds of jobs you can get with your (international) degree? Read about 17 cool international jobs I didn’t even know existed.
12. START A BUSINESS OVERSEAS
Personally, I’m always in awe of people who not only moved abroad (semi)permanently but also managed to start their own organization. I know a few people who were quite young when they opened their own NGOs abroad, providing specific services related to things like research, agriculture, election monitoring, media, and health. This is not very different from consulting, except that an organization can grow quite big.
I also know people who were already mid-career when they created companies abroad, some with a strong commercial focus such as business consulting, farming, and construction. Some only need a website and get their clients through their network, like my friend who explains here how started a HR consulting business, while other initiatives I know of were very capital intensive, required significant investment (some did online fundraising) and took years to become profitable. This is not an easy route to take—all I'm saying is that I've seen people do it, pretty much anywhere.
13. GET BROAD SKILLS & EXPERIENCE
Lots of internationalists have incredibly varied resumes. Already having some work experience when getting out of college can show potential employers how motivated and well rounded you already are, which are important attributes if you’re pursuing a “generalist” position in IR.
During and after college, you should do a variety of jobs and activities, like volunteering, sitting on boards, and writing, because it will open up more opportunities in the future than if you stay in some narrow lane and have little or nothing to talk about during job interviews (and on your resume).
One particularly prolific friend of mine did five different jobs and internships before finishing college, then dabbled in political campaigning, business analysis, humanitarian work and teaching/coaching. Those were all good jobs for learning the substance and transferable skills she’s leveraging now as a successful (independent) development consultant.
You can also work it the other way around: get one specific, marketable skill that allows you to work in any international sector you want. I have a friend who’s good at research and data analysis, which she’s used to work for a host of different organizations in various countries on youth issues, health, food security, migration and development finance.
14. FIND A (NEW) NICHE
If you like innovation and especially when you’re not afraid of the word “digital,” you can also carve out a niche in which you’re going to be one of the few experts around. I know some people who did this quite successfully. They focused on relatively new international issues like cyber crime, digital fundraising, and designing mobile applications for developing countries.
These people made their choice early on and stayed laser-focused on gaining experience in their niche and creating new platforms and groups so they could stay on top of everything that happening in their field. They don’t seem to travel as much as other internationalists, however, perhaps because of the “digital” nature of their areas of expertise they do everything online.
But you don’t have to invent something to become an expert or have a unique specialty. There are plenty of traditional international affairs areas that need young people to specialize and learn about all the newest and latest developments.
Common sectors include—and are definitely not limited to—environment, water and sanitation, (mental) health, humanitarian work, pharmaceuticals, conflict and stabilization, education, HIV/AIDS, gender, human trafficking, migration, media and design, communications and public relations, monitoring and evaluation, refugees, vocational training, elections, governance, agriculture and livestock, human resources, business facilitation and engineering.
In other words: if you’re specialized in any of these things, there’s an international job for you somewhere.
15. GET SPECIALIZED EDUCATION
It’s not weird for internationalists to get additional education when they’re already mid-career. Partially, this is because some people decide to move into international affairs later in life, or to specialize in something, and partially because some people realize they can be more competitive and make more money if they get a certain degree.
For example, some people are hired by fancy institutions like the World Bank but don’t have the “typical” educational background their position requires. Later on, especially if they want to move to a similar or higher position in the same field, they feel like they need the academic credentials.
For example, I know a consultant who only had an IR degree when she was hired by the World Bank as a health consultant. When the job ended she decided to get a Master’s in public health, which instantly transformed her into a highly sought-after consultant in the health sector, able to charge a thousand dollars per day!
16. NETWORK ALL THE TIME
Whatever you do, you should always be networking. When you’re young, it’s sometimes hard to see how talking to lots of strangers and exchanging contact details is going to help you now. But I learned that it definitely helps, often unexpectedly, both in the short term and the long term.
It’s really hard to find a good job by yourself without any leads or people putting in a good word for you. Heck, it’s tough to even identify relevant vacancies by yourself because they’re advertised in lots of different places. You need to know people who know you’re looking for a job and who can tell you where to start.
Start your networking with the people who are naturally around you; your friends and family, your fellow students, and your colleagues—even if you work at a coffee shop. I got my UN internship entirely based on chatting with someone I bartended with. Then expand your network by going to conferences and adding everyone you know plus their grandmother on LinkedIn—aim for 500+ connections!
Read more about the art of networking and why it always pays off.
17. DONT GET DISCOURAGED.
Let’s be honest, a career in IR is not the simplest thing to comprehend or achieve, and some people just never really get started. Some of my fellow IR students ended up as history teachers, police officers and chocolatiers. From what I can tell, they never really tried to put their degree to work—at least not in the way we talked about it in class.
Like with anything else, persistence is crucial. Don’t give up, even if it takes a while to find the right direction. For me, it took a decade of soul-searching before I chose a career in diplomacy and even after I made my decision, it was hard to fully commit to it because I thought I might fail. Moreover, I did many surprising (and some disappointing) jobs along the way. In hindsight, I woudn't want it any other way. I guess the only thing I'd do differently is acting more confidently because I'd know that what I was doing was valuable and important, and that it was leading somewhere.
So just hang in there and enjoy the journey!