How to ask for career advice
Updated: Apr 14
The more people ask me for career advice, the more I realize it’s an art in itself. Or maybe not an art, exactly. Frankly, there’s a wrong an a right way to go about it.
The right way to ask others to help you figure out your next career step is by making it easy for them to help you. What does that look like? Here are seven ideas.
Let me start by explaining what that doesn’t look like. People often tell me: I just graduated in IR and I can’t find a job, so I’m feeling discouraged. Do you have any advice?
Well, I do! The thing that immediately pops into my mind is: don’t give up! After all, the absolute worst thing you can do to your career is giving up looking for jobs or other career opportunities.
If you’re asking for general advice, you’ll get a general answer. But that’s usually not what recent graduates are looking for. They want practical tips, leads on current vacancies, inside information on the coolest places to work, or perhaps an email address of someone who is hiring right now. They just don’t know how to ask.
If you want to even tempt me to bring you into contact with specific people in my network, or point you to specific organizations, you’re going to have to be a lot more specific. Like saying: I focused my degree on environmental policies and now I’m interested in working for an organization that implements them. Do you know anyone who works for a major energy or transport company?
So don’t be bland.
When someone tells me they just got a Master’s degree in IR, or I see it in their online profile, it‘s pretty much useless information. It’s way too generic because it doesn’t even begin to explain your interests or expertise. At a minimum, you should describe your main coursework or the subject of your thesis (the brilliant epistle you wrote to obtain your title!).
Even though it sounds awful, you also gotta come up with a pitch—and a solid Linked-In profile—so people understand what you do, what you know, and what you care about. Again, don’t be generic. Political consultant? Sounds like you advise political campaigns. Economic advisor? Sounds like... you studied economics.
Seriously, if you want to get hired you have to profile yourself. People are afraid to box themselves in by marketing themselves to a small sector, but I think that’s better than no sector at all. If all of your experience is in conflict studies, or in gender studies, make that clear! It’s how people can find you, talk about you, and get an idea of your expertise.
Even if you have very little experience, don’t stay anonymus. Don’t make people guess why you desire a career in IR, where you have traveled, what languages you speak, or what topics really interest you. Put it on your resume, your social media, and be ready to share your plans and dreams with anyone who cares. Because one of the people you talk to is going to help you on your way and you never know who it’s gonna be.
Be open about your job search.
It sounds easy but it’s not: telling people around you you’re looking for a job! Don’t be all shy about it. Talk it through with your friends and anyone else who might be interested. Formulate what you want, which is good practice for job interviews, listen to feedback, and generally make sure you’re “out there.” If people realize you’re serious about finding a job they might start keeping their eyes and ears open, which might help you.
If you‘re working a temp job or internship, definitely let your supervisor know what job you’re really looking for. Don’t approach an internship or volunteer job as some kind of fun intermezzo from your studies. It’s the place where you’re going to meet more professionals in your field than you ever have so don’t waste your time.
Take the opportunity of an internship to talk to everyone in the office about your career. You may not be impressed with each person you meet, but this is a huge opportunity to learn from their shared knowledge on how to succeed in that field. I noticed that interns who take it seriously and talk about their future tend to get a lot more consideration, advice, and meaningful tasks than interns who just hang around. Be that person who shows up in a suit and has good questions!
Present yourself online.
The world was already headed that way, but the pandemic has made it official. You need a good virtual presence. I google people all the time and basically decide based on their online presence how prominent they are in their field. Someone I can’t find... just doesn’t really exist.
I want to find at least someone’s LinkedIn page, which shows they have some professional connections and the jobs and studies they did. Even better are memberships to relevant clubs and organizations, published articles or blogs, or even just some evidence of travel writing or involvement with charity work.
One big benefit of having an online presence is that people can get to know you (see potential in you) without ever having met you. You must be connected so people can connect with you! People can only shoot you a message or forward you a vacancy announcement if they can reach you.
Being findable is easier than ever, but maybe you haven’t thought through all of the available possibilities yet. Start now! Compose an article and publish it on LinkedIn. Create a Twitter profile and start fellowing the movers and shakers in your field. Publish your best academic paper on Academia.edu.
The truth is, the world isn’t waiting for the next “international relations expert.” But they may be looking for the next person who has the energy to write grant proposals, design a social media campaign, cares about cyber security, or can run data analysis on the impact of health projects. So spread the message—and your contact details—about your own unique experience and skill set.
Run your ideas by experts.
Your professor may not have time to sit down for a coffee and give you career advice. But he or she might be interested enough in your rudimentary ideas to comment on them. Hey prof, I want to be the head of a global firm one day: should I learn Chinese for the next two years or take business classes instead?
Experienced people, especially those choosing to teach or mentor, love to give advice as long as they know what you’re looking for—and that you’re actually listening. So tell them exactly what your (potential) plan is and listen to their feedback. Even if you don’t like it, there might be something useful in there.
Market your skill.
How many times have I heard young, highly educated women say during job interviews: I’d love the opportunity to work here and learn. Wrong! They don’t realize they already have marketable skills or they’re too shy to acknowledge it. The bad news is that it won’t get them the reaction they’re hoping for: Oh no, a person I have to teach everything! Let’s hire someone who already has skills and also the confidence to use them!
Instead, you want to be known as the person who can. Like: Hey, where should I apply for a job, you think? I’m good at organizing and motivating people, which I used during my studies to set up a study group focused on US-Arab relations. Or: I got a degree in international economics, which I want to use for creating business strategies for sustainable tourism—do know anyone who works in this industry?
Trust me, if people approach me like that, I go out of my way to connect them to people in my network because they sound like people with proven potential. And you know, your resume doesn’t have to be fancy. Maybe you just worked in a fairtrade shop during college and now you’re interested in sustainable supply chains—that’s cool too. Just don’t say you got an IR degree and that’s it. Nobody cares.
It’s not that nobody likes IR graduates, it’s just too tedious to figure out what school you attended (I’ve probably never heard of your university), what courses you took, and what qualities you may or may not possess. So my advice is to find a way to describe yourself and your goals. And keep it real. Save the “make the world a better place” for your diary and tell potential employers why you’re a good team player, analytical thinker, innovativor, or born entrepreneur. Help them help you!
Want to know more about working for the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov or check it out on social media @DOSCareers
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