International Relations Career Checklist
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
I often get asked how to get started in the field of international relations. I’ve written many lengthy blogposts—essentially a small book—on the topic. On the types of IR jobs that exist and what kind of education you need for them, on getting practical experience, on networking, on resume writing, and more. Still, the question that keeps hitting my inbox is: I'm studying IR, now what?
So here’s my answer. It's a checklist of things that you should probably be doing and thinking about if you're serious about making it in IR. So you don’t have to read any of the other posts I painstakingly (not really) crafted, although I added the links to them just in case, because this is essentially the summary.
What you should study
✓ Get a degree. Resumes matter in IR and an academic degree is indispensable. If you don't know what you want to do exactly, don't keep worrying about it; focus on acquiring general academic skills, broad knowledge on relevant topics, decent grades, and finishing the program. Check!
✓ Choose electives wisely. Once you're on your way, start adding courses to your curriculum that teach you something useful for the future of your dreams. I wasted time on courses in journalism and Greek just because my friends took them while I should have chosen topics I really cared about, like migration and humanitarianism, or behavioral economics, or human geography. It's important to take your own preferences seriously.
✓ Consider a specific field inside IR. On the other hand, if you have a strong hunch that you would like to work in international business, or in global health, consider getting a more specialized degree instead of a general IR degree. Think through specific jobs you're attracted to and decide if you would be more competitive for them if you chose international economics, or business, or public health.
✓ Don't accumulate degrees because you lack confidence. Getting a bachelor's degree is a great idea, and a master's degree too if you have the opportunity. But getting a second master's or a PhD may not be worth it unless you have a very specific plan (or sponsor) and probably isn't a good idea at all if you're doing it because you're too scared to enter the job market.
How to gain more experience & insight in IR
✓ Read. Search for cool books (on Audible) and investigative articles about sub-fields within IR such as climate change, international terrorism, refugees, the political economy of oil, global trade, GMOs, China, automation, and cyber warfare. Read something every day.
✓ Do an internship. It's free training for the work you want to be trained for. It makes sense to gain insight into what it's really like and if you enjoy it, and it might give you a leg up if you apply there in the future. You spend years getting the right education for your dream job, so don't lose the opportunity to check it out while you can. There are several great reasons to do an internship, including meeting professionals in the field and potentially having a life-changing experience.
✓ Find a mentor. Mentoring doesn't have to be formal; a mentor can be anyone you talk to about your career who has experience, advice, or new ideas to offer. Just bring up your career goals and plans with people who know more about it than you and see how they react.
✓ Join study and networking groups. Connect with people who focus on studying for major exams, standardized tests, or job assessments. This may sound absolutely horrendous right now, but you can learn a lot from the experience even if you hate it. Plus it's a chance to make professional friends and observe your competition!
✓ Take trips. Travel whenever you can even if (or especially when) it's to some place you've never even heard of. You'll get the most valuable experience if you avoid tourist places (where everyone basically gets the same experience) and study or volunteer.
✓ Attend conferences, book presentations, and discussion forums on current IR topics or history. There's always a good chance you'll gain a new perspective on an issue, which will make you feel and sound smarter, and you might socialize with other professionals.
✓ Join a committee. Sitting on boards and committees are rare opportunities for young people to practice skills like leadership, recruitment, negotiation, and budgeting, which is great for your resume. And again, you'll spend time with people you can learn from.
✓ Learn a language. It's good for your brain, your resume, and—my favorite thing about language learning—you’ll get a lot more out of it than just language skills, like better cultural understanding, new travel and food ideas, and sometimes a whole new perspective on the world.
✓ Follow news and social media. You don't have to read the news every day, but program your online accounts so that the most relevant updates in your field hit your inbox regularly.
✓ Ask the right questions. Asking people for advice or job leads is an art in itself. You need to approach people in a way that makes it most likely they give a helpful answer and you leave a good impression. Try being open and specific about your goals, providing context to your question, making it interesting, and acting grateful when you get a response.
✓ Check job sites. On job sites like idealist.org, devex.com, careers.state.gov, or usajobs.gov you can see what employers are actually looking for and what skills and experience they require. Don't wait and check it out now. It may also show you jobs you haven't considered before, like these 17 cool international jobs I didn't know about when I was a student.
Take advantage of every opportunity
✓ Don't avoid intimidating application processes. Many big consulting firms as well as government agencies and large international companies have lengthy application processes that seem terrifying and exhausting. Yet you should sign up for them anyway. At a minimum, you’ll learn how to approach assessments, you'll get smart on relevant topics (if you prepare, or learn from your mistakes), and you'll probably meet people who can point you to other opportunities along the way.
✓ Volunteer. Doing unpaid work can pay off handsomely. I often used examples and skills gained during my many international volunteer gigs to convince employers to hire me and I found most of them fulfilling and eye-opening. Moreover, government-sponsored volunteer programs such as PeaceCorps, JICA, and VSO have catapulted many volunteers straight into careers in diplomacy, business consulting, and more.
✓ Become well-rounded. Switching jobs and industries might make your career feel unfocused but it will widen your perspective, which is a benefit to you (you learn what you like) and your future employers (who are looking for well-rounded individuals). So don't scoff at a job in customer service, marketing, or event organizer--those types of jobs can teach you valuable, transferable skills.
✓ Go abroad for a while. One proven way of starting a career in international relations is by going abroad (to teach or learn a language, for example) and staying there long enough to find a worthwhile job or opportunity. After an internship abroad you may receive an actual (short-term) job offer as happened to me twice in Nigeria. Others I know also leveraged internships abroad into paid jobs or became local consultants, or started working for international companies.
✓ Crisis response. When new task forces are set up to respond to international events like tsunamis or a migration crisis you could join an organization involved in disaster relief efforts as a fundraiser or medic, or man an emergency hotline, or coordinate relief package distribution.
What your job hunt should look like
✓ Create an online presence. Make your online profile strong and unique, but not weird. Use whatever website or social media platform you like to inform people what your skills, experiences, accomplishments, and interests are (But not all of them! Focus on your career!).
✓ Network. Most people find jobs through their personal networks. Someone you already know is going to help you but you don't know who it's going to be. So make sure everyone knows what you’re looking for and cultivate contacts. Make new connections too, but focus on contacts you already have and use websites like Linkedin.com so people can easily access your resume or refer you to someone else.
✓ Search online. There are many websites with job postings. However, the chance you'll send them your resume and land a job is very slim. Instead, use websites like idealist.org and devex.com to give you ideas about organizations and types of jobs you want to research and get to know people in, and use the job descriptions and requirements to get an idea about what you still need to accomplish and highlight on your resume.
✓ Search offline. Job fairs exist for a reason. Many organizations still actively recruit young talent for their trainee programs, especially companies that have less name recognition or work in sectors considered less than sexy. Go and be open-minded!
✓ Update your resume. In case you didn't know, your resume should always be tailored to the job you apply for. Always! You also need your resume to be as good as possible and avoid common mistakes, so always keep tinkering with it, adding new experiences, relevant accomplishments, and key words that employers might be looking for.
What skills you always need to be developing
✓ Writing. Improving your writing is key because it’s how you present yourself to people who don’t know you. Employers judge you on your resume, written tests and assessments, and your online footprint. In IR, you won't be very popular if you're a terrible writer. Being a decent or good writer is important and the only way to becoming one is practice.
✓ Knowledge. Follow the latest developments in your field. Simply keep forcing it until it eventually becomes natural to read and talk about news that impacts your line of work. Also deepen your knowledge by exploring history and different perspectives, as well as developments in related fields. In many ways, it simply comes down to reading and pushing yourself to find out more all the time.
✓ Discipline. When it comes to skills, practice is simply more important than talent. If you're learning a language, for example, there’s no way around learning 3,000 new words, which is hard work for anyone. You can do it in different ways but it all comes down to the same thing: discipline. Approach all of your daily tasks with a certain level of discipline: essay and application letter writing, staying in shape, being courteous, and finishing your to-do list.
✓ Get out of your comfort zone. Give yourself a kick in the butt sometimes and try to accomplish something amazing by really pushing yourself, like fundraising a bunch of money for a worthy cause, or running a marathon. Practicing your focus and achieving laudable outcomes increase your confidence, teach you new things, and give you something impressive to talk about with people you meet (including employers).
Things to keep in mind
✓ Winding road. Building an international career is not a linear process. Nobody lands a top job at an international company or organization straight out of college, or stays with the same employer until retirement. So don't worry about the title or location of your first job, or even the second. Just keep broadening your skills to prepare yourself for the next step.
✓ Investment. You may have to invest a little to get a cool job. Having a good career isn’t about getting lucky or outsmarting others—it's about acquiring relevant skills and experience, and overcoming the hurdles that are holding you back.
✓ Unexpected places. Don't just focus on living or working in a certain country and certainly don’t dismiss entire regions or languages because they seem remote or too hard: there are many interesting places that will surprise you if you give them a chance.
✓ Take risks. Realize you'll probably never feel "ready" to move abroad, to apply for a high-level job, or to take on a whole new language. To launch an international career you just have to jump in at the deep end sometimes.
✓ Follow your passion. If you really care about something, like climate change, refugees, or Alaska, don't listen to people telling you there's no work in it. Let them follow whatever they think is important while you do you. Your natural interests will guide you where you'll be happiest and where you'll shine.
✓ Set a goal. Money, power, titles, and expertise aren't going to come all at once, so how are you going to define success in the meantime? Focus on a goal for the next 1-3 years and do whatever it takes to achieve that goal, then define the next goal.
✓ Reach but don't compare. You don't have to be extremely gifted to become successful, and it doesn’t help to compare yourself to the smartest, most accomplished person you know. Don’t obsess over other people’s achievements Also, it's okay to have flaws. On the other hand, if you're not actively trying to improve your skills at any given time, you're probably not going very far.
✓ It's normal to doubt. Don't fret if you're simply not sure what kind of career you want because that’s normal. You're simply weighing options, which is something educated and worldly people tend to do. Even if you're approaching thirty, there's no real reason to worry; you only have a few years of work under your belt and you still have 35+ years to go.
✓ Starting out is hard. Your first job in IR may not make you feel like a fish in the water—on the contrary, it may make you feel inadequate and confused. Don't freak out if it turns out your dream job sucks (like mine did). Highly educated professionals in IR are often tasked with mundane tasks like writing news letters, creating travel itineraries, and writing boring reports. They may also be expected to come up with "fresh new ideas" and "take initiative," which can be terrifying. Everyone has to go through this, so just hang in there, build a good foundation and reputation, then move up or on.
✓ Present yourself the way you want others to see you. If you want to be taken seriously, don't show up with blue hair. I'm just saying. Also, don't be too shy about your achievements or ambitions—leave a good impression and a business card (or send a LInkedIn invitation with a nice message) whenever you can.
✓ Define what you're about. You don't have to know exactly what you'll be doing in your career, but you can start by describing what you bring to the table: are you super social and sharing new trends and ideas? Always analyzing and opinionated? Quiet and detail-oriented? Adventurous and adaptable? Knowing yourself makes it easier to steer your own ship and for employers to know if you're the type they're looking for a specific job or project.
Want to know more about working for the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov or check it out on social media @DOSCareers
For career advice from people with great international jobs check out:
Career advice with journalist Aisha Chowdhry
Career Advice with Entrepreneur Gertje Vanhoutte
Other posts on international careers on this blog:
17 Cool international affairs jobs I didn't even know existed
The art of networking in the field of IR — and why it always pays off
What resumes in international relations (should) look like: do’s and don’ts
How to go abroad, and then stay abroad, to start your international career
Internship Do's & Don'ts for Careers in International Relations