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7 Internship do's & don'ts for careers in International Affairs

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

Are you studying international relations, or considering moving into international relations, and you're not sure how to start out? I recently wrote a blog post about 17 proven ways to launch an international career. One thing I'm talking about (a lot) is doing an internship—as well as volunteering. You might wonder why. After all, there are paid jobs out there. I know. And it doesn’t hurt your resume or your bank account to get a real job. I know.

The reason I encourage interning is two-fold, really. The first one is that internships changed my life. If I hadn’t gone to Nigeria with nothing but a letter from the UN and a suitcase filled with semi-professional clothes (which I hastily bought from a sales rack somewhere), I wouldn’t be where I am today—with a resume bursting with international work experience and a job offer from the Foreign Service.

The second reason is that wherever I go, I meet successful business people, diplomats and development experts who have done multiple internships (that’s right: not just one). They did them during summers, during their studies, before and after going to college, and even after working paid jobs. The reason is simple: it’s the easiest way to get in the door with organizations you dream working for one day, and there's a lot of other stuff to gain.

Can I afford it?

It may sound counter-intuitive: why get an expensive education and then work for free? Some may say it’s elitist; that only rich people can afford to work for free. That's actually what I felt when I heard my fellow students were all competing for an internship with UN headquarters in New York, fighting for the privilege to spend 10,000 dollars just to be there for six months. I didn’t have that kind of money.

Living in New York, Geneva or London wasn’t an option for me. Instead, I spent 80% less on my internship by going to the UN in Nigeria for 3 months, then finding a follow-on internship that paid me enough of a stipend to cover my living costs. In the end, my internships hardly added to my student debt at all.

I think the best way to look at internships is as an extension of your studies, or as an apprenticeship. It’s the time when you get to add practical skills to your academic ones, which are equally valuable, if not more so. Writing a wonderful academic paper is great, but unless you’re planning to go into academics, you should save some of that energy and use it to write a wonderful real-word report for an organization you want to work for. And trust me when I tell you that they’re two very different things.

Why beg to work for free?

“But wait a second,” someone told me the other day, “why should I have to go around begging for internships? I’m offering my services for free and they won’t even take me, dammit!” Depending on where you want to intern, you may find that even unpaid internships are highly competitive—especially in Washington DC, from what I can tell.

To that I say: don’t take it personal. It’s not that you’re not worth a salary, or that organizations shouldn’t be grateful for your interest; it’s just that if you don’t want to work for free, someone else will. It’s the nature of the capitalist system that employers want their workers cheap, and you have to invest in your future and take a bit of risk if you want to succeed and ultimately win big.

4 Internship Do’s

So, back to all of those friends and connections I have who did a bunch of internships to kick-start their careers. I wanted to mention three more things they focused on that, from what I gathered, helped set up their international careers.

First of all, they interned at BIG NAME organizations: UN agencies like UNDP and UNHCR, State Department, European Commission, the International Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Terres des Hommes and—for business oriented folks—companies like IBM, Shell and international consultancy groups.

It makes total sense to intern for a big and powerful organization because it allows you to get to know it from the inside out, which is very useful if you want to work there later. I know quite a few people who interned for a big organization and got a great job there ten years later. Plus it looks good on your resume and it might help you later if you want to work as a consultant or a project manager that elicits funding from these organizations (they prefer to give project money to people who are familiar with their organization).

Second, many people I know leveraged their internships into career-enhancing projects by focusing on achievable goals. Everyone knows interns don’t get a lot of responsibilities; they make copies, reserve conference rooms and make coffee. Usually, they’re just not experienced and skilled enough to contribute substantively to important projects. But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve anything!

During an internship, it's a good idea to focus on specific learning objectives, like public speaking, customer service, social media, or writing and editing. Then connect them to tangible goals and outcomes you can put on your resume. For example, you can compile and edit a publication, which is great because you have something with your name on it you can show off later. Another great idea is solving a problem the organization has been struggling with; everyone loves a problem solver.

Third, I noticed that many people with high-flying international careers don’t talk about their time as an intern, but about their time as a “consultant” or “researcher” at such-and-such organization. They’re so desperate to make their work history sound good that they don’t even admit they didn’t get paid for some of the work they did. These are probably the same people that open their own consultancies five years later and give themselves the title of “CEO.”

I always have a laugh a bit about this kind of stuff, but not out of meanness. It’s more because I think it’s totally normal that people need time to learn and there’s no need to be ashamed, or pretentious. I guess it’s all about finding the right balance between showing off your (real) accomplishments (read more about that in my blog posts about what resumes for international careers should look like) and being honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. If you discover you have a certain weakness, I’d suggest you work on it and even tell your mentor or employer—wow them with your amazing ability to self-reflect! They might have advice or give you an opportunities to improve.

Fourth, they realized that internships are golden network opportunities and leveraged them into real jobs. You can go to conferences and network events all you want, but when you’re an intern—given you’re not tied to your desk all day—you can network pretty much all day, every day. You meet everyone who works at that organization, many of their contacts, and you can approach external people easier because of your (temporary) job title.

And not only do you get to meet all of those people and write down their contact details (or add them to LinkedIn), you also get to learn from them and their career paths. When I did my two internships in Nigeria, I wasn’t really inspired by the work itself (it’s not easy being the grunt!), but I was extremely inspired by all of the people I met who’d carved out international careers for themselves in a wide variety of professions and in ways I didn’t even know existed before.

3 Internship Don'ts

When you’re looking for an interesting internship, there are also some pitfalls to avoid.

My first advice is to avoid internships that are not challenging and don’t bring (m)any changes to your life. For example, I was a volunteer at Amnesty International, so I figured I could just change my job into an internship that would give me credits for my studies. But I quickly realized that I wouldn’t end up doing anything new; at Amnesty, they just wanted me to continue doing the tasks I’d been doing before, for which they hired me, so I figured it wouldn’t make sense to spend even more time there doing basically the same thing.

Actually, I rejected three more internship ideas—all of them after I’d already gotten the internship offer! The second one was with a small foundation in Amsterdam that worked on Africa issues. Everything about it was great; I’d be involved in organizing some awesome conference, which would give me lots of skills and exposure to topics I was interested in. But one important piece was missing; I’d never actually been to Africa. I felt like doing an internship was my one opportunity to go to a country with development issues and see how it works (and doesn't work) with my own eyes, so I decided to go to Africa, instead of getting comfortable working for some fun organization in Amsterdam.

My second advice is to get an internship that allows you to explore and dabble in many different things. I think a lot of internships in international development are designed that way; you show up and they don’t have much for you to do, which can feel a little bit frustrating because you want to do something but the good things about it is that it allows you to roam around the organization and see for yourself what you’d like to get involved in.

During my internship for the UN, for example, I was supposed to draft a new regional strategy for gender and migration issues. Instead, I spent most of my time working to draft and edit a handbook for human trafficking survivors—a project that turned out to be extremely useful for my career because I ended up working on human trafficking issues in three different jobs afterwards, involving lots of writing and editing!

What you DON’T want is an internship where you’re basically used as free labor. I almost got on a plane to India to "intern" for a publishing company that would make me work 10-12 hours days doing the same thing over and over. I backed out of this deal after getting in touch with some people who were already there, several of them telling me they hated it.

I’m not saying you should avoid hard work during your internship, or refuse to commit to a certain project (the opposite, actually), but some internships are traps. They’re not created to help you learn—they’re created to have free workers. And, in some cases, the work environment is pretty toxic. So watch out for those!

Third, I’d advise interns not to get their hopes up about achieving great things during their internships, or having too many expectations about how amazing it’s going to be to work for certain organizations. It’s pretty exciting when you walk into an embassy, the UN, or Oxfam for the first time. But if you’re too hopeful and idealistic about it, you’re probably going to end up disappointed.

When I worked for Amnesty International, pretty much the most exciting thing that happened in the six months I was there was that time the person responsible for the Middle East spent one morning talking in English, French and Arabic to prevent someone on death row from getting killed in Saudi Arabia. She failed and spent the rest of the day crying. As for me, I didn’t do much besides organizing archives, typing letters, entering contact information into the computer and making notes during meetings.

Internships (and starter jobs) can be a real bore, that’s for sure! But trust me—it doesn’t stay that way if you’re in for the long haul and have a career in international relations. As soon as I got “mid-level” jobs, first for the US embassy, then at an international development consultancy company, the work became very interesting and overwhelming pretty quickly!

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