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Networking in the field of IR — it always pays off

Updated: Apr 14

I still remember the time when I was intrigued by the word “networking” because I didn’t know what it really meant. When I was studying international relations (IR), I was unable to picture how to do it (walking up to strangers?) and for what reason (ask them if they have a job for me?).

Now, a decade later, I know what networking is all about. I’ve networked quite a bit over the years, and it helped me land several jobs in IR.

Why You Should Network

Even if “networking” doesn’t like fun to you, please don’t dismiss it if you’re looking for an international career. There are very few jobs where you don’t need to network—basically, only permanent positions with the government, because the government’s hiring process doesn’t really allow for informal lobbying.

That said, for getting any kind of job, internship, or promotion it’s very helpful to have connections who can point you in the right direction when you’re looking for a job and recommend you to others.

Getting a job in international relations is almost impossible when you go at it alone. You can send out all the resumes and cover letters you like, but it’s unlikely you’ll get noticed in the vast sea of applications organizations receive for each position.

No matter how solid your motivation letter and resume are, it’s unlikely you stand out and get a chance to prove yourself if you don’t have anyone cheering for you. I felt very discouraged when I first found out about it this—before I had any connections in that world—but once I fully understood it I also started to accept it. The importance of networking isn’t unique to the field of IR, after all.

What Is Networking, Exactly?

Starting out is always hard—there are some hurdles to overcome and a lot depends on how much you research and try to get “in” somewhere. But once you have your first internship or job, or you voluntary position, you start building your network. Everyone you meet from that moment on is going to be potential lead to new jobs, projects and information.

I interpret the term “networking” loosely. To me, it just means talking to a variety of people who work in IR and in related fields. Sometimes people you think aren’t really relevant to what you want to do with your career are the ones who are nice enough to point out a new opportunity, or tell one of their friends who does work in IR about you.

How To Network

I like to use social media, and especially LinkedIn, for expanding my network because it’s a way to neatly organize my contacts, plus I get a lot of information on people’s professional lives once we’re connected. Also, when you connect on LinkedIn it’s totally understood you’re doing it for professional reasons; there’s not the “are we really friends?”–weirdness you get with Facebook.

Start thinking about everyone you know who works in IR; it doesn’t matter if you know them well or not. Start by getting to 500+ LinkedIn connections, which is doable (within a year or two) and looks great on your profile. Don’t be scared to connect to people, because they’re there to network. As soon as you get your first job or internship or you study abroad, you’ll meet TONS of (potentially) relevant and useful people.

How To Use Linkedin

Then again, that certainly doesn’t mean you should go ahead and connect to people on LinkedIn you don’t know. In fact, I’d say that’s a big no-no. Sometimes people try to connect to me that I don’t know (or forgot about) and I feel weird about it. Mostly, I reject them—unless they work for one of my favorite organizations. So you should meet people in real life first, then connect with them. And if there’s any chance the person doesn’t remember you, you should re-introduce yourself by adding a short message. That’s the polite and accepted way to use LinkedIn.

When you’re expanding your network, don’t worry about your approach or how you are going to “maintain” your contacts. You’re not trying to sell them anything, so relax. All you have to do is making sure people have, and keep, a favorable impression of you—as long as they think you’re a nice person (not pushy! And someone they’d like to work with, they’ll have no problem recommending you to others when you need it.

Everybody networks!

People with international careers are, generally speaking, highly skilled in networking—it’s natural to them. So as long as you behave appropriately nobody will mind if you ask for their business card, ask a thoughtful question about their careers, or send a (short!) email asking for a quick recommendation, connection, or referral. Just don’t expect other people to immediately find you a job lead—networking is a subtle art you’ll get good at over time.

For effective networking, you just have to be somewhat sociable, open to talking with people of all ages and backgrounds, and tell everyone you know what you’re up to professionally and what your (ideal) future plans are. Somehow, I guarantee it, some random connection, or someone who’s a friend of a friend, is going to help you land a job. Or they’re going to call you up and hire you themselves!

How I Got Jobs Through Networking

I’m one of many people who got started in IR through connections from university and work—people I didn’t necessarily consider friends but who proved instrumental in my next move, provided crucial contact information, made me aware of job openings, and put in a good word for me.

It started with my first internship. I didn’t have any problem finding an internship, as I wrote in my blog post about internships; I had four of them lined up towards the end of my Master’s degree. But the one I’d been holding out for I found not through a website or my university’s dashboard. I found it because I worked as a bartender in a cultural center, and one of the volunteers told me she knew an awesome Nigerian lady who worked at the UN in Abuja. She connected us through email and the rest is history.

My first IR job outside of government was for a social enterprise specializing in international development consultancy and research. Apparently, the CEO had asked a friend of mine to come work for him, and because she already had a job she’d referred him to me. He already knew me because I’d taken a meeting with him when I worked in Pakistan for the US embassy—a meeting I’d purely taken out of politeness and for networking purposes, not for any specific goal or project I was working on. The whole thing came full circle when he hired me and I spent a year and half not only having a great job, but also learning everything I know now about consultancy, networking, resumes, business development, etc.

In fact, I’ve had more instances like this where people referred me to other people without my knowledge. For example, when I was an intern in Nigeria I suddenly received a tentative job offer from the Finnish embassy to come work there as a visa processor. The only way this can have happened is, as I imagine it anyway, that I’d been telling people I was looking for opportunities to stay and work in Nigeria (aka, I was networking).

Traps & People To Avoid

Of course, you’re also going to meet some people who aren’t willing to help you at all. Like, someone may not accept your LinkedIn connection even though you thought you had a nice conversation with that person. Don’t take it personal—probably that person just isn’t using LinkedIn a lot.

I once had a situation where my boss (when I volunteered at Amnesty international) refused to write a recommendation letter for me, because she felt she hadn’t really “gotten a clear idea of how I work” during the six months I was there—a little bit unfair considering she decided to work from home during that time and I never got to see her because of that.

These instances can feel very discouraging in the beginning when you’re starting out with nothing. But I’m here to tell you some good news: those people are in the minority. So fuck ‘em. As far as I’m concerned anyone who is going to be successful in a career as a diplomat, consultant, or whatever, needs to be good at networking and appear to be friendly and helpful. If they’re not, that says a lot more about them, and for their chances to have a career, than it does about you!

Just beware not to over ask people. When you only have a few relevant connections, it’s tempting to milk them for all that they’re worth. But I suggest you don’t actually ask them anything—besides some casual advice and some information on how they got to where they are today—until you’re sure what you want to achieve. Don’t ask them to “hook you up” with people if you don’t have a specific reason or request. And remember they’re not there to explain you everything from A to Z, or to be your job coach. Networking is not about getting direct and immediately benefits like that.

Help Others!

Also, remember that networking is a two-way street; help others out if you can! I grab every opportunity to help other people, partially because I just like it (part of me has always wanted to be a teacher) and partially because it helps you figure out how things work. If you’re using your network to find information or to recommend someone for a job, the response you get might be very instructive, and you’re raising your own profile.

Don’t help others because it puts anyone in your debt; instead, look at it as paying it forward. Although, of course, helping people does have the added benefit that it makes people grateful to you and thus more likely to help and recommend you when you need it. Helping others is part and parcel of being a good networker; it makes you more aware of what’s going on, raises your profile, and can lead to wonderful new opportunities and ideas.

Many people I know are happy, almost eager, to do their part in connecting people and sharing information!

Want to know more about a career with 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:


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