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What resumes in international affairs should look like: 9 do’s and don’ts

Updated: Jan 27

Resumes are important in many industries and international affairs is no different. There is a certain way your resume should look if you want to be taken seriously.

I know this from being an international development consultant. I’ve witten numerous resumes and selected other consultants based on their resumes.

Resumes for international affairs jobs typically list multiple degrees and certificates—an associate or bachelor’s degree for sure, but also coursework, seminars, and anything else that supports a person’s specialization and academic credentials in their field.

People with international careers tend to have master’s degrees, which they often obtained after working for a few years and figuring out their key interests. Many internationalists get their degrees overseas—the UK, Switzerland, Hong Kong—because it‘s cheaper and faster than in the United States.

Disguised internships

IR resumes typically list all internships, which I talk about at length in this post, especially if they were conducted at well-known organizations, companies, and research institutes. However, internships are often disguised as research projects or consulting gigs because it sounds better.

One of the best examples I saw of a “disguised internship” was on the resume of a student I met at the United Nations. This person's LinkedIn profile mentioned two years of working for the UN in New York plus a consultancy in Nigeria for “less than a year.” In reality it was an unpaid internship in Nigeria for six weeks as a full-time student—not a UN employee. Maybe this person did some work for the UN in NY as well, but I doubt it was ever on a paid basis. I'll talk more about how you should (over)present yourself below.

Job hopping

Most internationalists don’t stay with their first employer for long. The world is a big place so it's better to explore jobs in several types of organizations and countries before you commit.

But perhaps a bigger reason for job hopping is that big international organizations like the UN or the Worldbank have lots of requirements and their positions are extremely competitive. They rarely hire interns after they've completed an internship or short-term contract. For their full-time positions they can have pick of more experienced workers from a huge applicant pool worldwide.

It’s more common for recent IR graduates to do short-term consultancy jobs or learn the ropes within other, less high-profile organizations early in their careers. Plus smaller organizations have the benefit of being more agile and innovative, so you often get more substantive work and responsibility as an entry-level professional.

Master degree

After a few years of grunt work many internationalists decide to specialize through further education, for example by getting a salary-boosting master’s degree in International Relations. Or making themselves more competitive by choosing a specific direction in the field of IR, for example international health, law, development, or economics.

While master degrees are not required for many jobs, and you don't technically need any degree to become a Foreign Service Officer, it's not a bad idea to get one if you can. Should you get two or do a PhD? In my opinion work experience counts more, unless you're looking to become an academic or policy wonk.

Prestigious international organizations

While international relations students have different career goals, many dream of “getting in” with a prestigious organization like the United Nations. However, sometimes these dream jobs disappoint. I know plenty of people who left their diplomatic careers to lead a more "settled" life. I also know someone who gave up a staff position at UN headquarters in New York because the life and the work were too fast-paced for her young family.

Still, on a young professional's resume work experience with powerful organizations looks good. And working there, even if it's for an internship or on a short-term contract, gives you a good idea if it's something for you or if you should look at other international relations jobs.

DO’s & DON’Ts of IR Resumes

Now, as a former resume-editor, let me share with you some do’s and don'ts for your IR resume:

1. DO fluff up job descriptions of internships and short-term gigs. Consider changing job titles to make them sound better or more descriptive/informative, but DON’T lie about what you actually did. For example, if your official title was something generic like "special assistant" and your main job was to advise on international health programs, you could change it to "international health programs advisor".

2. DO elaborate on your achievements on your resume. Be brief (no resume should be longer than two pages, unless you've got a 20-year career behind you) but brag as much as possible about your contributions to specific projects and positive outcomes, and highlight the overall importance of what you worked on. DON’T assume people will simply “get it” when they see your job description—explain what you did in each job in detail (succinctly!).

3. DON’T leave gaps on your resume of two months or longer (unless you had a baby). If you didn’t have a job in a certain period, list what you did to improve your skills during that time or risk raising red flags with future employers. Big gaps make it look like you’re not committed to your career or simply couldn’t find a job and did nothing. DO fill the gaps by including things like language study, coursework, volunteering, and travel (if it served any kind of purpose beyond having fun).

4. DO add part-time and volunteer jobs on your resume. List them like real jobs if they’re relevant to the job you're applying for. Your “real” jobs are showing future employers that you’re an employable person; the volunteer jobs show them what you really care about. So DON’T put your volunteering at the bottom of your resume where nobody will see it—put it front and center on your resume so anyone can see you’ve got the kind of experience and attitude they're looking for.

5. DO omit work experience unrelated to the job you’re applying for, especially if it doesn’t involve transferable skills. If you’re a fantastic guitar player and you toured with your band for a while you might mention it to explain what you did that year, but DON’T confuse the person reading your resume. They’re looking for someone who is committed (not that I have anything against guitarists) and knows what they're applying for.

Employers are looking for a certain type: someone with solid credentials and a verifiable track record—not someone who is different from all the rest. In IR, people tend to work with each other for only short periods of time, so they’re mostly interested in finding someone who can just do the work and deliver.

6 DO quantify and highlight your experience. Don’t leave the reader wondering how long you’ve been in charge of business development or how many years you spent working abroad. Put all of your big selling points right up front, like “5 years of experience in Africa” or “fluent in Mandarin” or “managed 3 million dollars in grants.“ List your achievements under each job in short but detailed bullet points.

7. DO drop names. List everywhere you’ve been in the world and all the organizations you worked for/with. It’s always interesting to know where people traveled and which organizations they worked with in the field when you read resumes. It can create an instant connection if, for example, I worked in the same country as the applicant. So highlight all the places you’ve been, along with the main organizations and issues you dealt with.

8. DO tailor your resume for each job you apply for, adding relevant keywords. This means figuring out what the most popular terms are at that time (innovative, data-driven, sustainability, etc.) and using them wherever appropriate. Even better, figure out which keywords your employer likes to use (on theIr website) and lift as many as you can from the job vacancy announcement.

9. DON’T make mistakes on your resume that reveal you’re actually not very familiar with certain international issues or terminology, like when someone is talking about “homosexuality” instead of “LGBTQI,” or uses terms like “third world” or “handicapped children,” or anything else that’s out of fashion or simply not PC.

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