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

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

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—a Bachelor’s degree for sure, but also coursework, seminars, and anything else that’s relevant to a person’s specialization. You can read more on my blog about what education you need to become a diplomat and about what kinds of jobs in international affairs you can get with certain educational backgrounds.

People with international careers tend to have Master’s degrees as well, 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.

IR resumes also list internships, which I talked about at length in a prior post, often at glamorous organizations, companies, and 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. On her LinkedIn profile she claimed two years of work experience with the UN in New York plus a consultancy in Nigeria for “less than a year.” In reality she was an unpaid intern in Nigeria for less than two months and before that she was a full-time student—not part of the UN staff. She probably did something at the UN, but she certainly didn’t have a full-time position there like her resume implied. I'll talk more about how far you should go in (over)presenting yourself below.

Most internationalists don’t stay with their first employer for very long. The world is a big place so it's more interesting to explore jobs in other counties for a while. Perhaps a bigger reason, though, is that big international organizations like the UN or the Worldbank have huge entry barriers and their positions are extremely competitive. They don't need to hire interns—they can have pick of more experienced workers from a huge applicant pool.

It’s more common for recent IR graduates to find short-term consultancy jobs or learn the ropes within other organizations. Smaller organizations have the benefit of being more agile and innovative, and you get more responsibility as an entry-level professional.

After a few years of grunt work many IR folks decide to specialize through further education, for example by getting a salary-boosting Master’s degree in International Health, Law, Development, or Economics.

While people have different goals, many dream of “getting in” with a prestigious organization eventually. However, sometimes these dream jobs disappoint. I know plenty of people who left their diplomatic careers and one who gave up a staff position at UN headquarters in New York. Bigger is not better for everyone.

The person in question told me she’d quit the UN because she couldn’t stand the fast-pace life in New York anymore. She was comforting her crying baby on the subway on a typical day—the baby was hungry because it was well after dinner time—when she realized she wanted to move as far away as possible. She relocated to Hong Kong to run a low-profile refugee council for a few years, then found a development job in Fiji.

DO’s & DON’Ts

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

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.

2. DO elaborate on your achievements on your resume. 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”—explain whatever you did in detail (but 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, 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 couldn’t find a job. 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 just the type of experience and attitude they want.

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 he’s 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 with. It’s always interesting to know where people traveled and which organizations they met 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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