What resumes in international affairs (should) look like: 9 do’s and don’ts
Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Resumes are important in many industries, and international affairs is definitely one of them. There's a certain way resumes should look if you want to be taken seriously and stand out (for the right reasons). I know this because I was an international consultant working on business development before, which means I wrote numerous proposals and recruited other consultants based on their resumes, and I've edited many of them.
Resumes for international affairs jobs typically have a Bachelor’s degree on them—it doesn’t really matter in what, but here you can read more about what education you need to become a diplomat and here about what kinds of jobs in international affairs you can get with certain educational backgrounds.
People with international careers also typically have a Master’s degree, but many didn't get them immediately. Some worked a few years in between, and in some cases a decade or more. Also, many internationalists get their Master’s overseas, for example in the UK (but also in Brussels, Geneva, Sydney and Hong Kong, for example) because the study programs there are often shorter than in the US and of course they have great universities there, too.
Next, international affairs resumes typically list one or multiple internships, which I talked about at length here, although they’re often disguised as research projects or consulting gigs, usually at well known organizations, companies and institutes.
One of the best examples I saw of “disguised internships” was on the resume of someone who claimed to have worked for the UN for two years, followed by a “consultancy” at the UN in Nigeria for “less than a year.” But I knew this person in Nigeria, and it was just a regular intern (for a barely two months). And I don’t believe for a second that this person spent the prior two years in a paid, full-time position at the UN, even though that's what the vague description on the resume implied. It was either a short-term thing or it was unpaid, or both of those things. I'll talk more about how far you should go in (over)presenting yourself.
Some people stay on at the organizations they interned for, but usually not for very long. One reason is that it's much more interesting and fun to explore other jobs and organizations, instead of staying with your first employer. The biggest reason, however, is probably that many international organizations have huge entry barriers and jobs are extremely competitive. They don't hire interns immediately after they finish college, although they may hire them some years later after they've gotten some more experience.
To get more experience, many people move on to short-term consulting, sometimes staying for only a few months with each employer, or getting on with a less famous organization for a couple of years to develop their knowledge and skills. International relations is a broad field, so this is a good time to specialize, get marketable skills, and network.
If no great job is found within a few years, and especially when people decide they have to specialize further, they often to go back to school and get a resume and salary-boosting (additional) Master’s degree in things like Public Health, International Law, International Development, or Economics.
Of course, there are also people with international careers whose resumes are more boring and straightforward—especially those who get into government or the UN at a young age. They find it hard to leave, because the jobs are prestigious, offer good benefits, and typically have a nice career path laid out, with a certain amount of variety included.
But I also know people who leave their diplomatic or UN careers at some point. Some get burned out from the relentless working hours. One person told me she’d left her job at UN headquarters in New York because she couldn’t stand her fast-pace life in the big apple. While she was holding her crying baby on the subway one day, trying to make it home so she could quickly feed her and rush her to bed, she decided to quit and move as far away as possible. First, she moved to Hong Kong where she ran a relatively low-profile refugee council for a few years. Then, she moved on to a job in Fiji!
DO’s & DON’Ts
Now, as a former resume-editor, let me share with you some do’s and some don'ts of resumes for international affairs:
1. DO fluff up the descriptions of your internships and short-term gigs, and consider changing job titles to make them sounds better or more descriptive/informative.
2. DO expand on your achievement and be a little braggadocios about the importance of the stuff you worked on—either paid or voluntary—but DON’T lie about what you actually did.
2. DON’T leave gaps of longer than two months on your resume (unless you had a baby). You must have done something to improve your skills during that time that is at least vaguely relevant to your career, because if not, it’s going to raise some red flags with future employers. Big gaps make it look like you’re not committed to your career, couldn’t land a job or internship, and you’re not a motivated or hard worker.
3. FILL gaps on your resume by including things like language study, individual coursework, volunteering, and potentially travel (if it served any kind of purpose beyond having fun).
4. ADD side jobs and volunteering jobs on your resume like real jobs if they’re relevant to the job you're applying for. For example, if you worked in a full-time job that had little to do with international affairs but at the same time volunteered once a week for a (international) non-profit where you did stuff you’re proud of, you should definitely highlight that.
Your “real” job is going to show employers that you’re an employable, responsible person; the voluntary job will show who you really are and what your goals are in life. So don’t tuck your volunteering experience away 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. CUT experience that’s totally unrelated to the job you’re applying for, especially if it doesn’t involve skills and experience that are relevant. If you’re a fantastic guitar player and you were touring with your band for a while, you might mention that at the bottom, but basically you don’t want to confuse the person who is reading your resume and is looking for someone serious (not that I have anything against musicians) who knows what he’s applying for.
Adding “color” to your resume is not really a thing in international relations; it’s a competitive field where people try to stand out through relevant qualifications and experience. I would almost say employers are looking for a certain “type:” someone with solid credentials and a verifiable track record—not a rock star or a unicorn. 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 do the work and deliver.
6 DO specify achievements in your resume. Don’t leave the reader wondering how long you’ve been in charge of business development and what the results were, or for how many years you’ve been abroad in total. Put all of your big selling points, like “5 years of experience in Africa” or “fluent in Mandarin” or “managed 3 million dollars in grants” right up front. Then list your achievements under each job in short but detailed bullet points.
7. DO mention everywhere you’ve been in the world. It’s always really interesting to know where people have worked and which organizations they worked for/with. It can create an instant connection if you mention you worked in Vietnam for two years, for example, and the person who reads your resume also has a connection with Vietnam. So highlight all the countries you’ve worked in under each job, along with the main organizations you dealt with.
8. DO tailor your resume to the job you’re applying for, as you should do for any job, adding relevant keywords. In IR, that means figuring out what the most popular terms are at that time (innovative, problem-solving, sustainability, etc.) and using them wherever appropriate. Even better, figure out which keywords your employer uses on the organizations’ website, and definitely lift as many as you can out of the job description.
9 Similarly, DON’T make mistakes on your resume that reveal you’re really not very familiar with certain international issues or terminology, like talking about “homosexuality” instead of “LGBTQI”, mentioning the “third world” or “handicapped children,” or using any other term that’s out of fashion or worse: not PC.