What to do when your career isn’t taking off
Updated: Jun 10
I’ve written a whole bunch of blog posts on how to enter the Foreign Service and more generally on how to kick-start a career in international relation—from how to organize your resume to identifying internships and jobs. Here's the list:
But maybe you’ve done “all the right things” and you still don’t have a cool IR job. I get a lot of questions about what to do in these uncertain circumstances. People seem to worry mostly about their educational backgrounds, crises affecting the job market, and making "the right next move." I guess practical advice doesn't necessarily provide people with confidence to pursue their dreams, and they like to get more personal advice on how to stay the course.
So here is some of the better personal advice I've been given, along with some useful stuff I learned along the way, that helped me pursue an international career while worrying it wasn't going anywhere.
1. Find a mentor—or at least someone to talk to
I was not blessed with a large network of friends and family working in international relations. In fact, I barely knew anyone who had the kind of job I aspired to (being a diplomat or working for the United Nations). Telling people what I wanted typically resulted in blank stares that seemed to say: good luck with that.
But whenever I met career people and told them what I was looking for, it typically led to good conversations and advice. I found it helpful to talk through my problems and insecurities with people who had successfully traveled the road I was on. Their advice didn’t always feel like much, but in hindsight they provided good role models for me. And although people weren't always encouraging, some led me to the organizations I ended up working for.
2. Don't lower the bar
One of the best pieces of advice I received came from a lady I bartended with. When she asked me what I was planning to with my degree in IR I told her I had no idea. I said I’d be grateful for any job that would pays the bills (and my student debt). She warned me not my lower my bar. She explained that I shouldn't take any kind of administrative position if I was serious about building a career in IR. In her opinion, it would give recruiters who saw my resume the wrong impression, and it would take up valuable time in which I should be developing subject-matter expertise. Her literal words were: "it’s better to become a volunteer than a secretary."
I took her advice seriously because she worked for a cool, internationally oriented NGO—precisely the type of organization I hoped to work for one day. I realized I was probably going to live in student dorm-like conditions for a lot longer than I’d hoped, but it helped me focus on vacancies that met the basic criteria of a (junior) IR professional job.
So I agree: if you can't find a direct path to your dream job: volunteer! Often the best way to break into a new field or organization is to simply start working in it. Don’t wait for a golden job opportunity; network, apply for anything that comes close, join local study or advocacy groups, attend conferences and workshops, and generally do whatever it takes to gain experience and make contacts within organizations in your preferred field.
There are fancier ways to say "volunteer" nowadays, like "local activist" or "pro bono advisor" but it basically comes down to the same thing: putting in time and effort to raise your profile in a field you want to work in, even if you already have a full-time job and nobody is paying you or egging you on. You won't get anywhere if you don't get to know at least a few people and let people get to know you!
I cannot stress enough how valuable traveling and living abroad is. It really broadens your horizons because you learn SO MUCH about people and the world. Even when I was living on a shoestring (washing dishes and waitressing), I made sure I traveled as far and wide as possible. For example, I went to China for a month with my Chinese friend; I did a four-month university exchange program in Canada; and I did a three-month internship in Nigeria where I lived in a $25 per night hotel where I took bucket showers.
My foreign travels as a student, plus all the seemingly random volunteering and consulting I did afterwards, are what really shaped me and landed me into the Foreign Service—not because of a certain background or because an Ivy league degree entitled me to a fancy job, but because I’ve tried everything and by the time I took the FS test I was ready (which is why it wasn’t even hard).
5. Keep applying for jobs
If you’re not satisfied with your current job, make sure you keep applying for others. Simply continue searching for positions and organizations you like. Get in touch with people who can help you identify opportunities because not everything is posted online. My experience is that it takes a lot of digging to identify entry-level positions and (short-term) consultancies. After all, organizations don‘t need to recruit hard to find graduates with minimal experience.
Even if you know what you want to do eventually, it's a good idea to cast a wide net initially and consider anything with an international flavor. For example, security may not be your main interest but there are interesting analytical jobs in the intelligence sector you could try for. I always thought the Red Cross was a health organization until I found out how many interesting things they actually do. I never aspired to work in the corporate world but nonetheless applied with a variety of companies overseas, including a translation company and an oil conglomerate (I was hoping to land in theIr CSR department). I learned a lot in the process, it kept me focused, and even though most of it resulted in failure it always gave me new leads.
6. Take a chance
Don't play it too safe. Great career opportunities often come in disguise, like in the form of a short-term project that leads to a long-term contract, or an overseas volunteer job (like English teaching) that leads to a job in the NGO sector. You don’t have to be a big risk taker (I’m not) to realize this and take into account that any opportunity to go abroad or work in a field you like might lead to the job you wanted all along.
7. Nail down your goals (or at least one of them)
Decide what you want most and go for it. I know this isn’t easy—as I mentioned I was already in my late twenties when I realized my passion was international migration (law, research, policy, etc.). But narrowing the search to the field you truly care about can be extremely useful because it gives you motivation and direction. I found that pursuing something I was passionate about—even though I felt ignorant and an intruder at first—made it so much easier to keep going.
8. Don’t get discouraged!
Trust me when I say that a lot of FSOs and other IR professionals have "unusual" resumes; they're typically patchworks of junior corporate jobs, work and study abroad (often through government programs), short-term contracts, and some foreign language learning. Many make it sound as if they rolled from one successful undertaking into the next, but IR careers are typically adventurous and nothing like the straight upward line you often see in the corporate world. My only real requirement for each new job was that it should teach me something new; it was the only demand I dared to make during job interviews.
Personally, what always bothered me most—and why I pretty much felt like a loser before I became a FSO—was that I didn’t have a paid job for half of my “working life.” My excuse was that I constantly had to move with my husband and that I had two kids, but I always felt: if I can’t even find an organization to pay me for my work, I must be worth very little.
But remember: just because you're broke right now, or somewhat limited by being married, or there's a lot of competition for the jobs you're interested in, or you think you don't have the right degr—it doesn't mean you can't find the type of job you've always wanted. It's just not true!