Monday, November 12, 2007

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So you want to get a job in the foreign policy world....

At work, the question I am most often asked that I am most ill-equipped to answer is, "How do you successfully pursue a career in the foreign policy world?"

To be fair, I don't think anyone is really well-equipped to answer this question. Unlike medicine, law, or other professions, there is no routinized, codified career track for the foreign policy community.

In my experience, most successful people make the mistake of generalizing from their own experience in proffering career advice in this field. If I did that, I'd have to say something like, "Here's what you should do.... start out pursuing a Ph.D. in economics, and then change your mind after the first-year sequence...."

Still, over at Passport, Peter Singer makes a game effort in providing advice for those who wish to pursue a career in foreign policy analysis. [Who the f@%& is Peter Singer?--ed. Why, he's the youngest person to be named a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.]

Here's how he closes:

[M]ulti-taskers tend to advance further than pure specialists. People who can also convene and bring people, programs, and events together are more likely to advance to the leadership level than people who lock themselves away and only write. That is, when you look around at who is in the leadership positions in this field at think tanks, NGOs and the like, it is not merely people who are good writers but people who bring other skills to the table: management, organizational process, strategy, budgeting, fundraising, etc. The funny thing is that many of these skills get absolutely no nourishment within the education backgrounds that typically bring people into the foreign-policy field. Most people either come in with a politics degree or a law degree, but the skills often called upon at the leadership level are of the MBA variety. As you focus on what sort of activities to undertake and skills to build on early in your career, I would keep this in mind.
Singer is much more plugged into intellectual-industrial complex than I, but I'm not entirely sure that answer is completely correct. I think it depends on what you want to do in your career.

If you want to move up the bureaucratic food chain, then by all means Singer is correct. If, on the other hand, you actually want to influence a specific set of policies, then specialization also has its merits.

Commenters well-versed in this world are heartily encouraged to proffer their own advice on this question.

posted by Dan on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM


It's best to start sucking up pretty early. Do a couple of internships in DC while still an undergrate. Here you really have to "go the extra mile." Always keep the coffee pot full, offer to edit every draft of a piece your supervisor is working on, wash their car if you have to.

Then when you graduate, pester those people to help find you a job or serve as a reference for the 500 jobs you will apply to every week. Works like a charm...

posted by: md on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

Singer's suggestion about "forensic backtracking" (reverse engineering the career courses of your professional heroes to see how they did it) is very good--I tell kids the same thing, although it's useful not just as a guide to career advancement but as a reminder that there can be many paths up the mountain.

I would stress discipline, productivity, and persistence more than he does, along with good writing skills and general common sense. Basically, if you have no real intellectual distinction, you're unlikely to get far. But even if you do have such distinction, you need to marry it to good work habits to succeed in the long run.

Young people tend to put way too much emphasis on early milestones--schools, first jobs, contacts, etc.--as if life were totally path dependent. There's a bit of truth in this, but less than most people think. In the long run, what drives people forward is their own energy and work, not the connections or brandnames they carry. Singer is in fact a perfect example of this: he is a friggin' Stakhanovite, producing a steady stream of high-quality work on a regular basis. He creates his own luck, in other words: the more good at bats you have, the more likely you are to get hits.

Bottom line, here's the recipe for success:

1. Be smart.

2. Work hard.

3. Learn how to think and write clearly.

4. Make yourself useful to people above you.

5. Be humble and confident in equal measure, unembarrassed to learn from those with something to teach but ready to defend your own independent thoughts and positions when you actually have them.

6. Gain experience in all areas relevant to what you want to do. (This won't necessarily help you move up the ladder, but will serve you well if you do.)

7. Be productive.

8. Don't get discouraged--keep plugging away, trying again and again and again. Few hit their marks (schools, jobs, publications, romance, whatever) on the first shot, but more hit with later ones, and there's no limit on how many shots you can take.

9. Live and work with integrity. Like Singer, I'm not sure that this is absolutely necessary to professional success (see his point about a$$holes sometimes making it to the top). But you don't really want to be a jerk, do you? No, I didn't think so. And non-jerks can spot jerks a mile off, and we don't like them, so any short-term gains from jerkiness are likely to be compensated for by losses further down the road.

10. Be lucky. (Ok, that's not in your control--just like being smart isn't--but those are the two exogenous factors that can indeed make a difference.)

Kipling may have had a lot of problems (sexism among them), but his point is dead on and universally applicable:

If you can, um, fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!


posted by: lamont cranston on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

"Unlike medicine, law, or other professions, there is no routinized, codified career track for the foreign policy community." In other words, it's just like most jobs.

posted by: Virginia Postrel on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

"How do you successfully pursue a career in the foreign policy world?"

Here are the steps:

1. Be an occasional snarky blog commenter
2. ???
3. Success!

I'll get back to you on that step 2. (And apologies to whoever started this old joke.)

posted by: A.S. on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

Singer's argument, however, is definitely true WITHIN academia. Despite the necessity of academic-administrators (e.g. dept chairs, deans, etc.), very few academics have the skills to be good administrators. Of course, contrary to Singer's point, one does not have to possess such skills to rise to leadership positions within universities.

posted by: MK on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

If you look at the bio pages for some of these think tanks, they list that individual's area of expertise. Oftentimes, they have 10 different things listed, from Asia to Middle East to terrorism to military strategy to WMD issues. The truth is, what people in the field call "specializing" is actually what most people would call "multi-tasking." What's more, is that the "areas of expertise" list is usually just a list of whatever is hot at the moment. Therefore, very few people actually have expertise in anything, and (especially once you're in the door), it doesn't take much to get expertise in something. It's not necessarily a bad thing - getting a variety of opinions is good - but when the media, publishing houses and other institutions pretend that these people are actually "one of the world's foremost experts in _____," they pretend that whatever this person says should be taken as gospel. (Afterall, he's an "expert!") And that is when it becomes a problem.

Academics also tend to do this, by the way. Witness John Mearsheimer's transition from being a Russia expert, to being a China expert to being a Middle Eastern expert. While area studies people can often be so in the weeds that they start forgetting what they're talking about, this tendency to jump from region to region applying a single argument or theory throughout with no attention to regional differences can also get annoying.

posted by: Dan on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

1. Be born into the Goldberg or Podhoretz family.
2. Advocate war as the first best option.
3. Promote a certain style of free trade.
4. Shoe horn every piece of data to support above notions and people.

Remember if you won't do the above things 100s of others who are just as smart as you will! It is ok to swallow pride and integrity to get out of your mothers basement.

posted by: Oh- Hanlon on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

Oh yeah and I forgot to mention that all work should be done the with primacy given to domestic political comsuption.

posted by: Oh- Hanlon on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

1. Pass the Foreign Service exam
2. "Serve" (issue/deny visas) at a US Embassy in a god-forsaken country
3. Muddle through a Washington-based assignment
4. Serve in a better position in a slightly-less god-forsaken country
5. Return to Washington and a "policy" position
6. Realize experience in foreign affairs and foreign policy are not worth much in the academic world
7. Join the political risk desk at ExxonMobil or Fidelity

posted by: Patrick on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

Be careful on the "reverse engineering" approach. There is a selection bias problem: the only well-known people are the ones for whom their strategy SUCCEEDED.

As yourself how to succeed at getting rich. One method that will quickly become apparent to you is to win a Powerball jackpot. If you then go out and put your money into buying lottery tickets, 99.9999% of the time you'll end up wondering what went wrong with your brilliant plan.

To know what strategy succeeds, you also must see the population that tried that strategy in the first place.

What's the relevance of this to the IR job world? I think if you look at reasonably sucessful people, you end up finding a goodly number who are there due to luck, specifically, having made the right connection when they were young.

Getting an intership with a junior member of Congress is one thing; what really sets you apart is getting one with the guy who ends up President or a senior senator on the Foreign Relations committee 20 years later. Ditto working as an RA for the Harvard prof who happens to have been a college buddy of the guy who makes it to high office someday, vs doing exactly the same work for the equally good Stanford prof whose buddy unfortuantely flames out in a airport bathroom sex scandal. That bit of luck will be FAR more important than any difference in the quality of your MA thesis.

Having the right talents, degrees, and experience do help. Alberto Gonzales proves that lucky connections and a total lack of shame can make up for such things, but it's a matter of going for the low or high risk approach.

If you're going to reverse engineer, I'd focus on the upper-mid level ranks, not political appointees and superstars. That's the low-risk strategy at least (you may never be "important" but you can at least be a GS-15 working in your chosen field in DC).

Then again, you probably maximize your chances of a big win later in life by glomming onto an aspiring politican early in life and hoping he makes it. Heck, due to the connections it gives you the single best advice to an undergrad might be to give up everthing else to focus all your efforts on a Rhodes Scholarship.

posted by: anIRprof on 11.12.07 at 09:49 PM [permalink]

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