I studied Government at Hamilton and took a wide variety courses in comparative politics, international relations, U.S. government and public policy. When I was a freshman, it was not at all clear to me that I would pursue an international career, but my amazing study abroad experiences in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine solidified my interest in pursuing further study and a career path focused on the Middle East and working abroad. I have had the amazing fortune to spend nearly seven years abroad working and studying in locations as diverse as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Turkey. Every career path is highly unique and I could not have predicted my own, but there are a few defining attributes which have helped me succeed.
Be a Generalist
I am a generalist. Throughout my Foreign Service career, I wrote policy memos for senior officials, monitor and evaluate federally funded humanitarian assistance programs, plan cultural and public diplomacy events, provide project support to initiate building a bi-national park with Mexico, remove highly enriched uranium from a Mexican research laboratory, lead anti-trafficking efforts in Saudi Arabia, and write diplomatic cables on topics as varied as pandemic flu to climate change. In jobs with non-profits and higher-ed, I designed databases, built a website, reviewed resumes and cover letters, trained students on career paths, and managed pieces of the national Fulbright program.
All of these roles may seem incongruous, but there are some important elements that tie it all together. Written and oral communication skills, which I developed thoroughly at Hamilton, have been critical to my success in each position. Analytical abilities, including the ability to assess the components of a problem and to recommend useful solutions, are equally valuable. And finally flexibility and adaptability are key to being a strong generalist: you must be willing to quickly learn and use skills fast and to always be open to new and unexpected assignments.
And also a Specialist
Some call generalists a “jack of all trades and a master of none”. Generalists fit in great when the needs of an organization are diverse and changing, but specialists are needed too and will often find it easier to market their skills. Whichever path you pursue, I recommend bolstering your softer communication and analytic skills with some harder skills acquired in the field, through self-study, and graduate school. If you aren’t sure what your specialty is, choose skills that will be useful broadly: statistics and quantitative data analysis, data visualization, project management, budget and financial skills, GIS, area studies, and language. These will all help you immensely in securing work in a broad range of international affairs roles.
Take Risks and Go Abroad
It is imperative to have field experience to succeed in the international affairs arena, particularly if you plan to do development or humanitarian assistance work. Start off by studying abroad and choosing a challenging context to live and study in. A large share of development jobs are in Africa so this may be one region to consider focusing on, especially as the population and economy continue to grow immensely. Meet with a career advisor, study abroad advisor, and possibly a fellowship advisor in advance to determine a good fit. Consider applying for a Fulbright award (there are nearly 2,000 of these awards annually and Hamilton’s Fellowship Advisor Ginny Dosch is about the best in the business), consider Peace Corps for an extended and challenging experience abroad. You may spend the earlier part of your career making little money doing hard work in even harder places, but it may very well set you apart from peers when applying for jobs later. It will get harder to do this as you get older so try to take these risks and opportunities early.
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Broaden Your Search and Never Stop Networking
I would encourage you to think widely in searching for potential employers. Many people approach me to ask about my time with the State Department. The Foreign Service is a fine career, but my experiences in higher education and with NGOs have also been thoroughly engaging. There are hundreds of private companies, government agencies, non-profits, think tanks and other institutions doing all sorts of work across the broad range of international affairs sectors. Use the Career Center, LinkedIn, colleagues, professors, and others in your realm to meet people at different organizations. Instead of approaching each meeting with “Do you have internships? How do I get a job?”, focus more on learning about the individual’s work, their day-to-day job, and the organization they work for. When you finally have a job, consider continuing these meetings even when you are not looking for work: you will learn a ton, likely build useful partnerships, and have a great understanding of the landscape when you are ready to make your next move.
Joe Livingston graduated from Hamilton in 2002 and has a master’s degree from the University of Texas in Austin in Middle East Studies. He served as State Department Foreign Service Officer (diplomat) from 2007-2016, has worked for several NGOs conducting programs internally, and is currently the Assistant Director for Careers and Professional Development at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in Denver.