How to Get a Job in the Foreign Policy World

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

November 12, 2007

From the Editors: Many of Passport’s readers are college students who are looking to launch careers in foreign policy. As it’s job-huntin’ season on campus, here’s a timely guest post from Peter W. Singer, a military expert at the Brookings Institution and the author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, on how to become a foreign policy wonk.

Frequently, I get e-mails from young students who want to know how to crack into the world of foreign policy. Below are the most frequent questions and my answers, which FP thought actually might be of use or at least amusement. Please judge their worth by the amount of money that you paid for them.

How did you decide to get into the foreign-policy world?

I’ve been interested in these issues since as long as I can remember. I was the weird kid in elementary school, who for book reports would choose Soviet Military Power (the Pentagon’s somewhat overhyped annual report on the Red menace) rather than Sweet Valley High or The Boxcar Kids. Yes, it was totally nerdy. Guilty as charged. By the time I got to college, I applied to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as my major. If I didn’t get in, my backup plan was to go into the history field. Fortunately, I did, and thoroughly enjoyed it. When it came time to figure out a job afterwards, I flirted a bit with the idea of becoming a management consultant. My thinking was that I could feed the beast by getting subscriptions to various political magazines to read in my off time, while I made scads of money merely for using words like “synergy,” “leverage,” or “optimize.” But I soon realized that I didn’t know what those words actually meant and I would shoot myself after a few months. So, I went into the foreign-policy business instead.

Are you glad you did?

Yes. There are basically three things that anyone can talk about with anyone else: the weather, sports, and politics. It’s fun to be involved in one of those (and I am equally glad to talk about my fantasy football team, “The Ragin’ Pundits,” or today’s weather if you want).

What does a typical “day on the job” consist of?

I work at a think tank, so basically, you arrive in the morning, sit at your desk and think powerful thoughts all day. Then, you go home and watch something on TV where you don’t have to think (like Real World or Fox News) so that your brain can cool off.

Actually, the typical day is a mix of activities. I might be working on an article or book chapter, so depending on where I am in the process, part of it could be spent on research, writing, or editing. Our program might be hosting or organizing an event, such as a conference or a general coming to talk, so we might be working out the agenda or logistics. I might be giving a talk that day, be it to a university class or a group at the Pentagon, so that would involve preparing the lecture and/or giving it. A journalist might call and inquire on a news story, and so I might answer their questions, which usually involves at least 30 minutes of walking them through the nuances of something really complex, sometimes on background and sometimes on the record, which they then will try to boil down into a 5-second clip on TV or a sentence-long quote in the newspaper. Or, the 30 minutes might go to helping someone on the policy side, such as a congressional staffer, better understand an issue.

The two constants that run through every day are the need to stay on top of the news and issues in your particular field (so lots of reading) and dealing with e-mail. Lots and lots of e-mail. 

What is best way to go about job hunting?

Have a rich father, who is a former president of the United States. If that is not possible, informational interviews are a great way to start to build out your network, before you even hit the application time. Talk with professors, family friends, email alumni, etc. The key of an informational interview is that it is a deal. You request the insights/advice of someone in the field with the understanding that this person is not going to give you a job and you cannot therefore pester them for one.

When it comes time to actually apply to jobs, do so far and wide. There is no harm to the shotgun approach and it might open up possibilities you didn’t plan. Plus, it might mean more interview opportunities, which you can use as less-stress preparation for the interviews that matter to you more later on.

What skillsets, experiences, courses, etc. should I focus on that will help me in job hunting?

Job hunting is not simply a treasure hunt to find that perfect job, which is just sitting there waiting for you and you alone to find it. It is a competition. You are running against all the other people that want that same job. So, you want to enter that process with as many tools in your belt that are relevant to that job as possible. This means the more professional courses you can take the better (that “physics for poets” class ain’t going to help you), the more internships/summer jobs that are relevant to the field, at places people have heard of, the better (that summer spent lifeguarding is not going to help you), the more relevant skills and competed projects that you can talk up in your interviews the better (so organizing a foreign policy conference at your school is going to pay off more than being treasurer at Lambda Lambda Lambda), etc. Don’t start thinking about the elements that will give you a great looking résumé until it is too late.

What is best advice you could give to a job hunter just out of college?

I believe in working backwards. Do what could be called “forensic backtracking.” Identify people that have jobs that you might want one day. Then, backtrack what they did to get there. What are the kind of experiences that they had under their belt, the sort of publications they published in, etc. It isn’t that you should go all Single White Female and cut your hair to look like them, but rather that it will give you a good sense of what you are going to need to do, in order to end up at a good job at a great place. Doing this also gives you a ready answer for the pesky “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” interview question.

This leads to more backwards advice about interviews: Game out your interviews and practice them. Your résumé gets you onto the short list, your interview gets you the job. Prepare your answers to the most likely questions beforehand, so that you can have your best responses ready at the front of your brain, rather than scrambling for them when it matters most.  As part of this, start out with the key things that you want that interviewer to know about you by the end of that meeting, and ensure that you weave them into your ready answers. That is, work backwards: decide the elements of your answers first, then use these to prepare for the potential questions.

What are common mistakes?

I still find it amazing that about 20% of the cover letters and résumés we see in job searches have typos. And these are from people with great GPAs from great schools. There’s a time and place for casual writing, such as on a blog, and a time for formal. If someone can’t get it right in a job application, then they are showing they can’t get it right when it matters. No one likes to say it, but the reality is that typos make the job of the person deciding who gets interviewed or not very easy. No matter how great the candidate’s credentials or GPA, if they have a typo in there, their application goes in the trash. So, read over what you send in one last time.

Your résumé should never be longer than a page.  Never.  Let me say this again: Never. If they ask for a C.V., you can send one in that is longer (as a C.V. might have a list of all your publications, which can run past a page later in your career). But if not, no one has done enough in life to make it over a page in length. I don’t care if you are Leonardo Da Vinci, you still send in a one page résumé.  And yes, cover letters are a nice touch to tell your story and highlight again what you want. Better to do one than not.

How did you get your current job?

I came in via a post-doctoral fellowship. The original plan of the program was ‘turn your dissertation into a book draft and go become a professor somewhere at the end of the fellowship.’ That was how I got in the door. A week after I started, 9-11 happened. Brookings, like most every other place, was pretty hollow in the relevant areas as far as its projects and the board asked the senior leadership to set up a program exploring the new questions that surround American relations with the Muslim world in response. 3 of the most senior staff at Brookings agreed to convene the project, but they were at a level one step beyond the nitty gritty details of launching the actual project. Basically, it was an issue of “Too many chiefs, no Indians.” A few weeks later I was asked if I would be interested in being that Indian. All I could be sure about was that it would take my career in a different direction, as well as delay my book writing on Corporate Warriors, which additionally was on a completely different topic, so there would be no positive feedback between the new job and the writing. After thinking it over a day, I agreed to it anyway. It seemed an exciting and rewarding opportunity and it was also personally important to me to do something positive on the issue, as I had lost close friends on 9-11. Over the next 2 years, the program thrived and when it came time for my fellowship to end, they asked me to stay on.

The lesson I take from this is to always say “yes” to interesting opportunities, even if you don’t know where they will lead you.                                  

What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

I wish I knew, as my 2 year old nephew likes to say to calm down when he spills his apple juice or gets upset, that it would “All work out, All work out.” Job hunting is incredibly stressful and at each stage of the game, I wasn’t sure what I would do if things didn’t work out. For example, before I got the job here at Brookings, I was really sweating what I would do next.

Will working on a political campaign help or hurt me?

Maybe, but it is not necessary in any way (I didn’t work on one starting out and you, for some reason, are still reading my advice).

The positive of working on a campaign is that it immediately puts you inside a network of people, which you would not possibly be able to build on your own. It is fast paced, and so working in it shows future job-deciders that you understand things like deadlines and project work with a zero-error mentality. It can also be fun, exciting, and rewarding, even more so if your team wins. The rule of thumb seems to be the higher the stakes, the more benefit it will bring to your career (that is, working on a presidential campaign will gain you more useful contacts and credibility in the foreign policy world than working on a county commission one).

The negative is that you must be ready for the fact that working on a campaign does pigeon-hole you from the start. People may judge you based on that candidate’s position/performance, which may not match exactly you and your own positions/performance. Also, it does reinforce that back-scratching phenomenon of DC, where people sometimes feel they “owe” each other for jobs. That is, if you get a job because of a campaign link (such as via your old boss in the campaign), you are now tied into and identified with that person. The next election, you may feel pressured to support whoever they work for the next campaign, because you owe them. Other people will describe you in such terms as “She worked for person X.”  Much of this city has ridden up the ranks following this rule, so it definitely does work. But it is also how people end up working in jobs and for candidates that they are not enthusiastic about, and our system remains stale and static.

Will a year abroad/international work abroad be worth it?

I think it is a valuable experience that everyone should do, regardless of whether they go into foreign policy or not. It helps you better understand the world, America, and yourself. As the Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad said, “If you don’t travel, you are viewing the world through a keyhole. When you travel, it is like looking at the world from a helicopter.”

Also, as long as it is not the Cancun School of International Relations and Bartending, experience abroad can’t hurt you as a job candidate. Prospective employers are only going to see your time abroad as a positive that makes you a more appealing candidate. It also gives you something interesting to talk about in interviews. Do it. 

How important is it to know a foreign language?

It is another one of those tools in your belt that can distinguish you from your competitors in the job process. Like international travel, you can’t be penalized for having such an added skill, so it is only a positive.

The question of which language to take really depends on your interests more than trying to game it. That is, 20 years ago, Russian would have been described as a fail-safe language to choose, as the Cold War was the one certainty that you could guide your career by. Of course, then in the 90s, many a Sovietologist was scrambling for work (or remaking themselves into China “experts”) and Serbo-Croat was where it was at. Today, the “hot” languages are Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Chinese, for obvious reasons. But again, you should not try to “game” this and instead choose what language to take by what interests you, and of course by how cute the TA is and whether the class starts after 10 AM.

How does one advance career-wise?

There is clearly no set pathway, but there does seem to be two rules of thumb on how to get ahead in the world.

1) “A-Hole Rule”  Be a complete jerk to anyone working for or with you, but brown-nose your way upwards, always seeking to work any situation, be it social or professional, to your personal advantage.

2) “Karma Rule” Strive to do professional, quality work and be a good colleague to those above and below you, in the knowledge that there is Karma in the world.

I wholeheartedly advise and support option #2, but have to acknowledge that #1 has worked for way too many people not to exist (As a corollary, people in this category also tend to wear popped collars, loafers with tassels, and often start wars later in life). One way to decide which rule you want to follow in life is to imagine yourself getting a promotion sometime in the future. When you look yourself in the mirror the next morning, do you want to know that most everyone hates you and is just waiting for you to fail, so that the boss can finally see what a turd you are? If you don’t care, then pop that collar and go with #1. Otherwise, stick to #2. The rest of us will be glad you did.

Another thing I have noticed is that multi-taskers tend to advance further than pure specialists. People who can convene and bring things together are more likely to advance to the leadership level than people who lock themselves away and only write. That is, when you look about at who is in the leadership positions in this field, 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 most likely education and training that actually feeds 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 up early in your career, I would keep this in mind.