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How can I get unstuck in my quest to start an international career?
September 15, 2011 8:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm twenty-five, have a master's degree, speak French fluently, and have studied/interned/volunteered in the States, Europe, and Middle East, but am at a loss as to how to parlay all that into an international career. Living in NYC, but would move back abroad in a heartbeat for the right job.

I earned my MA at an American university in the Middle East. I studied international human rights law, comparative migration law, development, demography, etc. as part of my coursework. My thesis was well-received and I was encouraged to publish. I've volunteered with a non-profit teaching English to refugees, interned with the US State Department (and incidentally took and passed their Foreign Service Officer Test). I spent a year in France in undergrad and speak French fluently, have traveled extensively, etc.

When I came back to the States I decided to move to New York (not wanting to return to the Midwest where I'm from because of a lack of relevant international-oriented jobs. I've been here in NYC for about nine months and started out interning unpaid for a non-profit that helps refugees and asylum-seekers get help, then I got a three-month consulting gig with a progressive Muslim non-profit doing writing and editing, and now I've got a full-time temp job at an international education non-profit.

Despite this seemingly increasing steps in terms of pay, responsibility, and impact, I feel really stuck. I took the FSOT and passed it, as I mentioned, but didn't get to the oral round of State Department interviews. I've applied to take the UN's upcoming int'l civil service exam and I'm not optimistic about getting very far. I've always regretted going to a private university that's only regionally known, but I feel like my experiences must compensate in some way. Still, after scouring Idealist.org (where I've gotten my three New York gigs), the Foreign Policy job board, and various nooks and crannies on the internet, I am at a loss for where to go from here. There's a scarcity of jobs and a lot of the great opportunities in international affairs/international development/conflict resolution, etc. are internships geared at current students. What do I do since that ship has sailed and since I'm not likely to get into the State Dep't anytime soon given budget cuts and an overabundance of people with lots of work experience ready and able to edge me and my measly education out?

I want to find something either non-profit or private that doesn't make me feel like beating myself over the head (i.e. no glorified data entry) and that allows me to travel a lot or live abroad, but that is a substantial move toward a career (i.e. not teaching English in South Korea for a year, etc.)
posted by Enneking to Work & Money (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
What type of work are you interested in doing? It's a bit hard to tell from your question, to be honest.
posted by lunasol at 8:29 PM on September 15, 2011


At your level of experience, the way to get to the career you want is to do what you refer to as "glorified data entry." Usually, it's not even glorified, it's just administrative work. But if you do it extremely well, enthusiastically, and efficiently, you get better assignments. Basically, you need to pay your dues at this point in your life, and it sucks some, but it really does build necessary skills and give you a chance to make connections with the people who will get you where you want to go. So my advice is to stop thinking of yourself as overqualified for any job, and apply to any open position at any organization that is accepting CVs. You'll get your exciting, travel around the world job. You just need to spend some time being the low man on the totem pole first.
posted by decathecting at 8:39 PM on September 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


@Lunasol: I'm pretty open. Ideally something related to international foreign policy or diplomacy, but intercultural communication more generally, humanitarian work, and conflict resolution are all of interest to me.

@Decathecting: I don't mind being the low man on the totem poll, but I want to do it somewhere where there're other rungs of the totem pole to rise to and getting into places like that is something that eludes me for the moment.
posted by Enneking at 8:49 PM on September 15, 2011


Law school or grad school. Sorry, but that is the only way. Stick around doing the boring data entry for a year or two, then off to the lsat books with you.
posted by yarly at 8:51 PM on September 15, 2011


Those are several very different fields, with widely varying areas of expertise and kind of daily work. And within those fields, there are lots of different kinds of work you could actually do. I think you might really benefit from doing some narrowing in on what kind of work you actually want to do and what fields you want to work in. What are you passionate about? What do you love doing? What are you naturally good at? What kind of training are you willing to do?

I say this because I work in a somewhat similar field to some of the ones you're interested in, although it's domestic, and I talk to people in their early 20s all the time who are interested in getting into it. Most of them have little idea of what they actually want to do, though, or what the work involves, which makes it hard to help them.

Let's say I'm hiring someone and I get two applicants with the same level of education and experience. If one person is generically interested in my field and the other can say, "I love this field for [x reason] and I really am excited to do [y] work and learn [z] skills because they will help me develop in this way," well, it's pretty clear who I'm going to hire.

I know this kind of narrowing down is hard when you're starting your career. I have definitely been there. But you've had several jobs and lots of education, so this should give you a good basis from which to start thinking about this stuff. Also, I really recommend the book What Color is Your Parachute. It was very helpful for me when I was in the same place as you.

Then when you have a decent sense of the kind of work you'd like to do and think you'd be good at, start talking to whoever you think might be able to point you in the right direction. Fellow alum from your masters program, people in NYC, people who worked at the places you worked/interned/volunteered. You'll be surprised at the kind of opportunities that open up once you know what you want and start talking to people about it.
posted by lunasol at 9:05 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Have you tried looking in DC instead of NYC? Is the World Bank/IMF hiring?

In general it seems to me that it's going to be hard to find a great career-track job in a competitive field that lets you live abroad when you don't even know what actual work you want to do? What was your thesis on? It seems like it will take time to work your way up after some years of experience..
posted by citron at 9:06 PM on September 15, 2011


would move back abroad in a heartbeat for the right job.

Honestly, based on the people I know who have made this work, the key is:

would move back abroad in a heartbeat for the right job.

Meaning the key is to get back overseas, and then to work your way into a great position. Ideally you do it the other way around -- get the great offer that happens to be overseas. But at least for many people, the most important part is to get your ass overseas (by volunteering, or taking a crappy job, or just moving and hoping to land something) and then things fall into place. It's a huge gamble, but you sound like you have the skills and background to make it work.
posted by Forktine at 9:56 PM on September 15, 2011


: I don't mind being the low man on the totem poll, but I want to do it somewhere where there're other rungs of the totem pole to rise to [nice mixed metaphor -ed.] and getting into places like that is something that eludes me for the moment.

The World Bank always seems to be hiring people with your academic background. Otherwise: PhD in Economics, and work for the IMF. Alternatives: Law school and pursue international tax law, and maybe you'll get to join a firm with an office in Paris.

The sort of non-profits you mention always seem to lack additional rungs on the ladder to rise to, so you may well be out of luck going that route: you don't work your way up the ladder-- you leave, become a highly regarded professional elsewhere, and then get brought in at the top to a non profit looking for higher-level executive staff.
posted by deanc at 9:57 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Looked for jobs in the UAE and Qatar? Things like the Qatar Foundation, reasonably similar organizations in the UAE could be good fer ya.
posted by ambient2 at 10:54 PM on September 15, 2011


Right now, you have no full-time job. So any full-time job you get will be better than that. I started out as an administrative assistant at a research nonprofit. I decided I wanted a different career and moved on after a couple of years, but the experience was great. The woman who took that job after me stuck with it, and now she lives in Kazakhstan training journalists to report on human rights crises.

Seriously, apply for every job that is available at any organization that does any work you're remotely interested in. Especially in this economy, expect about a 1% return on your applications. That is, for every 100 applications you put in, you'll get one interview. And that's if your cover letters are well-tailored and there are no errors in your materials. You may have to do many interviews before you get a job, so there's no sense at all in taking yourself out of the running for jobs because you think you might not love the hypothetical job that you hypothetically think is the next step in that organization.

TL;DR: You're being too picky. Apply for everything even remotely related to your interests. Work hard, be excellent, and then you'll have options.

Oh, also, do not go to law school. No one should get an American law degree unless they want to practice American law. The fact that some American law firms have offices in other countries does not mean that an American law degree is a good way to go abroad. Google has offices all over the world, but that doesn't mean you should get an engineering degree as a means of moving abroad.
posted by decathecting at 6:23 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


A US law degree is a great way to get abroad, but not because you would be practicing US law abroad. There are many opportunities for law students to intern with international organizations and then parlay these contacts into jobs abroad. Of course, you have to be really good and get into a good law school and be focused on this goal from day 1, that's a given. Also, it is actually quite possible to work for a us law firm's office abroad, but I don't think that is what you are looking for.d
posted by yarly at 6:41 AM on September 16, 2011


It seems to me that there's actually a lot of jobs out there for someone with strong MENA knowledge, French-speaking, background in development and human rights, but not much actual work experience. The place I work hires people like that all the time.

You're probably looking at a program coordinator/program officer kind of position, where you're helping manage a USAID or State-funded program, which involves a mix of annoying administrative work and, if you're good, steadily increasing technical responsibilities, and then some travel overseas. Few organizations will hire someone with little job experience to work overseas; its much cheaper to hire a very experienced local to do the same work.

Concrete suggestions: Soros may be looking for people. Other than that you're probably looking at time in DC. Devex is the baseline website for this kind of thing. Society for International Development career workshops. World Bank as others suggested (probably initially as a consultant; its very hard to go in as full-time.) ME-mail me a CV if you want more.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:26 AM on September 16, 2011


It seems to me that there's actually a fair number of jobs out there for someone with strong MENA knowledge, French-speaking, background in development and human rights, even without much actual work experience. Where you went to school doesn't matter.

You may have to chose to some extent between a career job with decent pay based in the US or living overseas (at least initially), since few organizations will hire someone with little job experience to work overseas; its much cheaper to hire a very experienced local to do the same work.

In the US - and probably in DC, at least in my experience - if you haven't been picked up by one of the places where you've done an internship, you're probably looking at a program coordinator/program officer kind of position, where you're helping manage a USAID or State-funded program, which involves a mix of annoying administrative work and, if you're good, steadily increasing technical responsibilities, and some travel overseas.

Other random thoughts, more on the development side than diplomacy: Soros/Open Society Fund always seems to be hiring and they're in NY. Devex is the default website for most recruiters. SID-W career events can be good. World Bank hires a lot but without a PhD you'll probably start as a part-time consultant. There's a whole world of think tanks to explore. Check NED, NDI, IRI, IFES, IREX, etc if you're into the political side, and ABA CEELI if you're into rule of law. Look for USAID or State projects that sound interesting and figure out who is bidding on them or implementing. There are big DG and EG APSs out for Tunisia and Egypt, so that should lead to some hiring by NGOs and contractors in this space. Obviously: LTSIA.* Mefi-mail me a CV if you want; I may have other suggestions.

Finally: Slow down. Breath. Think clearly about your strengths and objectives. Write in short simple sentences and close your parentheses. You only have to say you speak French fluently once. Describe yourself with some distance and humility and you'll be a lot more attractive to people who look at hundreds of CVs not entirely dissimilair to yours every week and are trying to decide who they want to have in their offices 8, 10, 12 hours a day. Nothing turns people away faster than a whiff of eau'd panic-and-entitlement.


* Learn To Speak In Acronyms. I just made that up.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:18 AM on September 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oops. Premature postage. Ignore (or mods delete?) the first, incomplete, answer.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:20 AM on September 16, 2011


A guy in my foreign service orientation took the test nine times before he passed all sections and was called of the list. Persevere.
posted by eulily at 2:46 PM on September 16, 2011


Sorry about the mixed metaphors, rambling, repetition, and panic-and-entitlement clouding the air. I'd been excited all week about being able to ask my first question on AskMeFi and ended up doing it when I was tired and not thinking (much less communicating) particularly clearly. Hopefully with a little practice, I'll be a more adept question-writer as, as you might imagine, I have many problems (or imagined problems) I'll want your insight, wisdom, and occasional derision for.

Though a lot of these are good answers and I don't want to press my luck, I should also say that I am not planning on pursuing anything in economics and that I also really don't want to live in the DC area (though I would if I had a good job offer there first).

I understand how I might've come off as feeling entitled, but really it's more a sense of-given the steps I've taken so far, shouldn't I be in a more challenging position. In this case, of course, you're right about the panic part, @RandlePatrickMcMurphy. Maybe I need to chill a bit.

@decathecting: I actually do have a full-time job and, although it's temporary right now, I am likely to be able to transition internally into something permanent. It's just that I am very skeptical about remaining in my current position for a year. That's where the panic comes back that I'm whiling away my life doing unsubstantial stuff (even if, in the case of my current employer, it contributes to noble ends).
posted by Enneking at 8:09 PM on September 16, 2011


First, regarding my call-out of your mixed metaphor: I mean it in love. It just amused me, and I had to point it out. For the most part, listen to RandlePatrickMcMurphy.

I understand how I might've come off as feeling entitled, but really it's more a sense of-given the steps I've taken so far, shouldn't I be in a more challenging position.

Next, allow me to be the voice of cynical wisdom: there are 300 million Americans. Heck, limit the pool to millions of starting college students and ask them how many of them would like to go to a foreign country to do "something related to international foreign policy or diplomacy, but intercultural communication more generally, humanitarian work, and conflict resolution" in a French speaking country. Tons of them are going to say "YES!" You think every Communications major dreamed of their current job as a junior assistant to a PR person in a small company or their low-level administrative job in a miscellaneous non-profit? Of course not. They all want to do what you want to do, and there are only a few people who actually do that. At least in DC, the world you're trying to break into is kind of like Hollywood-- thousands of people come here every year determined to "make it" in politics and international affairs, and thousands go back to their hometown every year when it doesn't work out. And a good chunk of the ones who stay are still just getting by, slaving away in anonymous administrative jobs at non-profits. So your job is to avoid being one of those latter two cases by being a bit more ruthless about what you want.

Outside of repeatedly trying again (and again, and again-- keep the eye on the prize!) to get into the foreign service, you are limited to a few options:

a) do the scut work of data entry or whatever it is you do as an entry level employee at a non-profit. Not just that, but do it with enthusiasm and hard work for a mentor who favors you over all the other people doing the same scut work. You really do need a "patron" who's both going to advance your career and tell you what you need to do to get what you want.

b) do the entry level scut work for some kind of international commerce company you can work your way up in. Like shipping. I can't guarantee you'll be able to transition to something in the non-profit world later, but if you can't, at least you'll be able to pay your rent. You might be able to transition to a non-profit for a trade organization if you can't go elsewhere. But it's something.

c) differentiate yourself in some way from all the other people with master's degrees in communication/international affairs/conflict resolution/etc. Get an MS or PhD in Economics to do development work for the IMF/World Bank or a law degree from a top-ranked law school and deal with the nitty-gritty of tax and trade laws and you might (might!) eventually have an opportunity to go to a law firm's foreign office. (The guy I know who's doing this graduated law school in 1999 and is only now heading to a foreign country. OTOH, the IMF and World Bank people I know seem to travel all the time, though.)

I've always regretted going to a private university that's only regionally known

If this is a reference to American University, then keep in mind that the region is DC, and you need to get over your disinterest in moving back there.
posted by deanc at 11:01 AM on September 17, 2011


@Deanc Haha. I had a hunch your highlighting my ladder-equipped totem pole was in good fun. No, I'm not from DC. I'm from the Midwest. As for option a) I'm in an entry-level position at a non-profit, but I'm not sure there's much in the way of upper-level positions I'm interested in. I guess I can't stick around there while looking for something else and see!

Thanks again everybody.
posted by Enneking at 10:51 PM on September 17, 2011


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