Help me create my own career of being an international citizen!
March 6, 2012 1:54 PM   Subscribe

What are careers that are like being in the US Foreign Service (the diplomatic corps), but not?

I'm in the midst of my 30s crisis of trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

Here is a long description of what I'm interested in:

My top choice is the Foreign Service, but after passing the test, I was rejected from the next step in the process. Oh well! I'll keep trying until they either accept me or I get bored with the process, but I can only do this once a year.

I was attracted to the FS, specifically the public diplomacy cone, because it includes international travel, the chance to learn multiple languages, utilized my strengths in writing, public relations and marketing, and would help others. (I was previously an expat in China for six years, where I basically did a lot of this.)

In the past six months, I've been going through a long and torturous job search, and I've come to realize a few things. 1) I tend to apply for jobs and companies that I think that I can get, but am not actually very interested in. 2) I've had a fair amount of feedback from friends and classmates saying that they think I'd be much happier in a large organization than in a small one (where most of my experience has been).

Now I'm at the point where I'm taking a break from all of the flailing about to figure out what it is what I really want to do and shoot for the moon.

I'm an ENFJ and a Helper on the Enneagram test. Thanks to the tests, I've come to realize recently that I'd be much happier with a career where I'm interacting with and helping people. I do volunteer on a local and community basis, and while this is satisfying because I can see direct results from my efforts, I'd like to really help people on a larger and a more international scale. Although my background is in marketing, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea of selling stuff, even when it was books and magazines that arguably had a real impact on people's lives.

A couple of ideas that I've had: Foreign Service Specialist, USAID, international development, public affairs department at international marcomm firms, cause marketing, international school teacher, etc.

What are some careers that would be good alternatives to the Foreign Service and encompass my interests (travel, writing, PR, marketing) and values (internationalist outlook, helping others)? What would I need to do to develop that kind of career (many of the ideas that I've had seem to require graduate level degrees, and I already have one in something completely unrelated)?
posted by so much modern time to Work & Money (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I was just talking to the guy who's in charge of Study Abroad programs at a higher education institutions, it sounds like his job is exactly international travel, the chance to learn multiple languages, utilizing strengths in writing, public relations and marketing, and helping others, if you consider study abroad a worthy thing to help people with. He has to make contact with and investigate other schools, and figure out how to strike deals with them to either exchange students back and forth, or just send our students there. His job also requires a bunch of bureaucracy and dealing with faculty and academic departments to determine if courses meet their requirements etc., etc., etc., but it's another track to think about.
posted by brainmouse at 2:15 PM on March 6, 2012

the Foreign Commercial Service is similar.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:19 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

What would I need to do to develop that kind of career (many of the ideas that I've had seem to require graduate level degrees, and I already have one in something completely unrelated)?

Ideally, you'll spend your entire adult life preparing for that kind of career. Because there are plenty of people who have, and they're applying for the same jobs you are. Like, straight out of college, or even interning during college, then going on to grad school in a related field, and working for some kind of international aid organization the whole time. If you're in your mid-thirties and are only now turning to this sort of thing, with your previous experience not really related... to call that a "late start" might be putting it a bid mildly.

This is because this sort of international work is incredibly sexy. Which is probably why you want to do it, but also why lots of other people want to do it too. Only lots of those other people figured that out before you did, and you're going to be competing with a bunch of people who are probably both way younger and way more experienced than you are.

It sounds to me like you might have a much better shot getting into the PR side of these endeavors. You'll still be "selling stuff," but more ideas than products, and not in a very commercial way. The difference between corporate/commercial marketing and public sector PR is pretty small compared to the difference between marketing and hands-on international aid work. But this probably means not working for the Foreign Service as such, but for, e.g., the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. They don't seem to be hiring right now, but just about every government agency you care to name is involved in these sort of public information activities. So are private organizations. Again, these are still very sexy positions, so competition is going to be pretty stiff, but I think you'll have a better shot applying to positions which have something to do with your actual experience.
posted by valkyryn at 2:19 PM on March 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm a foreign service officer and the agency that leapt to mind reading your question is the Aga Khan Foundation. I have a few friends who work for them and they have fascinating jobs, lots of which seems to be similar to work that of other FS I know. Lots of international development. Lots of travel (one friend is off to Pakistan to work on projects pretty frequently, another just got back from 8 months in Juba) and they all seem to love it.
posted by fso at 2:55 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sort of tangential, but according to an acquaintance, USAID is a pretty small department, which may not appeal to you.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:45 PM on March 6, 2012

I think you should try the Peace Corps. If you have no commitments that would otherwise keep you from going.
posted by humanfont at 6:34 PM on March 6, 2012

USAID's Foreign Service is great, by all accounts.
posted by k8t at 6:48 PM on March 6, 2012

Valkyryn is dead-on that there are a lot of people who have been "on track" for this for their college and post-college lives and you're competing with them.

Also, as far as the federal government system, a LOT of these jobs happen through PMF.

And for whatever reason, in DC, MAs are like BAs.

Sorry to be a downer.
posted by k8t at 6:51 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I appreciate the candor about graduate degrees and competing against people who are in it to win it. However, I'm optimistic enough (and only 31) to think that my whole life is still in front of me. Better to start again, at any age, and follow your passion than to waste decades of your life doing something that you're good at but not particularly interested in.

The idea of another graduate degree is probably one that I'll have to bite the bullet on; as it is, I was already planning on applying for a graduate degree in international relations (some graduate programs even have international relations and journalism double majors...swoony!) and the Pickering Fellowship later this year.

Let me reframe this a bit as I think mentioning international development and the Foreign Service guided it in a certain direction, and I'm actually looking for alternative careers to this kind of model. So far, Brainmouse's suggestion about higher education study abroad programs is the kind of answer that I was looking for--an unexpected path that I wouldn't have necessarily thought of in this context.
posted by so much modern time at 11:47 PM on March 6, 2012

Dunno if it is the same in the US, but there are positions with state government in Australia around supporting state exports / winning investment. There are both Australia and overseas based positions. This is not really sales, more marketing/PR for your state - sometimes it is about supporting small businesses to expand to international markets, winning a large investment into the state (company opening new office) or looking at expanding incoming international students into higher education in the state.

Other federal government agencies that may have US equivalents - Australian agencies that also do a lot of overseas work are obviously law enforcement, immigration, trade, agriculture, attorney-general, defence (policy/cooperation, rather than enlisted).

Other ideas - university exchange programs, international volunteer program coordination (either development or voluntourism orientated), international development project management with contractors to USAID, international non-government organisations, UN agencies.
posted by AnnaRat at 12:02 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm optimistic enough (and only 31) to think that my whole life is still in front of me. Better to start again, at any age, and follow your passion than to waste decades of your life doing something that you're good at but not particularly interested in.

A very TED-type perspective. But probably not all that helpful. I'd say it's much better to do something you're good at and which pays the bills than to flail around unproductively, wasting what is probably a decade of otherwise-valuable experience, trying to "follow your passion".

I'd say it's time to face the music: if you were ever going to have a career in the Foreign Service, or even in international development in general, the time to start down that road was probably a decade ago. There are absolutely positions out there which make use of your skills and are more related to the international scene than whatever it is that you're doing now. But we're talking about a field which requires intense dedication from the get-go, and you will never be able to make up for that lost time. Indeed, coming at this so late can give the impression not that you're "following your passion"--if it was your passion, why weren't you doing this at 21 instead of 31?--but that you're unhappy with your career and looking for a change. Which, from your description, seems pretty accurate.

Don't get me wrong: you can probably apply to and be accepted to graduate school. Masters programs are revenue centers for universities, and odds are decent you can find someone to take you. But are you going to get into Georgetown? Or Columbia? Both of them require proficiency in a foreign language and at least two economics courses as a condition of admission. You presumably speak Mandarin, which is good. You used it recently? And how's your economics background? You done much volunteer work? Think you can get quality, relevant recommendations?

I don't know any of those things, but those are what top-flight masters programs are going to be looking for. And like any graduate program except possibly medical school, job prospects fall off pretty rapidly once you get out of the top handful of schools. Going to some random program with little name recognition may or may not net you a job, but that job isn't likely to be what you imagine. Indeed, it might well be something you can already get.

Look, you've spent six years in China. You've (presumably) got marketable skills in PR. Employers are willing to pay for that combination, including employers in the non-profit/NGO sector. I'd seriously suggest you take a look at those options before you commit to grad school, which is likely to cost you north of $100,000 and may not actually improve your job prospects all that much.
posted by valkyryn at 6:29 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

As an owner of an IR degree, I have to say that it isn't particularly useful. An economics degree might be.
posted by k8t at 6:44 AM on March 7, 2012

Another FS Officer here -- just want to chime in to say that I'm glad to hear that you'll keep pursuing a career in the Foreign Service. I agree that it's important to look at other options, since the FS is competitive and never a sure thing. That said, incoming FSOs are from all walks of life and the average age of incoming officers seems to be early 30s these days. Best of luck!
posted by ihavepromisestokeep at 10:02 AM on March 7, 2012

I grew up near D.C. One of my friends who was a third-culture kid for a time (who has a master's in international relations) scratches her travel itch by working in international trade for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. She regularly leads trade delegations to foreign countries. Her job basically looks like your wishlist. I admit, I'm way outside of this area and am assuming that "development" is more on the humanitarian side, so if I'm totally wrong about that, feel free to disregard this answer. If I'm not wrong, perhaps consider looking for trade promotion organizations like that?
posted by jocelmeow at 11:39 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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