What Do Foreign Service/Intelligence Grad Programs Expect of Me?
July 9, 2013 5:14 PM   Subscribe

My senior year as an Undergraduate begins this Fall. I go to a large public school that is heavily recruited from by the CIA/NSA etc... I am a Political Science/Russian double major with a 3.81 GPA. My interests are varied: nuclear proliferation, intelligence, conflict, analysis, the role of exponential tech growth, and on and on. Help me discover whether or not Grad school is right for me, and if so how to iron out a few details.

Other relevant points:
  • Have a 4.0 in all my Russian courses
  • Am president of the University Democrats
  • Have never been out of the country :(
  • Have a kick-ass internship that looks great on a resume, but isn't research intensive
  • I will be graduating without student debt.

All the advice I have heard about getting onboard with a three-letter-agency indicates that I will need a post-graduate degree. Programs like Georgetown's Master of Science in Foreign Service make my heart quicken. However, it seems many of them require extensive out-of-country experience.

So my questions:

A. Do I need to go to Grad School? If I am interested in intelligence and diplomacy would it just be better to apply or take the FSO exam?

B. If I need to go to grad school, what type of out-of-country experience do I need and how should I go about getting it? Peace Corps? Private sector position?
posted by 221bbs to Education (11 answers total)
Best answer: I went to SAIS with only a semester of study abroad (and above average international tourism, probably three months over 4+ trips) under my belt.

Can you do a semester abroad next year?

I think it's not a great idea to apply for an FSO spot, simply bc there are so many others in the pool who will have grad degrees that you will naturally be less competitive.

I was not looking for intelligence/diplomacy jobs straight out of undergrad, but it's possible that there are entry-level jobs at these institutions. At the very least you should be talking to these recruiters at events this fall, if not going so far as to contacting career services and initiating the conversation with recruiters this summer. They will respect your interest and initiative.
posted by emkelley at 5:24 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can I say that, as someone who thinks both our foreign service AND intelligence services should have as broad-minded individuals as possible, that I think you owe it to yourself to experience the world abroad BEFORE you enter the workforce? Given your interests, it will only help. Schedule that summer trip to St. Petersburg!
posted by scolbath at 6:33 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went to one of the major IR grad programs and basically everyone there (off the top of my head, I can only think of one exception in my class) had post-college work experience. The average age for incoming students was 27. Also, I was one of very, very few people who hadn't worked abroad in some capacity. I don't know if this accurately describes the other top IR graduate schools too, but if it does then it might make sense to get out into the world a bit before worrying about grad school.
posted by naoko at 7:14 PM on July 9, 2013

I agree with naoko; you should definitely have work experience prior to applying. Honestly minimum three years would be best. I did not include my work experience in my previous answer bc I was addressing the international experience element, but the importance of time in the workforce should not be underestimated.
posted by emkelley at 8:15 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a very big difference between the experiences and skill sets of IR/NGO/FSO people and foreign intelligence people.

Extensive recent trips abroad and ongoing contact with foreign nationals can actually be an impediment when you're trying to get hired by the NSA and similar places. Many analysts in the intelligence community have not been abroad in a very long time. Intelligence folks much more often have military experience. And yes, lots of people get hired right out of college.

Also, my experience has been that federal recruiters go to career fairs basically to make sure nothing gets stolen from their booths. As sources of information, they are utterly useless.
posted by Nomyte at 8:19 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

a good foreign service grad program would have you doing internships, and smoothing the path into a state department position. from what i understand, that's the way to go.
posted by cupcake1337 at 10:22 PM on July 9, 2013

Best answer: I did an MPP at a school with a strong IR focus (that sends a lot of people to State/CIA/etc) and I agree that you should really, really get some work experience under your belt first. The average age of incoming students in my program was 26, though quite a few were older. Not only does it help with admissions, it sets you up to get a lot more out of the program, and, of course, helps you determine what you actually want to study.

I'd say most of the IR students had some international experience, mostly Peace Corps, which is probably your best bet. If that doesn't work out, you should look into entry-level jobs in think tanks or internationally-oriented nonprofits in DC or NYC, but I'm sure you know those jobs are hard to get. If you're in an urban area, you should absolutely get a relevant internship this summer (if it's not too late) and/or next semester.

You should also look into the Pickering Fellowship, which gets you into the State Dept and pays for your masters. It's a really sweet deal.
posted by lunasol at 11:27 PM on July 9, 2013

Best answer: So: I haven't achieved an intelligence position, so I can't speak from within the profession as someone with intuitions about what an ideal candidate looks like. So, the extent to which I can speak is going to be pretty limited.

My profile actually sounds somewhat similar to yours. Large public school that the IC heavily recruits from. 3 years of Russian, all A's. Interested in working in the IC, and potentially thought about specializing in nuclear proliferation if I had gone to an IR graduate program. Had no international experience.

I had other career plans however, so I ended up only applying to only one IR program. It was attached to my undergraduate school, but after speaking with people there and looking at placement records, this program in question (The Bush School at Texas A&M) actually seemed to place a sizable amount of students into the IC. I looked at the more famous IR programs, and their students seemed to work elsewhere. Hence, why I only bothered applying to one place. Take a look at the placement record for the program at Georgetown you mentioned. There's no indication of IC employment. So you may want to reconsider where you're looking at attending than simply name brand/prestige.

Attending the interview conference at The Bush School, a number of students were coming in with work experience, some as prior military, and some having worked in military intelligence. That said, I was never under the impression that my own lack of international or work experience was a hindrance. At any rate, the Bush School requires you to do either language study abroad (so there's your international experience) or an internship (so there's your work experience) during your summer break. And as Nomyte said, extensive international travel could be a hindrance. Work in the Peace Corps (for instance, that linasol recommends) can hinder your ability to get a security clearance, which is required for working in the IC. At any rate, I was accepted to The Bush School despite my own lack of experience, and I had developed some contact with professors there before I had even applied, and they were enthusiastic despite knowing my background.

It should be obvious that I can't speak for the other programs about their demographics. But personally, you don't seem to be disadvantaged by going straight to graduate school.

I will say this however, what you will get out of an IR program, is not immediately translatable to skill sets the IC wants. You will get limited training in intelligence analysis if any, and you won't get any familiarity with software skill sets like Pathfinder that intelligence analysts use, and which private companies will require you to have experience with if you want to be hired by them. There are alternatives to attending a IR graduate degree program for instance. Look at student internships with the NSA, CIA, etc.
posted by SollosQ at 11:41 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

The exam is free and without prejudice so it does you no harm to take it. In fact taking it and not getting a slot will give you an idea of what to expect next time.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:35 AM on July 10, 2013

Best answer: Yeah, I should qualify my answer a little bit and note that IR-and-related-things is an insanely broad field where different advice may apply depending on what exactly you want to do. You've got it narrowed down somewhat, but even the foreign service vs the NSA are going to have pretty different expectations for the kinds of backgrounds they are looking for.
posted by naoko at 3:49 PM on July 10, 2013

As a diplomat, let me tell you that having a master's will matter less to the State dept than experience abroad. This doesn't have to be anything specific - just extended experience working in some capacity abroad. For me, it was teaching English in Asia and washing dishes in Europe and NZ. Life experience counts for a hell of a lot more than academics. And in all honesty, a grad school program won't really prepare you for diplomacy anyway. It can't teach you interpersonal skills. Getting out in the world and meeting a wide variety of new people outside of your comfort zone is the best training.

As a manager of mine who has sat on recruiting boards in the past told me, they're looking for a best fit. All the credentials and degrees in the world don't matter for squat if you're not cool and composed when answering their questions. PhD from Princeton? Looks good! But can't look me in the eyes while answering a basic question? Fail.

Go travel, do a some different things. You don't have any debt right now - it's the perfect time.
posted by fso at 6:15 PM on February 22, 2014

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