It is not uncommon for people in international affairs to move from one type of career to another, from government to business, for example. Where one starts in one’s career is not a “forever” choice.  Nonetheless, it seems useful to at least sketch the outlines of some of the major alternatives.  A more detailed discussion of these possibilities is Careers in International Affairs edited by Laura Cressey, Barrett Helmer, and Jennifer Steffensen.

  • Foreign Service

The best-known international career is undoubtedly diplomacy. The lead institution here is the Foreign Service of the United States. This group of about 3,000 people staffs American embassies abroad and the State Department in Washington.  The State Department’s website offers a useful explanation of the Foreign Service:  https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer.

The Foreign Service offers an attractive career, but several important observations are in order.  

First, while the number of new foreign service officers (FSOs) recruited each year varies dramatically according to the needs of the service, the selection process is always extremely rigorous and highly competitive. Admission to the Foreign Service is by examination.  There are no formal education requirements.  The first step in the examination process is a written exam.  Traditionally this exam was given only once a year; more recently it has been offered as frequently as three times a year.  Applicants who do sufficiently well on the written exam will be invited back for a face-to-face, oral examination process.  A full explanation of the examination process can be downloaded at:  https://careers.state.gov/downloads/download-center.

Second, even if one is eventually admitted into the Foreign Service, the admission process is likely to take much or all of a year.  Applicants will need to have something to keep themselves busy in the meantime, even if they are ultimately admitted.

Third, the Foreign Service is divided into several “tracks” – political, economic, consular, management, public information.  Entry into the Foreign Service in some of these tracks is much more difficult than in other tracks.  Or, looking at it the other way, entry into the Foreign Service in some of these tracks is much easier than in other tracks.  Students who are absolutely sure that they want to be FSOs may want, for example, to think seriously about preparing themselves for the economic track or the management track.  

Fourth, the Foreign Service seeks to be as diverse as America.  At least at times in recent years the Foreign Service has been particularly concerned about minority recruitment.

Fifth, being an FSO is, in important ways, like being a military officer.  Although one has some freedom in requesting specific postings, one goes where one is ordered to go.  Remember that the United States maintains embassies in places one doesn’t often think about – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Libreville, Gabon; Vientiane, Laos – and in places which may be violent – Mogadishu, Somalia; Rangoon/Naypyidaw, Burma; Kabul, Afghanistan.  While for nearly all postings, FSOs are allowed to bring their families, this is not always the case.  And postings are typically only for one to three years – which may seem either too short or too long.  Just about the time one is putting down roots, one is uprooted.  (Indeed this is deliberate – the Foreign Service doesn’t want its officers to feel too at home.)  Subsequent postings may – indeed are likely to be – in very different parts of the world.  And postings back in Washington regularly intervene.   This is a wonderful way to discover the world in all its complexities.  It is, however, also very hard on family life.  Spouses may find it difficult to pursue careers with these frequent moves; children may have to go to boarding schools.

Sixth, the Foreign Service will teach you the languages you will need to know – and, as already noted, it will decide where to post you, and this post may or may not take advantage of languages you already know.  This said, if you want a career as an FSO, you may want to study some languages, if only to get in the practice of learning them and to assure yourself that you do indeed have a facility for learning them.

Seventh, the process of applying for the Foreign Service is interesting and free.  So nothing is lost by pursuing this option.  But, realistically, one should also consider other options.

Eighth, many FSOs enter the foreign service in mid-life, after a successful (or not-so-successful) career doing other things, not infrequently as lawyers.  Useful books on the subject are Career Diplomacy:   Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service by Harry W. Kopp and Charles A. Gillespie and Inside a U.S. Embassy:  How the Foreign Service Works For America by the American Foreign Service Association.

  • Civil Service Positions in the State Department

Many of the people who work in the State Department are not FSOs.  They are in the Civil Service, just as individuals in other federal agencies are.  Most of these State Department employees are in Washington, but they also work in various other locations around the country and, in unusual cases, at embassies abroad.  The State Department describes this employment in its website at:  https://careers.state.gov/civil-service. Applicants for civil service positions in the State Department apply for specific openings.  For an explanation of the application process, see:  https://careers.state.gov/faqs.

  • Other Government Agencies

The bulk of people working in international affairs in Washington work for agencies other than the State Department. Unfortunately there is no single recruiting device such as the Foreign Service exam for these organizations. The biggest employees are the Defense Department (both military and civilian) and the intelligence organizations, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Civilians hired by the Defense Department tend to be people with particular specialties; advanced degrees are usually required. Given the informal hiring process, actual job experience, which in practice means internships, is very important.  The Defense Department’s job website can be accessed through:  http://www.defenselink.mil/sites/c.html#civjobs.

Intelligence careers can be divided into analysts (people who work with secret material trying to decide its significance) and clandestine operators. Anyone interested in such positions may want to look at the books Analyzing Intelligence:  National Security Practioners’ Perspectives by Roger George and James Bruce and Careers in Secret Operations by David Atlee Phillips. The Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency both hire junior-level career people on the basis of exams; you should contact each agency separately to see what their current needs and procedures are. They also hire a lot of people with particular skills for analysis, usually with advanced degrees. They seem to be particularly interested in exotic languages, geographic area specializations, economics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, and physical science. Again internships are particularly useful here.  The CIA has a very useful job website at:  https://www.cia.gov/careers. This site gives a good sense of the range of skills that the intelligence agencies are looking for.  The NSA’s job website is at:  http://www.nsa.gov/careers/.  Other intelligence agencies also recruit, frequently for individuals with very specialized or technical skills.

A point worth emphasizing for Rutgers students who may be thinking about a government career like this is that the combination of a strong background in political science with some other set of skills or body of knowledge may be particularly valuable – whether it is the mastery of a “less commonly taught” language (for example, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, or Russian – or one of the really unusual languages, like those of Central Asia), or of the economics needed to do sophisticated analyses of other societies, or of the biological, physical, or mathematical sciences associated with policy issues like pandemics, deforestation, global warming, rocket propulsion, or satellite imagery.  The combination of a strong liberal arts/political science education with some sort of additional knowledge/skill set often jump-starts a career.

For students with strong mathematical aptitude, training in economics is often valuable.

Many "domestic" executive agencies have international activities or offices; these are often small, but sometimes they offer interesting opportunities. Commerce, for example, is concerned with foreign trade, Agriculture with farm exports, Justice with international legal issues, etc.

  • The Military

The U.S. military services play an important role in the execution of American foreign policy.   Although the number of former military officers who have gone on to pursue other careers in government has declined with the retirement of the generation of officers who served in World War II and Korea, military service is still a not-unusual path to other careers in international relations.  Information about military careers can be obtained from the ROTC groups on campus, and the heavy responsibilities given to young officers are often valued by future employers.

  • Congress

The number of people on Congressional staffs concerned with international affairs has greatly increased in the past few years. There is no single recruiting process for such jobs; people are selected on the basis of contacts, past experience, and educational qualifications, roughly in that order. Internships are crucial for anyone interested in these sorts of positions.

  • The United Nations

The United Nations, located in New York City, is a fascinating place to work, and it has lots of employees. However, jobs on its permanent staff are allocated on the basis of national quotas, since it is clearly inappropriate to have most jobs held by citizens of one of its members, and therefore it is difficult for American citizens to get hired.  If you have dual citizenship, or hold citizenship in some nation other than the United States, this may expand the possibilities open to you.

UN agencies – some as large and as well known as the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), or the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), and some as small and unfamiliar as International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh or the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- also employ individuals to work in locations around the world.  Again, most of these positions require specialized skills, but if you are looking to work outside the United States you may want to consider openings listed at:  http://unjobs.org/.

  • The IMF and the World Bank

While the bulk of the professionals working at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) are economists, these international organizations, which play critical roles in promoting international economic stability and development, also employ non-economists in a variety of roles.  Professionals working as economists typically have a Ph.D. in economics or intend to pursue one.  Both organizations are headquartered in Washington.  For information on careers at the IMF, see:  http://www.imf.org/external/about.htm.  For information on careers at the World Bank, see:  http://www.worldbank.org/en/about. The World Bank offers a highly competitive “Young Professionals” program for recruiting top college graduates into the Bank.   It also has a special “Junior Professionals Program for Afro-Descendants.”  Information on both can be found at Bank’s website.

  • The Private Sector:  Consultants

There are a large number of private research groups (often known as the Beltway Bandits, from their location on the Beltway highway around Washington and their dependence on government contracts) with interests in foreign affairs. Many of these specialize in working with particular government agencies, such as the Department of Defense.  Hiring is informal, so internships are important for anyone interested.

Major national and international consulting firms can offer a high-profile, intensive way to get experience dealing with the problems experienced by major transnational businesses, foreign governments, and other players on the world stage.  Some of the big names in this field include PricewaterhouseCoopers (http://www.pwc.com), Booz Allen Hamilton (http://www.boozallen.com/careers), McKinsey (http://www.mckinsey.com/careers/is_mckinsey_right_for_me/backgrounds_like_yours/bachelors_degree.aspx), and Bain (http://www.joinbain.com/). These consulting firms have offices in America and around the world.  Again, they are frequently looking for individuals with strong backgrounds in math and economics, or in business, or with special skills in languages or in the biological, physical, or mathematical sciences.

Lobbying organizations of every political stripe, with interests in foreign affairs, also operate in Washington.  Internships are likely to be critical in getting the foot in the door at many of these organizations.

  • The Private Sector:  Transnational Business

Transnational (or “multinational”) corporations play a prominent role in current international affairs. Most Americans tend to think in terms of working abroad for an American corporation, but in fact there may well be better opportunities working in the U. S., either for an American or perhaps even a foreign firm (of course, that may not be what you think of as an international job).

American corporations used to send significant numbers of Americans abroad, where they were often something of a trial. They were expensive, had a high failure rate (sometimes as high as 50%), didn't want to stay long, didn't know the language, and often alienated foreigners. Moreover, the corporations didn't know how to use the people with international experience when they got back and often essentially punished them for going abroad. Thus most corporations moved to develop indigenous managers (Norwegians to run Exxon Norway, Nigerians for the Coca Cola branch in Nigeria, etc.) and to reduce the role of Americans abroad.

Recently there has been something of a reaction against this trend, although different corporations have different policies. The number of Americans being sent abroad is certainly smaller than it used to be; better selection and training has reduced the failure rate. People with particular technical skills are often sent abroad. In addition many companies are re-developing international assignments for their fast-track managers because of the importance of foreign markets. It is unlikely that you will be sent abroad by a large American company unless you fall into one of these two categories.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that foreign companies doing business in the U. S. hire lots of Americans. Moreover, an increasing percentage of American corporations do business abroad, so much "normal business" in the U. S. involves international issues. In general, if you want to go into business, you need a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the best business school you can get into; this degree and some alternatives are discussed later. If you're interested in working for a foreign company, knowledge of its language and culture can be invaluable, but it is no substitute for business training. Nobody is going to hire you just because you know the appropriate language; they have to also think you will raise their profits.

Many transnational businesses also maintain large offices to evaluate business opportunities with foreign governments or in foreign markets, or to lobby governments, particularly the American government.

  • The Private Sector:  International Banking and Finance

Among businesses, international banks have been the most willing to hire people without business degrees; they expect to have to train you regardless of your background. Another alternative is analyzing the political risks of investments in particular countries.  An MBA degree is common.

  • The Private Sector:  Non-Profits, NGO's PVO's

There are literally thousands of private, nongovernmental organizations which work in international affairs.  Some of these call themselves nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), some call themselves private voluntary organizations (PVOs).  Some are religious in origin; others are entirely secular. Some are quite large, others are minuscule.  Some focus on a particular country or region; others are global in outlook.  Some focus on a particular, narrow, issue; others have more widely ranging interests.  Some principally lobby governments; others work in the field; others disperse information or promote research.  Some are associated with more radical politics; some are conservative in outlook or mainstream in approach.  They share a lack of direct government control and general concern for humanitarian issues. Prominent examples include Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy, and Amnesty International. The American government administers some foreign aid through some of these agencies, and they have been prominent in such issues as famine relief in Africa. Many of these organizations employ small permanent staffs; recruitment is often based on previous performance as a volunteer. Salaries are low, but many people find the work extremely rewarding. A useful book is Working World:  Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development by Sherry Lee Mueller and Mark Overmann.

  • University and College Teaching and Research

Universities serve, among other things, as repositories for international expertise. Faculty work within departments, usually organized around the major disciplines such as economics, political science, and history. Their job consists of teaching (communicating skills and knowledge to students) and research (creating new knowledge and communicating it to others). University faculty usually have a great deal of freedom in selecting what they will research and teach, enabling them to develop specialized knowledge in a wide variety of areas.

For the past twenty years or so, university teaching jobs have been quite scarce, making it hard to encourage undergraduates to aim toward such careers. In addition, increasingly colleges and universities are meeting their teaching needs by hiring “adjuncts” – often fully qualified academics who are being hired on a piecework basis so the number of full-time faculty positions becoming available may be small.  

For students interested in an academic career, the only relevant degree is the Ph.D.; go to the most famous university you can get into, and you won't go far wrong.


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  • Phillips, David Atlee, Careers in Secret Intelligence.
  • Rossman, Marlene L., The International Businesswoman. Greenwood Press.
  • Volunteer! The Comprehensive Guide to Voluntary Service Abroad. Council on International Educational Exchange, New York.
  • Win, David, International Careers. Williamson Publishing Company.
  • Wise, David, "Campus Recruiting and the CIA," New York Times Magazine, June 8, 1986.
  • Work, Study, Travel Abroad: The Whole World Handbook. Council on International Educational Exchange, New York