Friday, June 3, 2022

Internships and a Career in International Affairs

It's getting hot here in Korea, and we've started the process of saying goodbye to folks as summer transfer season progresses and so many people (us included) get ready to move again. For this blog post, I thought I'd address a question a lot of students and prospective Foreign Service applicants ask me, especially around summertime: do you need internships for a career in international affairs?

The short answer, I believe, is no. Does it hurt? Also no. It's important to note that the international affairs job market is extremely competitive and more and more candidates now have certain things that used to be just "nice to have": graduate degrees (especially the increasingly common M.A. in International Affairs or something similar), internships, fluency in multiple foreign languages, etc. So the more of these boxes you can check, the less likely you will get screened out early in a process with hundreds or thousands of applications where recruiters (or robots) are looking for any reason to whittle down the pool to a manageable shortlist.

Unfortunately, when it comes to internships in the international affairs field many of the opportunities are still unpaid. Because plenty of people are willing to do unpaid work and can afford it, I don't see that culture changing anytime soon. If you are a university student, your school might have financial support available if you seek an unpaid internship. When I attended George Washington University, for example, they provided stipends through their career center for students pursuing unpaid internships. Unpaid internships are simply inaccessible for many people, however, who have bills to pay and only so many hours in the day. The Department of State just started offering paid student internships, which many of us in the Department welcomed as a step towards making a career in foreign affairs more accessible to low-income students. For those who cannot travel to DC or a foreign embassy, there are also unpaid Virtual Student Foreign Service internships that can be done in as little as a few hours a week. (If you're an international affairs professional and your organization still relies on unpaid interns, please see what you can do to advocate for paying those interns or at least providing stipends or scholarships to applicants who demonstrate financial need!)

I did three internships before joining the Foreign Service: two unpaid internships in the Department of State (financially supported by scholarships and stipends from my school) and one paid internship in the Department of Homeland Security. Two of my internships were in Washington, DC, and one was at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. All of them were extremely valuable and taught me a lot about federal government work, public engagement (as they were all communications-related jobs), and foreign policy. I don't want to downplay how helpful they were: I'm grateful I had the chance to do them. (And I even dug up some old internship photos just for this post!)

If you can't do an internship, though, please don't count out a career in the Foreign Service. Internship experience is not required, and plenty of people in my A-100 orientation class of new diplomats did not have government experience or relevant internships. (Former interns also need to manage their expectations. Unlike in the tech industry and other fields, international affairs and government internships often do not result in a job offer from the same employer for a full-time job.) What's more important in your essays and interviews is that you articulate how your skills and prior experience - whatever that is - prepared you for the career. One example I used in my application was my time working a customer service job for an outdoor furniture company. That job taught me how to absorb a ton of information quickly (as I had to memorize a massive product catalogue with enough detail to advise customers) and how to de-escalate and resolve conflict (as I spent hours on the phone with mostly polite but sometimes irate callers).

Even if you can spend an hour or two per week volunteering in your desired field, that can have a huge impact when you decide to make the switch. I talked to Foreign Service Officers and Specialists who transitioned from other industries but spent time teaching immigrants English or computer skills or welcoming refugees or hosting exchange students or attending polyglot mixers or advocating for better public policy or taking some of their free time to nurture their passion for international affairs while giving back to their community in some way. Those experiences aren't internships, but in my opinion they can be just as meaningful when it comes to preparing someone for a Foreign Service career.

Although I'm hopeful internships will become more broadly accessible over time to more people, it's a good thing that an internship is not a prerequisite for a job because there will always be people who for whatever reason are unable to intern. Long story short, if you have the chance to go for an international affairs internship and you want to explore a career in the field, then you should take advantage of it. But don't feel like you should throw in the towel just because you haven't done an internship, either. There are many, many paths to the Foreign Service and public service in general. You don't have to follow mine or anyone else's.

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