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Key skills for an international affairs career in the 21st century

In late October, over 70 U.S. government, international affairs schools, students and alumni and other foreign policy and foreign language practitioners gathered in Washington D.C. for a conference on “International Affairs Careers in the 21st Century”. We worked with the Jackson School and the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) to produce this event.

Panelists included senior-level representatives from the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. Trade Representative, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, George Washington University Elliot School of Public Affairs, Chemonics International, University of Washington Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

A number of Jackson School alumni served on the panel, including Colonel Mark Barlow (M.A. International Studies, 2006) and Shauna Aron Caria (B.A. International Studies, 2007), along with Jackson School Professor Mary Callahan, Jackson School Director Reşat Kasaba and Director of the M.A. in Applied International Studies Jennifer Butte-Dahl.

I enjoyed moderating a panel featuring policy and academic experts, all of whom had received an international affairs degree several years previously, and who have been able to use that degree in their government and public policy careers. Since I fit into that category myself (University of Washington B.A. Russian Studies, 1982), I also provided my two cents to the crowd, many of whom were just starting out in their fields.

Three panel discussions focused on the following topics:

1) U.S. government international affairs careers, which focused on how work expectations and preferred skills sets of U.S. government agencies may be changing in our times, gaps and opportunities for students to find a job in government, and what should Area Studies Schools should be teaching to prepare students for future careers, with each panelist also describing the classes that helped them the most and situational examples to describe the type of skills needed.

2) Private sector, foundation and nongovernmental organizations careers using area studies expertise examined the value of deep knowledge of area studies, especially “history and context,” what types of technical skills are useful in the field, and tips on entering international development and other global policy careers outside of a government job.

3) How international affairs schools are creating 21st century global leaders and experts highlighted what schools themselves are doing to marry the real world and academia, from soft skills courses to external client research projects to technology literacy and more, and views of what the next generation of area studies will look like and new disciplines to be incorporated into curriculum, such as science.

Top 10 takeaways of skill sets for international affairs careers in the 21st century:

  1. A multidisciplinary approach matters, to quickly find a niche on the team rather than specializing too narrowly. One example given: specializing only in Chinese studies will not help you when assigned to stamp visas in Mexico. You need to understand not just a country, but the regional and global perspectives to an issue and potential policy impacts.
  2. Ability to communicate effectively, including knowing your audience and conveying information to different kinds of people, such as framing what you want to say according to their level of knowledge, their policy objectives and their perspectives. “You need to think about how other people think about things, in a culturally appropriate way,” said one of the panelists, a senior-level career Foreign Service Officer.
  3. Clear and concise writing. Those in government roles particularly stressed the writing norm in their work as “1-2 pages maximum with key points that someone can quickly digest” while in intelligence analysis often the policy brief is only eight lines. All panelists emphasized that knowing how to write well is critical for a career in international affairs.
  4. Area studies and a foreign language combined with technical skills, such as resource management or public health, are viewed as highly useful, with history and context as key to developing policy or international development responses. They noted what they’re hearing from employers is that this combination of skills, with “foreign language a constant” are increasingly more valuable than a generic MBA.
  5. Program management, including strategic or operational planning, are integral to an international affairs career. While such planning tactics are embedded into military training, non-military personnel often lack strategic planning skills, such as defining starting goals, developing milestones, and creating targeted activities to reach those goals.
  6. Be proficient in technology and IT, from Excel mastery to social media, and be ready to apply these to program work.
  7. Become science literate. With climate change projected to be the biggest factor for U.S. foreign policy, as well as issues like cybersecurity, geoscience and artificial intelligence, expand undergraduate and graduate international affairs classes to include STEM-related classes.
  8. At some point, work in international affairs in D.C. or another major hub of international affairs activities to better understand how policy is made, with many agencies and organizations offering on-the-job training, such as contracts management.
  9. Negotiation and consensus-building tactical skills. As Department of Defense Panelist Colonel Mark Barlow said “You are always in negotiation, whether with OSCE member states (i.e., other governments), partners or other organizations.”
  10. Embed in a culture. All the panelists encouraged international affairs students to get first-hand experience in another culture. One of the panelists currently working for Chemonics International emphasized she discovered her passion for restorative justice and human rights — an area she had not considered before — thanks to studying in South Africa for six months while as an undergraduate student.

Thanks to Monique Thormann, Director of Communication at the Jackson School of International Studies, for her observations of the event.  As you can see, there was a lot of practical advice for new grads, as well as plenty of food for thought for the deans and directors of the schools of international affairs in the room. Kudos to the Jackson School for pulling together an impressive and useful day.

Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director

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