I’ve always had a passion for international affairs and a desire to make a positive impact in the world. Yet, growing up in rural Minnesota, I had limited exposure to careers in international affairs, much less an understanding of how to attain one. I first learned about careers at the U.S. Department of State while participating in PLEN’s 2008 Women in Global Policy seminar as a first-year student at St. Catherine University. PLEN helped bridge the gap; the week-long seminar in Washington, D.C. introduced me to women leaders, career possibilities, and strategies and tactics to achieve my goals.
Ten years after participating in the PLEN seminar, I joined the Civil Service. I am grateful to PLEN and countless other organizations and individuals who have supported my journey. In recognition of Women’s History Month 2021, I am sharing the top five tips I received from mentors while building my career, as a simple way to pay it forward.
1. Identify Nouns Not Verbs to Guide Your Career: Orient your career around the issues about which you are most passionate rather than focusing on specific positions or organizations. These issues can serve as your North Star as you identify potential jobs, skills, and experiences necessary to build your career. Becoming a competitive candidate for highly sought-after positions and organizations takes time, often requiring substantial experience and education, connections, and an element of luck.
However, as long as you’re headed in the right direction, you’ll have a greater likelihood of impacting the issues whether you eventually work in your initial dream job or find a fulfilling role elsewhere along the way. For example, an interest in “responsible business conduct” influenced my career trajectory and I sought to advance this area by “conducting research, advocating, making policy, etc.” in positions spanning non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and government.
2. Identify and Build Transferable Skills: It is rare that recent graduates attain their dream job directly out of college. As you build your career, leverage networking events, informational interviews, and online resources, such as LinkedIn, to identify the types of skills and experiences that professionals in your chosen field possess. Then, identify opportunities in which you can attain those skills and similar experiences. If you aim to work in international affairs, these opportunities do not necessarily need to be international; you can acquire key skills such as communicating effectively orally and in writing; taking initiative and leading projects; managing competing priorities; and working effectively in a team in organizations that work at the local or national level.
3. Learn to Write Clearly and Concisely: Strong writing skills are essential for careers in international affairs. Undergraduate programs often place an emphasis on long research papers. While the ability to write long papers is valuable, the ability to summarize complex information clearly and succinctly is of equal, if not greater, importance in the workplace. In fact when I review students’ internship applications, I place a greater emphasis on how their personal statements convey their interest in the position, experience, and skills than their subject matter expertise.
4. Network: Networking can seem intimidating. However, viewing networking as an opportunity to have meaningful conversations and build mutually beneficial relationships, as described in Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone, can make it more attainable. Nobody achieves success alone. It is likely that the people you want to interview relied on the generosity of others to share their time, insights, and connections to help them get where they are today. As an introvert, I’d also like to note that both extroverts and introverts can become effective at networking with practice.
Networking during a pandemic presents unique challenges; here are three ideas to help build connections in the age of virtual interactions:
- Attend virtual events and conferences and reach out to speakers whose remarks and/or professional background resonate with you for an informational interview. To make a strong impression, prepare thoughtful questions, be conscious of the person’s time during the interview, and follow-up with a thank you email.
- Join professional associations related to your career interests. Attend virtual events to learn and build your network and leverage the membership directory to identify professionals you’d like to interview. Associations often have student discounts or opportunities to volunteer. During my job search, pre-pandemic, I often wrote blogs about events in exchange for free admission; this enabled me to learn, network, and showcase my writing on a limited budget.
- Leverage an academic assignment to research a topic related to your career interests and interview professionals working on that issue. You can use the paper as the basis of your outreach while also learning about their work and building relationships. Consider sharing your finished paper with interviewees.
5. Gain Work Experience Before Applying to Graduate School: This was the most valuable piece of advice I received from a mentor. As tempting as it may be to go into graduate school directly from your undergraduate program, I encourage young professionals to gain three to five years of work experience before applying. Graduate school programs are highly specialized and expensive. You will be able to make a more well-informed decision on the school, program, and classes that will help you achieve your career goals with more work experience. By drawing on your work experience, you will get more out of the program, further enrich the experience of your classmates, and be better positioned for employment post-graduation, which will ultimately make you a more attractive applicant and increase the likelihood of being offered a scholarship.
Jordyn Arndt is a PLEN Women in Global Policy 2008 alumna. She received her B.A. from St. Catherine University and holds a Masters in International Relations and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University SAIS. Jordyn currently serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer at the U.S. Department of State.