For many students and graduates, pursuing a career in international affairs or diplomacy continues to be an exciting option. But the number of jobs is limited, and the competition is tough. Luckily, landing a job is possible. You just need a lot of perseverance, the right mind-set, and – more than – a bit of luck.
How to make it in the field of international affairs? On the 25th of April, International Perspective hosted its first Career Fair in International Affairs to answer this very question. Co-hosted with Antwerp MUN, EKA, PSW and VVN Youth, the career fair offered hands-on advice on updating your resume, multiple information booths and a unique networking opportunity. In addition, five speakers currently working, having worked or aspiring to work in international affairs shed their light on how to make it in this competitive sector. Here are the five most important lessons to draw from their experiences.
Build a Network
“Finding a job is not about what you know, it’s about who you know”, testified Hans Maes, Parliamentary Assistant on Foreign Affairs for Annemie Turtelboom.1 Successfully landing a job is often about being at the right place at the right time, but knowing the right people definitely helps. How to build a network? Be seen. Attend events, do internships or follow Maes’s example and become active in politics.²
For anyone considering a career in diplomacy, having a large network is also a central part of the job. “Networking is extremely important”, says Bénédicte Frankinet, former permanent representative for Belgium at the United Nations. “Being a diplomat is not just about reading the newspapers, you need to have a large and trustworthy network you can always rely on, even in the middle of the night. A career in diplomacy is all about teamwork: you depend on your network and colleagues to get the job done.”
One problem with pursuing a career in international affairs is that for most – if not all – job opportunities, you will be competing with people from across the globe. Many of them will have impressive resumes, speak multiple languages or have spent months or even years doing internships. This is no reason to give up hope, but it is something to be aware of. “Try to figure out what makes you unique”, says Hans Maes. “This can be a skill, some area of expertise or even your personality.”
Whatever it is that defines you, try to emphasize it when applying for jobs. This means preparing for every interview, spending time perfecting your resume and not sending out the same standardized cover letter every time. “Luckily, there is no shame in asking for help”, continued Maes. “Also try to inform your network of your availability. Before you know it, someone may recommend you for a job or an internship opportunity.”
Stick With It
Landing a job in international affairs is no joke. Doing so might require you first taking – unpaid – internships and spending months unsuccessfully applying for jobs. And you may wonder, what guarantee do I have of finding a job at the end of the road? “First of all, don’t panic”, says Ruben Fierens, graduate of the University of Antwerp and currently Legal Officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “Stick with what you want to do, and it will work out. Also, focus yourself: build up as much ‘ammunition’ for your resume as possible, and try to develop an expertise.”
There are, however, no real guarantees, says Jorn Vennekens, President of International Perspective and currently working as Sales Desk Officer at CPS Africa. “Even with a well-filled resume, landing a job is difficult. It’s all about meeting the right people at the right time, so you need your fair share of luck.” Maes is a bit more optimistic: “Yes, the job hunt is the most frustrating part, by far. But just roll with the punches, and you will get there.”
Keep an Open Mind
Finding out what you want to do during and after your studies is far from easy, said Maes. “That’s why it’s important to be open to change, adapt your plan when you need to. Don’t fall into tunnel vision.” The field of international affairs is constantly changing: some new piece of legislation, a country dissolving into civil war, an election taking an unexpected turn, etc.
These developments make getting a grasp on international affairs a challenge. But according to Bénédicte Frankinet, that’s the beauty of the job: “You are never bored.” Coming into contact with different people and cultures also brings certain responsibilities with it. “You are going to move your whole life, and that means that you will always have to adapt to different mind-sets. Being a diplomat is about building bridges to different people and cultures, which you can only do with an open mind.”
Aside from the job hunt, pursuing a career in international affairs requires a lot of sacrifices, both from you and your family. These are sacrifices not everyone may be willing to make. Also, in such a highly competitive world, you may not – immediately – make it to your dream job, despite your best efforts. So what alternatives are there for someone who is still interested in the field of international affairs?
According to Brecht Volders, currently writing his Ph.D. on nuclear terrorism, doing a doctoral study on the subject of international affairs can be an interesting alternative. “The benefit of writing a Ph.D. is that it offers flexible working hours in an enjoyable working environment, with lots of young and like-minded colleagues around.” But doing a doctoral study is not for everyone: “You have to ask yourself whether a Ph.D. is going to be an added value to your resume.”
“And even if it does not immediately work out, there is no shame in looking for a job outside of international affairs”, says Jorn Vennekens. “After a certain time, doing yet another internship is not a good investment of your time and money. At some point, you do need actual working experience and an income, and you may have to dip outside of international affairs to find it. That’s what I did.”
“But honestly, I’m perfectly happy with where I am now”, continued Vennekens. “And no, I haven’t abandoned my dream of pursuing a career in international affairs. But I’ve now realized that making it requires patience and – lots of – willpower. To anyone considering a career in international affairs, I say: go for it, but do it with a sense of realism.”
See You in 2018!
Finally, we are happy to announce that we will be organising a new edition of the Career Fair in International Affairs in 2018! To stay informed by following the Facebook page that has been created, or follow the IP website. More pictures can be found here, with special thanks to Adèle Coudor, Léonie Van de Vliet en Dries Verbraeken.