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Chasing the DC Foreign Policy Career Dream

By Taylor Marvin

Are you a student or young graduate hoping to break into the DC foreign policy world? Writing in Foreign Policy, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Eric Trager shares advice for those hoping for careers focused on the Middle East. Trager’s points are intuitive, and reasonable. If you want to work on Middle Eastern policy issues, regional skills are vital. This is particularly true in the current job market, where a huge number of highly-qualified candidates competing for a limited number of entry-level foreign policy positions (a small number undoubtably made smaller by the gradual trend towards unpaid internships replacing what were once entry-level paid work, which is more pronounced in but not limited to prestige niches) means that employers can be as selective as they want. Trager recognizes this, warning applicants that “there is simply too much talent for too few paying jobs.”

So what makes a successful entry-level applicant? Regional language skills, or better yet fluency, is a minimum requirement, and the Arabic dialects many first-generation Americans may have learned at home isn’t enough. Applicants should also have spent time in the Middle East. It isn’t enough to just simply study abroad in highly-trafficked regional centers, Trager writes, noting that job applicants “who stray from well-traveled paths within the region — studying in Haifa, rather than Jerusalem, for example — always stand out.” It’s also valuable for candidates who write senior theses in college to conduct actual research in the Middle East. Finally, a DC internship is vital. American foreign policy jobs outside of academia are overwhelmingly centered around Washington, and “the best applicants for entry-level positions will have spent at least one summer working in D.C. getting to know its ways,” in Trager’s words.

All of these points are reasonable. In an age where American foreign policy in and outside of government suffers from a lack of hands-on regional skills among its practitioners, language ability and study experience in the Middle East should be vital for graduates hoping to spend their careers studying the region. Yes, this trend towards language fluency and extensive study abroad requirements for entry-level applicants is partially driven by an oversupply of hopefuls and an undersupply of actual paying jobs, but it also has real value, as anyone who remembers Fred Kaplan’s anecdote in The Insurgents relaying that roughly one percent of US embassy officials in Baghdad in 2006 spoke fluent Arabic knows. These requirements are also driven by the simple selectivity that makes it difficult to distinguish valuable knowledge from arms-racing “credential creep,” as Faris Alikhan terms it. As Adam Elkus (a qualified FP watcher if there ever was one) noted on Twitter, a post 9/11 foreign policy career bubble is now popping — particularly for those focused on the Middle East, I’d guess — and the jobs that many students expect simply aren’t there.

But value aside, there’s another obvious takeaway from Trager’s advice — that the foreign policy world is limited to those from wealthy backgrounds. Or more pithily, it means that “building a career in policy often means not only living on little income, but paying your way around the world,” in Sarah Kendzior’s words. Think about what these requirements practically signify from a student’s perspective. Assuming they achieve admission into an elite college at all, taking three years of language courses as a four-year undergraduate means that a student must decide that they’d like to focus on the Middle East as a freshman, at the latest. In other words, a career in Middle Eastern policy requires many students to make decisions about the rest of their lives when they’re nineteen years old. Study abroad is open to all students on paper, but in reality studying for one or two semesters in a foreign country requires significant amounts of money for visa expenses, food, travel, and so on. If these expenses are covered by scholarships and grants great, but for many they are not. Since most students who study abroad tend to do so in their junior year, conducting senior thesis research in the Middle East implies many students studying abroad not only once, but twice.

Unpaid DC internships are great resume builders for students who attend universities in the Washington area. But for those in other parts of the country — so the vast majority of university students — it’s much harder. An unpaid DC summer internship requires moving across the country, finding housing in an unknown city, and covering living expenses for a summer. Many summer internships are full time, so unless interns have the energy to work a night job they either have to take out a loan or have their parents cover their expenses. Given that an unpaid internship only maybe leads to future paid employment, borrowing money to fund one is not unreasonably too much for many.

Similarly, this is all assuming that students have the opportunity to move across the country for a summer at all. For working students this may not be possible, either because they need the money or they’ll simply lose their job back home if they do. If “at least one summer” at a DC internship is the bare minimum, now we’re talking about blocking off two summers, or possibly three if a fall semester study abroad stint conflicts with a full-length summer internship. Again, this isn’t to say that on-the-ground regional experience isn’t important, or that cultural immersion isn’t vital to those learning Arabic or Farsi. (Immersion is instrumental to learning Romance languages, much easier for English speakers to acquire than Arabic.) But we should be realistic about what Trager’s guidance practically means for students. Foreign policy driven by a knowledge elite will tend to be staffed by, well, the elite.

There really isn’t a good answer here. American foreign policy is best served by practitioners with deep knowledge of both their region of focus and Washington, DC. But restricting foreign policy jobs to only those lucky enough to meet a steep criteria of experience and internship requirements is bad for everyone. If Trager’s advice really is the minimum necessary to be competitive for an entry-level DC policy job, we’re selling students a lie. International Studies majors are at least in theory benchmarked around the assumption that there are jobs for graduates, an assumption strengthened by the entire world of consumer foreign policy media fed to students. Perhaps we should be telling International Studies majors that jobs in their field are restricted only to the elite (and to an extent all liberal arts and social science majors are now told that), but the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in — particularly for students who succeed above expectations in their International Studies majors at the expense of extracurricular internships and experience focused on later out-of-major employment. Of course everyone knows that International Studies isn’t Petroleum Engineering or Computer Science (or even Economics for that matter), but at least in my experience IS classes are not presented as a fun four-year course of study its students are never going to need in their professional lives, even if that is true for most.

Again, there’s nothing unreasonable about Trager’s advice from the perspective of an employer seeking quality work. Ultimately the lesson to Middle Eastern policy hopefuls boils down to what prospective law students are just beginning to hear: unless you are already firmly in the elite, don’t try.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I said this on Twitter, but want to repeat here for depressed IS/IR majors thinking about their future careers. It is absolutely true that working class and middle class folks have a harder row to hoe when it comes to IR policy jobs, but there are other ways to level the playing field a bit. Peace Corps (or a Mormon mission if that’s how you roll) are great ways to really learn languages, and there are plenty of places where you can learn Arabic or a Turkic dialect. It’s a big commitment, but it will set you up for grad school or a job in the same way that toiling at some DC policy tank as a program assistant for $25K a year will.

    The other option is the military. I went to a fancy pants graduate program for IR, and there were a handful of talented folks whose educations were being paid for by the armed forces. They came out of the officers corps, of course, and tended to be linguists or intel specialists. It’s not for everyone, but when you come out you will have veteran’s preference for government jobs, and even non-government jobs are quick to hire veterans, who it is assumed have a good work ethic.

    With that said, I absolutely agree that the reliance on unpaid internships, Ivy schools, and other class markers is a disgrace, and wish our policy folks and our diplomatic corps were much more diverse than they are.

    April 19, 2014
    • Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right to point out that volunteer programs like the Peace Corps or missionary work are a way to acquire regional experience, as is the military. I didn’t mention these options in my piece as I wanted to focus on the straight from a four year university graduates the original Foreign Policy article is geared towards, but again, you’re completely correct that there are other options.

      April 19, 2014

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