Sherry and I were privileged to have a full house yesterday afternoon at our presentation on careers in international education and exchange at the NCIV conference. Lauren Jacobs, my good friend who works at the USDA Graduate School’s International Institute, introduced us and moderated the session, and Sherry and I gave our spiel on Working World the book, how it came to be, the intergenerational aspect of the book, and some of the main career-building concepts in it. The best part of the session, as always, was the audience participation during the Q&A. It’s always gratifying when, not only do participants ask great questions and get engaged, but also when others in the audience begin to add their own perspectives and answers to these questions in addition to or instead of Sherry’s and my answers. We’ve always maintained that these career topics are better approached from multiple angles and viewpoints, and the Q&A parts of our sessions never fail to confirm this.
Anyhow, some of the topics covered include:
How do these concepts of career building relate specifically to the fields of international education and exchange?
I have to admit I felt a little sheepish that this was the first question, as you’d think we would have already covered that in a session on international careers. But as Sherry then emphasized, the career concepts that we discuss in Working World, while typically tailored for international careers, could be applied to careers in most any fields. But we did then mention a few things that careers seekers in these fields need to keep in mind that are particular to the IR world, including:
–While we all got into this work because of our love of travel and ideally want to have international travel as a part of our jobs, those jobs are tough to come by. But just because a job doesn’t have international travel doesn’t mean it’s not a solid building block for your international career.
–Sherry’s admonition that career seekers think about “how do you want to spend your days?” takes on particular importance when considering an international career. A career as a Foreign Service officer may sound intriguing and sexy on the surface, but is a life on the move, transplanting from country to country every few years the kind of life you want? Working on the ground with an international development project may sound exciting, but life can be very difficult in the areas where you may be asked to serve (my friend Beth who worked in southern Sudan comes to mind– her daily life was incredibly challenging). Is this how you want to spend your days? Sherry and I brought this up not to suggest this shouldn’t be how you want to spend your days, but rather that it’s important to consider these issues.
Do I need a Master’s degree in these fields?
We’ve fielded this question many times and, at the moment, seem to be answering it in the same ways each time. Sherry always encourages those in the IR fields to get as much education as they can as early as they can. “It’s always harder to go back the older you get,” she advises. I mentioned, as I have before, that it realistically seems more and more necessary to have a Master’s in the fields, given the huge increase of those applying to and entering MA programs in IR. As more of your competition for jobs gets higher degrees, it becomes increasingly necessary, I think, that you have one as well.
But I also think that, at an early point in your career, several years of experience is just as valuable, if not more valuable, than a Master’s degree. I mentioned the shock I had when I came out of my Master’s degree program with 1-2 years experience and had tons of trouble trying to find anything but an entry level or nearly entry level job. I figured that my MA made me ready for a higher position: program associate, program officer, etc. But it turns out that while my Master’s made me attractive as a candidate for sure, it did not replace the fact that I didn’t have several years of experience working in international education or exchange. (I’ve talked with many young people, both at the NCIV session yesterday and at other sessions, who had similar experiences, thinking their MAs would take them a lot further right away than they actually did).
However, I’ve also come to see that as I’ve progressed in my career, my MA has come to mean more and more. I truly believe I wouldn’t have landed either my last job or my current one without a Master’s. This seems to show me that having that Master’s and coupling it with the experience I am constantly gaining will be a very beneficial thing for my career down the line. So while a Master’s might not be absolutely essential at first for a young professional (experience can be just as important), it seems that adding an MA to your resume eventually is a wise thing to do.
Is getting a Master’s at an international university a good idea?
Sherry and I deferred to those in the room who had done their graduate degrees abroad to answer this question. One participant who did a Master’s in IR in Ireland mentioned that doing graduate school abroad was a fantastic opportunity for her, and she had many experiences she wouldn’t have had if she’d studied in the U.S. She did say, however, that it was particularly difficult to get engaged with her U.S. netowrk upon graduation, simply because cultivation of that network had been difficult from abroad. And while she did cultivate a network in Ireland, getting a job there had its own complications based on her status as a foreigner. So her conclusion was that there are many pluses to doing a Master’s abroad, as while as minuses, and in the end it’s up to the individual and what he or she wants.
What kinds of skills should I be looking to learn for positions in international affairs? What if I have broad interests? Can I pursue those or should I be looking for narrowly-tailored positions that will teach me very specific skills?
I think everyone in the room agreed that it’s both important to do what you like to do (that is, have your daily work be tasks that you enjoy and that utilize skills you are good at) and to always be trying to gain new skills, to be looking for growth opportunities within your job and when you decide it’s time for a new job. Certainly there are skills that are extremely beneficial and often necessary in international affairs jobs–whether those be intercultural competency, language skills, writing, proposal construction, budgeting, project management, etc.–but there is no reason not to pursue something that you enjoy simply because it doesn’t seem to “fit” into some kind of an international rubric. One participant summed this idea up quite nicely when she mentioned that she has a degree in chemical engineering but now works in international education. A perfect example that you should follow your interests and your passions and not try too hard to plan it all out, because it’ll never go according to that plan anyway.