Archive for April, 2009

Turning a love for language into a career

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

An intriguing profile in the Wall Street Journal of Paula Shannon, who started her career with the language firm Berlitz International and is now an executive at Lionbridge Technologies, “a global firm based in Waltham, Mass., that provides international companies with translation services in over 100 languages.”

Two things from the profile that stuck out for me. One: even though Paula was having trouble getting her foot in the door, she jammed it in there anyway:

I researched the company when I was looking to enter the language translation industry after college and (at first) could not get an interview for the management trainee program locally. So I (reached out to) a senior vice president in New York and asserted that my profile was perfect for their program. I guess he agreed.

And two: her career path, like most everyone else’s, has not been straight and planned:

Never worried about taking detours and accepting lateral moves.

“Get Susan Boyle to Sing the National Anthem”

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

I’m happy to report that a “guest post” of mine titled “Get Susan Boyle to Sing the National Anthem” was featured on Matt Armstrong’s blog, MountainRunner, today. We’ve mentioned Matt’s blog several times here on Working World (he is listed in our Blogroll down in the righthand column)—MountainRunner is an insightful and detailed look at the world of public diplomacy, and I would suggest that anyone with an interest in a career in public diplomacy and related fields read it regularly.

Now, without further ado, my post from today on Susan Boyle and the lessons those of us practicing or studying public diplomacy can learn from her:

AT a recent Washington, DC symposium on public diplomacy entitled “Public Affairs in a Global Information Environment,” I joked to a Swedish colleague: “Success in public diplomacy will be getting Susan Boyle to sing your national anthem.” That is not as far-fetched as one might think. What are the lessons all of us involved in practicing or studying public diplomacy can learn from the Susan Boyle phenomenon?

1. Lack of artifice and spin has tremendous appeal — genuineness can trump glitz. Edward R. Murrow’s comment decades ago about truth being at the heart of our efforts to communicate with foreign audiences is still the most important principle we can embrace. Truth begets credibility. Truth builds trust. As Murrow phrased it, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”

2. To make good things happen — to change perceptions— we have to risk face to face communication. It must have taken tremendous courage to take the stage knowing the judges of Britain’s Got Talent would not be sympathetic. Sometimes the only way to fundamentally alter someone’s perception is through firsthand encounters — which is why exchange programs must be at the heart of public diplomacy.

3. One person can make an enormous difference. This is why citizen diplomacy is crucial to a government’s efforts to reach out to foreign audiences. Citizen diplomacy is the idea that an individual citizen has the right — even the responsibility — to help shape foreign relations “one handshake at a time.”

In our media-saturated world where we are constantly buffeted by messages of all types, our government needs its citizens to be conscious of the messages they send and the role they can play as they interact with foreign nationals. Certainly we view exchange program guests and hosts as citizen diplomats as they participate in programs such as the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program or Experiment in International Living or Friendship Force International. But just as important, we must all be aware of our responsibility to put our country’s best foot forward in random daily encounters with foreign nationals in classrooms, offices, and other venues.

In the United States, pundits have been waiting to see who President Obama would tap to be his Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Now that Judith McHale has been nominated, all kinds of advice and admonishments are directed her way. Perhaps the most important reminder she can receive is that she has a unique opportunity, with the President’s stress on national service, to help us all understand that citizen diplomacy and public diplomacy go hand in hand. Each of us has a role to play — and the potential to make an extraordinary difference.

Sherry Mueller, Ph.D., is the President of the National Council for International Visitors, in Washington, DC.  She is also the coauthor of the book, Working World: Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development (and related blog).

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

A shout-out on Chris Blattman’s blog

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

I missed this while I was out of town, but am now just seeing a shout-out to Working World on Chris Blattman’s blog. Chris is a professor of Poli Sci and Economics at Yale and an experienced international development practitioner. His blog is endlessly informative, and funny too, and is a great source for getting a better grasp on the field of international development and all that it encompasses. If international development interests you as a possible career, make Blattman regular reading.

The intricacies of the PMF

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Embedded in a post last week about the hiring surge in the Foreign Service and USAID was a sub-discussion of the Presidential Management Fellows program, or PMF, a well-known and highly competitive program that is essentially a springboard into high-level government service. Any student pursuing a Master’s, law degree, or PhD at a PMF-participating institution can apply for a fellowship. I discussed briefly my own experiences with the PMF program in grad school (applied but didn’t make the finals) and more at length the experiences of my classmates, who found there was much more than met the eye to the PMF (they were led to believe that if you got PMF status, you were guaranteed a job—this often turned out not to be the case, as there were far more PMFers than PMF-designated jobs).

I received a number of comments on the PMF discussion, so it’s worth reiterating. PMF is a very worthwhile program that I think any student pursuing a higher degree and considering government work should look into, but there are also many misconceptions about the program that seem to perpetuate themselves and are only discovered by PMF applicants after they’ve gone through the rigors of the application process. Seems to me this stuff should be aired up front. A few bits of PMF dirt in addition to the mud that I slung:

From Alanna Shaikh at Blood and Milk:

One other thing to remember about PMF is that it doesn’t pay that much. Salaries are about 45K. If you had some work experience before you went for your Master’s, you can do better elsewhere in terms of the money.

Then from Laura Freschi at Aid Watch:

To add to Alanna’s point: PMF salaries are variable and definitely not always higher than what you could find elsewhere in government or other development jobs. Just depends on the agency you end up with and what GS level you begin with. Some offer some student loan forgiveness (an excellent perk, obviously), but many others don’t.

Another important consideration: not all Federal Agencies or programs use PMF. You can’t become a State Dept foreign service officer under PMF [my bold] (although State does have other PMF positions), and the GAO (Govt Accountability Office) has no PMF program at all, for example.

Any other PMF-related comments or experiences out there?

Saltire Scholarship for grad study in Scotland

Monday, April 27th, 2009

For those of you in New York City, I just came across this information on a Saltire Scholarship Information Session tonight at 8:00 p.m. It’s hosted by the Universities of Strathclyde, Glasgow, St. Andrew’s and Aberdeen and is taking place at Charlie Palmer’s Metrazur (Private Dining Room; 404 Grand Central Terminal New York, NY 10017, Tel: 212-687-4600).

For those of you not in NYC or unable to make the session at the last minute, the Saltire Scholarship, of which I knew nothing about until today, might still be of interest if you’re looking to do graduate work somewhere abroad and want that somewhere to be Scotland:

Fifty scholarships are available to U.S. nationals for graduate study in Scotland. The Saltire Scholarships are aimed at encouraging bright, talented and hardworking individuals to live, work and study in Scotland. £2,000 is available as a one-off award towards the cost of tuition fees for a full time master’s-level course (excluding PhD studies) in a wide range of subject areas. Recipients can choose to study at any of Scotland’s universities and higher education institutions.

Check it out, at Charlie Palmer’s or online.

“Looks like crap? It is crap.”

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Posting will be very light until next Monday, as I’ll be in Chicago visiting my high school friend Ryan, who with his wife Monica just had a beautiful baby boy, Gabe. Ryan is the only person I know with both a child and a kegerator, so it should be a good time….

In the meantime, this guy will teach you that, in life, nothing is more important than working 25 years to design a giant, pop-up business card with your face on it. “It doesn’t fit in a Rolodex because it doesn’t belong in a Rolodex”:

New investment in diplomacy = new jobs in diplomacy

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

The word on the street (like this street) has been that the Obama Administration is determined to invest substantial resources in the Foreign Service and USAID, thus leading to an increase in Foreign and Civil Service jobs (like 1,500 new jobs, according the NYTimes). This morning, at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seconded this and remarked that the U.S. must end its underinvestment in diplomacy:

I am determined to see that the men and women of our Foreign and Civil Service get the resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. Even Secretary Gates has pointed out our country has underinvested in diplomacy. That must end. Just as we would never deny ammunition to American troops headed into battle, we cannot send our diplomats into the field in today’s world with all of the threats they face, 24/7, without the tools they need. We don’t invest in diplomacy and development; we end up paying a lot more for conflict and all that follows.

On the heels of this hearing, Sherry pointed me to a WashPost article from the end of March that again confirms the Foreign Service and USAID are “hiring, hiring, hiring:”

USAID, Uncle Sam’s foreign assistance agency, plans to double, to 2,200, its ranks of foreign service officers by 2012…[the] agency is looking for people in many areas, including health, finance and contracting. USAID plans to hire more than 300 people this year.

As an interesting footnote, the WashPost article also references the Presidential Management Fellows program (or PMF), a well-known and highly competitive program that is essentially a springboard into high-level government service. A worthy program, to be sure, but please note the line, “The 786 finalists, out of 5,100 who applied, are vying for about 400 jobs at about 80 agencies.” 786 people vying for 400 jobs. Clearly not every PMF is guaranteed a job.  But I have to say, during my dealings with PMF during grad school, it was presented to me in a very different way. More on my PMF experience after the jump.


Obama signs Serve America Act, w/ international volunteer provisions included

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

We mentioned when it passed through the Senate earlier this year, but now it’s official: President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (also known as the Serve America Act, or S.277) yesterday afternoon at the charter SEED School of Washington, DC. The bill is a “landmark” and would greatly expand the nation’s volunteer corps and start new programs to expand innovative social programs, help small charities get management advice, and make volunteerism more effective, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

A section of the bill focuses on the Volunteers for Prosperity (VfP) program, which promotes international volunteer service by skilled American professionals. Working in cooperation with the USA Freedom Corps and the Global Giving Foundation, VfP provides eligible skilled professionals with fixed amount stipends to offset the travel and living costs of volunteering abroad. Volunteers must supply a dollar-for-dollar match for a VfP stipend, either through the organization with which the individual is serving (info on participating organizations and how to get involved in a project is on the Global Giving site), or by raising private funds.

The entire Serve America bill is a coup for Obama and for the country but, while the VfP program is great, it is also rather limited in scope in who it assists to volunteer abroad. Another bill introduced earlier this year by Sen. Feingold (D-WI) called for the establishment of a Global Service Fellowship Program, which seems to be much broader in scope:

[The] bill would reduce financial barriers by awarding fellowships designed to defray some of the costs associated with volunteering. The fellowship can be applied toward many of the costs associated with such travel including airfare, housing, or program costs. By providing financial assistance, the Global Service Fellowship program opens the door for more Americans to participate—not just those with the resources to pay for it.

This program is not a part of the Serve America Act, as VfP is, and hasn’t seen any action in Congress since early March. More updates as they come.

The essentials for getting a job in international development

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Alanna Shaikh gives her “essential five things to have any hope of getting a job in international development.”

1. Get an office job while you’re still in school. As I’ve written, most development work is office work. You need to prove you can handle an office every day. Really, the only way to do that is to have an office job. Do it in the summers if you can’t hack it while in school. Office work is not the most profitable way to spend your time, but it will be worth it later.

2. Study something useful at university. For example, technical subjects like nursing and IT are useful. Epidemiology is useful. A master’s degree is more useful than an undergrad degree.

3. Learn to write. I don’t mean you need to be a novelist, but with practice everybody can write a clear, useful report at decent speed. Have writing samples to prove you can do it.

4. Study a second language. You don’t have to get all that good at it, but making the effort demonstrates you are willing to commit yourself to international and intercultural work. If you are already bilingual, you don’t have to learn a third language. People will assume you are good at intercultural navigation.

5. I think this is the hardest one: have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific. “I am interested in food security and emergency relief” has a good level of specificity. “I want to work for UNDP” is too specific. “I am interested in women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and community development” is too vague. There is kind of an art to this; basically you want to give people a sense of who you are and what you want. Too broad and they don’t have any sense of you. To narrow and you’ve ruled out too many jobs. If you’re having trouble with this, it’s a good thing to talk over with a mentor. (Yes, if you don’t have a mentor, I will help. Within reason.)

Chris Blattman adds #6-10:

6. Be prepared to volunteer your first couple of jobs. The paid opportunities will come in droves, but only after you distinguish yourself from the mass of inexperienced undergraduates who want to work abroad. Offer to work for free, and consider paying your own airfare over to look for opportunities. Could be the best investment you make.

7. Pound the less-trodden pavement. Everyone applies through the front door: the UN or NGO internship, the junior professional program at [insert development bank here]. Do that, but also e-mail country offices and program managers directly, or even visit country offices in person to drop off a CV (see above).

8. Consider a private firm. The most exciting and educational jobs in development could be Celtel (growing gangbusters across Africa) or Ecobank (started in Togo–yes, that Togo–and now in 26 countries). Not too many students are e-mailing them looking for an internship.

9. It’s a numbers game. Sit down every day and aim to write just 5 people. After three weeks, that’s 50 e-mails. Forty-five will go unanswered, three will say “thanks, but no vacancy”, two will say “let’s talk”, and one will turn into a job.

10. Be willing to go to uncomfortable places. No worthwhile NGO should send you to a danger zone or challenging emergency on your first go, but many will need staff in secure but less desirable destinations. Express a willingness to work under difficult conditions and it may open up extra doors. So long as you mean it. Travel experience in difficult countries will help.

New grant equals new jobs at Sister Cities International

Monday, April 20th, 2009

It’s a nasty, rainy morning here in DC (everyone on the Metro looks much crankier than usual), but even so, good news from Sister Cities International, which announced on Saturday that it was awarded a $7.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a major program to support urban communities in Africa. From the SCI presser:

Sister Cities International’s new Africa program will leverage U.S. technical and professional expertise to address sanitation, health and water issues in urban areas of Africa. The program supports shared learning and implementation of best practices to help local African governments and community organizations acquire the tools and capabilities for successful urban planning and management. This includes involvement and support from the private sector, NGOs and community-based organizations to provide sustained technical assistance and community development strategies.

Sister Cities International will work closely with the Africa Global Sister Cities Foundation, a peer institution based in Accra, Ghana, to implement the program and build the African sister city network across the continent and globally.

And the best part, for those looking for jobs in international exchange: “To help us meet the expectations of the grant, we have posted new staff and consulting positions.” Four full-time positions, two internships, and a ton of volunteer opportunities around the country.

“Look at that old dude and his Rolodex go”

Friday, April 17th, 2009

In Working World the book, Sherry writes, “I cannot emphasize enough the value of a carefully annotated record of contacts.” Sherry always encourages job seekers (encourages everyone, in fact) to make an effort not just to collect business cards, but also to note, whether on the back of the card in your old-school Rolodex or in your Outlook contacts list, where and how you met the person and something you talked about with that person, or perhaps an interesting fact you learned about them. Then, when it comes time to call on that person again in the future, you’re armed with information much more powerful than simply, “Uhh, we met once.” Those personal details can go a long way.

This point of Sherry’s was brilliantly illustrated in a subplot of last night’s episode of The Office (the full episode for free on I won’t give away too much if you haven’t already seen it, but in a feud between Michael (at his newly created Michael Scott Paper Company) and his protege Dwight (still at Dunder-Mifflin), Michael uses his carefully annotated and color-coded Rolodex to great effect in trying to pilfer clients from Dwight, prompting Ryan, the young former intern and former corporate hotshot, now washed up with bleached haired, to remark:

Look at that old dude and his Rolodex go.

Hilarious, but with a great point: no matter what level of technology you’re comfortable with (Pam, Michael’s former assistant, follows up to Ryan’s comment with this gem: “I spent a month putting that Rolodex on his Blackberry, which he now uses as a nightlight.”), making notes about the business cards you collect will greatly facilitate using them effectively in the future.

Online discussion: Starting and building a nonprofit career

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

For those of you interested in international careers in the nonprofit sector (and a great many international exchange, education, and development orgs are nonprofits—both mine and Sherry’s orgs, the Alliance and NCIV, are nonprofits), Philanthropy Today is holding on online discussion next Tuesday, April 21, at 12:00 noon Eastern on starting and building a nonprofit career. Issues to be discussed:

How to land that first professional job. How can you stand out in a crowd of more experienced applicants? What should a college senior be doing now to prepare for a career in the nonprofit world? And how can people who have been working for a few years for charities and foundations make the most of their opportunities?

Pertinent questions for all job seekers, international or otherwise. The discussion is free and open to anyone. More information, and submit an early question, here.

Get your Master’s while in the Peace Corps

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

At a meeting yesterday of the Washington International Education Group at the American Council on Education, I came across a part of the Peace Corps that I assumed was new (because I hadn’t heard about it, of course) but has in fact been around since 1987: the Master’s International (MI) Program, in which Peace Corps volunteers can serve while pursuing a Master’s degree. Eric Goldman, manager of the MI program, explained that while the Peace Corps has no problem attracting volunteers for “generalist” positions (these are the typical PC volunteer, straight out of college), it needed a way to attract “skilled” volunteers who can tackle projects that require specific, higher-level skill sets. The MI program was their answer.

Here’s how MI works: first you apply to a participating graduate school (listed on the Peace Corps website). Once you’re accepted, you submit your application to the Peace Corps. Once you’re accepted in that, you’ll spend a year to a year and a half doing your graduate studies. From there you’ll spend the full 27 months abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer on a professional project that utilizes and expands on the skills you’re learning in grad school. You’ll then return to your school to finish up (thesis, final project, whatnot), finally descending upon the real world with both a graduate degree and a Peace Corps experience gleaming on your resume.

Sounds like a pretty decent deal. No word from Goldman on the competitiveness of this program (though he did mention that Peace Corps currently has “an abundance” of applications for generalist positions), but he did mention that they’re looking to expand the number of participating universities, as well as opportunities for financial assistance.

Millenials—the ‘civic generation’

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Interesting on the heels of yesterday’s post: a flattering endorsement of Millenials in USAToday, pegging us as the “civic generation,” a generation of “activist doers:”

Community service is part of their DNA. It’s part of this generation to care about something larger than themselves.

That activism includes a significant focus on international work:

• Global connections. Because of the Internet, social networking sites such as Facebook, the growth of study-abroad programs and ethnic diversity, the Millennials are closely attached to the world and want to make it a better place.

Whether it’s teaching English in China or building a well in Africa, Millennials are “in tune” with global needs, says Philip Gardner of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. He says many who study abroad — 70% of students at four-year colleges have traveled outside the United States — “get the bug to go back internationally, and one of the fastest ways … is to do volunteer projects.”

Amanda MacGurn studied in Belgium, taught English in Chile and interned with Doctors Without Borders. Now 26, the Southern Oregon University graduate leaves next month for Romania to work for the Peace Corps.

“I want to devote my life to international service work,” says MacGurn, who lives in Eugene, Ore. “This is a great opportunity to serve both my country as an ambassador and also the international community.”

Also an interesting note on how Obama’s election has affected this movement toward service, especially on an international level:

The Obama effect. Millennial voters last year preferred Barack Obama 2 to 1. Many embraced the former community organizer’s call to service.

Online applications to the Peace Corps spiked 175% in the days surrounding his inauguration, says spokeswoman Laura Lartigue.

A talent shift…toward international affairs?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Back in December I looked at an Atlantic piece on what was seen as the potential for, brought on by the economic crisis, not only a redistribution of resources but also a shift of talent into other, “underrepresented” fields (like international affairs).  My question was:

Is it possible that the economic crisis will result in both an influx of new talent and new resources for international affairs (and other underfunded sectors)?

This past weekend’s NYTimes suggests that it might already be happening:

Early indications suggest new career directions that are tethered less to the dream of an immediate six-figure paycheck on Wall Street than to the demands of a new public agenda to solve the nation’s problems.

What will the new map of talent flow look like? It’s early, but based on graduate school applications this spring, enrollment in undergraduate courses, preliminary job-placement results at schools, and the anecdotal accounts of students and professors, a new pattern of occupational choice seems to be emerging. Public service, government, the sciences and even teaching look to be winners, while fewer shiny, young minds are embarking on careers in finance and business consulting.

Maybe I’m wrong to assume that with an influx of new talent will come an influx of resources as well. But even so, I think it’s safe to say that international affairs is included in those fields toward which young, bright minds are gravitating.  And this strikes me as an important phenomenon: a general movement away from placing a premium on jobs that offer high financial rewards to the holder but very few benefits to anyone or anything else and toward placing that premium on any job that provides satisfaction (financial and otherwise) to the holder and offers a socially-redeemable service or product to the public seems to me to be an important cultural shift.