Archive for July, 2009

Parents just don’t understand

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

Parents won’t be much help with your career in global health, says Alanna—a point which I think can extend to international careers in general.

My parents love me like I am still 9. They can’t offer career advice.

Hilarious, and right on. I’ve often wondered why my dad, who stumbled from being a poli sci major to working as a car salesman with a mustache to finally finding his career in marketing and sales, couldn’t better appreciate that my own wanderings and stumblings were a natural part of growing up and discovering who I am, in a professional sense. I took the exact same roundabout process of discovery that he had 40 years before. But I guess why he couldn’t recognize this was for the same reason he told me to make sure I “had a resume” and “wore a suit” to a post-college job interview and for the same reason Alanna says her parents can’t help her with her career: because he still sees me, in some loving way, as just a kid.

For Alanna, global health as a specific niche international career is so unique that anyone (and especially parents) who are unfamiliar with its intricacies will have a tough time relating any kind of useful career advice. But from a broader international careers perspective, parents often have a tough time with their kids’ global aspirations not just because they don’t understand the details of the industry, but also because they have a completely different mindset and frame of reference.

Take my family, for instance: very typical, American Midwest, with no tradition of international travel or foreign affairs engagement. Thus, an interest in international work illicited the question of: “Why the heck do you want to get involved in things so far away when there’s plenty of perfectly good opportunities right here in the U-S-and-A?” I’ve heard from many young international job seekers who find themselves frustrated and even dismayed at their families’ unwillingness to accept and support their desire to travel and work abroad (many even canceled plans to do post-graduate fellowships or volunteer programs abroad because of family pressure). I can relate: when I announced to my family I was off to northeast China for a year, they were none too happy.

I can report, though, that usually, eventually, they come around. But that doesn’t make it any easier when starting your career, to go against the wishes of your family to do what you know you want to do. Yet that might be what you have to do. If I took my parents’ advice not to go to China, I’d be a real estate procurement broker at a national grocery store chain, which sounds not unlike a trip to hell (no offense to real estate procurement brokers, of course).

This is not to say that parents aren’t (or can’t eventually be) supportive of our international careers (mine are now, very wholeheartedly). It’s also not to say that a parent’s differing professional perspective might not be valuable at times. My dad’s business acumen has been incredibly helpful in certain situations throughout my career, such as during salary negotiations for a new position and difficult management situations. But when it comes down to it, even if parents still think we’re 9, we need to be confident in our knowledge that we’re not.

On being young

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Pew released a report last week about aging and the generation gap, which struck me as very timely in that I’d been thinking recently about what it means to be young and a professional (or, I guess, a young professional). Initially spurring me to consider this topic were a series of random (and, taken alone, fairly trivial) incidents over the past few weeks:

  1. Meeting in person for the first time a group of colleagues who I’d had fairly extensive email and phone contact with, to have one of them exclaim, “But you’re so young!”
  2. Participating in a series of meetings with other young colleagues who, when senior members of our organizations were present, acted one way, but when it was just young people present, acted in a completely different manner (a manner I wouldn’t call unprofessional but certainly more casual, more presumptuous, more buddy-buddy, all of which in my mind ended up making them less effective).
  3. Hearing stories about high-level colleagues calling their subordinates “Mini-Me” or “Junior.”
  4. Hearing several colleagues call into question the worth of another colleague’s decisions and opinion simply because that person is of a fairly young age.

What do these anecdotes add up to? Maybe not much, as they could be interpreted in a number of ways. A colleague exclaiming “You’re so young!” could mean that they perceive the good work you do as akin to the caliber of someone older and more experienced; or it could mean that they’ll now take your work with a grain of salt, as they can’t possibly trust someone so young to be accurate and authoritative. If superiors call you Mini-Me or Junior, it could mean that they have a great affection for you and see you as a protege; or maybe it means they really see you as inferior. Perhaps older colleagues really believe younger colleagues should be doubted simply because of their age; or maybe they’re just blowing off steam and venting in good-natured way. Any of these interpretations are possible, I suppose.

But before we go further, let’s consider a few of the findings from the Pew survey. For example:

Survey respondents ages 18 to 29 believe that the average person becomes old at age 60. Middle-aged respondents put the threshold closer to 70, and respondents ages 65 and above say that the average person does not become old until turning 74.


In a 1969 Gallup Poll, 74% of respondents said there was a generation gap, with the phrase defined in the survey question as “a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today.” When the same question was asked a decade later, in 1979, by CBS and The New York Times, just 60% perceived a generation gap.

But in perhaps the single most intriguing finding in this new Pew Research survey, the share that say there is a generation gap has spiked to 79% — despite the fact that there have been few overt generational conflicts in recent times of the sort that roiled the 1960s. It could be that the phrase now means something different, and less confrontational, than it did at the height of the counterculture’s defiant challenges to the establishment 40 years ago. Whatever the current understanding of the term “generation gap,” roughly equal shares of young, middle-aged and older respondents in the new survey agree that such a gap exists. The most common explanation offered by respondents of all ages has to do with differences in morality, values and work ethic. Relatively few cite differences in political outlook or in uses of technology.

All of this (the Pew results plus my little anecdotes and their possible interpretations) tells us two things: 1) people of different ages often approach situations in different ways and have different views of the world; and 2) while the “generation gap” of old (in the culture war sense of the term) may be fading away, a definite gap still exists between the generations. So what does all of this mean for the young professional trying to chart a successful international career?

For me it’s always been interesting how others (often older colleagues) characterize what young professionals bring to the table in terms of skills, and conversely what young professionals would like to be recognized as bringing to the table. For example: while our technological savvy is often touted, we’d rather be recognized for the innovative ideas we bring to the discussion. While our energy and enthusiasm is often called the best thing about our presence, we’d rather focus on the results that energy and enthusiasm brought about.

On the flip side, how we see ourselves isn’t necessarily a view shared by those around us. We might consider ourselves confident and eager to serve the cause in any and all ways, while older colleagues might interpret this as brashness and arrogance. We might see our willingness to dive in deep and tackle heady challenges in new ways as innovative and self-starting, whereas more experiences colleagues might view such behavior as obstinate, boneheaded, and indicative of our refusal to listen and learn.

So which side is right? Neither, or perhaps both. To me it’s the responsibility of a young professional to neither squelch their drive and enthusiasm, nor brush aside the wisdom and criticism of older, more experience colleagues. It’s the responsibility of the young professional to, say, accept and appreciate recognition of his technological dexterity while also politely and professionally ensuring his other skills and ideas shine through. It’s the responsibility of the young professional to bring her enthusiasm to the table and suggest innovative ways to tackle problems as they come—but also be cognizant of the fact that she doesn’t know everything and that it can only help her to slow down, listen to the experience of her colleagues, and accept critique and criticism of her ideas as they come.

I guess what it means to be a young professional is to consider what the above four anecdotes mean, but ultimately not get upset about them. It’s to recognize that we might view someone who is 60 as “old,” while someone who is 60 certainly doesn’t consider himself old at all. It’s to accept and embrace the fact that, as Sherry has often said, I have a lot to learn from her as an experienced, older colleague—but she can learn a lot from me too.

Even ambassadors need career advice sometimes

Friday, July 10th, 2009

A colleague of mine (the head of an international nonprofit) got a call this week from the office of a foreign Ambassador in DC. The Ambassador needed to see my colleague immediately, the Ambassador’s assistant said. Could he come in for a meeting tomorrow? My colleague, unsure as to what exactly the Ambassador wished to discuss but knowing that you don’t refuse such a request, said “Of course.”

As it turns out, the Ambassador wanted to talk about his career. His appointment in the United States would soon be coming to a close, he said, and he wanted to discuss his options for a post-diplomatic career.

You’d think that once you’ve become an ambassador, you’ve got it all pretty much figured out. But I guess even they need career advice sometimes.

Wendy Kopp got lucky

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, keeps it real when discussing how she built a career as one of the most innovative and influential social entrepreneurs around:

I was so lucky. The way I got to this was that I was in a desperate funk my senior year in college — when I realized somehow for the first time, in October, “I have to figure out what I’m going to do next year.” I just thought, “Well, I’ll apply for jobs.” But it hadn’t really clicked that I was actually going to have to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

And I was just uninspired. I just couldn’t find the thing that I really wanted to do. And that led me into a funk for the first time in my life.

And that’s what ultimately led me to this. Because I thought, “You know what I’d want to do?” Having never previously even contemplated teaching, I thought, “I’m going to go teach in New York City.” And I started exploring it and realized what a maze it was to try to teach in New York City.

That’s what led me to realize: You know what? We should recruit people to teach in low-income communities as aggressively as people were being recruited at the time to work on Wall Street.

I’m glad that I somehow landed on this thing that I became so passionate about. Because I’ve spent not one bit of energy for 20 years trying to figure out what I really want to be doing.

You just never know how one thing might lead you to another.

Dignity in the job search

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

David Brooks contemplates the decline of dignity, a discussion that translates to the realm of job searching and careers in a very poignant way. Namely: Brooks lists the reasons he believes dignity in public discourse and personal living has disappeared, the first being capitalism:

We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents.

As job hunters in a competitive market and woeful economic climate, we are taught that the only way to get ahead is to do just that: create our unique personal brand and promote the shit out of it. Only then will we get noticed above the fray. But how do we do this and still maintain the reticence, self-mastery, and dignity that Brooks believes used to exist, has since been purged from society, but which we should all strive to regain?

A large step toward doing this is seeking a balance between self-interest and cause. We talk a lot in this space about “cause” as an overarching and guiding factor in the search for a career in international affairs. That is, many of the people who seek careers in these fields do so because they believe in the work, because it affects them in some way and spurs them to want to create positive change (and obviously not because it will make them rich).

But at the same time, no matter how much you believe in the cause, you must be selfish to a degree. You need a job in order to pay the bills, and you want to be a paid a salary that is comparable to your worth. There is nothing wrong with wanting adequate compensation, compensation you are comfortable with and you feel matches what you bring to the table, and you should advocate for yourself in this regard—if you don’t, no one else will. Yet you also don’t want to take this to such an extreme that you become solely self-interested.

It is finding the balance between these two competing needs where I think dignity in the job search can be found. When you are doing that self-promoting end zone dance in the hopes of getting yourself a job and begin to feel too shameless about it, remind yourself that it’s not just about the paycheck and that there is a cause you hope to serve too. At the same time, when you begin to lose heart and feel that simply focusing on the cause is not subsistence enough, remind yourself that it’s okay to be a little selfish too: you’re out there looking for a job not only to make an impact and make positive change, but also because it’s something you have to do; it’s what you need to survive and live your life the way you want to live it.

There’s dignity in this struggle to balance passionate committment and dispassionate reality. When we begin to stray too far in one direction, we risk straying from the norms that help us to, as Brooks says, “navigate the currents of own own passions.” But when we strive to find a balance between the two, there is great dignity in that struggle.

“A blessing in disguise”

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

I met with a young woman yesterday who is seeking a career in international education. She has quite the impressive resume—several years of work experience, including two overseas with the JET program, and a Masters in International Educational Development from Columbia—but has struggled to find a position. She told me how, upon her return from Japan, she’d initially pursued jobs as a university study abroad advisor and was having good success getting interviews. She was struggling, however, to secure the job: she made it to the final round of interviews for three different positions, only to be passed over for two and see the funding for the third pulled at the last minute (a particularly painful kick in the pants).

Still, she was optimistic. In fact the difficulties she faced finding a university position prompted her to look deeper into the world of nongovernmental and nonprofit international education and exchange. Even though she has yet to find a job in the fields, she said she is very excited about the possibilities and her prospects, and even sees these fields as a potentially better fit for her than university study abroad.

“It’s almost a blessing in disguise,” she said of the fact that she got passed over for so many jobs, “failures” that have ultimately pushed her in unanticipated and exciting directions.

I was extremely impressed and heartened by this young woman: not only by her optimism and resolve in the face of job hunting hardship, but also by her ability to see that even the best-laid plans have a way of steering us in directions we could never have foreseen.

Relocate to sunny Baghdad

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Word on the planned hiring surge of FSOs at the State Department is continuing to spread. (in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley) reports that potential relocation to Baghdad or Kabul looks a lot more appealing than it used to, because of ‘this economy’:

A hiring initiative called Diplomacy 3.0 now calls for the State Department to add 750 generalists and more than 500 specialists this fiscal year and a similar number next fiscal year. Most people apply to work in public diplomacy and politics; the agency is seeking more management, consular and economics officers.

Also of note from this article is the tidbit that State is not just looking for young applicants, but more experienced ones as well:

The State Department is trying to be more accommodating of older applicants. Many more people are joining in their 30s, Dry said. The peak age is about 30.

“We’re all interested in talented people who may be on the rebound from these other jobs,” he said.

No one will get rich being a diplomat, he warned, but said, “This is a time in the sun for the State Department.”

An English major in Belfast

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

The charming story of Lauren Jee, a Mississippi University for Women senior, and her experience as a State Department intern in Belfast. She proves that not only can English majors succeed in something other than “reading and loafing” (my dad was rather dubious about my choice of major back in the day), but also that top international internships and positions are not reserved for someone else. As Lauren herself put it:

“They told me it was really competitive,” Jee said. “I didn’t go to Harvard or anything, so I didn’t think I stood a chance.”

School’s out for summer

Monday, July 6th, 2009

During my summers in high school and early in college, I worked in a frozen yogurt shop (Neon Lites), a bakery/sandwich shop (Big Sky Bread), and as a landscaper (Paramount Lawn + Landscape). These jobs were all about earning my spending cash and paying my dues—once I hit upperclass status (and certainly once I was in grad school), I figured that summers would be spent at lucrative and important internships.

As it turned out, none of the internships I had were anything close to lucrative, nor were any of them “important,” at least in the DC sense of the word (as in, “I’m wearing a suit and walking very quickly down the sidewalk: I’m important.”). But at least they looked better on my resume than “Frozen Yogurt Dispension Technician.” And at least I never had much real trouble finding one.

Not so for those for those internship-seeking this summer, says the Times :

School’s out for summer 2009, and instead of getting a jump on the boundless futures that parents and colleges always promised them, students this year are receiving a reality check. The well-paying summer jobs that in previous years seemed like a birthright have grown scarce, and pre-professional internships are disappearing as companies cut back across the board.

This is far from the end of the world, it seems—spending one summer internship-less is, in the grand scheme, not a major career setback. And for all the griping the students portrayed in the article do about “rolling out of bed at 11,” “loafing through the day,” and “sharing a few cheap beers with friends at night,” to me this sounds like a fairly un-horrible way to spend the summer.

What worries me are the grander implications: that those students who actually need summer work to survive (whether a substantive, paying internship or a job running the rollercoaster at Adventureland) won’t be able to find it (the article cites unemployment figures for 16- to 19-year-olds as hitting 24 percent, up from 16.1 percent two years ago) and that those entering the job market right now might see their ability to earn a competitive wage in the long term suffer:

Students who enter the job market during a recession can see their wages lag behind comparable students who graduated in better times for as long as 15 years, according to a recent study by Lisa B. Kahn, an economist at the Yale School of Management.

These are things worth concerning ourselves with. Canceling a road trip to Reno or being bothered by parents who want you to take out the trash? Not so much.

Difficulties of the public diplomacy-cone

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Former State Department official Joe Johnston reminds us that there used to be a government agency that focused solely on public diplomacy. It’s been ten years since USIA was abolished and, as Johnston describes it, “public diplomacy-coned” FSOs face real challenges in their career development. He also thinks, though, that sending a chunk of new FSO hires to the public diplomacy track could help with the problem:

State may hire as many as 1,000 new Foreign Service officers in Fiscal Year 2010 if Congress approves the Department’s budget request.  Considering that there are no more than a thousand FSOs in the public diplomacy career track at this time, a healthy share of the thousand new officers could make a critical contribution to public diplomacy’s effectiveness by lowering vacancies and enabling adequate time for training between assignments.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention, though should have, that Joe is a distinguished member of the Public Diplomacy Council and introduced Sherry and me at a PDC event featuring Working World several months ago. The PDC holds a good number of interesting events in DC, all of which give young professionals and job seekers access to some of the most accomplished professionals working in public diplomacy.

Summer and fall internships at the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

The U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy in Des Moines, Iowa (which has a nice compilation of career resources on its website) is looking for two interns (unpaid) for this summer and fall. I’m told that hours and days are flexible.  Contact Diane Rasmussen at 515-282-8192 or for more information.

Doing the right thing

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Many young professionals worry that they’re not “doing the right thing”—that is, they feel that their career paths up to this point aren’t like the career paths of those they want to emulate, or that they haven’t done “what is necessary” or aren’t “doing it right” and thus worry they won’t get to where they want to be.

“I see people ten years older than me doing things that I’d like to be doing some day,” I’ve heard many young people say, “but I haven’t taken the same steps they took or done all the things they did, so I worry I’ll never make it to where they are.”

But the fact of the matter is, most of us working in international education, exchange, and development haven’t strategically planned all of the experiences that have led us to where we are. Rather, most of us have felt our way into our jobs and career one experience at a time, often stumbling along the way. Ask any international professional if the path they took to get where they are now was smooth, and 9.9 times out of 10, the answer will be, “Not even remotely.” Many of the 12 very accomplished professionals profiled in Working World the book relay how their careers have developed not with ease or flawless planning but instead one “fortuitous accident” at a time. So it seems fruitless to worry if you’re doing the right thing, or following the path that others before you have taken. There is no “right thing,” nor is there a one proper career path.

In the same way, there’s no sense in worrying that you haven’t done enough in the past to pursue an international career, if that’s what you now realize you want to do. I’ll admit that I definitely did worry, once I realized I wanted to pursue international things, that I hadn’t set myself up properly to do so. Why hadn’t I realized this interest earlier and done more to prepare myself? Why hadn’t I taken more IR courses in college, or tried to do more internships or study another language or do another abroad experience?

Eventually, though, I came to see that it didn’t really matter what I hadn’t done but rather what I was going to do in the future. I guess it would have been nice if I’d identified my desire to work in IR earlier, but you can’t control how your professional interests develop. Rather, what I did once I came to grips with my desire to do international work ended up being far more important than what I hadn’t done—which sounds painfully obvious now that I’ve written it, but I still think it’s very much worth pointing out.

Looking at the careers of those you admire is very worthwhile—for ideas and inspiration. Talking to those professionals is even better—for advice, encouragement, and help in your job search and career planning. But worrying that you aren’t doing the right thing—i.e., exactly what someone else has done—is not worth your time.

Fall internships at Business for Diplomatic Action

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Business for Diplomatic Action, a “private-sector led initiative aimed at mobilizing the United States’ business community for public diplomacy efforts” and founded and led by advertising guru Keith Reinhard (of McDonalds “You Deserve a Break Today” fame), is seeking two unpaid interns for their New York office for fall ‘09. The application deadline is July 24, and selections will be made within a week, by July 31. Clearly they’re not messing around.