Archive for August, 2009

Alliance for Peacebuilding

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Sherry mentions to me that the Peacebuilder’s Forum, the online community attached to the Alliance for Peacebuilding, is an interesting source of job announcements and openings. Access to the Forum is for members only, though the fees are quite reasonable: $25 for student members or $50 for regular members. AfP might also be of interest as a professional networking and career building opportunity for those interested in international peace and security issues. Check it out.

Make your friends before you need them

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

August in DC is a slow motion month. The air thickens up like a wet sweater. Congress is in recess. Office buildings empty out as people burn those hoarded vacation days, fleeing for cooler, less sticky pastures. And everyone who remains in town moves slowly through the streets with pained and uncomfortable expressions, as if they’re walking in a winter jacket through a locker room sauna. If there’s ever a time to not get things done in DC, it’s in August. 

Yet on the other hand, and in an odd way, it is a time to get things done—the slowness of everything allows you to tackle those projects you’ve been putting off, to take quality time to do those things through which you might normally rush. For me, in a very specific sense, I’ve discovered August is a wonderful time to sit down with Hill staffers for unrushed, genial, let’s-really-get-to-know-each-other chats.

Hill staffers have such full agendas and are so pressed for time that the typical Hill meeting is a condensed and very rushed affair—no time for small talk, get down to brass tacks, what do you want please tell me now. This isn’t mean to be a criticism of Hill staffers—in fact, I generally admire their ability to juggle so many complex issues and demands. Yet such rushed meetings rarely ever leave the time to actually get to know the Hill staffer and to find out more about his or her interests and the actual interests and priorities of his or her boss.

Yet, in August, things slow down to the point that meandering meetings of the get-to-know-each-other sort can happen. It’s refreshing, and I think highly beneficial, when my dealings with staffers can be less focused on ‘what can I do for you?’ and more focused on ‘how can we work together?’

So, the point is…?

1) Your networking shouldn’t always be focused on ‘how can this person help me?’ Rather, get to know someone for who they are and how you connect with them—you never know what might come of it.

2) Make your friends before you need them. When the time comes and you need to ask something of someone, it’s always better when the relationship has already been laid and you’re not shaking their hand hello at the same time you’re asking for a favor.

Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Fellowships for students of “superior academic ability” who want to pursue an MA or doctorate are available under the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program. Recipients are selected on the basis of “demonstrated achievement, financial need, and exceptional promise.” Note that area studies, foreign languages and literature, and linguistics are all eligible fields. 

Applications just became available on Friday and are due October 5, 2009. More detailed info is available on the Department of Ed site via the Federal Register.

How fluent do we really need to be?

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Retired Foreign Service Officer Ken Yates, writing at WhirledView, provides an interesting and well-reasoned take on the necessity of linguistic fluency to be an effective FSO. Despite passionate calls from the Hill and other places for more FSOs to be native in several languages, for Yates, it’s not feasible or reasonable to expect that the majority of FSOs will have the time or resources to become that fluent in one language, let alone several:

For me, training in Japanese, Korean, Dari, Icelandic and Mandarin Chinese, in that order, resulted not in approaching the desired level aspired to in Congressional speeches, yet it did help to sensitize me to the important cultural and personal understandings that were essential to developing and maintaining professional contacts.

[...] It soon became clear to me that just about all of my most important contacts had English competence far beyond what I could realistically hope to achieve in my scant months of study of their language. After all, many had studied English from their early school days, or even studied abroad. My linguistic struggles were more effective as an “icebreaker” than as a means to communicate substantively. When real substance was discussed, I found it essential to have a competent translator on hand. The advantages to that was a more formal discussion at a slower speed that could focus better on the issue at hand than on the imprecision resulting from my usually lesser competence in their language than they had in mine.

The full post is worth a read. Having studied a few languages myself, I would agree with Yates that “fluency” is a ridiculously tough thing to achieve—and it’s very subjective. I’ve had people, after seeing me speak in French or Chinese, comment, “Wow, you’re pretty fluent, huh?” I would shrug and say, oh so modestly, “Well, not really…” But the truth, of course, is that I’m not even close to fluent, in a professional sense, in either language. [Why do people think I'm fluent? Most likely because 1) they don't speak that language at all so don't have a frame of reference and 2) when I do speak my intermediate Chinese or my once-advanced but now intermediate French, I do so in a confident way that makes it seem like I really know what I'm doing.] Despite my lack of fluency, my language studies and skills have helped me in my career in, as Yates notes, cultural understanding and ice breaker type situations. But certainly in professional settings, especially when using Chinese, I’ve always, without question, relied on my counterparts to use English or on translators. 

So, getting back to the main issue, is it a bad thing if our FSOs aren’t native-level in several languages? Not necessarily, it seems. As Sherry noted in a discussion we had about this article and this topic, she has often thought that genuine curiosity and keen interest in learning about others (including their language) are even more critical to success than fluency in a language. Of course, she said, we want our FSOs to be as proficient in languages as possible—but other skills (such as cultural and historical understanding) are also essential. That’s not to say that we don’t want Americans studying languages to the point of native fluency—we certainly do. But it’s just to note that 1) it perhaps doesn’t need to be a requirement of all FSOs to be fully fluent in the language of the country in which they are serving; and 2) just because you aren’t fully fluent in a language doesn’t at all mean that the knowledge you do have of that language and the effort you’ve spent studying it is wasted.

The “constant transformation” of the 21st century career

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, writes in the latest issue of eJournalUSA about the value of international education as career preparation:

In an ever-changing world, being a global citizen requires constant adaptation to new ideas and circumstances. This is why the process of transformation that foreign students experience as part of a U.S. education is so important: It prepares you for the constant transformation that will be required in a 21st-century career.

Dr. Goodman is writing in reference to foreign students studying in the U.S., but I think his larger point of international exposure as essential to that “process of transformation” required of a modern career extends to any student of any nationality living and studying in any country other than his or her own.

What’s it really like to work in international aid?

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Michael Bear at Humanitarian Relief is running a series of posts profiling what it’s really like to work at various large international aid and humanitarian organizations. Something we harp on quite a bit here at Working World is the need to look at the full picture when it comes to a job or an organization. Yes, the title sounds important, but what really will you be responsible for in this job? Will you enjoy and thrive on your daily activities? Is there room for growth? Yes, this particular organization has a mission you admire, but does its organizational culture match the working environment in which you see yourself? What about professional development? Salary? Benefits? Safety and R&R (aspects unique and important to aid jobs that might send you to dangerous and difficult locations)?

So Michael is right on in delving into the depths of these aspects of international aid work—knowing the full picture is important. Start with CARE, then IRC, then Oxfam. Michael says more, including UN agencies, is to come.

Idealist grad school fairs—coming to a city near you

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Starting next month, is sponsoring a series of Graduate Degree Fairs for the Public Good all around the country. Idealist says there will be 50-200 graduate programs in fields such as nonprofit management, education, social work, global health, international affairs, law, public policy, urban planning, and more represented at each fair. The schedule is as follows (in paren are the number of schools already committed to each fair): 

Sep 10 – New York, NY (200)
Sep 14 – Providence, RI (75)
Sep 15 – Boston, MA (175)
Sep 17 – Toronto, ON (50) 
Sep 21 – Washington, DC (150) 
Sep 23 – Pittsburgh, PA (50) 
Oct 5 – Denver, CO (60)
Oct 7 – Minneapolis, MN (50)
Oct 12 – Chicago, IL (110)
Oct 13 – Phoenix, AZ (50)
Oct 15 – San Francisco, CA (120) 
Oct 19 – Los Angeles, CA (120)
Oct 20 – Seattle, WA (90) 
Oct 22 – Portland, OR (65)
Oct 29 – New Orleans, LA (60)
Oct 30 – Atlanta, GA (90) 
Nov 3 – Virginia Beach, VA (30)

Check ‘em out! Idealist also has a handful of nonprofit career fairs coming up for those pursuing employment rather than, as my favorite grad school professor used to say, “that piece of paper” (i.e., a graduate degree):

Oct 14 – Portland, OR
Oct 20 – Seattle, WA
Nov 10 – Washington, DC
Apr 13 – Minneapolis, MN

Beware job search firms promising more than they can deliver

Monday, August 17th, 2009

The Times cautions job seekers (especially experienced, recently laid off job seekers) to be wary of forking over cash to job search firms who promise the moon. According to some, these firms won’t even give you for $8,000 what you can get on your alma mater career services site for free:

“Many employment services provide valuable help, but others misrepresent themselves and their services in an attempt to take your money,” said the Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, who succeeded several years ago in having one career counseling company, Bernard Haldane Associates, banned from doing business in the state. “To find legitimate agencies for your needs, it’s critical to do your homework first.”

International Education Week ‘09

Monday, August 17th, 2009

David Comp got the same email I did: an alert that the 2009 International Education Week website is up and running. Start planning your activities for November 16 to 20. I’ll be going to Tulsa to talk about careers in international affairs. More on that to come.

Stay ugly, America

Friday, August 14th, 2009


Average Americans, in their natural state, are the best ambassadors a country can have.

So says “The Ugly American,” the 1958 novel by Eugune Burdick and William Lederer, with a film version starring Marlon Brando following in 1963. When I was an intern at NCIV in the summer of 2004, one of my assignments from Sherry was to read “The Ugly American” in its entirety and pull from it ideas that might be crafted into an op-ed extolling the virtues of international exchange. Brando had just died that July, and Sherry’s thought was that recalling one of his lesser known roles might make for an interesting article hook. 

Our finished article (I thought it was pretty good) didn’t get picked up by a paper in the end, but it was still a useful exercise—not only for the chance to write with Sherry but also because I got to read a book and get paid for it. And “The Ugly American” is a good read, quick but incisive, and still highly relevant. Yes, it provides fodder for us exchange types and our argument that it’s only through direct contact that barriers are broken down and misunderstanding conquered. But the book’s real contemporary value lies not necessarily in its recognition that Americans must engage the world (in many ways this has become a foregone conclusion, especially among the younger generation) but in its understanding that this engagement must been done thoughtfully, respectfully, and (not to put too fine a point on it) well. 

In other words, “The Ugly American” recognized in 1958, when it lambasted its diplomatic characters who never bothered to learn Sarkhanese, the language of the fictional country it portrays, what is still imperative today: when engaging the world, whether through our post-college year abroad or our official foreign policy and aid programs, it’s not enough to just show up. We’ve got to put in the time to learn the language too.

China: career catalyst and character builder

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Even those with limited or no knowledge of Chinese are heeding the call. They are lured by China’s surging economy, the lower cost of living and a chance to bypass some of the dues-paying that is common to first jobs in the United States.

[...] A big draw of working in China, many young people say, is that they feel it allows them to skip a rung or two on the career ladder.

The Times profiles a bevy of young Americans who shipped out for China, both because of the lack of jobs at home as well as the feeling that China affords faster career advancement.

Not to be overlooked as well is the idea of China as a place that affords tremendous opportunity for personal and professional growth:

That said, Mr. Woetzel added, someone who has been able to make a mark in China is a valuable hire.

“At McKinsey, we are looking for people who have demonstrated leadership,” he said, “and working in a context like China builds character, requires you to be a lot more entrepreneurial and forces you to innovate.”

Most experiences living and working abroad build character, self-reliance, confidence, etc. (also see: How to convince your parents that studying and living abroad is good for your career). And not to take away from the virtues of living in any other country, but after having lived and worked in China myself, I can attest that the Middle Kingdom in particular provides character-building experiences in spades.

Joining the Foreign Service at 50

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

That Lady There is applying to the Foreign Service at 50 because she’s “always wanted to… — (Doesn’t that sound trite?) — and now think it’s a wonderful time to do so.” She’s counting down the days until her Oral Assessment (the clock currently stands 69 days, 10 hours, 35 minutes, and three seconds—no two seconds—no one second…), a major hurdle for joining the Foreign Service that comes after the written exam and the submission of five personal essays. 

Follow her in her quest—or at least take a peak through her blog, especially if you’re in the process of applying to or considering the Foreign Service. Her real-time, learn-as-you-go thoughts and insights on the FSO application process seem immensely useful: How do you prepare best for the OA? (Practice and repetition, until it’s second nature); How do you overcome nerves at your OA? (Look at it as an interesting way to spend the day rather than a terrifying experience); Do men gain an advantage by wearing wingtips to their OA? (No, unless they really look good in wingtips).

So you think you can write

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Good writing can take you far. Every international job, whether you’re behind a desk in DC or in the field in Uganda, requires solid writing. Sherry constantly mentions superior writing skills as one of the primary criteria she looks for in a new employee. But how do you demonstrate to a potential employer that you’re a strong writer?

In our recent IA Forum interview, Sherry and I discussed the idea of being published as a way to demonstrate writing skills. As Sherry said:

To see something published or that someone was an editor of a graduate school journal, that carries weight with me. I’ll pay more attention to that resume than a similar one without writing/editing experience. 

Certainly I agree with Sherry’s thought here (if you can get published, definitely do it), but I would also add (and, in fact, did add in the IA Forum interview) that it’s not necessary to get published to demonstrate your writing skills (I was never published until WW). So how do you demonstrate those writing skills, if not by being published?

Alanna at Global Health says that you should mention your writing skills and experience in your resume and cover letter, “and then give an example or two of when your writing has been valuable to an employer.” Certainly there’s nothing wrong with telling a potential employer that you have good writing, but any time I’ve seen something like this on a resume, it’s invariably struck me as a bit empty. I think, ‘Why are you telling me? Just show me.’ While certain skills or experiences can only be conveyed to an employer by telling them (if you’re fluent in Arabic or spent two years in the Philippines on a field project, there’s no way to demonstrate this in a job application; you just have to say it), writing is one of the few skills in a job application process that can actually be shown rather than just said.  

Alanna does say, “Make sure your cover letter and your resume are good enough to stand up to your claim.” But I think you need to take it a step or two further. True, your resume isn’t really the ideal format for showcasing your long-form writing, but absolutely ensure that it is clean, precise, and without error. Your cover letter, on the other hand, does present you with an opportunity to show your writing ability. Too often job applicants make the mistake of believing a cover letter is a place to regurgitate the experiences listed on their resumes. Instead, the cover letter should be a place in which you weave a story about you—who you are, what you’ve done, and what has brought you to this point at which you are applying for this particular job with this particular organization. Don’t restate your resume; rather, interpret your resume. Bring it all together for the person or people who will be looking at your application—do the hard work for them. This type of cover letter is not only more effective in conveying why you are a solid applicant for this job, but it also gives you a chance to showcase your writing in a more dynamic way than if you simply re-listed all of your previous experiences. (Certainly telling the “story of you” in a brief, one-page cover letter is difficult, but if you do it effectively, this even further showcases your writing skills.)

In addition to your initial contact with a potential employer, any and all of your follow up contact is yet another chance to display your writing skills. Follow-up email contact illustrates the way you write in a day-to-day professional context—the way you compose an email to follow up on a job application is a good indication of how you will compose your emails for this job should they decide to hire you. So, take the time to ensure that your follow-up correspondence is well-written and mistake-free. At my previous job at Georgetown, the person who hired me later told me that when my application initially came in, it went into the “maybe” pile. When I sent a follow up email, however, reiterating my interest in the position and asking where things stood, this colleague said he really liked the tone of that message and the way I composed it, so he decided to give me a second look. He liked what he saw on second glance, moved me into the “interview” pile, one thing led to another, and I got the job.

Two last ways to showcase your writing: 1) if asked for a writing sample, think carefully about what you send. Don’t simply splice a three page section of a paper from college and send that if you don’t truly believe it represents your best work. If you don’t have something already prepared, consider writing something fresh (an op-ed type piece) that relates to the job you’re applying for.  2) If you’re interning or volunteering for an organization you’d like to work for someday, make sure ALL of the writing you do there (even emails) is your best. If you think of an internship or volunteer stint as a three-month interview, you’ll set yourself up very well to succeed when it comes time for the actual interview.

Careers in international aid

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Humanitarian Relief just ran a series of posts from the indispensable Alanna Shaikh on charting a career as an international aid worker. Definitely give them a read if this is an area of career interest. Topics include: organizational culture in various aid agencies; characteristics of a good aid worker; and, my favorite, how to find you first bad job. A sweet excerpt from this last entry:

What you want to do is find that first job in aid, and then immediately start trying to find a better one. It really doesn’t matter how bad that first job is – how soul-crushing, badly paid, or meaningless. You just need to get it on your resume as proof that you understand the profession and won’t freak out in the field [...]

Luckily, bad jobs are easier to find than good jobs. No one likes bad jobs, so they leave after six months – just like you probably will – so organizations are always trying to fill them. For someone trying to get a first job in relief and development work, that is a blessing.

In theory (and an ideal world), I would recommend against taking a job that you know you want to leave as quickly as possible. But in practice, in order to move your way up, you’ve got to get in. And it’s no secret that it can be very hard to get in. So if getting in means that you start in the shit and claw your way out…well, I say, do what you’ve got to do.

Teaching abroad as continuing education

Thursday, August 6th, 2009 reports on the merits of teaching abroad as a form of post-graduate education, and a way to build skills for your career and become more comfortable and effective in a globalized world. Read for the intriguing idea that “those who teach abroad can learn more than in a real job or graduate school;” stay for the quotes toward the end from me at my most earnest.