Getting DC Right: A Guide for Graduate Students in International Affairs
Chef’s Table is a section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.
With the start of the school year in Washington, DC this past month, many graduate students in international affairs have entered the area for the first time in their lives as they attempt to navigate the difficulties of a new graduate program all the while trying to get used to a new city and set the groundwork to finding a job when they graduate. And while there are many ways to succeed in DC as a graduate student, here are four important things to keep in mind while starting your new graduate life in DC.
1) Be friendly and willing to have a conversation with anyone
Being nice and considerate to those around you should be a given for most people. But as you drudge through your daily grind, it is tempting to simply put on your headphones and move throughout the city silently, not engaging with others along your commute on the bus or Metro. And that’s fine for the most part, people have their routines and don’t necessarily want to be interrupted. But as graduate students starting out in DC for the first time, you should always be on the lookout for interesting passengers who may be willing to engage in conversation. With the exception of the Clintons, the Bidens, the Obamas, and some senior officials, many members of the DC workforce – some involved at the highest levels of government and the private sector – are just like everyone else in that they commute on buses and trains to work and have lives and pastimes outside of the office. So you never know who you might be sitting next to on the bus or who you might strike up a conversation with at the park: this person may end of being your future boss.
This is exactly what happened to me. Four years ago, I started my first semester as a Master’s student at Georgetown University. Over Labor Day weekend, I had gone to an archery range to practice (a sport I picked up as an undergrad in California and passionately continue today). Given the long weekend, the range was crowded and a couple was waiting to shoot after I had completed. Wanting to be considerate and share the space, I invited them to join me. I struck up a conversation with them and the husband casually began asking me questions about my background and what I was doing in DC. After explaining to him that I was a graduate student seeking to establish a career in international affairs, more specifically conflict resolution, he shared that he had completed a similar program at Johns Hopkins, served in senior roles at the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and that he now worked as a private consultant doing international development work.
As we continued the conversation about international affairs and other interests, his wife suddenly exclaimed, “Are you looking for a research assistant position? My husband is hiring!” The next thing I knew, we had scheduled an appointment to meet up at his office the next day to continue the conversation and discuss the position. After a brief conversation, he offered me the job and I ended up working for him for the full two years of my graduate program. Had I not been friendly with the couple at the park and engaged them in conversation, this obviously never would have happened. Like I said, you never know if you’re striking up a conversation with your future boss, so be nice! To be fair, DC can be quite the serendipitous place; people are often offered opportunities for simply being in the right place at the right time. That being said, a friendly disposition and being easy to get along with friends and strangers alike can increase the likelihood of a position or opportunity breaking your way.
Of course, anyone aspiring to meet new interesting people should use common sense and a certain amount of caution. Not everyone on the bus will want to talk with you (even your future boss) and some people who may want to talk to you may not have your best interest at heart. So be friendly, but also be careful! Furthermore, just because a person wants to talk to you does not necessarily mean they want to talk about your career prospects right away (or ever). So be mindful of how the conversation goes. You want the person to like you but you don’t want to be pushy in the conversation and you should always be on the lookout for ill intensions.
2) Try and engage with professors who are not exclusively involved in academia.
The curricula in Washington, DC graduate programs offer rich content through a wide variety of engaging courses. And as many students, regardless of age know, professors have the power to make extremely difficult and esoteric knowledge interesting, clear, and engaging, or they can make what should have been a fun course boring and/or a living hell. Class engagement issues aside, it is highly recommended, particularly in DC, to seek out professors who are not solely involved in academia. This is not a slight against pure academics in the least bit, simply that graduate students in international affairs will be well-served by taking courses with professors who have either worked or currently work in positions outside of academia.
By doing so, this provides students with two opportunities. The first is that it grants students an inside look at the careers they may be interested in. What better way to learn about the fields of international development, intelligence, or the think tank world than to learn from professors who are professionals in these fields? The breadth of knowledge and stories these individuals can share are endless and give students the opportunity to ask questions and seek out information about careers they wish to purse. Secondly, taking courses with these kinds of instructors inherently serve as avenues for networking (and we know that DC loves to network). Professors can help job-seeking students get in contact with members of their network in order to further improve their chances in being selected for a position. Some professors may even hire some of their current or former students! That being said, don’t expect walking away with a job after taking a course taught by a former Secretary of State. But it never hurts to be in their limelight!
3) Maintain school/work/life balance.
For the graduate students who are lucky enough to find employment while in school, this one’s for you. Don’t work too hard (if you can afford it). Now this piece of advice may not necessarily be true for all of the gainfully employed graduate students out there, but using all of your time outside of grad school to work can sometimes hurt you to a certain extent. When I was in graduate school, I worked two part-time jobs in addition to being a full-time student. While my experience at both positions was invaluable to my career, I ended up missing out on many events and networking opportunities simply because I was too busy to attend. The District offers amazing occasions to attend panel discussions and seminars to hear from the best and brightest DC has to offer, but if you’re constantly shuffling between work and class without any spare time, you may miss out on that invaluable opportunity to have that coffee chat with a renown subject-matter expert.
4) Take courses that can transfer skills in a wide variety of positions
Finally, and this is something I cannot emphasize enough, I highly recommend taking skill-building courses that are transferable to a wide variety of positions in your field and beyond. Regional or thematic knowledge is great, but Washington, DC is over-saturated with Middle East and foreign policy experts. Many employers are looking for hard skills in addition to regional or thematic knowledge that will allow a prospective employee to succeed in multiple avenues within a position. Flexibility and adaptability are key in any workplace.
Stats courses, budgeting, and quantitative analysis are all highly recommended, even for those without an affinity for numbers (like yours truly). Practical courses that help one understand the foreign policy bureaucracy and its various intricacies such as memo writing and providing briefings are also highly recommended. These types of courses are often handy in Program Officer-type positions in international NGOs, government agencies, and government contractor positions where employees are required to design programming in succinct ways, and then produce budgets as well as a slew of other logistical information to support said programming.
Bottom line: Take advantage of what DC and your school have to offer
While there are many ways to succeed as an international affairs graduate student in DC, these four recommendations are a great start on your way to better establishing your job prospects in the District. Other recommendations include sitting down with your university’s career center to see how they can help you regarding opportunities and restructuring your resume (if they’re well-practiced, they’ll probably tear your resume apart and help you build it back in ways you never even considered). Students should also set aside time for informational interviews to speak with individuals who are working in their fields of interest. In this regard, being in graduate school provides you with a unique opportunity. People are happy to talk to you about their experiences, especially if you’re not actively seeking jobs from them. Plus, your student status allows you to be perceived as simply trying to improve your knowledge as part of your graduate school experience. Just always remember; don’t be pushy and walk in and immediately ask if the person has a job for you.
Have other great recommendations? Post them in the comments below!
Scott Lassan is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Ramen IR. He previously worked with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the US Institute of Peace, Georgetown University, and the Asia Society. His foci include the conflicts in Afghanistan/Pakistan and Syria/Iraq as well as security and development issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. Scott received his MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University where he focused on stability operations. He received his BA in Peace and Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley. His Twitter is @