More career advice

More career advice

Will Inboden has kicked off an excellent discussion with his post on how to succeed in a foreign-policy career. I’ve been asked this question more than once, so I have a scripted answer ready to share. Herewith is my Advice to Aspiring Foreign Policy Wonks:

1. Join the military. The proportion of the U.S. population who are veterans of the armed forces is something near an all-time low in the post-World War II era. If you want to stand out and be truly distinctive, serve your country in uniform for a couple years. You don’t have to make it a career; just a two- or four-year stint will broaden your horizons, let you see a bit of the world, sharpen your mission focus and personal discipline, teach you a few of the military’s innumerable acronyms, make you more credible when you work alongside active-duty personnel in the future, and get you some fresh air and exercise. If you are young, healthy, and single, I daresay the burden should be on you to explain why you haven’t joined up yet.

2. Get a Masters degree. In the 1940s, something like 5 percent of Americans had a four-year Bachelor’s Degree. Today, that number is close to 40 percent-but only 5 percent of Americans have a Masters Degree. In other words, the Masters is today what the Bachelor’s was two generations ago. I view a Masters as a basic requirement for advancement in a knowledge-oriented career: you absolutely must have one. That said, there really isn’t a specific field you have to study. I think Will is right: study what you love. But mostly…

3. Study history and philosophy. Henry Kissinger wrote somewhere that real statesmen don’t study politics. They study history and philosophy. They steep themselves in the knowledge of the world and in the realm of ideas. I’d add that philosophy (and theology) is the best intellectual training ground I know. If you can master — or even competently grapple with — the toughest ideas and concepts in the entire range of human knowledge, then contemplating grand strategy begins to look easier.

4. Learn a language. Along with studying history and studying specific regions and areas, learn a language. That makes you a serious expert that will distinguish you from those (ahem, like me) "experts" who are really just dilettantes. Speaking a language opens up a whole new world for you, lets you learn a culture with a depth simply unavailable to others, and gives you credibility with foreign interlocutors.

5. Travel and work abroad

6. Don’t get a PhD. A PhD is a professional credential for aspiring professors, in the same way an MD and a JD are credentials for doctors and lawyers. Do you want to be a professor? Get a PhD. Do you want to be the Secretary of State? Don’t get a PhD.

7. Care passionately about your work. I once heard an acquaintance half-jokingly celebrate the rise of counter-terrorism careers. He didn’t think the massive surge in attention to counter-terrorism was justified, but "I’m going to ride this gravy train all the way until retirement," he said. I couldn’t imagine a faster way to lose respect for myself. Believe in the importance of what you’re doing, or you’ll find yourself burnt out, disillusioned, bored, and bitter. If you find yourself losing interest in what you’re doing (not just for a few months, but for a few years), don’t do it.

8. Have integrity. Will yammered on about having a pleasant "personality" and being "nice" to "people." I suppose that’s a good idea, although I’m not exactly the expert on it. Let me add that, in dealing with people, be truthful, loyal, and decent. There is a myth that to get ahead in DC you have to be manipulative and self-promoting; that once you’ve laid down your opinion you have to ensure you get your way lest you lose credibility; that brusqueness, a sharp tone, or a short-temper in the service of a bureaucratic fight are acceptable. I disagree. Human decency is more effective, especially when disagreeing with someone.