How to get a job in the foreign-policy world

Many of Passport‘s readers are college students who are looking to launch careers in foreign policy. As it’s job-huntin’ season on campus, here’s a timely guest post from Peter W. Singer, a military expert at the Brookings Institution and the author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, on how to become ...


Many of Passport's readers are college students who are looking to launch careers in foreign policy. As it's job-huntin' season on campus, here's a timely guest post from Peter W. Singer, a military expert at the Brookings Institution and the author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, on how to become a foreign-policy wonk.

We hope you find it helpful.


Many of Passport‘s readers are college students who are looking to launch careers in foreign policy. As it’s job-huntin’ season on campus, here’s a timely guest post from Peter W. Singer, a military expert at the Brookings Institution and the author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, on how to become a foreign-policy wonk.

We hope you find it helpful.


Frequently, I get e-mails from young students who want to know how to crack into the world of foreign policy. Below are the most frequent questions and my answers, which FP thought actually might be of use or at least amusement. Please judge their worth by the amount of money that you paid for them.

How did you decide to get into the foreign-policy world?

I’ve been interested in these issues since as long as I can remember. I was the weird kid in elementary school, who for book reports would choose Soviet Military Power (the Pentagon’s somewhat overhyped annual report on the Red menace) rather than Sweet Valley High or The Boxcar Kids. Yes, it was totally nerdy. Guilty as charged. By the time I got to college, I applied to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as my major. If I didn’t get in, my backup plan was to go into the history field. Fortunately, I did, and thoroughly enjoyed it. When it came time to figure out a job afterwards, I flirted a bit with the idea of becoming a management consultant. My thinking was that I could feed the beast by getting subscriptions to various political magazines to read in my off time, while I made scads of money merely for using words like “synergy,” “leverage,” or “optimize.” But I soon realized that I didn’t know what those words actually meant and I would shoot myself after a few months. So, I went into the foreign-policy business instead.

[If you’re reading this from the main page, read on after the break]

Are you glad you did?

Yes. There are basically three things that anyone can talk about with anyone else: the weather, sports, and politics. It’s fun to be involved in one of those (and I am equally glad to talk about my fantasy football team, “The Ragin’ Pundits,” or today’s weather if you want).

What does a typical “day on the job” consist of?

I work at a think tank, so basically, you arrive in the morning, sit at your desk and think powerful thoughts all day. Then, you go home and watch something on TV where you don’t have to think (like Real World or Fox News) so that your brain can cool off.

Actually, the typical day is a mix of activities. I might be working on an article or book chapter, so depending on where I am in the process, part of it could be spent on research, writing, or editing. Our program might be hosting or organizing an event, such as a conference or a general coming to talk, so we might be working out the agenda or logistics. I might be giving a talk that day, be it to a university class or a group at the Pentagon, so that would involve preparing the lecture and/or giving it. A journalist might call and inquire on a news story, and so I might answer their questions, which usually involves at least 30 minutes of walking them through the nuances of something really complex, sometimes on background and sometimes on the record, which they then will try to boil down into a 5-second clip on TV or a sentence-long quote in the newspaper. Or, the 30 minutes might go to helping someone on the policy side, such as a congressional staffer, better understand an issue.

The two constants that run through every day are the need to stay on top of the news and issues in your particular field (so lots of reading) and dealing with e-mail. Lots and lots of e-mail.

What is best way to go about job hunting?

Have a rich father who is a former president of the United States. If that is not possible, informational interviews are a great way to start to build out your network before you even hit the application time. Talk with professors and family friends, e-mail alumni, etc. The key of an informational interview is that it is a deal. You request the insights and advice of someone in the field with the implicit understanding that this person is not going to give you a job and you cannot therefore pester him or her for one.

When it comes time to actually apply to jobs, do so far and wide. There is no harm to the shotgun approach and it might open up possibilities you didn’t plan. Plus, it might mean more interview opportunities that you can use as preparation for the ones that matter to you more later on.

What skill sets, experiences, courses, etc. should I focus on that will help me in job hunting?

Job hunting is not simply a treasure hunt to find the perfect job that is just sitting there waiting for you and you alone to find it. It is a competition. You are running against all the other people that want that same job. So, you want to enter that process with as many tools in your belt that are relevant to that job as possible. The more professional courses you can take, the better (that “physics for poets” class ain’t going to help you), the more internships and summer jobs that are relevant to the field, at places people have heard of, the better (that summer spent lifeguarding is not going to help you), the more relevant skills and competed projects that you can talk up in your interviews, the better (so organizing a foreign-policy conference at your school is going to pay off more than being treasurer at Lambda Lambda Lambda), etc. Don’t put off thinking about the elements that will give you a great looking résumé until it is too late.

What is the best advice you could give to a job hunter just out of college?

I believe in what could be called “forensic backtracking.” Here’s how it works: Identify people that have jobs that you might want one day. Then, backtrack what they did to get there. What are the kind of experiences that they had under their belt, the sort of publications they published in, etc. It isn’t that you should go all Single White Female and cut your hair to look like them, but rather that it will give you a good sense of what you are going to need to do in order to end up at a good job at a great place. Doing this also gives you a ready answer for the pesky “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” interview question.

This leads to more backwards advice about interviews: Game out your interviews and practice them. Your résumé gets you onto the short list; your interview gets you the job. Prepare your answers to the most likely questions beforehand, so that you can have them ready at the front of your brain, rather than scrambling for them when it matters most. As part of this, start out with the key things that you want that interviewer to know about you by the end of that meeting and ensure that you weave them into answers. That is, work backwards: Decide the elements of your answers first and then use these to prepare for the potential questions.

What are the most common mistakes job seekers make?

I still find it amazing that about 20 percent of the cover letters and résumés we see in job searches have typos. And these are from people with great GPAs from great schools. There’s a time and place for casual writing, such as on a blog, and a time to be formal. If someone can’t get it right in a job application, then they are showing they can’t get it right when it matters. Typos make the job of the person deciding who gets interviewed or not very easy. No matter how great your credentials or GPA, if your application has a typo, it goes in the trash. So, read over what you send in one last time.

Your résumé should never be longer than a page. Never. Let me say this again: Never. If they ask for a C.V., you can send one in that is longer (as a C.V. might have a list of all your publications, which can run past a page later in your career). If not, no one has done enough in life to make it over a page in length. I don’t care if you are Leonardo Da Vinci, you should still send in a one-page résumé. And yes, cover letters are a nice touch to tell your story and highlight your perfect fit for the job. Better to do one than not.

How did you get your current job?

I originally came to Brookings via a post-doctoral fellowship. The plan of the program was “turn your dissertation into a book draft and go become a professor somewhere at the end of the fellowship.” That was how I got in the door. A week after I started, 9-11 happened. Brookings, like most every other place, had few programs in the relevant areas. So, the board asked the senior leadership to set up a program exploring the new questions that surrounded U.S. foreign policy, especially in relations with Muslim states and communities Three of the most senior staff at Brookings agreed to convene the effort (now the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World), but they were at a level one step beyond the nitty-gritty details of launching the actual project. Basically, it was an issue of “Too many chiefs, no Indians.” A few weeks later, I was asked if I would be interested in being that Indian. All I could be sure about was that it would take my career in a different direction and delay my book writing on Corporate Warriors. After thinking it over for a day, I agreed to it anyway. It seemed an exciting and rewarding opportunity and it was also personally important to me to do something positive on the issue, as I had lost close friends on 9-11. Over the next two years, the program thrived and when it came time for my fellowship to end, they asked me to stay on.

The lesson I take from this is to always say “yes” to interesting opportunities, even if you don’t know where they will lead you.

What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

I wish I knew, as my 2-year-old nephew likes to say to calm down when he spills his apple juice or gets upset, that it would “All work out, all work out.” Job hunting is incredibly stressful and at each stage of the game, I wasn’t sure what I would do if things didn’t work out. For example, before I got the job here at Brookings, I was really sweating what I would do next.

Will working on a political campaign help or hurt me?

Maybe, but it is not necessary in any case (I didn’t work on one starting out and you, for some reason, are still reading my advice).

The good thing about working on a campaign is that it immediately puts you inside a network of people that you might not be able to build on your own. It is fast paced, and so working on it shows future job-deciders that you understand things like deadlines and project work with a zero-error mentality. It can also be fun, exciting, and rewarding—even more so if your team wins. The rule of thumb seems to be the higher the stakes, the more benefit it will bring to your career (that is, working on a presidential campaign will gain you more useful contacts and credibility in the foreign-policy world than working to elect a county commissioner would).

The downside is that you must be ready to accept that working on a campaign does pigeonhole you from the start. People may judge you based on that candidate’s position or performance, which may not exactly match your own positions or performance. Also, it does reinforce that back-scratching phenomenon of Washington wherein people sometimes feel they “owe” each other for jobs. That is, if you get a job because of a campaign link (such as your old boss in the campaign), you are now identified with and maybe even locked to that person. The next election, you may feel pressured to support whomever they choose for the next campaign because you owe them. Other people will describe you in such terms as “She worked for person X.” Much of this city has climbed the ranks following this approach, so it definitely does work. But it is also how people end up working in jobs and for candidates they are not enthusiastic about, and our system remains stale and static.

Will study abroad or international work be worth it?

I think it is a valuable experience that everyone should do, regardless of whether they go into foreign policy or not. It helps you better understand the world, the United States, and yourself. As Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad said, “If you don’t travel, you are viewing the world through a keyhole. When you travel, it’s like looking at the world from a helicopter.”

Also, as long as it is not the Cancun School of International Relations and Bartending, experience abroad can’t hurt you as a job candidate. Prospective employers are only going to see your time abroad as a positive that makes you a more interesting candidate. It also gives you something to talk about in interviews. Do it.

How important is it to know a foreign language?

It’s another one of those tools in your belt that can distinguish you from your competitors in the job process. Like international travel, you can’t be penalized for having such an added skill, so it is only a positive.

The question of which language to take really depends on your interests more than trying to game it. That is, 20 years ago, Russian would have been described as a fail-safe language to choose, as the Cold War was the one certainty that you could guide your career by. Of course, in the 90s, many a Sovietologist was scrambling for work (or remaking themselves into China “experts”) and Serbo-Croat was where it was at. Today, the “hot” languages are Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Chinese, for obvious reasons. But again, you should not try to “game” this and instead choose what language to take by what interests you, and of course by how cute the TA is and whether the class starts after 10 a.m.

How does one advance career-wise?

There is clearly no set pathway, but there do seem to be two rules of thumb on how to get ahead in the world, including in foreign policy.

  1. “A-Hole Rule” Be a complete jerk to anyone working for or with you, but brownnose your way upwards, always seeking to work any situation, be it social or professional, to your personal advantage.
  2. “Karma Rule” Strive to do professional, quality work and be a good colleague to those above and below you in the knowledge that there is Karma in the world.

I wholeheartedly advise and support option #2, but have to acknowledge that #1 has worked for way too many people not to exist (As a corollary, people in this category also tend to wear popped collars, loafers with tassels, and often start wars later in life). One way to decide which rule you want to follow in life is to imagine yourself getting a promotion sometime in the future. When you look yourself in the mirror the next morning, do you want to know that most everyone hates you and is just waiting for you to fail so that the boss can finally see what a turd you are? If you don’t care, then pop that collar and go with #1. Otherwise, stick to #2. The rest of us will be glad you did.

Another thing I have noticed is that multi-taskers tend to advance further than pure specialists. People who can also convene and bring people, programs, and events together are more likely to advance to the leadership level than people who lock themselves away and only write. That is, when you look around at who is in the leadership positions in this field at think tanks, NGOs and the like, it is not merely people who are good writers but people who bring other skills to the table: management, organizational process, strategy, budgeting, fundraising, etc. The funny thing is that many of these skills get absolutely no nourishment within the education backgrounds that typically bring people into the foreign-policy field. Most people either come in with a politics degree or a law degree, but the skills often called upon at the leadership level are of the MBA variety. As you focus on what sort of activities to undertake and skills to build on early in your career, I would keep this in mind.

Peter Warren Singer is senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings. He is the youngest person named to this position in the 90-year history of the institution. His website is He also never follows his own advice.

More from Foreign Policy

Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10.

Sudan’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Demonstrators find themselves at odds with key U.N. and U.S. mediators.

In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.

Traffic Jams Are a Very American Disaster

The I-95 backup shows how easily highways can become traps.

Relatives and neighbors gather around a burned vehicle targeted and hit by an American drone strike in Kabul.

The Human Rights vs. National Security Dilemma Is a Fallacy

Advocacy organizations can’t protect human rights without challenging U.S. military support for tyrants and the corrupt influence of the defense industry and foreign governments.


The Problem With Sanctions

From the White House to Turtle Bay, sanctions have never been more popular. But why are they so hard to make work?