Becoming a Foreign Service Officer

The following guest post from International Relations Online, a free online resource for those interested in careers in International Relations, may interest many current students. Elsewhere I’ve posted “Careers in IR” boxes from my textbook International Relations, covering jobs in government, business, NGOs, and education.

fso victor

FSO Experiences

Become a Foreign Service Officer

Foreign Service offers challenging and rewarding career opportunities for those who are passionate about public service on behalf of the United States government. Foreign Service Officers support U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world. They experience the cultures and customs of different nations while promoting peace, advancing U.S. interests, and protecting U.S. citizens abroad.

Is Foreign Service Right for You?

A career as a Foreign Service Officer can be exciting and glamorous, providing high levels of responsibility as well as opportunities to work with important and interesting people. As employees of the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officers receive competitive salaries, government-paid housing, and additional benefits including health insurance, paid vacations, and retirement funding.

Despite the many benefits offered by Foreign Service, the lifestyle that comes with the career is not for everyone. Some foreign posts are in dangerous settings or in remote locations that lack amenities that many U.S. citizens have come to expect. Families are encouraged to accompany Foreign Service Officers to their posts, except in cases where there is imminent danger or civil unrest. Depending on the post, life abroad may be either enriching or difficult for family members.

Before choosing Foreign Service as a career path, you should assess both the rewards and the downsides and decide if you are willing to adapt your life to the job. The U.S. Department of State provides an online quiz that can help you decide if the positive aspects of a Foreign Service career outweigh the negatives. Candidates should also become familiar with the Foreign Service Officer Qualifications List, which describes 13 character dimensions that are deemed essential to Foreign Service work.

Choosing a Career Track

In addition to looking at the pros and cons of the Foreign Service lifestyle, it is important to learn about the different career tracks. Your preparation for the career track you choose will affect whether or not you are selected for a position with the Foreign Service. Choose carefully, because once a Foreign Service candidate has specified a track during registration for the Foreign Service Officer Test, it is difficult to switch to a different track.

These are the five Foreign Service career tracks:

Consular Officers protect Americans living, working, and traveling in foreign countries.
Economic Officers work with U.S. government agencies and foreign governments in the areas of trade, science, technology, energy, the economy, and the environment.
Management Officers are leaders who handle a wide range of challenges while overseeing embassy operations.
Political Officers analyze political events in foreign and negotiate with foreign officials.
Public Diplomacy Officers are experts in cross-cultural relations who promote U.S. values, policies, and interests abroad.

A detailed description of each track can be found in the State Department’s Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process.

Acing the FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test)

The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) measures a Foreign Service candidate’s knowledge, skill, and abilities. The three-hour test is administered three times per year in test centers located in the U.S. and abroad. The test consists of four components: a job knowledge test, an English expression test, biographic questionnaire, and a written essay. A sample of the type of questions included on the FSOT is provided at the end of the Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process.

Ordering the official FSOT Study Guide is the best way to ensure a passing score on the test. In addition, it is important to have strong foundational knowledge of world affairs. To this end, the U.S. State Department provides a resource list of books, journals, and websites to help candidates prepare for the Foreign Service selection process.

Final Steps

Candidates who pass the FSOT move to the final assessment steps. First, they are asked to answer a series of Personal Narrative questions. These questions are centered on six precepts: intellectual skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, management skills, leadership, and substantive knowledge. The next step is the Foreign Service Oral Assessment, which is designed to determine how candidates put the 13 Foreign Service character dimensions into practice. Administered over the course of a single day, it includes a team exercise, a structured interview and a case management exercise.

Candidates who successfully complete all Foreign Service tests and assessments are asked to obtain medical and security clearances and complete the Final Review Panel. Only those who pass the review will be considered for positions as Foreign Service Officers.

Philippines Storm and Climate Change

Super typhoon Haiyan: survivors walk past a ship that lies on top of damaged homesThanks to the BBC (again), we can watch in near-real time as desperate masses of Filipinos struggle to stay alive without water, food, or health care. The “super-typhoon” that hit them is possibly the biggest storm ever recorded.

On the other side of the world, in Poland, an international conference got underway to try to negotiate about precursors to a possible agreement to someday set targets to reduce the growth of the rate at which we are adding carbon to the atmosphere. The Philippine delegate cut through all that with an emotional speech that electrified the room, linking the devastation in the Philippines to the world’s failure to prevent climate change. “We can fix this. We can stop this madness,” he pleaded. He began fasting until the conference takes effective action.

The media coverage of this storm and other recent weather destruction always warns us that no particular weather disaster can be attributed to climate change. This is technically true, but misleading. If you are sitting on the beach while the tide is rising, you will notice that some waves come up much higher on the beach than others, unpredictably, and with no relation to the tide. But over time, for certain, your picnic is going to get soaked. Same thing with planet Earth – our picnic is for certain going to be completely soaked if we continue on our current path.

People wonder if the recent weather disasters will be the “new normal.” The answer is definitely no. The new normal will be far, far worse. The trends that will play out over the next few decades have only just begun. This is just a little taste of a future that will be truly catastrophic, barring a major change in the direction of human civilization.

The massive denial about climate change that now pervades our collective consciousness is reminiscent of the “nuclear numbing” of the public during the Cold War. We were aware of such matters as nuclear war planning, but their logical consequences were too horrible to look at. So we delegated the uncomfortable core issues to experts and policy makers, who could treat the issues surgically, with acronyms and euphemisms. The nuclear freeze movement upended that arrangement, and I wish the same would happen for climate change. The experts and policy makers are not solving it. The international governance institutions are not up to the job. And, embarrassingly, my own dear United States is on the wrong side of the issue, emitting way more than its share of carbon and failing to lead the push for change, indeed even undermining the world’s feeble efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol (unratified by the USA).

Climate change is the overriding moral issue of our time. So when I say the USA is on the wrong side of the issue, I mean the wrong side of history.

[Donations to help the people in the Philippines can be made through one of these groups.]

Guide to Middle East Complexity

WaPo ME chart BSm0bOBCYAAAph6The idea seems to be gaining traction that the Middle East is incredibly, incredibly complex – far too complex for Americans to ever understand and far, far too complex to intervene in with any hope of success, be it military strikes on Syria, peace negotiations with Israel and Palestine, or military aid to Egypt. Last week the Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher published a chart of Middle East players filled with arrows in every direction — sheer chaos (the chart was from an Egyptian blogger, “the big Pharoah”).

I’ve redrawn the chart – breaking “Syrian rebels” into four constituent groups but otherwise retaining the same actors — and it’s not that complicated. (Sure, a level down from here, on either chart, lies lots of complexity down to individual personalities and cross-cutting ties, but that wasn’t the original chart’s point.)

Goldstein Middle East Chart

Fisher comments on his chart:  “There are rivals who share mutual enemies, allies who back opposite sides of the same conflict, conflicting interests and very strange bedfellows.” But actually, on my version you see mostly a two-way split between the Russian-backed Shi’ite axis in the upper right and the actors on the left. The main complexity is a rivalry between Qatar (home of al Jazeera TV) and Saudi Arabia (along with the other Gulf states). They back opposing sides of the conflict within Egypt between General Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood. They both support the Free Syrian Army but favor different factions within it (the Saudi-backed side is dominant now in the Syrian rebel leadership). In the lower right, al Qaeda and the Kurds each control territory in Syria and are more concerned with administering it than bigger ambitions.

There are a few anomalies but not of great significance. For instance, Israel likes the USA, which likes Qatar (where we held military exercises this year), which likes Hamas, but Hamas does not like Israel!

Thirty years ago studying international relations in graduate school, my professor Nazli Choucri taught me that “the Middle East conflict” was actually at least five conflicts layered over each other.  Today it’s even less about Israelis versus Arabs than then. But the region is not a swirling cloud of unpredictable and shifting conflicts that no one could ever understand. Journalists at the Washington Post, and elsewhere, should try to understand and explain these conflicts, not throw up their hands. My opinion.

For those of you who would like a map to go with the chart, here you go:

middle east map

Syria War Reverses Trend in Battle Deaths

UCDP battle deaths to 2012The latest battle-deaths data, for 2012, have arrived from the researchers in Uppsala, Sweden, and the news is bad. With the civil war in Syria killing tens of thousands last year, the world total battle deaths jumped up about 70%, reversing the downward trend of recent decades, though not reverting to the high fatality levels of the Cold War years.

The big picture here is a long-term decline of armed conflict worldwide from the World Wars (a hundred times worse than today) to the Cold War proxy battlefields (several-fold worse than the post-Cold War era) to the most recent decade of fewer and smaller civil wars and generally no interstate wars. The Syria spike in 2012 marked the highest battle fatalities since the Eritrea-Ethiopia war ended in 2000. Since then, war deaths had been bouncing along at historically low levels, with some ups and downs. Other than the one-sided clashes of the U.S. coalition with Iraq in 2003 (several weeks) and of Russia with Georgia in 2008 (five days), the world has not had an interstate war since the early months of this century. Maintaining the taboo on interstate war is a prime imperative as the crises in Syria, and elsewhere, threaten to get worse.

There was a similar spike in battle deaths in 2009 when the bloody, brutal end of the Tamil Tigers insurgency in Sri Lanka pushed up the worldwide total. But that spike was smaller than the 2012 one, and lasted only two years before dropping down again. Syria might (or might not) go on for a lot longer than two years.

It is important to understand that the “battle deaths” measure is a partial estimate of total war deaths. Although it includes both military and civilian deaths, only those from violence are counted—be it a gun battle, air strike, or suicide bombing—and only those that occur in the context of a battle, where two sides are attacking each other. So, for example, a government massacre of peaceful protesters would not be included, nor would the many people who disappear and whose bodies show up dumped in the street (or never show up). Disease and starvation among refugees also are not counted, and only verified deaths are included.

The Syria battle-death total for 2012 was about 15,000—clearly just a subtotal of the war’s cost, but a useful subtotal for tracking change through time. That 15,000 was up from 1,000 in 2011, and was almost double the annual battle deaths in Sri Lanka in 2008 and 2009. It was higher, per year, than either Iraq or Afghanistan at their worst (of course, they lasted for years and we have yet to see about Syria). It is possible the Syria number reflects in part a greater effort by several parties to document deaths in the war, compared with other armed conflicts around the world. But in my view this effect does not explain most of the striking rise in deaths.

Other than Syria, 2012 showed few changes from 2011. Battle deaths in Afghanistan remained around 7,000; those in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan each fell between 1,000 and 3,000; and those in Iraq were below 1,000. Other low-level armed conflicts sputtered along in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Burma/Myanmar, D.R. Congo, southern Russia, South Sudan and Pakistan (in decreasing order of battle deaths, all between 300 and 1,200). The world total for 2011 was 23,000, and it increased in 2012 to 38,000.

Fundamentally, we don’t know the answer yet to the big question:  Is the 2012 spike the start of a sustained reversal of the declining war trend, back to the bad old days of the Cold War? Or is the 2012 spike like the 2009 spike but higher and longer-lasting, namely a temporary jump in war that reverts in a few years to a low world battle deaths level (and perhaps future temporary spikes)?

The most worrisome aspect of the Syria war is its potential to spread geographically and potentially spark much larger armed conflicts. Already low-scale but lethal violence has jumped borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Currently, the Syrian government receives weapons and soldiers from Iran and from the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, a client of Iran’s. Meanwhile the Syrian rebels receive weapons from Qatar, a Sunni emirate right across the Gulf from Shi’ite Iran, and the Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria receive volunteers, weapons, and money from various foreign populations, notably Sunni areas of Iraq. If that weren’t bad enough, the old superpowers, America and Russia, are also lined up on opposite sides. One reason for the high battle deaths of the Cold War era was that outside weapons and money on both sides kept proxy wars going for years. This could all too easily happen in Syria.

Because there are so few good options to improve the situation in Syria, media and public attention tend to drift away from the issue. That is a mistake.

Unfortunately, the international community failed, earlier in the conflict, to use the United Nations effectively as the powerful tool that it could be.  Because Americans (public and officials) underestimate the potential of the UN, we do not put enough effort into using that potential. In October 2011, the Syria problem came before the Security Council. I thought the great powers should find what they agree on and pass a resolution to enact it. That would have meant deep compromises to get Russia on board. But it would have brought the Syria problem within the UN where the great powers could exert influence to contain and manage the problem.

Instead, the U.S. administration, in an exception from its generally solid foreign policy record, pushed an anti-Assad resolution that guaranteed a Russian veto. Then we passed a similar resolution in the General Assembly by a huge margin, having absolutely no binding effect but embarrassing Russia when few countries sided with it. The United States thus deftly used the Syria crisis to show how bad Russia is, and demonstrate the moral superiority of America and its allies. U.S. and western officials declared fervently that Assad must go. This may all be true, but it did not help the Syria people one bit. And when China took Russia’s side in the UN, the attempt to isolate Russia more or less failed too.

Now, so many months and so many deaths later, the United States is trying to get on the same page with Russia to work out some kind of solution in Syria.  It is vastly harder now. It still needs to be tried.

One point of my work on the decline of war is that the continuation of the recent trend is not inevitable. There is an ever-present potential for a reversal. What happens in the coming years will depend on the choices that people make. We’ve made some bad ones about Syria. But now the job of making the best of a bad situation is vitally important for the entire world, before Syria’s lethal wildfire intensifies and spreads along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and beyond.


[Data source:   UCDP Battle-Related Deaths Dataset v.5-2013, Uppsala Conflict Data Program,, Uppsala University.]

Resources for Learning International Relations

textbkcov-long-0205971369For 2013-14, as in the past year, I plan to blog only sporadically while posting material useful to students using my textbook International Relations. The most recent is a Portuguese and Spanish glossary translating the book’s key terms (i.e. the major key terms in IR). Thanks to Emile Phaneuf for contributing this resource. Other resource now available on this site are:

Global Challenges in 2030 — Essays by IR scholars Joseph S. Nye Jr., Beth A. Simmons, Shibley Telhami, John Gerard Ruggie, Charli Carpenter, Andrew Moravcsik, Daniel W. Drezner, and Michael W. Doyle. [Navigate forward through posts from the intro page.]

Careers in IR — “How will this class help me land a job?”

My current list of Wars in Progress

And of course past blog posts relating current affairs to IR themes will remain on the site as well.  By the way, I’m always happy to hear from students anywhere in the world who are using the book.  (Contact info.)

The Next War to End

One of the interesting aspects of the decline of armed conflict in recent decades is the geographical shrinkage in the area of the world affected by actual shooting wars in progress. This pattern continues with the most recent war to end, in the Philippines, at the far eastern end of the zone of conflict stretching from west and central Africa to south Asia.

Kachin soldiers Jan 20 2013 AFPThe war likely to end next is Burma [Myanmar]. The government there has taken substantial steps toward democracy after decades of authoritarian military rule (including massacres of protesters more than once). Around Burma’s borders are ethnic groups who carried on armed conflict with the government. All the major groups have now reached cease-fires except one, the Kachin in the north next to China. Their war had been suspended for 17 years under an earlier cease-fire that broke down in 2011. (Note: peacekeepers help maintain cease-fires, but the Kachin conflict had none.) A recent government offensive greatly weakened the Kachin position, and now the sides seem close to reaching a cease-fire, according to a report from last week’s negotiations. The next round of talks are to take place before April 10. Both China and the United States would like Burma’s wars to end comprehensively; China could send refugees home, and would gain economically from Burma’s development, and the United States wants a successful transition to democracy there. In the past month, only “sporadic” clashes have taken place, and if a cease-fire agreement is reached I will take Burma off my list of wars in progress.

I had thought the next war to end would be far west of the arc of conflict, the last real outlier geographically — Colombia. It is the last war in the western hemisphere, the last remnant from a bygone era when most of Latin America was up in flames with leftist armed insurgencies, rightist militias, and great-power meddling. What remains today, in Colombia, is a weak guerrilla force sustained by cocaine revenues and losing its recent battles with the government. Peace talks are underway, and one of these months Colombia might reach a cease-fire. Until then, they fight while they talk.

The East Asian peace has been noted as a key component of the world’s overall pattern of declining violence.  The end of wars in the Philippines and (potentially) Burma would extend that peace southwest, with favorable implications for ending the little war in southern Thailand.  (Then, on to India, where small-scale Maoist insurgencies continue.)

Wars begin with a bang and end with a whimper, at least the media attention paid to them does. Cease-fire agreements that could end longstanding wars in places like the Philippines, Burma, and Colombia may seem like small potatoes compared with the outbreak of a new war. But the shrinkage of the world’s zone of war is a big deal, expanding whole regions of the world where a new norm of not fighting active wars is gaining traction.


The World’s Most Important Wars Today

My recently-updated list of 14 wars in progress worldwide is a mixed bag, so here is a short list of the most important to pay attention to.

aleppo 2012 jameslawlerduggan.com1. Syria. Fighting is going on every day in multiple locations; armed forces face each other along many front lines; heavy weapons such as artillery and air power are in use regularly. This is the most lethal war now in progress, with the latest UN estimates suggesting 70,000 killed in two years. The ongoing rate of deaths is not diminishing. The war has also created the world’s worst current refugee emergency (donate here to help).

Syria also is the most important war strategically in world politics. Like in the old Cold War days, the United States and Russia are backing opposing sides in a war, the rebels and the government, politically and with weapons (the rebels being supplied by Gulf states, not the United States itself). If that weren’t enough, the war is a proxy for the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, with Syria’s government allied with Iran and Hezbollah while the rebels are allied with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

The Syrian war has been stalemated for so long, with neither side able to defeat the other, that the casualty and refugee numbers just churn on month after month. However, in the past few months there has been a shift of momentum toward the rebels. There are no known serious peace negotiations going on. Whether the Assad regime can continue to last, and for how long, are question marks hanging over the war — are the questions of what happens after the government falls (not necessarily the end of fighting).

2.  Afghanistan/Pakistan. The war is a mess, with two governments, lots of armed groups, and abundant outside military forces. Nonetheless it is much less lethal than the Syrian war. In 2012, the Afghan war killed fewer than 5,000 people, two-thirds of them civilians. The war has strategic importance as the international community’s biggest military deployment (NATO and others joining with U.S. troops). With the international force drawing down and largely departing by next year, concerns if the war does not continue to abate include a new rise of Islamist radicalism, and potentially even a threat to Pakistan’ s nuclear weapons.

3.  Congo. A new peace agreement has just been signed for the troubled eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Whether it will take hold or last is anyone’s guess. A few months ago, the Rwanda-backed rebel group M23 went on the offensive and seized the key town of Goma. However, under international pressure they left the town and fighting has been sporadic since then. What distinguishes the Congo war is its length and persistence, along with the extreme poverty of the country, which magnifies war effects through disease, malnutrition, and other indirect effects. Eastern Congo hosts one of the UN’s two largest peacekeeping operations (a troubled mission over the years) and is a major focus of human rights activism.

Note: Congo is not, as NY Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman claims, “the world’s worst war.”  It is just the worst war that he has reported on for years and personally seen how horrible it is. But every war is the world’s worst war if you’re in the middle of its atrocities. By an objective assessment of levels of fighting, deaths, toll on civilians, atrocities, sexual violence, refugee flows, and the like, Syria rather than Congo is currently the world’s worst war.

4.  Somalia and Mali. In each country, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists challenged a recognized government and seized substantial parts of the country’s territory. In each, an internationally sanctioned force including African troops went in and defeated the Islamists, although fighting continues in both. The difference is that turning around the military momentum took about a decade in Somalia and about a month in Mali — the 21st-century French army accounting for the difference. Can these governments be strengthened and their economies developed so that al Qaeda in Africa becomes no more than a nuisance?

5.  Israel/Palestine. Right now, this conflict has one of the lowest levels of lethal violence of the world’s armed conflicts. And even back in November when Israel and Hamas were blasting each other with airstrikes and rocket attacks, the casualty levels were much lower than in the Syria war (and, unlike Syria, did not grind on for months on end). The importance of the Israel/Palestine conflict, however, is its symbolic importance in a region destablized by the Arab Spring revolutions.  It is the world’s longest-running armed conflict at 60+ years.  The current lull in violence should not inspire complacency, as the unstable mix could blow up at any time and even spread to other countries. Only U.S. leadership would seem to offer any hope of resolving the key conflicts between Israel and Palestine, but what U.S. president wants to spend capital on what may be a hopeless cause?

In the big picture, even the war in Syria is relatively small-scale. At the moment, the rate of killing in warfare worldwide remains, as it has for about a decade, historically low. If the world can find its way to a solution in Syria and continue to draw down the war in Afghanistan, and if no new big wars start in the meantime, the world’s low levels of war could drop even lower. It’s another reason, if we needed one, to redouble efforts on the Syria problem.

Wars In Progress – Update

I’ve updated my “wars in progress” list (here) for use in my textbook update (Goldstein/Pevehouse International Relations, 10th edition update for 2013-2014).

There were no major changes in the state of the world’s wars. Syria became more lethal, with some tens of thousands killed last year. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia each saw flareups of fighting that have since abated somewhat. But Afghanistan became somewhat less violent, and Iraq remains far less violent than five years ago.

I added Mali to the list of wars in progress. Although the major French intervention succeeded quickly, there will probably be ongoing fighting for quite a while in the north of Mali.

I removed the Philippines from the list, as no regular fighting is taking place there anymore.  The government is still hunting down a few terrorists in remote places.

Several scary episodes of interstate skirmishing — actual military clashes between regular state armies — have taken place in recent years. These have occurred in India-Pakistan (most recently), Sudan-South Sudan, Cambodia-Thailand, North Korea-South Korea, and Israel-Lebanon, among others. In each case, although several people were killed, the situation did not escalate and some kind of cease-fire was restored. Even in a tense standoff such as Sudan and South Sudan, if there is a generally successful cease-fire and occasional breaches of it do not escalate to open fighting, the war is not “in progress” and not on my list.

In the big picture, the Uppsala world battle-deaths estimates remain at historic-low levels for the 11th year (since 2002, with 2012 being not recorded in the Uppsala data yet but certainly not that different from 2011). The levels of war deaths worldwide in each of the past 11 years are  lower than in any year since the 1950s. (America, however, had its decade of war during the world’s decade of peace, but is now joining the trend.) Will 2013 continue this decade of peace or bring new large-scale wars?

Jobs in Education and Research

Here’s part four or four, for those of you whose New Year’s resolution is to get a job in International Relations… This is the “Careers in IR” section from my textbook (Joshua S. Goldstein and Jon C. Pevehouse, International Relations, 10th ed. 2012-2013 Update).

educ bob krist corbisSUMMARY
Jobs in teaching and research offer freedom to pursue ideas and work with colleagues, but require years of schooling.

People follow various paths to an interest in teaching and researching in the field of international relations. Your own professor or instructor is likely to have a unique story about how he or she became interested in international affairs.

One advantage of an academic and research career, whether at a teaching-oriented institution or a large research university, is intellectual freedom. One can spend a career approaching a variety of topics that are interesting and constantly evolving, that may involve travel abroad for fieldwork, and that may let you network with hundreds of colleagues interested in similar topics.

Most research positions (e.g., in think tanks) are different in two respects. First, these jobs often give more direction to an individual in terms of the research to be performed. Second, there is little or no teaching involved. Still, for those interested in IR research, such jobs can result in a wider dissemination of one’s work to a broader audience that often includes policy makers.

To teach IR at an advanced level or to perform research for think tanks and government agencies usually requires an advanced degree—nearly always a masters degree, often a doctorate (Ph.D.). Masters degree programs often take between one and two years, while a Ph.D. in international relations usually takes a minimum of five years. Often, students take time off between their undergraduate and graduate educations to travel internationally or get work experience to hone their interests. Of course, many students never return to extend their education if they find a job that allows them to achieve their personal and career goals.

Finally, in completing most advanced degrees, a large amount of self-direction is necessary. Coursework is only one part of masters or Ph.D. programs: a thesis is also required. Writing a thesis requires you to work on your own time schedule, balancing other duties (such as work as a teaching or research assistant) that can easily crowd out your own work. Many who complete the coursework for an advanced degree do not finish their thesis or take many years to do so.

Whether one wants to pursue an advanced degree for the purposes of teaching in an academic setting or engaging in applied research, there are important skill sets to develop. First and foremost is critical thinking. Scholars and researchers must consider many alternatives as answers to questions, while being able to evaluate the validity or importance of those alternatives. Second is writing. Before, during, and after producing a thesis, writing is a key skill for academics and researchers. Finally, think about developing a set of applied skills to use as a toolbox while analyzing questions. The contents of this toolbox might include other languages to facilitate fieldwork abroad. It could include statistics and data skills to facilitate quantitative analysis. Or it could include mathematics to use game theoretic models. No matter which tools you emphasize, specialized skills will help you answer research questions, whether as part of the academy or in a private or governmental research organization.


  • The Chronicle of Higher Education (weekly). Online at
  • American Political Science Assoc. Earning a PhD in Political Science. 4th ed. Washington, D.C., 2004.
  • Ernest J. Wilson. Is There Really a Scholar-Practitioner Gap? An Institutional Analysis. PS: Political Science and Politics, January 2007.

Jobs in Nongovernmental Organizations

Part three for those of you whose New Year’s resolution is to get a job in International Relations… I’m posting the “Careers in IR” section from my textbook (Joshua S. Goldstein and Jon C. Pevehouse, International Relations, 10th ed. 2012-2013 Update).  This is the third of four parts:  Government and Diplomacy; International Business; Nongovernmental Organizations; and Education and Research.

afp redcross vladimir valishviliSUMMARY
Jobs in NGOs provide personally rewarding experiences for those willing to work hard for a cause, but pay poorly and are hard to obtain.

Nearly 30,000 NGOs exist, and that number grows daily. Thousands of individuals are interested in working in these organizations. Although all NGOs are different, many perform multiple functions: working in developing countries regarding a variety of issues; public outreach at home and abroad; lobbying governments to change their policies; designing projects to solve problems and attempting to find funding for their implementation.

Working for an NGO has many benefits. Workers often find themselves surrounded by others concerned about the same issues: improving the environment, protecting human rights, advancing economic development, or promoting better health care. The spirit of camaraderie can be exhilarating and rewarding.

While working for an NGO can be extremely rewarding personally, it is rarely rewarding financially. Most NGOs are nonprofit operations that pay workers meagerly for long hours. Moreover, many smaller NGOs engage in a constant fight for funding from governments, think tanks, private foundations, or individuals. The process of fundraising can be quite time consuming.

Despite the large number of NGOs, relatively low pay, and long hours, finding a job with an NGO can be difficult. One key is to be specific. Try to narrow down your interests in terms of substantive areas (e.g., human rights, environment) and/or geographic region. Also think about whether you want to work in your own country or abroad. Positions abroad may be more rewarding but are in lower supply and higher demand.

NGOs are looking for selfstarters. Most have little time and few resources for training.  Basic office skills (e.g., computer expertise) are essential, but employees also need to cover a range of duties every day. Anything and everything is in your job description. Writing and communication skills are key, especially when fundraising is part of the job. Foreign language skills also matter since many NGOs maintain or work with field offices abroad.

Often, NGOs ask potential employees to volunteer for a period while they train, before being hired. Increasingly, some companies place workers in an NGO or volunteer opportunity for a price. By paying to work, you can gain a probationary period to develop your skills and familiarize yourself with the operation so as to become efficient before going on the payroll.

Finally, in cities where NGOs cluster (e.g., Washington, D.C.), personal networks play an important role in finding good opportunities. Workers often move from one organization to another. For this reason, many volunteer or accept jobs with NGOs not in their immediate area of interest to gain experience and contacts, which can help future career advancement.


  • Sherry Mueller. Careers in Nonprofit and Educational Organizations. In Careers in International Affairs. 7th ed. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown School of Foreign Service, 2003.
  • Richard M. King. From Making a Profit to Making a Difference: How to Launch Your New Career in Nonprofits. River Forest, IL: Planning/Communications, 2000.