If you love learning about other cultures, want to travel often, and care about building equitable access to resources and technology for communities around the world, international policy may be a career path you want to consider. A hugely diverse and growing field that encompasses global poverty, conflict, security, social and gender inequality, sustainability, and education, there is no limit to what you can do in international policy, making it a great option for students of any major or skill set.
International policy is a highly competitive field, so making sure that your application stands out in a large candidate pool is essential to getting a job. To do this, it helps to have an area of expertise, or a “niche”. This specialty focus allows you to offer employers a skillset that no one else has, and provide a unique perspective on relevant issues. Though it may seem a bit counterintuitive to intentionally narrow the focus of your work and study in a field that is, by nature, global, think of it in terms of breadth of knowledge versus depth. Breadth of knowledge means you know a little about a lot, while having a deeper understanding of a specific area allows you to draw more precise, well-reasoned conclusions about that subject. It’s much easier to transfer extensive knowledge of one area to another than it is to build expertise from scratch.
Many international policy or international development graduate programs offer the option to work or do research in your region of interest, and can help you develop a professional network in international policy. However, there are many different types of graduate programs in this area, so you need to take your time and do your research to find the program that best suits your long-term career goals. It’s very common in this field to take a gap year (or more) after graduating from UW-Madison before starting a graduate degree. Having post-grad experience will help you develop professional skills, figure out what type of policy work you want to pursue, and make you a stronger candidate once you finish your graduate degree! SuccessWorks can help you figure out what type of entry-level work would suit your needs, and help you start your career in international policy.
There are many different ways you can start building your “niche” as a student. Take advantage of study/intern abroad programs through International Academic Programs and the International Internship Program to practice your language skills and see what it’s like to live, work, and learn in other cultures. The Boren Fellowship in particular is a great opportunity for students interested in critical languages and federal government work to hone their skills and start their career in this area.
You can also gain experience locally, by working or volunteering with other cultures. However, especially if you want to work with disadvantaged or developing populations, it’s important that you’ve had real experience engaging with and learning from people in these communities. There’s only so much you can learn from research, and a genuine understanding and respect of other cultures is essential for effective international policy.
For recent graduates or grad students, programs like Fulbright offer opportunities to teach English abroad or conduct research at a foreign institution. Another fantastic post-grad option is the Peace Corps, where you can spend two years learning from and contributing to a community abroad.
For many students interested in international policy, the dream is to end up working with a big-name intergovernmental organization like the UN, World Bank, or WHO. Though careers with these organizations are very possible, getting there takes a lot of work and, often, time. When you’re competing with candidates from all over the world, having a reference or connection within the organization who can give you application advice and put in a good word for you with a hiring manager can make a huge difference. Start building your network early, and find ways to tailor your knowledge and skills to what is needed within that organization. Find job and internship opportunities on the organization’s webpage, rather than through other search resources. You can also take advantage of programs like the UN Young Professionals Program, that creates inroads into the UN for early-career professionals.