By Professor Anne Hamilton
"What kinds of jobs can I get with an International Studies major?" This is a question I hear often, sometimes three or four times a day. The good news is that there are many types of jobs for which International Studies students are qualified. The bad news is that there are so many career paths from which to choose that the process can appear overwhelming.
To give you a sense of the choices involved, I consulted the 2008 edition of Georgetown University Press’s Careers in International Affairs. It has chapters covering careers with the US government, international organizations, businesses, businessrelated organizations, consulting firms, international development and relief organizations, nonprofits, and educational organizations. It also includes a chapter on graduate school options. Co-editor Maria Punto Carland assures us, "As a new international affairs professional, you are in demand!"
What makes an international studies degree marketable?
International Studies students have demonstrated competence in 4-5 disciplines, including a foreign language, and have studied abroad.
Carland: "Agencies, corporations, nonprofit groups and international organizations around the world now expect the new hire to have not only cross-cultural experience but also cross-disciplinary skills. … Cross-cultural competence is the critical new human resource requirement created by the global environment."
International Studies students usually have good communication skills, and are interested in becoming better communicators.
Carland: "The ability to communicate is the essence of international relations. It is the capacity to resolve communication difficulties among specialists that distinguishes the international policymaker."
International Studies students are risk takers: they are open to new ideas, new people, new environments.
Carland: "Studies reveal that employers place the highest value on skills not usually associated with specific training: generic cognitive skills and social skills. These include: poise, humor, imagination, compassion, intellectual curiosity, judgment, and openness to new ideas."
The various emphases in the major include courses that suggest different career paths. A major who chooses a business emphasis is likely planning to go into business, whereas one who chooses a public diplomacy emphasis could be most interested in a public relations-type job. In fact, the individual who chooses a public diplomacy emphasis may pursue a career in business or diplomacy. Employers in many sectors place a premium on foreign language training, especially in the more difficult languages. An emphasis in foreign language and area studies, leading to fluency in Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish, could land an IS student a job in business— over a business undergraduate without language skills.
It is important to understand that the choice of an emphasis does not close any doors. Few graduates follow a linear career path; the norm is to hold several types of jobs over a number of years, often in different sectors. My own career is illustrative. My first job after college was an administrative position in the UN Secretariat, on the staff of the Special Committee on Decolonization—a job I got because of my language skills. While at graduate school in International Affairs at Columbia University, I worked as a copy editor. After receiving my Masters, I worked in the following positions: trade analyst at the US Department of Commerce, US Foreign Service Officer (with assignments in Buenos Aires and at the State Department), development director at a non-profit literacy center in Milwaukee, and assistant director and outreach coordinator of a federally funded center on Russia, East Europe and Central Asia at UW-Madison, where I earned my Ph.D.
I enjoy brainstorming with IS students about career options. You are welcome to borrow the Georgetown University Press book mentioned above, as well as Working World: Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development by Sherry L. Mueller and Mark Overmann. I have copies in my office.