war on the rocks

Entry 51: Create Your Own Reality

February 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 51st installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

Today was busy, hectic, but I still wrote around 700 words over two and half hours.

For a huge chunk of my day, I chatted with a student who was in my Intro to Security Studies course last year. He stopped by to pick my brain about career stuff. The way he tells it, my course inspired him to shift majors from law to international relations (Victoria University doesn’t yet offer a security/strategic studies undergrad degree, so IR is as close as you get).

Very cool, but also heavy. Everybody knows what you do with a law degree. But now that I’ve apparently got him hooked on a different way of thinking about life, he quite reasonably wanted to know what you do with knowledge of IR.

Coincidentally, this question has been on the minds of other scholars better than me, as recently as this week. My honest advice, which just sort of came out extemporaneously, was based entirely on my own experience and what I’ve seen some of my friends do. It’s all I can offer. It went more or less like this (but more longwinded than what’s below).

First, if you want to make a life for yourself in the larger field of international affairs (or whatever synonym you want to use), you have to realize there’s no guarantees, and being smart and knowledgeable is rarely sufficient to get you anything.

Second, bearing that in mind, the more you’re willing to maintain optionality early in your career, the greater your chances that something will work out. By my count, there are five or six discrete “career tracks” in the international affairs “industry,” but each offers its own set of distinct costs, risks, and rewards.

Put aside the academic career track for a moment, which is its own discussion. Are you willing to serve in the military, or do what’s necessary to keep a security clearance? The military’s not for everybody, and neither is spook work, but if your answer to those two questions are no and no, then your options for work in this industry just got a lot narrower.

Are you a good writer (be honest) with something interesting to say, or are you willing to put in the work to become one? Can you write habitually under tight deadlines for marginal pay? Again, if the answer is no, then you probably won’t be making a name for yourself in new media or journalism.

Are you willing/able to work for free for a long time? If not, then the political campaign track probably isn’t for you, and neither is entry level think tank work.

Are you willing to develop actual analytical skills? Not critical thinking but tools of analysis—statistical and network mapping software, wargaming and net assessment basics, design thinking, political risks assessments, program management, etc. Often these skills are absent from IR and strategic studies programs, so you have to pick them up separately. And quant skills are valuable but they’re not the only form of technical analysis, so if you suck at math there’s hope yet. But a young person with technical chops and an Economist subscription will always have more opportunities than a young person with just the subscription.

The point is that if you’re open to just about anything as long as it deals with the world outside your own borders, your odds of finding the beginnings of a career go up a lot. If, by contrast, you’re dead set on being, say, a foreign service officer on the econ track, then you need to be prepared for disappointment because you’re playing very long odds.

Third, you have to network your ass off, and ideally be located where the greatest concentration of relevant jobs are (Washington or another national capital—we’re doing quite well in Wellington, ahem). This will mostly be fruitless and time-consuming, and it’ll force you to become more fast-brained whether you like it or not. It’ll often take the form of being volunteer labor for this or that. But connections have latent value. It is a small world after all. And knowing people (and being thought well of by people) matters more than being smart or competent. Until a master database sorts us all into our predestined careers in the Matrix, this is just how it works. International affairs is a people oriented industry.

Fourth, the first three bits of advice are all about stacking the deck of life in your favor. You’re giving yourself the best chance of a career by doing everything that’s in your control to do. But there’s a chance none of that works out. Sometimes the pipeline into government closes off, the political candidate you volunteer for turns out to be a loser, and the think tank where you’ve made coffee for everyone for two years simply has no career ladder for junior folks. What then?

You may have to go beyond just stacking the deck in your favor and try to create your own reality. Some people might call it entrepreneurialism, or faking it ‘til you start making it. I call it hustling. You gotta know that you’re playing a game where supply of bright young minds vastly exceeds demand for them. Every job opening has 200 applications. What makes you special?

Position yourself so that you can answer that question. Do what everyone else does to be an honors graduate from Georgetown’s Master’s program, but differentiate yourself too. My five years in the Pentagon opened up all the opportunities that came after, but the only reason I got that initial Pentagon job was because I had launched my own (short-lived and by most measures unsuccessful) version of what War on the Rocks is today, but focused on Asia (called Asia Chronicle). Circa 2008, it brought me an introduction to people who were just entering the Obama administration, and showed them that I could do something interesting and different that people liked. That plus having a security clearance and a military (enlisted) intel background was enough to get an interview when the right opportunity came along.

Obviously, everyone can’t launch a foreign policy website, but there’s a principle of entrepreneurialism there. I was marrying new media with my passion for IR to do something that was (at the time) different. So hybridize knowledge about the world with something different—strategic consulting, or film-making, or finance. Whatever.

The precise formula will necessarily be different for everyone, but the idea is to do what everyone else does—get the degree and the pedigree—but try to develop other skills that you can combine with IR knowledge. Especially in creative industry. That’s where the real opportunity is. I have several friends with boutique consulting firms in their names, and all of them are foreign policy specialists by trade. They don’t always deal in the high politics of national security because you gotta make a living somehow and defense contracts aren’t easy to come by, but they’re combining analytical skill sets—including IR knowledge—with entrepreneurialism to address problems that others are willing to pay to have resolved. It’s a real thing. People do it. And they’re mostly just creating their own reality.

So if you really do have a passion for IR, the world is your oyster. But you gotta hustle, keep your options open, network, bide your time, and understand that nothing is guaranteed. The international affairs industry has no firm boundaries, so whether or not you’re “in” at any given moment depends partly on your mindset.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.