6 Tips to Launch Your Career in National Security
Updated: Jan 11
By Isabella Parrotta
So you want to pursue a career in national security…
But what exactly does that mean? When people hear the term “national security,” images of military contracts, intelligence gathering operations, law enforcement initiatives, or cybersecurity trends usually come to mind. And while professionals in the national security field certainly do specialize in these areas, the field as a whole is actually much more diverse than its title initially suggests. The field of national security encompasses a wide range of careers and specializations, including those in the realm of “soft power” initiatives and programs, like public diplomacy and international exchange.
Based on my own experience as a young professional, here are some things you can do now to prepare for a career in national security!
Expand your understanding of careers in national security
Public diplomacy is the means by which states, and increasingly non-state actors, work to communicate national interests and policy goals to foreign audiences through the lens of intercultural engagement. In essence, public diplomacy initiatives aim to help states and foreign audiences better understand one another and their varying perspectives from a distinctly socio-cultural standpoint. This can include things like person-to-person professional exchanges and study abroad programs to grant funding for arts collaborations and museum partnerships. The goal is to facilitate mutual understanding of different perspectives through meaningful interaction and the exchange of ideas and experiences.
Public diplomacy therefore bolsters national security through promoting the ability of people to empathize rather than fight, to collaborate rather than divide, and build structures of mutual interest — bridges and paths, not walls and fortresses.
I currently work at the Mississippi Consortium for International Development’s Washington, D.C. office, or MCID Washington, as a program coordinator. We are an NGO that implements a U.S. Department of State public diplomacy program called the International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP. This program provides emerging leaders in foreign countries the opportunity to visit the United States and meet with their American counterparts on programs tailored to their specific career interests. MCID Washington, along with seven other DC-based national programming agencies and numerous community based missions, organize and implement the IVLP for thousands of international visitors each year. These visitors return to their respective home countries with larger professional networks and expanded cultural understandings of the United States and its peoples.
The IVLP is not just for international visitors though — as per the definition of “exchange,” it’s a two-way street. Americans who meet with the international visitors also benefit from increased cultural awareness, network building, and the opportunity to exchange best practices.
Educate yourself through networking and newsletters
While public diplomacy can be a niche field, you can educate yourself about it as much as possible by researching online, talking to a current professional, completing an internship in the field, and finding networking events sponsored or hosted by players in the public diplomacy realm. Registering to receive newsletters and updates from these organizations is also helpful since they will teach you the necessary vernacular and notify you of internship, job, and networking opportunities. I recommend following the GlobalTies U.S. newsletter. Other newsletters that will help you gain news and insights in the field include The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Daily News Brief, the Brookings Brief, and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)'s Evening Newsletter. It’s important to remember that public diplomacy is an expansive field, not a limiting one. Careers in public diplomacy and exchange run the gamut from government-funded initiatives to university-run study abroad programs and private international experience organizations. In other words, don’t get tunnel vision while doing your research.
I myself didn’t know much about the exchange field until I found an internship that gave me the inside opportunity to learn the structure of the IVLP and connect with current professionals in the field. This brings me to another important point — the importance of talking to working professionals. Don’t be afraid to ask people you meet for informational interviews and chats, either via email, Zoom, or LinkedIn. The only reason I found out my current organization was hiring is because I struck a conversation with someone at the organization during a networking conference and mentioned I was looking for full-time opportunities. That conversation served as an informal interview and helped me stand out when I applied for the position, putting a face to my resume. In my experience, people are genuinely interested in mentoring others and helping them learn more about their chosen professions. This is particularly true in the field of public diplomacy where the job necessitates people-oriented professionals who are keen to connect.
Focus on your academics
In my experience, people either think internship experience is everything while in college, or think academic excellence is everything in college. I’m here to say they are both equally important, so don’t feel pressured to slack in school for the thrill of listing an internship every semester on your resume. You are paying a lot of money to attend a university with expert faculty and resources, so you might as well leverage that opportunity to the max by investing in your classes, going to office hours, or participating in university-sponsored career programs. A job-shadow day I participated in thanks to my university’s career office helped me make a connection I used while applying for a position at that organization a year later.
In the public diplomacy field, I have found that the writing, research, and time management skills I developed through schoolwork were essential to the functioning of my job. In an equally important, although more subtle way, my liberal arts education provided a broad understanding of the world that has proven crucial to facilitating conversations and connections between peoples from different backgrounds. I have also found “hard skillsets” from my business marketing or public relations courses to be useful since public diplomacy requires that you present your experiences and point of view clearly to various audiences. Long story short, stay in school kids!
Invest in acquiring language skills
Language skills are also particularly important in this field since you often encounter people whose first language is not English. When it comes to language skills and professional development more broadly, languages are a great way to stand out in a pile of resumes, or even serve as an “in” for a conversation with someone. Once, I finessed my way into a job interview while volunteering at an event by starting a conversation in Italian with someone I overheard speaking the language. It was a great way to start a professional conversation while also highlighting some of my language abilities. I also feel that learning another means of communication expands your worldview, which will impact how you hold yourself and interact with others.
Seek out internships and experience, but don’t spread yourself too thin
I will always support students who prioritize their academic work, since I feel I benefitted greatly from focusing more time on school than on internships. It’s a fine line between having a gritty work ethic and burning out from overextending yourself. I don’t recommend graduating with zero work experience, but I want to temper the pressure put on students to always have a full-time internship plus a full-time job plus a full-time course load.
I only had one full-time internship as a college student, which I completed during the summer, instead opting to focus on academic and volunteer opportunities at my university and in the D.C. area more generally. In my opinion, this allowed me to expand and diversify my professional network in a variety of fields since volunteer opportunities generally don’t require as much time per week as internships. What I mean to say is that it’s quality over quantity when it comes to internship and work experience. Just because someone had 12 internships over four years does not mean they will automatically get a job or be more qualified for a position than you.
I may have only had one internship, but the strong professional connections I made and kept up with after my internship experience was over meant that I didn’t need to give up time on academics. It certainly helps that I had fantastic mentors willing to maintain that professional relationship, but I also made the effort to reach out to them. With that foundational network, I was able to draw on the support of mentors who helped me learn more about jobs in the field and other opportunities both during and after college.
This brings me to another important point — your retail or service industry job experience matters. The fact is, most students need to work for money and can’t afford to be a full-time, unpaid intern, even if it’s a great opportunity. It’s important to remember that there are opportunities for professional development everywhere, including at minimum-wage jobs. My experience as a sales associate at a clothing store taught me so much in terms of self-marketing and how to effectively communicate with a broad spectrum of people and their diverse needs, and they are skills I still use today. So, don’t feel like you are unprepared for a career after college just because you worked to feed and house yourself as a student.
Take advantage of volunteer opportunities
As I have already mentioned, volunteer opportunities are also great ways to build skillsets, work experience, and a professional network, all while giving back to your community. Even more, they tend to be more adaptable to your schedule since they rely on your free labor and don’t usually require large amounts of set hours. This means you can experience working in a lot of different fields without having to commit to a longer, standard office internship.
While in college, I volunteered as an international orientation leader for my university and served as a peer tutor through a local childhood literacy organization in D.C. I learned a lot about teaching, which I wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to do, and, more importantly, about the community in which I attended school. Volunteering is a great way to get outside of your comfort zone and experience a new side of your city and all that it has to offer.
You also never know if volunteering will lead to more responsibilities and an internship or job opportunity. It’s another great way to get your foot in the door.
Make sure to rely on your peers
So often, searching for a job is framed as a competition against your peers, especially during these hard economic times. To a certain degree, it is a competition. Multiple people are applying to jobs, and recruiters must decide who is best qualified for a certain position. However, it is equally important to view your peers as collaborators in your professional development, and to serve as professional resources for each other.
During my first internship, a fellow intern and I developed a friendship and stayed in contact even after the end of the program. We were both interested in pursuing careers in international exchange, and when she got a job at an NGO in the field, she was able to provide me firsthand insight into what it was like to work there and notify me of any opportunities. In turn, I was able to provide her with some insights into certain scholarship and grant programs in which I was involved. That supportive professional connection with my former colleague certainly helped me be better informed when I interviewed with that very NGO for an internship position I got later that year.
Young professionals are the future, so think of it as building your professional network early!
Isabella Parrotta is a program coordinator at MCID Washington and a 2019 graduate from American University in Washington, D.C. Isabella obtained her Bachelor’s degree in international studies, with minors in history and international business. To connect with Isabella, send her a message on LinkedIn!
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