If you’re a senior scholar, providing career advice to younger colleagues should occupy a privileged position in your portfolio. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong, which is precisely what I was doing, until a few years ago.

I was in my early 20s when I was first asked to serve as internship coordinator at a think tank in Washington (in addition to my research assistant duties). I had neither the interest in nor the patience for that role. I had just arrived in the United States, leaving everything behind in Lebanon to get another chance at life. I had nothing useful to share about my embryonic professional experience. If anybody needed survival tips at the workplace — and in Washington, no less! — it was me.

Then as fears of getting fired at a moment’s notice subsided (I truly believed that one day somebody at the office was going to figure out I didn’t belong), I eased into the idea of counseling the interns. I still thought I had little to offer, but at least the exercise was causing me less irritation and trepidation. For most of my adult professional life, I was pretending to offer career counseling to junior staff, putting little thought or effort into it. It wasn’t until a few years ago that this selfish and self-defeating attitude began to dissipate. Maturity interposed, I guess, and made me better appreciate the thought of giving back.

Something else happened that contributed to my change of heart. I was receiving lots of emails and messages on LinkedIn from a wide variety of people asking how they, too, could pursue successful careers in foreign policy. I asked my peers if this was normal, they said yes, but did acknowledge that the frequency of the letters was unusually high.

Why me, I asked myself? I never thought there was anything special about my career. I’ve spent most of it moving from one think tank to another. I know countless peers who did the exact same thing, and even better.

But there was, in fact, a crucial aspect of my career I totally missed, perhaps even deliberately: I had a story. Of course, everybody has a story about where they came from and how they persevered in life to attain their goals. But based on those heartwarming notes I received, my story seems to have resonated with a specific group of people I neither identified nor developed relations with while in the United States: immigrants from the broader Middle East.

All these years, I was so laser-focused on aggressively seeking and capitalizing on every opportunity that I never bothered to pause for a second and recognize that I am not a White American who was born and raised in the United States. I am a Lebanese immigrant who came from incredibly humble beginnings. This, more than any exploit in my career, is what motivated most of these people to write to me. They related to my circumstances, which I had conceitedly and stupidly suppressed just to show my White American friends and colleagues I wasn’t different.

It wasn’t that I worked at internationally respected organizations, served in the U.S. government in a senior capacity, or often met with world leaders. Rather, it was that I did these things, and more, as an immigrant. That’s what my connections saw — Bilal who was born and raised in civil-war Lebanon, who experienced conflict and adversity most of his life, making his community proud.

Fellow immigrants, including childhood friends from Lebanon, taught me to remember and, more importantly, appreciate where I came from and take nothing for granted. Thanks to them, I now look at my career more kindly and gratefully.

You’re probably wondering why the long introduction about myself. It’s because I wanted to explain first what led me to write this article: a firm belief that sharing lessons I learned in my career is a responsibility, not a choice.

The following might resonate a bit more with fellow immigrants, but it’s also for all aspiring foreign policy analysts. But remember, this is still my opinion, based on my unique experience, and some common sense. So what may have worked (or not worked) for me may play out differently with you.

1. Discover what your passion is. I get asked all the time if getting a job should precede going to graduate school or vice versa. My answer is: it doesn’t matter, because most probably you’re going to have to end up doing both. The sequencing is less important. What matters most, and what you should invest a lot of your time doing, is figuring out the simplest yet most challenging truth about yourself: what moves you? What are your real interests? Not which job you want to get or where you want to work. Those are means to an end, and that end only you can define. The saddest (and most expensive) career is one that has no purpose and sense of direction. Take a vacation, go to the woods, to the beach — whatever you consider to be the calmest and happiest place — to engage in deep thinking about what you are most passionate about. Don’t think for one second you have to be the next Dean Acheson or George Kennan. You be you, as we learn from the story of Adri the fish.

2. Set your goals and plans and write them down on a piece of paper. I know it sounds petrifying, but believe me, it helps you focus. Do it like (competent) governments do when they flesh out five-year plans. Don’t worry, most governments, and people, hardly meet their goals in the five-year span, but it’s a great way to monitor, assess, and evaluate your progress. If you think this is a source of stress for you, then drop it. But you do have to think of a systematic way to operationalize your passion. Retired General Jim Jones, who was National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama, used to paraphrase Thomas Edison in meetings by saying, “A strategy without a plan is hallucination.” That’s true, but planning, as German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, Supreme Allied Commander and later U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill all once cautioned, is even more important than the plan itself. This means that no matter what your plan is, you have to be able to adapt because s*** will happen.

3. Specialize within your field. Becoming, and staying, a generalist in foreign policy has its limits (unless this is what you want to do, which is perfectly fine and brings us back to my first piece of advice. Some of the best strategists and program managers are jacks of all trades). If it’s development and capacity building you’re interested in, find an area in that field that you want to dig deeper into because it will help you accomplish your goals (my second piece of advice). It’s not enough to specialize in cyber, for example. What is it about cyber that you wish to investigate? It’s the same with artificial intelligence or unmanned systems, which nowadays are mainstream topics. Once you figure out what that specific domain is — in case you’re curious, mine is security cooperation and, more specifically, defense institution building in the Middle East and elsewhere — you have to develop functional and regional/geographical expertise. It doesn’t matter which comes first, because you have to do both. Learn everything you need to know about arms control or terrorism, for example, then apply that functional knowledge to specific countries and regions of your choice. This is how you start to develop credible expertise.

4. Find yourself a mentor. I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentors. Believe me, nobody approached and offered to help me. I had to identify and actively seek my mentors, and I am positive I have annoyed the heck out of them over all these years. Sometimes you can get lucky because you may have worked with your mentor(s), or you were taught by them at school. If neither situation applies to you, you have to invest time in finding these individuals and then purposefully reaching out to them. Be concise and specific with your correspondence. No need for flattery. Most enjoy receiving such letters (I do), so don’t feel intimidated or embarrassed. What’s the worst that could happen? No response? Big deal! If so, you settle for shadowing them and reading every single thing they write and listening to every single thing they say. And when that moment comes when your mentor becomes your friend and possibly your co-author, it will be glorious. Teaming up, and in some cases even surpassing my mentors, has been the biggest source of pride in my career.

5. Read history books. Not opinions, novels, newspapers, analyses, or reports, but diplomatic and (if you’re into defense and security issues like I am) military history books. Let me share with you some scary statistics just so you don’t become one: in 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation surveyed 41,000 Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Only 27 percent of those under the age of 45 demonstrated a basic knowledge of American history. That’s American history! Now imagine if they were quizzed about world history. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. In that same year, a survey commissioned from Gallup by the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Geographic Society found that adult Americans showed limited knowledge about geography and international affairs. Less than half of the respondents were able to identify Afghanistan as the country that harbored al-Qaeda, and just over half could locate Iraq on a map.

Harvard professor Stephen Walt is right, America’s international relations (IR) schools are broken partly because they don’t teach enough history. But you can contain or limit that structural handicap by reading voraciously. You don’t need to be enrolled in a history class to do that. In the middle of the pandemic, I asked Walt and MIT professor Barry Posen what advice they could give to students. Their answer was “read, read, read.” Added Posen, “It’s good for your head and it gives you a lot of raw material for thinking about both policy [and] theoretical questions.” I couldn’t agree more.

At the risk of stating the obvious, you can’t understand the present if you don’t know the past, and that past isn’t undisputed. As a social scientist, you have an obligation to research, debate, and possibly revisit it so you can unearth better lessons for the future.

6. Learn a foreign language. It doesn’t matter which one, as long as it is relevant to your area of study. Nothing shows commitment and determination to your employer more than acquiring foreign language skills. You’re essentially saying you’re all in. But beyond impressing your employer, it’s good for you, generally speaking. Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. Think about the advantages knowing how to speak and/or read the local language can bring to your research. It’s hard, but know it’s an invaluable investment.

7. Spend some time and, if you can, study abroad. If you’re going to study the Middle East, for example, what better way to do so than by going there and meaningfully interacting with locals and seeing things with your own eyes. If your finances allow, and your parents are flexible (I’m not saying go to a high-risk environment, be smart about the location), consider spending a semester or even doing all your studies abroad. I spent 22 years of my life in the Middle East nonstop, and I still go there at least half a dozen times a year. I also pursued my first post-graduate training at the University of St Andrews to get a taste of British education. That year in the charming and picturesque town of Fife was the best year of my life! And boy did I immerse myself in world history, an education I most likely wouldn’t have gotten in an American IR school. Aside from foreign language skills, the next best asset you can have that will immediately signal seriousness to your employer is time spent in your area of study.

8. Build your network. This was, and in some ways still is, my least favorite thing to do (I hate going to functions, galas, receptions, etc.), but I cannot overstate how important it is, especially in Washington. I can’t tell you how many times I lost to another candidate in a job application process only because they had a better connection or a stronger letter of recommendation. You’ve heard this before, but it doesn’t make it any less true: it’s who you know, not just in my field but in most others.

To be sure, a candidate with poor credentials might get the job you wanted because of their wasta (Arabic for nepotism), but that’s not necessarily the norm in Washington. Furthermore, they may get the job, but they won’t last if their skills are bad. The moral of this story is that your network, no matter how robust, cannot substitute for your skills. Consider it a catalyst or a powerful weapon that you can deploy to tip that balance in your favor in a highly competitive environment. You create that network patiently. There are no shortcuts. Building meaningful relationships takes time and effort. You can be picky about which events you go to (since there are tons happening every day in Washington), but mingling and chatting with potential future employers has to be on your agenda.

9. Market yourself. That’s another thing I wasn’t comfortable doing, and frankly, I didn’t even know how to do. First, you have to have a product, which could be a thoughtful analysis that you wrote and/or published (avoid op-eds at this early stage in your career, unless you’re co-authoring with your senior colleague) or your own personal story. A professional-looking website that includes your resume, biography, and whatever you want to put in there about yourself would be nice, too. There are plenty of website designs and templates on the web nowadays that are easy to use. If you can afford to buy your domain name, even better (although don’t stress too much about it, because it’s not that important).

10. Be specific when asking for advice or help. In the countless conversations I have had with younger colleagues at the office, with my graduate students at Georgetown University, or with strangers online (yes, you’d be shocked how often strangers add me on LinkedIn and start asking me questions about my and their careers), those who had specific questions or requests benefited the most. I understand that not everybody knows exactly what they want to do or how to pursue their goals, but you have to show that you are doing your basic homework. That includes searching and monitoring for vacancies, and actually putting in an application. If you are pursuing an internship, and you’re looking for a research assistant position or entry-level job, turn your desk or cubicle at the office into an operations center. From day one, start planning for your next step. I love this line from U.S. diplomat Christel Oomen on LinkedIn: “Don’t approach an internship or volunteer job as some kind of fun intermezzo from your studies.” Amen! Asking me to help you find a job in your field is not smart. I will be a lot more tempted to assist you if you ask me to bring you into contact with specific people at organizations you have already researched.


Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.

Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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