Run Down of Hard Skills for International Relations

Being equipped with the right set of hard skills can make the difference between getting your foot in the door or staying locked out of the job market. Practitioners in international relations are often expected to have a list of prerequisite qualifications to enter the field. This includes knowledge of foreign languages, project management skills, and academic training.

Since hard skills are teachable, it is in your best interest to develop a range of skills that interest you. Such skills are highly transferable across all levels and functions, giving you the flexibility to be mobile as your career develops and transforms with you.

In the Diplomatic Planner, I have provided you with a select list of hard skills broken up into categories relevant to international relations. To help you identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie, you can simply check off skills that you are comfortable using versus skills that you have little experience or knowledge of.

Like many jobs, it isn’t necessary for you to know everything about everything. Pick and choose where your strengths should lie and make it your goal to push your proficiency level up to ‘expert’ mode so that you excel in this area.

The Diplomatic Planner provides you with a list of prerequisite qualifications that many jobs in international relations tend to look for in their candidates. It is up to you to decide on what your top two strongest and weakest hard skills are but you will need to provide evidence of your experience.

For jobs in international relations, the top prerequisite skills are as follows:

  • Academic qualifications

  • Language skills

  • IT skills

  • Administrative and office management skills

  • Writing and research skills

  • Project management skills

  • Critical thinking skills

  • Planning skills

  • Cognitive flexibility skills

Academic qualifications

It is rare to find a job where formal educational qualification is not required. For many jobs, a Master’s degree is a minimum requirement but this depends on the type of institution you apply to. Unfortunately, just having a degree isn’t enough to get your foot through the door. In fact, having a degree is a simple checkbox for employer’s and helps them to shortlist those without any qualifications. Also, think carefully before you dive into a PhD degree. If you believe your future career depends on it, go for it. A PhD degree is useful if you want to specialise in a highly niche subject that almost no-one is talking and will give you credibility in your field. However, if you want to join an established organisation or programme, a PhD may be excessive.

In addition to formal academic qualifications, I highly recommend that you consider taking short courses and personal development training. Employers are always interested in candidates who want to better themselves and showing proof that you are capable of learning new things means the possibility of giving your more responsibility in your role.

Language skills

A working knowledge of various languages is highly desirable in international relations. The safest languages to pick up are official and working languages used at the United Nations. This includes English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish. However, the more bespoke your list of languages become, the greater the chances of you working in countries where those languages are spoken. Don’t be afraid of showing off languages that are even tribal and community-specific. Knowing several dialects of one language is a sought-after skill that is difficult to pick up at a formal level. If you know how to speak five dialectical groups of Chinese, be ready to show these off.

Sometimes, just knowing how to speak the language isn’t enough. For multilateral institutions like the European Union and the United Nations, it is likely that you may need to sit a language proficiency exam if your job requires a certain language. Be very clear on what proficiency level you are at for speaking, reading and writing. If you can only read and understand the language, be clear to note this down. Also be very clear if you are willing to translate and interpret, as these skills are highly specialised and require training. You must also be mindful of cultural differences reflected in the source language. Picking out the tone of voice and reading between the lines is also important elements of knowing, understanding and learning languages.

IT skills

For millennials, forgetting to add IT skills on one’s resume is an easy, yet painful mistake. Don’t simply assume that everyone knows that you can type. Take a typing test to investigate what your typing speed and accuracy is, and make a note of it. Also, consider how you use the internet and social media. Can you utilise these technologies for purposes of work and do so in line with operational governance and strict IT policies? What software are you proficient in? How well can you use spreadsheets and databases from scratch? How good are you at troubleshooting IT and conduct routine maintenance? Do you have any knowledge of scripting, coding or programming? Imagine if you are the only desk officer proficient at making a computer run---your skills will be gold!

Administrative and Office Management skills

Administration and office management skills are vitally important when you are in an office-based environment. The majority of international relations and diplomatic posts are based in offices where you work behind a desk, which means heavy use of emails, spreadsheets and databases. If you ever fall into a managerial position, you will need to know how to manage staff and keep their morale up, as well as manage budgets efficiently and follow through on governance matters. The typical task of a diplomat consists of office management, from arranging travel to set up meetings. Do not underestimate the importance of office management skills. They will serve you well.

Writing and Research skills

For many graduates, having good research and writing skills will be high up your list of things you can do well. However, it is important that you keep these skills sharp well after your graduation. Sometimes, research conditions aren’t perfect. You may have limited books and papers to refer to and may need to conduct primary research in difficult areas. Understanding problems about culture and society will be important in the context of international relations, being mindful not to put your own opinion or spin to your work. You will need to know how to analyse data and evaluate evidence that is not tarnished by personal opinion, as well as coordinate and executive policy-related research. It all depends on who you work with and what information they seek.

Project Management skills

Project management is very useful and sought after skill for international relations. Knowing how to plan, organise and evaluate a project means putting you on the fast track to manager-level positions. This means being adept at following schedules and tight deadlines, keeping to the budget and leading a team. It may be worthwhile taking courses on how to project manage so that you have additional professional certificates if you lack work experience. At any rate, project management is a fairly easy skill to learn if you treat everything like a project. Set goals, have a budget in place, create a timeline, and execute the plan.

Negotiation skills

You may not be aware but we negotiate often in our daily life. It may not be as severe as negotiating a hostage situation but convincing your husband to take the trash out is still a form of negotiation. This skill requires having an understanding of the positions of all parties and finding the most mutually beneficial solution. It is all about figuring out the power dynamics and knowing how much power will affect the final results. Can you argue your out of a parking ticket? Have you ever won an argument? Can you convince someone to do something for you even if they don’t want to? These are all useful skills that require practice and attention to detail.

Critical Thinking skills

Having critical thinking skills is fundamental in international relations because such a skill allows you to form judgement objectively about subjects that are complex in nature. You will need to come to well-reasoned conclusions and provide solutions against relevant standards and criteria. You will also need to think with an open mind, recognising and assessing your assumptions with practical consequences. High-level critical thinking also involves having the ability to communicate your thoughts and ideas effectively with others, particularly in helping them to come up with solutions to complex problems without being influenced. This in itself takes a lot of skill and it is something that you can learn.

Quantitative skills

The work of diplomacy isn’t just using words artfully. Many times, quantitative analysis provides decision-makers new perspectives to information we already had or assumed. Anyone responsible for budgets, large or small, will need to have a firm grasp on analysing data and producing reports. At the end of the day, anyone responsible for managing a project, team or programme will be accountable and will be required to produce reports cost analysis and end results.

Planning skills

Planning is similar to project management, except the skill to plan requires one to think logically about each of their steps. Being able to plan effectively means having the ability to think of the bigger picture and knowing exactly how to get there. This means being able to conceptualise and also implement projects, making decisions and organising people who can get the job done. Similar to project management, you will also need to know how to prepare scheduled deadlines and meetings so that there is a democratic process on how things are done as well as scope for making changes and improvements. Planning is all about establishing how to measure results and milestones. If you know how to celebrate small wins and can break a large task down into smaller pieces, you have pretty good planning skills.

Cognitive Flexibility skills

Cognitive thinking is defined as having the ability to switch from one concept to another without leaving you confused. This means being able to restructure your thoughts in certain frameworks and thinking outside of the box. This skill is particularly useful in international relations, particularly when you are dealing with various stakeholders with conflict of interests, each who are as important as the other, and all requiring a mutual solution—particularly handy when it comes to negotiations or planning projects. Having cognitive flexibility skills means being familiar with practical means of the moral course of action and knowing how to achieve actions in specific situations. The skill isn’t as hard as it may sound to pick up and learn. If you are a student, attending Model UN simulations can help you practice how to be objective yet loyal to your cause. You can also attend town hall meetings with local constituents to gain experience on how to manage conflicts of interests. Try watching political debates or watch any academic debate, being mindful of how you think when others argue.

So, which set of hard skills do you want to acquire and how do you plan to acquire them? Use the SWOT analysis grid to identify your strongest and weakest links, and consider which of these skills will benefit you most in your desired job.  

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