You are currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics (LSE). What does that entail?
I am a PhD candidate in International Relations, affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Human Rights. I am working on a dissertation that looks at the politics of international law and diplomacy in the Middle East. In particular, I am looking at international human rights treaty ratification in Middle Eastern signatory states (examining when and why Middle East states have ratified various UN human rights treaties and the compliance issues that have followed).
What is a “typical day” like?
I balance my time between teaching, conferences and research seminars. For my dissertation, I conduct archival work and interview research with various Middle Eastern diplomats and UN representatives. To do so, I consult regularly with my supervisor and also serve as her primary research assistant. I also teach a course to second-year LSE undergraduates on International Organisations, where we cover a range of policy and history topics from the UN to the WTO to ASEAN. I also work on part-time policy consultancy projects: at the moment with Transparency International UK, a governance and corruption-monitoring index.
As an undergraduate, I always thought I'd go on to law school to pursue a JD afterwards, however, after a little time working I realised I had a strong interest in international affairs. It felt daunting: the path to a career in diplomacy and international affairs appears much less straightforward than one in law. I considered the diverse backgrounds of some of the people I looked up to in foreign affairs policy and journalism, and have enjoyed taking a multifaceted approach to working towards my career goals. I decided to gain a bit more specific training during my MA, focusing intensively on Arabic language and studies of the Middle East, to help gain some intensive regional expertise before broadening my work during my PhD studies.
What are you planning to do after your PhD?
After completing my PhD I am open to a range of career paths. The exciting thing about pursuing a PhD in international affairs is that the training can be put to use in various fields: in areas of practice (such as diplomacy or development work), in research (in public or private sector), in writing (such as in foreign affairs journalism) or in academia. I am open to the possibilities!
In addition to pursuing a PhD, you have been holding various summer positions. How did you choose them and what have they brought to your academic career?
I have continued to seek out positions in writing and research to try to build a diverse portfolio whenever I can: the great thing about international affairs is how widely policy areas intersect, and I've enjoyed gaining work experience whenever I can across sectors.
Let’s talk about those experiences a bit. You worked on the Breaking News desk at Policymic. What did you do there, why did you choose this particular news outlet and what did you learn?
Journalism is undergoing so many changes today, and it is a particularly exciting time for international affairs reporting. On the one hand, it is hard to find reliable information with so many sources competing to break news. On the other hand it is an exciting time to see news organisations diversify and young people becoming more and more engaged in world affairs. At Policymic (mic.com) I enjoyed working for an organisation in a start-up atmosphere approaching news in innovative ways. The great part of the new media landscape today is how increasingly engaged young people seem in world affairs as they interact with current affairs issues with their friends on Facebook and Twitter, and it was exciting to help bring world news to young audiences during my time reporting for them.
You’ve also worked at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). What did you do there?
Spending time at CFR in their New York office was a fantastic learning experience. It has become an established arena in which policy debates are hashed out daily with incredible impact, bringing together policymakers, academics, and activists to debate major policy dilemmas. I worked for the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy initiative as well as for the Women and Foreign Policy program, where I helped run meetings, research material for and help issue reports for these centres.
What was interning for USAID like?
At USAID, I worked for the Advisory Committee. During my time there, I was able to see how US government agencies function. USAID holds only a tiny percentage of overall US government funding and faces lots of criticisms related to impact. However, during my time there I learned the agency really tries to focus on optimising its impact, and working for the advisory committee allowed me to see how an agency can work to try to improve its effectiveness by soliciting expertise from private sector businesses and other actors outside of government.
What would you recommend to a woman who would like to follow a similar career path?
Women are underrepresented in world politics: they run far fewer countries than men and, while women are an overwhelming majority of NGO staffers, they run just 12% of NGOs in the US. Still, women's issues are at the fore of so many areas of foreign policy: particularly concerning issues of poverty and development. I've really appreciated the help of female mentors - working for female bosses at CFR and USAID in particular on issues related to global women's rights was inspiring, however, it also helped show me how bringing more womens perspectives to the policymaking table enhance discourse more generally. Women can offer so much to the work of politics, diplomacy and international affairs and I hope more girls can become involved during this and next generation to help change some of these low figures.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your career so far?
The most rewarding aspects of my work so far has been connecting with people who are impacted by my research and writing as well as teaching. At the same time, working in the industry can be a frustrating – a lot of problems in international affairs are repeated and misunderstood, and the deep sense of inertia that exists in policymaking can feel daunting.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
One of the most valuable and yet most difficult skills I've always admired in effective policymakers ability to be adaptive and open-minded. Both academia and politics often force you to take a position and stake a claim, but I've always most admired those who can thoughtfully engage with topics and admit if positions change. This can be hard in academia, particularly in the process of finding a framework to research and write a policy-related dissertation, but I think always being open to challenging your own viewpoints will make your work far more impactful in the long run.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
It can be very challenging to pursue a career in international affairs because there does not seem to be one set 'track' to guide a career. The best thing for me to do has been to look up to those who I admire in the field: former policymakers, diplomats and journalists and to see how varied their career paths have been to get them to where they are. The entrepreneurial nature of their careers is exciting to me.
How did you become interested in foreign policy?
Both of my grandfathers fought in WWII and their experiences have had a huge impact on me. My grandfathers both came from American immigrant families, and both suffered through horrific wartime experiences as young men. Despite coming from different religious and ethnic backgrounds – one from an Arab Christian background and the other from a European Jewish background – both have taught me similar, powerful lessons about kindness and understanding. The problem in international affairs is that, despite attempts over 50 years ago at the United Nations to 'save future generations from the scourge of war,' violent conflict continues to press on. Learning about this history helps motivate me to question what else can be done to promote understanding and prevent conflict more effectively, and inspires me to want to work in foreign policy.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
Despite the fact that there are far fewer women in foreign policy then men, it is easy to find women to admire. I admire the careers of women behind U.S. foreign policymaking from across the aisle: from Condoleezza Rice, to Anne Marie Slaughter, to Samantha Power. Others I admire from journalism and academia include Emilie Hafner Burton, Beth Simmons and Robin Wright. The real heroes are, of course, those women active in politics in world regions in where it is most difficult: from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia to Noor Zia Atman in Afghanistan to Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan.
Rachel A. George | Policy Consultant and PhD Candidate in International Relations | London School of Economics
Seven years' experience
CV in brief:
Find her online
Presenting paper "The Limits of International Human Rights Law" at Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge Massachusetts, May 2013
Appearance on Arise America, September 2013
In Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, September 2014
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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