How to Get a Job in the Middle East (in Washington, D.C.)

Four tips for aspiring wonks.

Nearly 13 years after 9/11 and despite the talk of a "pivot" to Asia, the Middle East continues to attract the attention of American college students. In the 2011-2012 academic year, for example, roughly 7,000 American students studied in the Middle East, and many thousands more took courses on the region's history, cultures, religions, politics, and languages. But those hoping to translate this interest into a career face an unfortunate reality upon graduation: There is simply too much talent for too few paying jobs.

I speak from personal experience. I attended my first college class on Sept. 12, 2001, and spent the next four years studying Arabic and Hebrew; taking coursework on Islam and Middle Eastern politics; spending summers in Israel and Lebanon; and writing a senior thesis on Israeli elections law, for which I conducted research in the Knesset. Yet when the time came to apply for jobs, I was rejected left and right -- including, at first, by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's research assistant program. I eventually got lucky: The Washington Institute ultimately needed an additional research assistant, and pulled my application from the trash heap -- literally, I'm told. 

Nine years later, I am now responsible for hiring research assistants and interns at the Washington Institute, and I must confess: I completely understand why the Washington Institute initially passed on me. Every year, we receive hundreds of resumes from a pool of highly qualified applicants, and we can offer only seven paying positions. Our acceptance rate is under 3 percent.

So what does it take to make the cut? I should emphasize from the outset that there are no hard-and-fast rules: As policy priorities change, what we look for in prospective candidates shifts as well. But with two seasons of hiring now behind me, here are four pointers for college students seeking entry-level positions at Middle East-focused think tanks.

1. Spend at least a semester in the region -- and, if you can, write about it.

For many decades, the relative stability of Middle Eastern regimes meant that U.S. policy towards the region emphasized high politics. Policymakers had to be intimately familiar with Middle Eastern leaders' views on negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- but less so about what Middle Eastern citizens themselves thought about the politics of their region. That's all changing: Non-state actors' emergence as pivotal players, as well as the increasing relevance of public opinion in shaping the politics of the region, means that the next generation of Middle East policy professionals will have to intimately understand the region, its peoples, and its cultures. 

The process of learning the region firsthand should start while you are in college, and you should anticipate continuing your engagement with the region throughout your career. For this reason, the strongest applicants for entry-level think tank positions will have already completed one or two study or work experiences in the Middle East. The most impressive applicants will have made an effort to understand a given country beyond the specific program in which they were enrolled, and those applicants who stray from well-traveled paths within the region -- studying in Haifa, rather than Jerusalem, for example -- always stand out.

To be sure, spending substantial time in the region does not on its own guarantee that potential employers will beat a path to your door. But it does signal two things to application readers. First, you are intellectually curious -- you are not satisfied by only reading about the Middle East in books and newspapers, but want to see it and live it, despite the occasional security and health risks. Second, the fact that you've committed time to living in the Middle East signals that you are looking to continue working in this field beyond the entry-level position. Nobody wants to hire the recent college grad who is just looking to "try out" Middle East policy -- we want people who are committed to it, and spending meaningful time in the region demonstrates that commitment profoundly.

Finally, the best way to show what you've learned from your time in the Middle East is to write about it. Whether your work appears in your school newspaper or more mainstream outlets is immaterial. What matters is how your observations from the ground inform your deeper analysis -- about the country's politics, its society, or the effects of U.S. policy. This is also a vital opportunity to showcase your writing skills, demonstrating that you can write in a way that is accessible to a general (rather than academic) audience.

2. Strive for fluency in at least one Middle Eastern language -- and if you haven't, don't fudge the truth.

Because U.S. policy is set from Washington, many policymakers and analysts only get to visit the Middle East for a few weeks -- if that -- every year. For this reason, those who aspire to a career in Middle East policy should have the ability to follow the region as intimately as possible from 6,000 miles away. This means having the language skills to watch Middle Eastern television, read local newspapers, track social media pages, and speak with a broad range of local actors over the phone or Skype. 

The strongest applicants for entry-level Middle East policy positions will therefore be fluent -- or close to fluent -- in at least one Middle Eastern language. Those who have not yet learned a Middle Eastern language by the time they graduate college are unlikely ever to do so, and this make them less worthy of an entry-level think tank position -- especially when many other applicants have achieved a high level of fluency. 

When I read applications, I therefore look for two things. First, has the applicant studied Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Hebrew for at least three years in college, or at the advanced level -- if only for two years? This applies to native and non-native speakers alike: I have often interviewed native Arabic speakers, for example, who despite speaking Arabic to their parents in a colloquial dialect, have not mastered formal Arabic to the degree that would allow them to read a newspaper. As a result, they cannot conduct research in the language. 

Second, has the applicant used at least one of these languages on a daily basis while studying or working in the region? That's why where you study or work in the Middle East matters: The people making the decision on your application know which types of programs or settings involve at least some language immersion, and which do not.

One more point: Never embellish your language skills. During the interview phase, I always test the applicants on their language skills by asking them to translate newspaper articles and YouTube videos on the spot. If you claim to be "fluent" or "proficient" in Arabic on your resume and then can't perform -- well, that doesn't look very good. 

3. Write a college senior thesis.

Regional experiences and language skills are vital to understanding the Middle East, but they are useless in the hands of someone who cannot research or write. A thesis trains students to develop these skills -- to use a wide range of source materials, offer deeper analysis, and develop expertise on at least one narrow issue, typically under the guidance of an established professor.  

The process of writing a senior thesis is often more important than the ultimate product. Even if your senior thesis topic has little or no relevance to Middle East policy, the fact that you can synthesize large amounts of primary and secondary-source information will make you a more effective policy researcher, analyst, and advisor. Bonus points for thesis topics that involve research in a Middle Eastern language. And additional bonus points for those who conduct senior thesis research in the Middle East, since this demonstrates the ultimate application of your country-specific skills. 

4. Do an internship in Washington -- preferably at a policy organization or in government.

While understanding the Middle East on its own terms and learning region-specific skills are important, they are ultimately only half the battle. To repeat an earlier point, for better or worse, U.S. policy toward the Middle East is crafted in Washington -- and the best applicants for entry-level positions will have spent at least one summer working in D.C. getting to know its ways. 

There is no one right or wrong place to intern, but the ideal internship involves two components. First, it should involve exposure to a narrow policy or political issue, so that you gain an appreciation for the policy process and the way Washington "works." In this light, an internship in the State Department is as good as an internship in the Washington office of the New York State governor (full disclosure: I interned many years ago at the latter). Both opportunities expose interns to the unique interplay of federal, congressional, and bureaucratic politics, as well as policy considerations, which ultimately influence policy outcomes.

Second, the ideal internship allows its interns to explore Washington beyond the day-to-day office job. This means that you should be able to carve out some time for attending events around town, such as Hill hearings, policy forums, book launches, and the like. Beyond these events' substance, these outings will introduce you to Washington's inherently social aspect. Learning how to network effectively within the city is often the best way to ensure that your application for a research assistantship gets read. 

In addition to these benefits, Washington internships give those looking to get their foot in the door of the Middle East policy world the opportunity to showcase their professionalism. They have an opportunity to impress upon potential employers that they can show up on time, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively with colleagues. Indeed, I frequently call applicants' former internship supervisors to inquire about their prior work, and strong recommendations go a long way toward getting an interview, and possibly a job. 

As I examine the stack of resumes on my desk, here is what I'm looking for: Someone who knows the Middle East, understands its languages, knows how to get his or her resume directly on my desk, and has a track record of professionalism. Even then, there's no guarantee you will be selected -- there is simply too much talent for too few positions. But it's a good way to get my attention.

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Watching Modi, the Maestro, at Work

On the campaign trail in India, the election front-runner takes the high road, while his Hindu nationalist followers support him from below.

SHAHJAHANPUR, India — The distance from New Delhi to Shahjahanpur, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh, is slightly less than 200 miles; a four-lane highway runs most of the way. Yet I can tell you from painful experience that the trip takes six or seven hours. Because India's highways, with a very few exceptions, also serve as local roads, the taxi I took earlier this week had to jostle for space with three-wheelers, horse- and bullock-carts, bicycles and motorcycles, and groaning trucks listing way over to one side with mighty loads. For tourists, this is the cacophonous, all-at-onceness that is India's magic. For Indians, the choked highways constitute a colossal loss of productivity and a humiliating failure of infrastructure investment.

I was heading to Shahjahanpur to hear Narendra Modi speak. Modi is the charismatic prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seems likely to win a plurality of votes in elections now being held, and thus to replace the Congress party in Delhi. Modi is many things, but the thing that may well make him India's next prime minister is that he is credited with stoking economic growth in Gujarat, the Western state of which he is chief minister. If anyone can get the bullock carts out of the way of the taxis, and release exasperated citizens from the tangle of bureaucracy and corruption, it is him.

Fortunately for me, Modi runs as late as most Indian politicians. I arrived in Shahjahanpur more than two hours after the rally was set to begin, and Modi had only just begun speaking. A vast crowd, which a party official later pegged for me at 150,000-200,000 (it seemed smaller), had gathered in a dusty plaza. It was blazingly hot. The candidate was all but invisible on a distant stage framed in saffron, with saffron-colored flags whipping in the hot breeze. Modi's voice -- hectoring, mocking, sly -- boomed from a great row of loudspeakers.

Shahjahanpur is a "reserved constituency" -- set aside, under India's elaborate affirmative action laws, for Dalits, the caste bottom-dwellers once known as "untouchables." Modi himself comes from a "backward" caste, several rungs above the Dalits but many more below the Brahmins who have long ruled India, including the Nehru-Gandhi family which has dominated the Congress party for generations. Modi used to sell tea at a railway station, and he never stops needling the Gandhis about their lofty status. The day of the rally happened to be the birthday of B.R. Ambedkar, a great Dalit leader of India's founding generation, and Modi informed the crowd, somewhat illogically, that it was only owing to Ambedkar that "a kid who used to sell tea is standing in front of you." And yet Jawaharlal Nehru, he claimed (also on dubious evidence) "never liked Ambedkar."

Modi is a maestro of class resentment. Congress bigwigs, he insists, feel "ashamed" of having to compete against a mere "worker." With a gift for homespun political rhetoric one can only admire, he has described Rahul Gandhi, the somewhat reluctant family scion and his challenger, as "a fish in the aquarium," while he, Modi, is "a fish in the sea." Modi is an adroit fisherman in the sea of caste and community. The BJP has traditionally drawn both leaders and voters from the upper castes; Modi is making a strong pitch for Dalits and other backward castes.

That is traditional Indian politics. But Modi is also doing something quite unusual. He has sought to turn the parliamentary contest into an individual race between himself and Rahul Gandhi, even though -- or perhaps because -- the latter has refused to promise that he would serve as prime minister if Congress formed the government. Modi is running, in effect, a one-sided presidential contest. He is running on his "story," as an American presidential candidate would do. "Friends," he said in one speech, "I am not pessimistic and the reason is that I have seen my mother doing the domestic cleaning, dish washing in the neighborhood households; she brought up and cultured her kids without losing hope."

Modi appeals to India's new class of strivers, its "aspirational" youth who do not accept that their destiny must be confined by the accident of birth. His deepest narrative is the narrative of "development" -- the story of a poor nation joining the world of the rich. If the chief subject of his speech in Shahjahanpur was the indignities visited upon Ambedkar by the Nehru-Gandhi clan, the secondary subject was potatoes. In Uttar Pradesh, he said, "farmers are afraid of cultivating potatoes" because the price has dropped so low. In Gujarat (his home state), "farmers used to face the same problems you are facing." But after the Modi government instituted "scientific methods of farming" there, he told the crowd, agriculturists soon found they received high prices for their potatoes. One Guajarati farmer, claimed Modi, set a world record for potato productivity. And yet the UP chief minister, Akhilesh Singh Yadav, "says that he won't let Uttar Pradesh become like Gujarat!" he said as the crowd roared and hissed.

What makes Modi so powerful a candidate is this convergence between personal narrative and policy achievement. He has raised himself; he has raised Gujarat. His critics claim that his record as chief minister over the last dozen years is largely an illusion, that Gujarat has catered to corporate interests while doing little for the poor. Yet the state is widely considered one of India's best-governed, and is among a group which has separated itself from the sorry state of much of the country, including Uttar Pradesh. In any case, voters believe it. The knot of men who gathered around me after the speech were convinced that Modi would raise the price of farm products while lowering inflation -- admittedly a tough combination to pull off.

Modi presents himself as the incarnation of ordinary Indians' ambitions and frustrations. But what about their anger? Modi was, of course, the chief minister when Gujarat experienced Hindu-Muslim riots that left at least 1,200 dead in 2002, and he is widely blamed for failing to intercede. He was raised in the Hindu-nationalist and paramilitary culture of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, and is regarded with profound loathing both by India's secular elite and by Muslims who fear he views them as second-class citizens. In the hustings, Modi himself makes only the most subtle gestures toward what is known as Hindutva, a sort of Hindu nationalism, complaining of rampant "cow slaughter" or adverting to dark Pakistani forces. But the BJP's manifesto calls for the building of a Hindu temple on a site where 20 years ago RSS cadres tore down a mosque brick by brick, sparking sectarian violence. Modi appears to be taking the high road while leaving the low one to lesser figures.

After the speech ended, and Modi lifted off in his helicopter, I forded the vast stream of humanity, snaked through the insane traffic bucking and honking outside the maidan, and drove to the local BJP headquarters in the dusty warren of downtown Shahjahanpur. There, I talked with a group of local officials and party volunteers. Ashis Singh, who was working for Krishna Raj, the local candidate for parliament, said that Modi's message had been "development." Hindutva, he said, was not part of the campaign. When I asked about notoriously inflammatory comments which had gotten the party's campaign chief in Uttar Pradesh banned from the state, Singh said he had been too busy working for Raj to pay attention to such things.

Then Yashpal Singh, a schoolteacher and local volunteer, pushed forward and said, "The problem with the Congress is corruption and fake secularism." Congress leaders, he said, were catering to the Muslim vote in the name of warding off BJP communalism. When I asked what he meant by that, Ashis Singh interceded: "He means that Congress is exploiting Muslims as a vote bank."

Actually, that wasn't quite what Yashpal Singh meant. "How many Muslims fled from Gujarat after 2002?" he asked. The answer was none. "And yet more than five lakh -- 500,000 -- Hindus fled from Kashmir because of mistreatment by Muslims." All the terrorist incidents in the country had been caused by Muslims, he told me. And yet India was 85 percent Hindu. The schoolteacher was just getting warmed up when some of the other men pulled him back in his chair.

It is the view of many Indians -- and the oft-repeated theme of Congress speeches and ads -- that Narendra Modi is playing the role of BJP superego while the party's RSS id boils away underneath, peeking through only at inopportune moments. If Modi becomes prime minister, they say, the mask will fall away, revealing the autocratic Hindu nationalist beneath. Maybe that's hyperbolic, but it's hardly absurd. In any case, Modi has played his role so deftly that India, and the world, are probably going to have a chance to find out the truth before long.