So, you want to work at a D.C. Middle East think tank?

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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 2011-12 academic year, 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 am responsible for hiring research assistants and interns at the Washington Institute. 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? 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.

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For many decades, the relative stability of Middle Eastern regimes meant that U.S. policy toward 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.

That’s all changing: Nonstate 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.


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.

2. Strive for fluency in at least one Middle Eastern language.

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.

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 adviser.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Eric Trager is the Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute.

©2014 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Excerpted with permission.

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