Choosing Bureaus and Seeking Help

This week I want to focus on the question on the applications that asks you to choose a bureau, which is a difficult but important task. There are over thirty bureaus in the State Department. I narrowed down my choices by first thinking about the intersection of interests and experience. As a Ukrainian-American immigrant, I am drawn to eastern European affairs and appreciate the value of cultural exchange and understanding. On experience, in the loosest sense of the word, my course work at Penn work includes classes on the Cold War as well as on Russia and eastern Europe in international affairs. I also worked on annotating Russian and Ukrainian media for the Linguistic Data Consortium as a freshman and sophomore. I highlight my groundbreaking work while at LDC, which I assure you was not the case, because finding the value in positions, however seemingly unrelated, is always worthwhile. The LDC job demonstrates the application of my foreign language proficiency, which is a valuable skill to have in the State Department.

Among many other divisions, the State Department broadly divides bureaus into two categories: regional bureaus tasked with implementing U.S. foreign policy in various regions of the world and functional bureaus that oversee wider cross-regional objectives and programs. Depending on your interests and experience, consider which one seems a better fit. My interest in the work of the entire department meant that I did not have strong preferences over the type of bureau. The bureau that immediately stood out, however, was a regional bureau, the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. EUR, among many other offices, oversees foreign policy towards eastern Europe. Looking through the list, I narrowed down to EUR and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. I was both interested in the mission of ECA, and, not knowing about the scope and breadth of the educational and cultural programs the U.S. has to offer, wanted to learn more. At the same time, I had a solitary asset to offer, as a living example of cultural exchange. As a word of warning, in selecting a bureau, be careful about picking two regional bureaus, unless you are dogmatically set only on two regional bureaus; it might be strategic to choose one regional bureau and one functional bureau.

Another choice is whether to tailor the statement of interest to one bureau or engage in balancing the cover letter between two bureaus. Keep in mind that whichever bureaus you may end up working for, the people will be interested in why you chose to work there, even after you have started work (your colleagues will ask you upfront, so be prepared). If you’re set on one bureau, no other options interest you, etc., stick to talking about one bureau. In my opinion, this is the easier track, but riskier; one bureau makes the statement easier to write, but there is no guarantee the bureau is as interested in you as you are in it. On the other hand, that is not to say my approach is sacrosanct. A former intern I spoke with said she similarly first considered her interests and then scoured the internet for information on all the bureaus. However, having considered her interests in China, Korea, and trade, she decided to go all-in on the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, a regional bureau that includes China and Korea desks, and she got the internship.

The other approach, balancing both bureaus, requires more verbal gymnastics, but hedges risk. Coming back full circle, I tried, successfully or not, to incorporate any and all experience under my belt as offering some grain of utility, both in general and specific to the bureaus. Don’t try to be grand, you are an intern. Ground each experience in something practical and typical of the work of an intern. I referenced my internship at the Philly Fed not to speak to the effects of monetary policy on the international political economy, which for the record I did not deal with at my time there, but to show experience in working in a vast bureaucratic structure similar to the State Department.
Having picked the bureaus and having written the statement of interest, I wanted some reassurance. If possible, get help. Not only does someone’s guidance provide a sense of comfort, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that someone can make your application much better. I reached out to Dr. Martinez, who connected me with her friend, a senior foreign service officer at the State Department. I was fortunate.