Myths vs. Realities: Job-hunting in Political Risk

Every month, I get messages from emerging private intelligence and political risk professionals asking for recommendations on the best ways to break into the industry. Each time, I’ve recommended a few of the same basic strategies for landing a job in the field. I’ve decided to combine them into a post on myths vs. realities of job-hunting in this field, which I hope will be helpful to many readers. If you have more specific questions, feel free to send me an email: milenarodban(at)gmail(dot)com or get in touch via Twitter: @MilenaRodban.

-       Myth: All openings in political risk include those words in the title.

Reality:  Jobs in the private intelligence and political risk fields are rarely called what you would expect. Such positions could be referred to as “sovereign risk analyst,” “credit analyst,” “intelligence analyst,” “threat analyst” and “media analyst,” or simply “researcher.” You’ll search in vain for a “political risk analyst” on the company’s website, but if you speak to their “global threat analyst,” you’ll find they’re basically engaged in political risk analysis. The name a company chooses to use can tell you something about how they see the role, and the extent to which they do (or don’t) understand the field, its capabilities and its responsibilities.

-       Myth: Basically, all you need are skills in research, writing and languages.

Reality: The skills necessary for successfully working in the fields of private intelligence and political risk are numerous, and some are easier than others to express on a resume. Having excellent communication skills or language skills is easy to articulate, but what about the other major traits vital to being a good political risk analyst? Good judgment, excellent research skills, a vibrant imagination, initiative, persistence, resilience, flexibility in pivoting between multiple projects, and knowing how to ask the right question. These are harder to express, but that’s why you have to write a cover; it conveys what your resume does not. Cover letters are difficult to write, especially when the interviewer or job poster does not even know what they’re looking for in a successful candidate. But this is where research comes in handy. 

-       Myth: Political risk doesn’t involve math, so you don’t have to worry about understanding quantitative methodologies or statistical analysis.

Reality: Sorry, readers. There is plenty of math involved in the field. From being able to understand statistics and how to compare them- I once had to explain to a colleague why you couldn’t just compare GDP and GDP per capita figures, when the person found GDP per capita for one country and not another- but you also have to comprehend the methodology by which the statistics are calculated. Similarly, the field involves lots of work with risk matrices, charts, graphs, and all manner of calculations. Quantitative methods are increasingly being incorporated into political risk, and it’s important to have those skills going in, since it’s hard to learn the finer points of data analysis on a three-hour deadline. Make sure to highlight your quant skills on your resume! 

-       Myth: You can get all the experience you need by interning at think tanks, private intelligence firms, or political risk firms.

Reality: One of the most common questions I get is how someone can improve their resume. Employers like to see that you’ve made an effort to pursue the knowledge that will help them address client needs. There are a few clearly valuable skills: languages, knowledge of economics/finance, and tech skills (Excel, Adobe Publisher, CMS, web design). Less obvious is the fact that employers want people with broader business expertise. Employers value knowledge of how real-world businesses operate, both where they’re headquartered and abroad. This can only be acquired through diverse work experience, and not just two think tank internships. Pursue travel experiences and gain familiarity with how business is conducted abroad. You can also get it by working at a small business where you do a bit of everything- logistics, billing, sales, etc.

Employers also value candidates with sector expertise. You can only really get that by working in the particular industries which often retain the services of political risk firms, such as oil & gas, manufacturing, shipping, banking, etc. If you’re not sure about which sector you want to choose or don’t have a particular preference, research what sort of clients your dream firms have, and accumulate expertise in those sectors where they have the most clients. Don’t focus on a field where they have only one client- if they lose that contract, they may not need that expertise for a while.

-       Myth: When you’re desperate for a job, you can skip the step of researching a firm’s reputation.

Reality: Always do your research about companies to which you’re sending applications. I often get messages asking what I know about a particular firm, but these questions mostly arrive after someone has applied. Do your research before you hit “submit.” Before you write a cover letter, you should carefully research the company/think tank/government office. DC is small, and people generally know and have opinions about each other’s work. Know ahead of time if the place you’re applying to is generally well respected or routinely criticized. Does it take some time and effort? Yes. Will it make your application stronger if you demonstrate you’ve done your research? Definitely. Will it keep you from accepting a position that could affect the rest of your career? Quite possibly. 

-       Myth: Most people land jobs by sending in online applications.

Reality: Most people find job in political risk by becoming very good at networking. Many people don’t make effective use of their personal and professional networks. When a job opens, existing employees know about it first. They know what skills are necessary for succeeding in the newly available position, and when they think of whom to recommend, make sure it’s you. Don’t do this by pestering your connections. You want to show, not tell. Engage in productive debates, share interesting articles, express your analytical viewpoint on certain developments. Get them to realize you’re smart, talented and insightful. This takes time. It isn’t easy. It requires initiative, imagination, persistence, flexibility and resilience. But those are exactly the skills you need to succeed in this field, so start practicing! 

I hope this is helpful for those of you just starting your career or currently searching for positions in the field. Good luck!