Securing a career in international affairs – DFAT and beyond

25 Feb 2021
Securing a career in international affairs – DFAT and beyond
Always dreamed of a career in international affairs but not known exactly how to get there or what to expect when you do? On the first episode of 15 Minutes in Canberra, Senior Policy Fellow Hayley Channer interviews Mr Matthew Di Leo, First Secretary (Economic) at the Australian Embassy in Seoul. Matt hails from Kalamunda and, as well as DFAT, he has worked for Austrade, the Defence Department, and the Victorian Government.

On the podcast, Matt discusses his pathway to working as a diplomat abroad and offers valuable insights for those aspiring to a role in the field – whether with DFAT or beyond.
Listen to the 15-minute conversation here and read some of the key take aways below:

Advantages to engaging with think tanks

One thing shared among government officials working in international affairs is a desire to engage with the world around them and participate in intellectually stimulating activities beyond their normal roles. One way to do this is to attend think tank events that educate you on foreign policy challenges and facilitate informal engagements with experienced and accomplished people.
For instance, prior to working in government, Matt volunteered for the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) as a way to keep across current events. Through the AIIA, he met former diplomats and officials, increased his network, and worked with other enthusiastic young members to broaden the institute’s appeal to larger cross-section of society. Through engaging with think tanks, Matt built his knowledge, honed his interpersonal skills, and established a support network he could draw on for career advice down the track.  

Diversity of experience is valued

DFAT doesn’t employ a cookie-cutter approach to hiring. In fact, all Australian Government agencies are specifically looking to maintain and grow diversity within their workforces because they recognise diversity improves output. Matt points to current serving DFAT officials from completely different fields as being “some of the most successful and interesting”, including chemical engineers, marine biologists, people from the airline industry, mining sector, and artists.
Rather than preferencing candidates with the same academic or professional background, DFAT recognises the value of bringing together people from various fields, with different ideas and creating a more robust, diverse workforce in the process. So, whether or not you have a history working on international issues, you can still find a home at DFAT.

DFAT is one career pathway: there are many others

To many, DFAT may seem like the only place where IR buffs can hone their skills and ply their trade. In reality however, there are multiple avenues for those seeking a career in the field. Many government departments have their own international policy divisions including the Departments of Defence, Home Affairs, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Education, Industry, and Treasury, to name a few. Moreover, government departments without dedicated international sections still include teams and individual roles that require international relations expertise – these positions are just less conspicuous and niche, potentially requiring you to enter the agency then move laterally down the track. Plus, there are many careers in foreign affairs outside of government agencies – consider State Governments, businesses with an international footprint, or consultancies, for instance.
If you have your heart set on a role with DFAT and are concerned the Graduate Program may not be right for you, don’t worry, the ‘grad’ program isn’t your only point of entry. There’s a widespread rumour that in order to work for DFAT you must enter as a grad. However, many professionals join the Department at both junior and senior levels without having gone through any government grad program. Matt himself joined DFAT through a mid-level policy officer recruitment round.

Translating knowledge into actionable policy

It’s one thing to be the world’s leading expert on Myanmar; it’s a completely different skill set to know how use that information to develop and implement foreign policy that furthers Australia’s interests. Like any craft, learning to create and implement policy takes time. But you can develop these skills in many places – not just at DFAT.
Matt’s career began as a Victorian Government graduate, where he learned the basics of how to work in government, including how to turn academic knowledge into practical advice. It’s also important to balance practical skills development with building knowledge of current international political issues and their historic roots. Crucially, you need to develop your own world view: a way you perceive and interpret events around you. And don’t forget to be familiar with Australia’s foreign policy goals.

What to expect on an overseas posting

When you’re in a foreign country as the employee of the Australian Government, you are a representative of Australia as a whole, and that job is 24/7. What this means in practice is you need to maintain the highest personal and professional standards both inside the office and out. Your role will also give you incredible access to senior people in the public and private sector. In addition, expect to develop strong relationships with your colleagues as you will be living and working together more closely than you normally would in Australia. The hours can be long and the days unpredictable and, in a crisis, you’ll find yourself relying more on your colleagues for their unique knowledge and expertise. In short, you have each other’s backs.

Hayley Channer is an independent analyst with the Perth USAsia Centre. The views expressed above and in the podcast are the author’s own and do not represent any organisation or entity.


Hayley Channer
Hayley Channer
Senior Policy Fellow
Based in Canberra, Hayley produces analysis on foreign and defence policy in the Indo-Pacific, engages with key Australian Government agencies and other policy stakeholders, and builds and sustains the Centre’s domestic and international network.
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