State Department Careers for STEM Students

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken addressed a group of students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at Purdue University.  During his speech, Secretary Blinken made an interesting argument for why a background in the sciences and technology can actually set someone up for a very successful career in the U.S. State Department.  Below is a transcript of his speech:

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  This is an amazing turnout.  I can’t believe there wasn’t something better to do.  (Laughter.)  Is there an extra credit or something?  (Laughter.)

Thank you.  Great to be with you.  We’ve had a wonderful day here at Purdue.  I was here with my colleague and friend from the administration Gina Raimondo, the Secretary of Commerce, and we spent the morning with President Daniels, with Senator Young and Governor Holcomb, and in part we were here to celebrate and spotlight the passage of some really important legislation, the CHIPS and Science Act, which is going to help ensure that the United States remains the leader in semiconductors and chip technology.

But what I had a chance to see here today firsthand is what an extraordinary institution Purdue is. And the thing that came most to mind to me was that it’s got to be one of the leading, if not the leading, human fabs for the next generation of people who are going to lead us, lead this country, into the technological future, into the scientific future, into the innovative future. And that’s an incredibly powerful thing and it’s – makes a big difference just being here in person, getting a feel for it, and getting to meet so many of you.

But there’s a particular reason that I wanted to come to this classroom today, and that’s I’ve got a devious purpose in mind.  We want you.  We want you to consider coming into government at some point in your careers, doing something in public service, and maybe even something at the State Department.  And I want us to talk about that just a little bit because it may not seem like the most obvious connection in the world.  Why is someone from the State Department, dealing with America’s foreign policy and our role in the world to coming here, talking to incredible people that were focused in STEM?  And it’s pretty simple, and this is what I wanted to share with you, and then I’m really eager to have a conversation.

I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years, and as I was moving along and working on all of these different foreign policy challenges that we get, it became more and more apparent to me that so much of what we were working on, so many of the problems that we were trying to solve, actually had a profound connection to science, technology, innovation.  And often the answer, or at least part of the answer, had science and tech somewhere as part of it.

But here’s the problem.  Many of us who are working in government on foreign policy don’t come up through this lens of science.  We tend to be humanities majors; too many of us have law degrees – (laughter) – don’t need too many more of those.  And it really got to the point where I said to myself that we need scientists and technologists around the table just to tell us whether we need scientists and technologists around the table, because we need people to help identify not just the problems but a different angle on the solutions that some of us were used to bringing to the table.

And so we started to do things – this is back during the Obama administration, when I last served – to try to do just that, to actually bring more people from STEM disciplines into government, through internships, through fellowships, through new programs.  And now that I’m back doing this, we’re in – even more than we were just six or seven years ago – I think in an entirely different place in a few ways.

First, virtually all of the technology that is going to be already but will continue in even more profound ways to shape our lives, to shape the way we live, the way we work, the way we interact, the way we compete – each and every one of those, whether it is quantum, whether it’s AI, whether it’s biotech, whether it’s the chip itself, there is a profound connection between what we do here at home and what we’re doing around the world.  Here at home, we’re making the right investments, but around the world we have to find ways to bring others along, because the way this technology gets used – the rules, the norms, the standards that people agree on that govern their use – is going to have a profound impact in and of itself on the way that we live and the way that we work.  And is it going to happen in a way that reflects, we hope, our basic values of openness and tolerance and respect for privacy, or is it going to happen in a different way?  So we need to be at the table when we’re – all of these things are getting decided, and we need to have people at the table who actually know what they’re talking about.  So that’s one thing.

The other thing is so many of the problems we’re trying to solve, as I said, have a clear technology, innovation, science aspect to their solution.  We’re trying to figure out how to do a better job overcoming profound crises in food security around the world.  There’s going to be part of that where the answer is grounded in science, in technology, in agro science.  If we’re trying to figure out how to prevent the next pandemic, we know there’s going to be an answer that’s grounded in science and technology as well as in the policies that we pursue to advance it.

We’re trying to think about how we protect our economy, particularly dealing with climate change, and how we make an energy transition that makes sense, that keeps faith with keeping people employed but also keeps faith with trying to protect the planet.  That’s probably going to have an answer that’s also grounded in science and technology.

It’s a long way of saying so many of the things that we’re actually doing day in, day out at the State Department are all about many of the things that many of you are interested in, working on, and becoming expert in.  And I’m here to tell you that the State Department is one place where you can actually pursue that passion, pursue that interest, and do it in a couple of novel and interesting ways.

One, doing it working for your country.  That has its own value that’s hard to really quantify.  And two, getting to do it around the world in really interesting ways and engaging with incredibly interesting people.  So I really hope this is something that some of you will at least consider as you’re thinking about where you want to go, where your careers will take you.

I’ve had the experience, as you’ve heard, in working in government, working in the private sector, working in different pursuits.  And at least for me, there’s been something unique about getting to go to work every day and either literally or figuratively having a flag behind your back.  There’s something particularly special about that, hard to quantify.  And yeah, the benefits may be better elsewhere – (laughter) – but there’s something particularly special about that.  So I hope as you’re thinking about it, whether it’s now, in five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road, think about giving some time to public service.

I said this a little bit earlier today.  I know there’s a lot of cynicism about it and sometimes for every understandable reasons, but I can tell you from my own experience that virtually all the people that I get to work with every day, whether it’s in the administration, whether it’s in Congress, Republicans, Democrats, Independents – they’re all there because they’re trying to do what they think is the right thing to do to make the country just a little bit better, a little bit safer, a little bit healthier, a little bit wealthier, create opportunities for people.  We have disagreements about the best way to do that, and that’s fine.  That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.  But most people are really motivated to try to do the right thing, and if you can find a group of likeminded people, you can actually get a few things done.

So that’s really what I wanted to share at the outset.  I’m eager to have some questions.  But I think it’s particularly interesting and important – I would like to have a colleague join us who has – I think can speak better than I can to how (inaudible) grounded in STEM and in the sciences actually can make a career in the State Department.  So Mahlet Mesfin,who is one of my science and tech advisers, let you say a few words and maybe share your own experience.

MS MESFIN:  Thank you, Secretary.  (Applause.)  It’s truly an honor to be here today with you and all the students at Purdue.  A little bit of background about me.  I have degrees in chemical engineering, a masters and PhD in bioengineering.  I became an engineer because I was interested in solving problems and I wanted to make the world a better place, and I liked science and I liked math.  But through my grad degree I realized that I could do that in many different ways.  And so I did one of the fellowship programs the Secretary mentioned, came down to D.C., and 10 years later, a few different career moves, here I am at the State Department as a senior advisor speaking next to the Secretary of State of the United States of America.  And I can truly say that that is never a path that I ever imagined would come.

I just want to talk a little bit about different career options – is it not on?  I’m sorry.  A few different career sort of tracks if you’re interested in policy careers at the State Department.  So STEM experts can come to the State Department and actually work in the areas in which you were trained, and that’s what you do day to day.  So people I work with on the teams that are out there around the world, sort of helping to address outbreaks of diseases, whether it’s Ebola or COVID or monkeypox or others.  There are teams there that are in the middle of negotiating with countries around the world about how we are going to protect our oceans and our biodiversity.  There’s people who are thinking through with international partners and domestic agencies as well how are we defining the principles that will dictate how technologies are developed and used.  So those are usually civil servants and they’re scattered throughout the department, and that’s one option.

You also have people who have STEM backgrounds who can come and not necessarily do anything that they’ve been trained to do, so they’re more generalists.  I’m one of those people.  On a day-to-day basis some things I think about are semiconductors or biotechnology or water security or internet freedom or kind of anything in between.  And so civil servants can be generalists, but we also have a Foreign Service track at the State Department, which is a generalist of a different kind.  And it’s exciting because you get to live all over the world; you get to be in embassies, and you get to change jobs, change countries every two or three years.  But you can have sort of an environment, science, technology, health portfolio, and we need more of those people around the world as well.

So whether it’s a subject matter expert or a generalist or anything in between, I think, as the Secretary mentioned, technology issues will continue to grow and to be so important, and we need people like you in the table – or at the table, in the room, really helping to shape and drive U.S. policy and diplomacy.  And it is a unique experience that you can get really nowhere else.

And so the last thing I’ll just say is I think that sometimes I feel like my career is kind of like a dream that I never knew that I had.  (Laughter.)  And so I think that it’s really exciting that all of you guys are here, here learning about these opportunities and kind of the realm of the possibilities.  And I hope that one day one of those possibilities will bring you to work for the department.  So thank you very much, and I turn it back over to you.  (Applause.)

Read the speech on the State Department web site at