This is a follow-up to Dave Algoso’s immensely popular ‘Career Advice (from people smarter than me)‘, and perhaps even part of a larger series of posts on career advice in aid and development. For this particular post, I use the word ‘advice’ very lightly. I am by no means in any position – age, experience or otherwise – to be doling out advice on starting a career in aid and development. Rather, I would like to make a few observations from my own experience as someone working towards getting the proverbial foot in the door. In particular, I will focus on being competitive and embracing teamwork. This video is a good place to start, courtesy of George Washington University’s 2011 Law Revue.
*Strong language warning
Postgraduate studies are by nature competitive; as reflective of the wiring of the global economy and our own need for self-satisfaction, survival and status. Accordingly, competition is necessary, healthy and drives innovation. Education is not immune from this seemingly deep-seated instinct. Think back to your high school days and how you were ranked, assessed and stratified according to results (unless you went to a more progressive Steiner or Montessori school). Education systems for the most part are designed to be competitive. It has reached down to pre-schools and kindergartens, where parents compete and pay dearly for enrolment at the ‘best’ possible places. Children are too young at that age to compete (parents do it for them), but soon become accustomed to it. This does not change throughout your entire education career, the most formative years of your life. Get to university, and many of the real concerns and attitudes expressed in the above video are found across most faculties.
Development is no exception. Duncan Green recently remarked that he was surprised by the chatter of students at the Warrick Economics Summit. The talk was of jobs and internships. Clearly, Duncan Green was a student a long time ago. As more and more students are gaining access to higher education, the competition for employment amongst graduates is becoming far more competitive. This is the knowledge economy. Students and graduates need to do more, and take on more, in the pursuit of knowledge which employers and society value. Doing a Masters, taking on volunteer work and completing internships will also help to meet the requirements of job advertisements across the aid and development sector.
Competition is balanced and complemented by the same need and instinct to work together a.k.a the dreaded notion of ‘teamwork’ embedded in most course curricula. However, I know from my professional academic experiences in higher education that it is only given lip service to satisfy progressive educationalists who managed to advocate for its inclusion as an assessable component. As it should be. However, the development of teamwork in our studies, as a generic, transferable skill, is usually facilitated in a very unsatisfactory way:
1. Told that a teamwork component (presentation, research essay, etc.) will be worth x% of the course. Usually, between 15-30%;
2. Divided into teams, usually without thought. Either random, self-selected, or playground rules;
3. Let the teamwork begin.
When teamwork is faciliated well by a teacher, it can be an amazing platform for student learning. I really enjoy being part of a team whether at university, in the office or on the pitch. I have played team sports for most of my life and still do. And, I am competitive on the field. These two instincts and fullfilment needs seem to function simultaneously in each of us; sometimes one more than the other.
Aid and development is an immensely competitive sector and has become more so over the past four decades as higher education has become available to more students. It not immune to nepotism, exploitation or meritocracy. Like all professions, it exhibits all three. It is difficult. I am currently working in an unpaid position at a microfinance organisation in Beijing, full-time. At the same time, I am doing occasional editing on grant proposals and concept notes to earn spending money, applying for jobs in the education sector around the world and living as frugally as possible. Sometimes, I feel like it is just a matter of timing. So, I guess my advice is this:
Be competitive: You may think your resume looks great and know that you can do what is required for a job – but so can the other 20 qualified, intelligent and experienced people applying for the job. Being competitive is not just about how you play, it is also about what you do in preparation for the competition. Your training, exercise, diet, and mentality is 60% (arbitrary) of the work. The same applies to applying and getting a job. Pick up internships, volunteer experiences, read and engage widely online in aid and development issues and topics, contribute through postings (like to whydev! Sorry, a bit cheeky), etc.
I don’t believe it’s necessary to consciously be “competitive” to excel and standout. In fact I think it’s often the people who are happy to lend a hand and share their knowledge with others that are noticed, not only by teachers or bosses but by their peers and co-workers. That being said, I think it’s most frustrating and unfair when you are forced to work with and “prop up” other students or colleagues who are too lazy or disinterested to do their share of the work.
Although I myself did things which I thought would be good for my CV, I find the notion of studying to “become more competitive” a little odd. If development is inherently about ‘the collective’…..that is helping people, communities and societies find their own path to a better standard of living – however that is defined – then it seems strange that a bunch of kids at UNSW would seek to make themselves more competitive. That being said, I was one of those kids, doing exactly that.
I like Sam’s point that being competitive is entirely anathema to an industry that is about collectivity, sharing and humility. In my experience, the best way to stand out is to aspire to embody those very notions. Understand that there is a task that is needing to be done, and abandoning all notion of the self in helping to achieve it.
Embrace teamwork: I know your team members can frustrate you to no ends during an assignment or in the work place, but maybe its not just them. Maybe it is you. How do you approach team work? Be tolerant, show leadership, listen and embrace teamwork. Employers rate teamwork highly as a graduate skill. It is also crucial for working in aid and development, particularly in consultations, workshops and trainings. It is much more than being part of a team and producing an end product. It is about being part of the team-building process, of conflict resolution and negotiation, of being able to work effectively with others and demonstrating leadership. If you are a student, use your teamwork assignments as an opportunity to practice team-building skills. It will pay-off in the workplace and ultimately in the success of future projects you work on.
Team work is inextricably linked with success and effectiveness. At the core is relationships. Good relationships founded on personal and professional respect are a necessity for teamwork. The most ingenious person will struggle to be successful and effective in their field of work if they’re not a team player. If people don’t like and respect you enough to pay attention then it doesn’t really matter how wonderful your work is – no one will notice.
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If all else fails, you can always intern for Ghostface Killah.