Ah, the New Year. A nice time to pause and reflect on life’s path. If you’re thinking about your career, here’s a compilation of advice for young professionals and students in international aid/development. You’ll notice some mixed messages: Networking! No, experience is more important that connections! Actually, you need a graduate degree! I think we can safely conclude that they’re all important. What’s most important for you? Well, that depends on where you are and where you want to go. Hopefully the posts below will help you think through some of the issues involved. Each link is followed by a summary of the highlights from each post.
If you’re just starting to think about making a career in aid/development, this post is a good place to start. It’s a good read if you just have a vague sense that you want to work in this field, but aren’t quite sure what that looks like.
Another good introductory post. This one includes good descriptions of the types of positions available (technical experts, project managers, researchers, other), as well as what’s involved with each and who hires for them.
This blog seems to have gone dormant, but it still has a lot of great posts. Nick has written a few profiles about individual humanitarian workers and their careers. I’m a big fan of these because there are a thousand career paths to any industry, a fact that’s ignored by most lists of career tips.
Getting a job
These tips are especially for undergraduates, but they’re useful for anyone to think about. The short version: 1. get an office job while you’re in school, because most development work is office work; 2. study something useful at university; 3. learn to write; 4. study a second language to demonstrate a commitment to international and intercultural work; and 5. “have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific.”
Chris follows up on Alanna’s post with a few more: 6. be prepared to volunteer your first couple jobs; 7. pound the less-trodden pavement (e.g. try contacting program managers, country offices, etc. directly rather than applying through the front door); 8. consider a private firm; 9. it’s a numbers game (so understand that 50 emails will yield 45 non-responses, 3 immediate rejections, 2 interviews – and one job); and 10. be willing to go to uncomfortable places.
One word: experience. Connections and education are both secondary. Of course, experience is hard to get if you don’t already have it. This post highlights the recruiter’s perspective, and makes the case that you’re better off investing in a year of overseas volunteering than in a master’s degree program.
Getting your first overseas position is first and foremost about networking. Second, volunteering or an internship can help; an organization is more likely to accept an inexperienced person if they don’t have to pay him/her. Third, going overseas on your own can allow you to find positions that you wouldn’t find from afar. Finally, be persistent.
Tips for the job hunt, and some insights into how to communicate your worth. Key line: “Focus on fewer, more relevant jobs when applying. And work hard on selling your skills and abilities, not your desire to help.”
Chris offered the floor to a couple American friends at Médecins Sans Frontières. Their comments are chock full of insights. Here are the highlights.
From a health staffer who specialized in tropical medicine and took courses in refugee/IDP specific health situations: “I applied to MSF with this educational background and basically agreed to go wherever they sent me. Going wherever you are assigned is the key in the beginning. After you stick it out for your first assignment, you can begin to pick and choose situations that appeal to you.”
From an administrator: “The week before my interview, I reread my notes from a class on critiques of development and humanitarian aid. My interviewer, a no-nonsense Liberian woman and former refugee named Hawah, ignored my academic and policy credentials. I never had the chance to wax on about how I would avoid the pitfalls of the disaster relief industry and the dangers of neocolonialism. Instead, she honed in on my sparse management skills. … If you’re interested in humanitarian aid, it’s best to start by cultivating a few relevant skills. That sounds basic, but I know from experience that backpacking in Nepal and a completing a Masters in Public Administration don’t pass muster. For non-medical volunteers, there are two main areas of entry-level work: logistics and finance/HR management. To build experience, you could help coordinate an international supply chain or organize safaris for travelers. You could work with a diverse HR pool or manage a big office. Idealism, adventure travel and volunteer stints are important because they indicate that your heart is the in the right place and that you’re not going to quit because the toilets don’t flush. But to start out you also need a set of transferable skills. … Even if your goal is to work in policy or research, I recommend starting in the field. You’ll see the challenges of implementation from a perspective that will continue to be valuable.”
Chris also featured commentary from a friend who heads a sub-national office for UNHCR in Africa. In summary form: Getting a job at the UN is tough but possible. Connections help but they aren’t necessary. To get in without connections, you need three things: a relevant CV (including at least 6 months, ideally a year plus, working in the developing world; second languages are essential for most UN jobs; so is a graduate degree), persistence (apply to hundreds of jobs), and luck/good timing. Networking helps too. Land an internship if you can.
Life in the field
This includes tips for predeparture research, including questions to ask and how to pack. Some are good general travel tips, while some are specific to aid work. The advice for what to do upon arrival (get a security briefing, even if none is being offered; visit the field; back up your files) is especially good.
Tips from a veteran aid worker on how to learn about the context on the ground: meet ‘Key Informants’; try to learn the local language; read voraciously; and review your scope with locals.
Some of the highlights from Chris’s list: eat the street food (but be cautious); visit some small farms; get your shots; try to go for longer rather than shorter trips; ask about the best local restaurants; if someone invites you home for dinner, then go; be wary of getting sucked into the expat community; dress to blend in even if you hopelessly stick out; ask everyone about their job.
Chris gives tips for aspiring political scientists and economists who want to pursue PhD research to make the world a better place. His advice: use grad school to tech up (i.e. learn the skills, theories, etc. even if they don’t seem immediately relevant); hang in there; take chances but be prepared; try working for outside organizations (World Bank, think tanks, etc.) if you’re unsure whether you want to be an academic researcher; there are lots of things you can do beside become a professor; but be careful about telling your department that you’re looking at non-academic career paths.
Chris discusses the MPA/ID program he did at Kennedy as it relates to PhDs and other MPA programs.
A human rights lawyer goes head-on with the tendency of smart young people to default to law school because, “Well, it’s such a great, all-purpose professional degree.” One section is worth quoting at length: “There may be J.D.s in every walk of life in this country, but lawyers’ dirty secret is that their proliferation is due less to that degree’s versatility than it is to the fact that thousands of lawyers flee the profession every year. Seriously. I am not even kidding. Do you really think Cake Love’s Warren Brown runs a successful bakery because of what he learned at GW law? There’s a difference between torts and tortes, my friends. If he’d liked the former, he’d still be practicing law. But he didn’t, and so he’s not. And, given that he really wanted to pursue the latter, he’d have been better off going to cooking or business school.” In case this wasn’t enough to convince you, Amanda follows it up with: So You Really Do Want to Go to Law School: What Now?
Got a career question? Alanna can answer it. And if she can’t, she’ll find someone else who can. For a nominal fee ($2/month) you get access to her insights on job hunting, grad schools, career paths and more. When someone sends an inquiry, the original question and response go out to the full list. You’ll get answers to questions you never even thought to ask. I highly recommend subscribing.
Wayan offers some good tips and stories on how to make blogging part of your career. Personally, I found this post to be incredibly useful.
Yes, this is a shameless plug for my own post. It offers the why, how and what of reading development blogs. You’ve gotta get smart on the industry, and your degree isn’t enough. Also, notice the names that keep repeating throughout this post, like Chris Blattman and Alanna Shaikh? You might want to follow their blogs.
“Don’t do it. You’re not going to think of a solution no one else has, your approach is not as innovative as you think it is, and raising money is going to be impossible. You will have no economy of scale, your overhead will be disproportionately high, and adding one more tiny NGO to the overburdened international system may well make things worse instead of better.”
But Alanna goes on to give some advice for those who ignore her brilliant opening: go work for an existing NGO first to learn from it; identify a new funding source so you bring something new to the world; hire experienced people to work with you; your finances will probably be the most important part of your NGO.
Advice from a journalist on how to do what she does. It’s not so different from advice for international development.
What am I missing?
It seems like there should be more out there, especially on the pros/cons of various graduate school options. If you’ve got links to other posts, or thoughts of your own, please make liberal use of the comments section.
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