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Career advice (from people smarter than me)

Career advice (from people smarter than me)

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.

General advice

How to become an aidworker? — The Road to the Horizon

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.

Development Jobs: What You Need to Know — Devex

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.

Humanitarian Jobs Blog — Nick Macdonald

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

The bare bones of prepping for an international career — Alanna Shaikh (Blood and Milk)

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.”

Getting a job in international development — Chris Blattman

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.

What Recruiters Really Look For — Piero Calvi (AidWorkers Network)

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.

Finding a Job Overseas — Michael Baer (

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.

Finding a job — AidWorkers Network

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.”

Getting a job in development (MSF edition) — Chris Blattman

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.”

Getting a job in development (UN edition) — Chris Blattman

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

Advice for First-Time Aid Workers — AidWorkers Network

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.

Unsolicited Advice for New Aid Workers — Matthew Bolton (AidWorkers Network)

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.

Advice for working in a developing country — Chris Blattman

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.

Graduate school

How to get a PhD *and* save the world — Chris Blattman

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.

Which is for you: MPA, MPA/ID, or PhD? — Chris Blattman

Chris discusses the MPA/ID program he did at Kennedy as it relates to PhDs and other MPA programs.

Should You Go to Law School? Not Unless You Want To Be a Lawyer — Amanda Taub (wronging rights)

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?


The International Development Careers List — Alanna Shaikh

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.

How to Blog for Professional Success in International Development — Wayan Vota

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.

A grad student’s guide to the international development blogosphere — Dave Algoso (Find What Works)

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.

Dear everyone who’s ever thought of starting an NGO — Alanna Shaikh (Blood and Milk)

“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.

On being ten feet tall and other thoughts about starting out as a journalist in Africa — Glenna Gordon (Scarlett Lion)

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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Dave Algoso is a freelance consultant in the international development and social impact sectors. He previously worked at Reboot and Mercy Corps, and has experience in Egypt, Kenya, Kosovo, and Uganda. He has an MPA from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. Dave blogs over at Praxis.

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32 thoughts on “Career advice (from people smarter than me)

  1. Inspiring writings and I greatly admired what you have to say , I hope you continue to provide new ideas for us all and greetings success always for you..Keep update more information..

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  3. All of this advice is useful, as long as it’s possible to get a work permit in the country an expat has chosen. The best thing to do is “browse the official governments’ websites of your preferred country and look for information about work visas.” Another tool to include in a creative expat search strategy.
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  4. kimberly maldonado

    I wanted to know from people with experience such as yourselves, what College would you recommend me to attend to? I was accepted in the Master’s program for International Affairs at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UCSD and also in the International Development Program at the School of International Service at American University. This has been a very difficult decision to make and would greatly appreciate guidance.

  5. Also compiled a list of interview questions for people to consider asking of aid organizations:

  6. Hi Dave,

    Came across this blog while searching for development blogs since I am also setting up my own blogsite I am a development worker from the Phippines with more than 20 years work experience in development and still loving it. The reason why I want to put up my own blogsite is to share the joys and fulfillment I find in doing development work and to show to others wanting to get into this profession that it works. It’s a viable career path while helping make this world better. You are confronted with sufferings and disempowerment, yes, but there is fulfilment in helping communities come alive and there are strategies that you can do to ensure stability and long-term security professionally, personally and financially in this field.

    My getting into development work was not really ‘intentional’, I didn’t really applied for it. I got invited by a former schoolmate who knew me in college. She became the head of the apostolate arm of a university where I have taken my initial years in college. So never underestimate those student outreach program or getting active in campus because that might take you somewhere. The rest they say, is history. While my work has been mostly project based, I am proud to say that I have thrived in this field up to now. So I feel the need to consolidate and share my experience and insights and put up a well of resources where those wanting to get into development work or those who are already here may draw from and continually be inspired.

    This for publishing this blog and referencing other blogsites. They would certainly help me in the process of taking my own blogsite off the ground. Looking forward for your other blogs on development. All the best!

  7. Rakhi Donath

    Dear All, I am new in this forum. I am thinking to start a new career in the international development. Can some one advise me, which job would be preferable among in UN or the development bank like WB, ADB, AfDB etc? let’s say if the job in UN is at level P4 and the job in bank at specialist level. Thanks in advance

  8. A life serving the poor, Where to begin

    An Introduction to working in areas of poverty , Dr Michael Meegan, International Director, ICROSS

    After 36 years in Africa working with NGOs mostly ICROSS, I am often asked the same question when people are starting out looking to get involved in serving the poor, just how to start.

    1. Lets start with the lay of the land in 2014…

    There are a few challenges that did not exist when I started out. The brain drain has largely reversed and there are more local skilled professionals who have the advantage of local language, culture and tradition. There has been a strong trend to localise and move away from high turn overs of ex pat staff as well as a shift in paradigm from top heavy Western staff to smaller local organisations. There is another important shift that has seen a massive move away from Western Government funding of NGOs to funding poor country Infrastructures and local Government capacities. This has changed the map dramatically since 1994.

    With the Global recession there are fewer charities and international groups looking for overseas personnel but at the same time there are more courses in International Development related studies qualifying young passionate professionals wanting to serve. This has created a new area in the industry, the volunteer and internship sector. As a requirement for completing studies, including post graduate studies students need placements. Work placements , field experiences, attachments , volunteer placements are requiste in many universities. Following a flood of these students in the late 1990s what used to be something did for free then became big income for NGOs. To this day there is a perception that “If I want to go and help in Africa or Cambodia why should I have to pay for offering my time. ?” Only last week a student in the USA asked me

    “I would like to know why internships here come with a fee. Most internships that I see for NGOs do not require a fee, but only have the intern pay their own flight and costs associated with arriving at the destination. Is there housing available for these internships as well, or is that out of the pocket of interns and volunteers?”

    The reality is that this is not correct, most credible NGOs do charge. For over 25 years our own NGO ICROSS never charged any fees, but we do have modest charges in 2014. The reason is twofold. Every time there is a visitor it takes staff resources, often amenieties, security, a translator, a mentor, while the intern is meeting their University requirements , the NGO is often bearing responsibilities and costs that are absorbed by project costs which is why most NGOs actually do charge generally modest fees. Many volunteer placement programmes however are very expensive at over $1,000 a month.

    In practice building a career in International development will be like everything else in life, full of decisions, the more informed those decisions are the better. This means “ DO YOUR HOMEWORK” Not every NGO will be the right one for you and many people need to invest time seeking what will be the best fit for them.

    Unlike many career paths, International Development does have the advantage of being able to apply to hundreds of International bodies. Typically most long term professionals in the Industry start with personal field experiences in several unpaid positions in low income countries. Generally this is a steep learning and listening curve helping them to identify their next step. They then find an area that interests them and they might do post graduate studies in that area after 2 – 3 years of poorly remunerated or unpaid work. After that many would be in their late 20s, often with responsibilities and looking for some income. This would either be a desk job in a Nationally based NGO or INGO or if they were lucky a Donor body like AUSAID, SIDA, DFiD, DANIDA, Global Fund . Others would work at any one of the 2,700 large NGOs that have large western teams. After these 2-3 years there is a high fall out rate for a multiplicity of reasons.

    At this stage ones focus may often be more about lobbying, policy, awareness and changing the politics. Many of us, myself included have never been interested in those areas but have preferred the field. After Post Grad work the options in this decade ( Since 2010 ) have been more specialised Programme management or implementation. A third area of course is operational research, monitoring and evaluation. In the two latter options by ones early 30s anyone working in International Development should be at least bilingual. Over half of middle management field positions are locally filled.

    2. Given the context what do I do next ?

    There are loads sites like some are better than others like and that give useful overviews, there are no shortage of opportunities around. Everything is about collaboration, networking, multi disciplinary skills, broad based skills, team work and listening.

    There are loads of very experienced professionals that have good insights like many of whom will say the obvious that you already know about passion and dedication and purpose

    3. Take home Messages

    1. Build your experience and practical experience as well as knowledge of the range of opportunities and career pathways within the Development sector, Its not only Crisis Vs poverty reduction. A good intro is to look at the job specifications and the kinds of minimum requirements that are listed for different job positions and catagories. Talk to professionals in the areas that interest you, get them to look at your Resume and advise you, and the more guidance you get from those doing the job you want, the better, don’t get discouraged.

    2. Careers in all these areas are increasingly specialised ( which does not mean narrow )and you will need to start exploring part time online ongoing learning which will be important. This could be anything from introductory courses in humanitarian aid policies or millennium goals to project management or field implementation. In all you do there should be an element of continuous learning and keeping up with rapidly changing dynamics. Eg If you are working in an area of International Development or Global change what languages do you speak, what are your portals of learning ? ( not all are academic but some must be)


    Normally the frustration is NGOs want certain levels of practical field experience as a minimum, in too many situations they need a certain level of specific training and skill sets to be given practical field experience. In a competitive field every candidate will be passionate and informed, they will be fresh and enthusiastic, you must stand out and that’s more about your heart than your mind, more about your compassion than your rationale, more about the unique gift you bring than the sector.

  9. You can check out the latest vacancies in international careers at:

  10. Great post Dave and many thanks for putting the work into sourcing and summarising the links. I reckon this is a pretty good starting point for anyone wanting to get into the international development field.

  11. […] who has time for a book?  You can read career advice from people smarter than me – a compilation of advice for young professionals and students in international […]

  12. thedevelopmentroast

    Hi Dave, thanks for sharing these. DEVEX also has some new posts that could be helpful to the readers:

    How to network your way to an aid internship –


  13. […] for Experts: Check out Dochas’ info on working in development. A great compilation on working in development.  Humanitarian […]

  14. […] in the year I wrote a guest post on the whydev blog: “Career advice (from people smarter than me)”. It’s a compilation of links to what other bloggers have written about international […]

  15. Laura O'Neill

    Thanks for your post. After finishing my MA and having a range of volunteer/intern experience I still found it challenging to find the sort of job I dream about without additional ‘relevant’ development work experience.

    I spent a number of months based in Asia looking for work/applying for jobs but it yielded many rejections or ‘close encounters’, with positions given to someone else in the end. I was determined and spent many days and nights scrawling through job search engines, writing cover letters, emailing every possible opportunity I encountered. I was driven by determination but still it is really hard to keep up the optimism in this situation. In my searches I had ruled out Australia as I am very passionate about Asia and want to see myself in this corner of the world.

    I’m not sure why my job hunting direction shifted to NT, I think I saw one position and then I decided to see what else was available out there and I discovered a lot of jobs. If you are just beginning in this field I think that working in Indigenous affairs can be very relevant to a career in international development as the issues faced by Aboriginal Australia deserves strong and commited community development workers, health proffessionals, midwives, teachers and other education workers, program managers, social workers, environment/land rights specialists/creative arts industry people eg film makers, artists, musicians…there are lots of fields available.

    The other thing about being here is that you can gain experience working in projects that are funded! From my experience and knowledge, so many development projects struggle with budgets, funding and ongoing income to execute projects, so at least in Australian soil you can get a feel for how projects with financial capacity operate.

    In summary, I found a short term job in one of the remote communities in NT (for the school holidays, however workers often take long leave for 1-2 months at a time and you can put your name on a roster for short job openings). From this opportunity, the organisation has offered me an interview for an upcoming position not advertised publically. Everyone I talk to that lives here says it is not so difficult to find work here, so if you are open minded and want to contribute to ‘closing the gap’ why not try NT, Alice Springs, Darwin or the Central Australian (WA/SA desert regions) for a career?

    Although things change and nothing is ever set in concrete, for me, my career tactic is to be in NT for some time to get more experience and then retry the job search abroad once I’ve got more experience under my belt.

    Good luck for all of you out there I know it’s a challenge but what a great way to spend our working lives, it’s worth the struggle to be able to do a job/be in an industry that you are passionate about.

  16. […] January 13, 2011 Dave Algoso Leave a comment Go to comments I have a guest post over at Here’s the summary version. Ah, the New Year. A nice time to pause and reflect on life’s […]

  17. Heike

    Hi Dave,

    Great post! I will definitely be sharing it with everyone who asks me 'How do I get into development?



  18. […] Career advice for folks interested in international development […]

  19. […] Career advice (from people smarter than me) – WhyDev – A great roundup of links on information and advice for building a career in international development. […]

  20. Hey – thanks for the shoutout – dormant might be the right word about – I’ve been distracted by other things, but it’s not forgotten – I’m working on some more interviews!

    1. Dave Algoso

      Please bring it back to life! Most career advice comes in the form of lists of "best practices" — like the Washington Consensus for career paths. We need more case studies of success to understand how those principles apply to our own careers.

      1. Dave – I think I’m back on track – there are a few more postings, and more in the works!

  21. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by angelica, satoriworldwide. satoriworldwide said: Commented on Career advice (from people smarter than me) / […]

  22. Hi Dave, Great post.

    With about 10 years in (UN and NGO's) I would echo the 'be easy to work with', and suggest that people approach a new opportunity/career with some humility…work hard at what needs doing rather than being frustrated about all the things you are not yet doing. My experience is that the fluidity of most development/humanitarian contexts eventually provide ample opportunity to increase your responsibility, particularly if you have been hardworking and not frustrated everyone yet!

    Getting in is one thing; how about staying in long term while still maintaining a sense of balance and purpose? My experience is that most (especially larger) organizations do not provide support for staff well being and this leads to a very high rate of burnout. The high stress environments we often find ourselves in, along with a work culture that values "hours in" above all else, contributes to an unhealthy level of workaholism that doesn't benefit anyone in the long run…family dynamics suffer and people can become cynical.

    This was our experience anyway. My wife and I have recently taken a break to start a company offering retreats and programs for aid workers and expat families that teach the skills of maintaining balance and health in the field…a sort of apprenticeship in resilience that help people get perspective and bring themselves more fully (and mindfully) to their work and life.

    We have recently got our own blog up looking at these issues…balance, family dynamics and personal resilience in the development/expatriate context. ( We recently added a short video to our site where one of our facilitators answers the question "Is burnout an epidemic amongst aid workers".

    Thanks again for the great post and blog!


    Steve Munroe and Renee Martyna

    Satori Worldwide

  23. avan

    there was another career advice that you should have added to the list:

  24. […] Career advice for young professionals and students in international aid/development […]

  25. Stephen Jones

    Great compilation Dave – thanks.

    My favourite piece of advice (this is stolen from Alanna Shaikh, I highly recommend her Q+A too): "be easy to work with" i.e. when you do get a slight foot-in-the-door (e.g. internship etc) make sure you're a good person to have round, get on with the boring stuff without complaining, be friends with colleauges. Common sense but important!

    Training courses e.g. You haven't mentioned them here and I know there's not always agreement about how useful they are for entry-level people (and they are often expensive), but I know people who have found them a good means of networking.

    And I agree with you on the 'thousand career paths' – most of the senior people I meet who are doing the sort of stuff that I aspire to had no planned path at all… just one interesting thing leading to another.

    1. Dave Algoso

      "Be easy to work with" — Yes! I remember reading that somewhere too. Great advice.

  26. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karen Grepin, rullyjuliard, and others. said: New guest post from @DaveAlgoso: Career advice (from people smarter than me. […]

  27. Just wanted to share this InterAction publication on recruitment, which is what I’ve shared with folks interested in international development jobs advice. Pages 8 & 9 have a great article entitled, "Pursuing a Job in International Relief and Development: Discovering and Creating Opportunities" by Daniel Curran.

  28. As someone with an MA currently working at a Starbucks to save money up to volunteer abroad, thanks for giving me a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. It can be difficult to pass out paper cups by the dozen and remember that its part of your plan to eventually work for a more sustainable world. Its nice being reminded every once and awhile that there are many ways to get your foot in the door.

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