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Students: make yourself more employable in the aid sector

Students: make yourself more employable in the aid sector

By Noah Taylor

Entering the job market sucks. The aid sector is no different and is in many ways significantly harder to enter than other industries. There’s more competition and fewer jobs than in many for-profit industries and, more importantly, there is no clear entry pathway into the sector for students. There are a range of articles dedicated to getting your first job in aid and I don’t assume to usurp these. However, a lot of advice is very generic and suggests ‘volunteering’ and ‘networking’ without actually explaining what that means. Here’s my list of the key steps I took to increase my chances of landing that first gig. They’re all practical things that make you more appealing to managers and you can do them with a good internet connection. The number one rule that guides all of these steps: be proactive, and play the long game. No-one else is looking for a job for you.

Clean up your act

When considering applicants for a job, managers don’t have a lot to go on other than your CV and cover letter. Regardless of how great you think you are at smashing these bad boys out, there’s a good to fair chance you’ve missed something. So how do you convey more of yourself? The answer: your digital profile. If you have a professional profile that can easily be accessed then managers have another place to look at your experience and go beyond what you provided in the application. So what does that look like?

Well, clean up your LinkedIn. Get a friend with an alright camera to take a decent photo and update all your positions. You’re not limited on LinkedIn so pack in detail. Also, link to examples of your work if it’s available online. Next, get on Twitter. Frame your Twitter profile the same way you’ve done your LinkedIn and instead of following the latest celebrity gossip follow key people in the aid sector. Start off with these guys and then hone in on the region and theme you’re targeting. The aim here is to join and establish yourself in the conversation. Using some of these tips to boost your online image means that when you come to applying for that dream job, you’re a little more ‘known’. Maybe the boss even follows you already.

linked in students
Make sure you’re LinkedIn. Photo from Flickr.

Network, effectively

The old adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is overused. Too often, networking is confused with using personal relationships to gain an advantage in the job market. Whilst there’s some merit to the approach it’s not particularly professional. Instead of trying to schmooze your way into a job, try connecting with people in positions you aspire to and find out how they got where they are. Instead of asking for a job, ask them about the organisations they work for and how they got started. What are you currently lacking on your résumé that would help you get a foot in the door?

If you do this effectively you can establish a group of senior professionals that know you beyond an email and would be willing to act as a referee or help you out in drafting an application. LinkedIn is great for this so when you find a job you’d like to apply for, see if you can find someone in the organisation to talk to before you submit it. You might even get lucky and manage to by-pass cumbersome HR processes and get your CV under the nose of the right person straight away. Even if it’s not a manager, talk to people that work there and ask what the culture is like. How’s the workload? The management? Another great feature of LinkedIn is that you can search by previous position held. You might find that people are a little more willing to speak candidly about an old organisation.

network students
Networking is key. Photo from Flickr.

Learn some stuff

Yes I know you’ve got a Masters. Congratulations. Want a medal? Whilst studying and job hunting use some of your down time to build skills in other areas. I taught myself some mapping skills which have proven very useful. Investing in other, more established training courses is another great option but it will cost. RedR run fantastic training courses and they’re also a great way to meet people. Most university degrees in international development are pretty light on the technical side so you’re going to have to fill that gap yourself. Hopefully, if you’ve spoken to some people in the field, they’ll be able to help you figure out which skills you need to be developing.

Get out there

One of the biggest barriers to finding work overseas is your lack of overseas experience. This is a really stupid catch 22 and something that the sector needs to address, but assuming they don’t anytime soon, you’re going to need to figure out how to get overseas experience. Self-funded volunteering is an option but one that needs to be approached carefully. Travelling, on the other hand, is much more fun. Even if you haven’t worked in the Middle East, Africa or Pacific, travelling through some of it demonstrates at least some familiarity with the area you’re interested in and that will help you stand out. Of course, as for the training discussed above, this will cost money and if you’re not flush with cash then unfortunately you will struggle. This is another issue that the sector must address.

job search students
Job searching can be a time-consuming, and costly, process. Photo from Flickr.


The final point that brings these together is focus. Identify the exact position you aspire to, in the organisations you admire and in the country or context you’re interested in. Connect with people there and learn about their work. Identify the skills you need for that position and build them. There’s a huge variety of positions out there and without a consistent approach, you’ll get lost in the muddle.

It can be very frustrating sending endless applications into the vacuum of your outbox and hearing nothing in return. By being proactive about the job search you’ll find you feel at less of a loose end and a little more in control of the whole process.

Noah Taylor is an Australian post-grad student based in the Middle East. He is establishing his career in humanitarian aid and writing about the experience. Noah has a background in monitoring and evaluation and project development. He has worked with international NGOs, government, consultancy and served in the Australian military. Passionate about excellence in the humanitarian sector, civil-military coordination and hummus. You can follow him on Twitter @NoahTayls.

Featured image credit: Julie Walraven (Flickr).

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3 thoughts on “Students: make yourself more employable in the aid sector

  1. […] part of your organisation, they will gain valuable experience. It could give students the taste of working within the aid sector and alongside international development […]

  2. […] the most of college, whether to go to grad school, should you do a PhD. Plus some useful tips on landing the first job in aid/development after all that […]

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