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Pounding the pavement: DevQuest-ing your way into a development career

By Giles Dickenson-Jones

What I’d probably classify as my international development origin story was a short-term research project with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Essentially, during the year, the ADB advertises research and work they need done, which you (and hundreds of others) apply to do as part of their internship program.

In my case, I applied to help them develop a model to predict which roads would be impacted by climate change, so they could target where to do more detailed analysis or invest in climate proofing. And as comparatively boring as this origin story might sound, it crucially altered the way I viewed working in international development.

For one, I realised the development community is full of high achievers. People at the ADB were clever, good-looking and fluent in multiple languages. International development seemed to be as competitive as I’d been told.

But I also quickly realized that most people there were extremely approachable and happy to help. In fact, people came to speak to me, probably both because of how undeniably interesting road engineering is and because they guessed I had questions about building a career in international development.

And while this is partly a testament to the ADB placing a high value on their interns, I think it was also because many professionals there had, at one point, asked the same questions:

  • “Should I apply to an international organisation through the young professionals program?”
  • “Is it more important to network, or to apply to jobs through formal channels?”
  • “Is a Masters degree enough, or do I need a PhD?”
  • “How important is field experience? Where do I start?”
  • “Why do people love karaoke so much here?”

Some people thought that to be a professional economist, a PhD was a minimum. Others suggested accruing a good chunk of experience outside international organisations was the way to go, as it provided a wider view of the development sector. By and large, field experience was recommended – not for the purposes of “slumming it,” but to ensure you receive an adequate dose of humility through being exposed to the day-to-day challenges faced in communities being “developed.”

On the other hand, advice on how to acquire this experience varied, with some people working it into their PhD research, some undertaking internships in the field and others having studied overseas.

"One does not simply...get field experience." Meme by WhyDev.
“One does not simply…get field experience.” Meme by WhyDev.

Not only that, but the advice was (as one would expect) extremely different depending on people’s specific sector, as well as both where and when they started their career. International development seemed to be a field involving an intricate web of vertical and horizontal links between organisations, specialisations and regions.

After attending enough lunch events to give me a pronounced “networking belly,” a key theme, it seemed, was that there is no set path to getting your foot in the door. While persistence, international experience and a specialisation in a useful field will help, don’t expect the combination to necessarily result in an interview. In fact, whether you’re even considered might depend on where you fit with nationality quotas, whether other high-performers have come from your university and whether you’ve worked in-country before.

And this is what can make development seem like the career equivalent of getting a backstage pass – if you don’t fit the club’s demographic, you’d better know the bouncer.

While I’ll never be the kind of person who looks like he belongs backstage, I do realize how valuable my experience was in providing some clarity about where I might fit in the sector. But two years later, as I came to the end of my post-graduate studies in development, I also realised I’d been lucky. I had the right skills at the right time, and the right person in ADB’s human resources department had seen my application.

But not everyone gets a backstage pass. In fact, few do. Perhaps as a result of this, many people I was studying with seemed to be afflicted by professional paralysis. These feelings made a world of waning development funding all the more intimidating and uncertain, particularly when many had no idea where their skills might fit into the development sector.

And perhaps this was the most difficult thing for people I spoke with. How does a person make an informed choice about the value of doing an internship, earning a degree or even pursuing a career in development, without having a mentor to learn from or a sounding board to bounce ideas off?

Should I seek a role in the field or target an organisation that has offices in regions I’m interested in working in? Should I self-fund an internship in a United Nations field office or with an NGO, or am I better to target private consultancies?

And whilst analogous problems are faced in any field, the non-linear nature of development careers makes it that much harder, especially with there being relatively limited pieces of good advice from seasoned professionals.

Not only that, there isn’t a standard recipe for pursuing a career in development, meaning the “one size fits all” advice provided by many Human Resources departments and Career Services offices isn’t always helpful. Following their advice, newcomers risk forcing themselves into a cookie-cutter mould of selection criteria, pursuing a role they might not be passionate about or simply trying to accrue qualifications or experiences that in fact place them no closer to securing their first position.

And this is the first reason we started DevQuest: as a simple avenue for newcomers to learn from their peers, hopefully making those initial steps a little less daunting. But there is another reason we thought the idea was long-overdue: despite a trend towards unpaid internships and young professionals programs, there is nowhere a person can read reviews of development entry points. Unless you know somebody who has gone before you, it’s hard to know what to expect when taking those first steps in your development career.

After all, how can someone tell the difference between an entry-level position where they’ll be forced to restock printers and one where they’ll get the opportunity to use their experience and even learn some new skills?

And whilst some Human Resource departments suggest interns and young professionals should be honoured to have even been selected, we think that every hour someone with a PhD spends getting coffee is an hour lost for an organisation that needs their skills.

We also believe personal stories can provide a powerful way to help newcomers cross that first bridge into development, by providing clarity about what’s out there – and assurance that they’re not the first person to have put in twenty applications without receiving a single reply.

Giles Dickenson-Jones is a Coordinator at DevQuest. Currently, he is an economist working in Myanmar, where he is responsible for developing and advising on economic policy. Before this, he worked in a range of roles for NGOs, government and the private sector. Giles holds a Masters degree in Development from the University of Sydney and an Honours degree in Economics from the University of New England. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows a silhouette of a businessman running up steps. Photo from Pixabay.