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WorkDev #3: Climbing the career ladder

WorkDev #3: Climbing the career ladder

In our WorkDev series, Maia Gedde, author of Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance: A Career Guide, is sharing some of the book’s most important lessons on working in aid. This is the third post in the series–don’t miss part 1 and part 2.

Getting that first paid position in the development or humanitarian sector can be difficult, and the assumption is that once you’ve overcome that initial hurdle, the rest is easy. But within a year or two, you might find yourself back on the job market, wondering, “What next?”

It’s fairly standard within the industry to change roles or organisations every few years. The dynamic nature of development work means that you’ll have the opportunity to have a varied career. But to stay employable, you have to stay ahead of the game. How can you do that?

Set long-term goals, but be flexible.

Once you have some years’ experience, you’re likely to have a clearer direction on where you want to go, what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. Try to match this to the trends and demands within the sector, and think about what skills and experience are likely to be sought after in the future. The aid sector changes rapidly, with donors prioritising certain sectors at different times, and, currently, forming more partnerships with the private sector.

Think about what that means for you and your career early on, before you actually find yourself back on the job market. Sadly, career paths in the sector are not clear and predictable. It’s also difficult to establish a direction from the outset, as there are no set rules to follow in this sector, and everyone’s career journey is different. Your senior colleagues’ careers were built in a very different environment, so your career will be more closely modeled on those just a few years ahead.

Direct your job to where you want it to go.

You can’t always be selective when it comes to jobs, and at the start, your focus might be to just get a job, any job, in the sector. If those first positions aren’t directly aligned to your goals, fear not. You should always be able to take opportunities and gain transferable skills that will help you in future. But it’s important to identify the skills and experience you’ll need for your dream job, and try to incorporate them into your current position, even if it means extra hours and additional workload.

Develop your T-shaped skills.

We often think that an efficient way to advance in one’s career is to specialise. There’s a feeling of quality and performance when saying someone is a specialist. Specialist skills are in demand, but alone they are not enough. Multi-skilled, versatile and mobile staff who are available to work across occupational groups are also in demand.

But organisations are increasingly recruiting T-shaped people: professionals who combine the best attributes of both generalists and specialists. These people have, at some point in their career, specialised in one or more disciplines and are adept in that specialty; but, they have also worked in contexts that required them to function as a generalist.

Whatever your starting point, make sure that you plan to develop a specialty and a diverse range of competencies throughout your career.

Once you’ve set some career goals, write them down, and then start to think about how you can reach them. Here are some tips for getting there:

Adopt a life-long learning philosophy, as continuous learning and skills development are a key part of career growth.

Get a mentor. As the African proverb says, “The child with outstretched arms to an adult is very likely to get carried beyond his/her height.”

Don’t be afraid of challenges. It’s good to change jobs regularly. Lateral movement, where you change jobs but not necessarily level, responsibility or pay, is an important career option to expand your skills base, experience and knowledge.

Keep abreast of developments and share your work. Co-workers are often dependent on each other for learning about innovations and best practices in the field. Sharing your work is also a great way to build up your networks, which play a vital role in your career progression.

Finally, maintain a sense of balance and purpose, as your well-being and perspective are vital if you want a long term career in this often difficult sector.

This post is based on extracts from Chapter 9 of Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance. Don’t miss the next post in the series, on the breadth of the sector. Maia’s also offering WhyDev readers 20% of the book; use the code FLR40.

Featured image shows an illustration of a businessman climbing up the word “success.” Photo from Pixabay.

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Maia Gedde

Maia Gedde was born in Australia but grew up in Kenya and Spain before moving to England. She then worked at the U.K. Department for International Development before completing a Master’s in Development Studies in Sweden. Maia has since worked for a number of NGOs, focusing on health and education programs in Uganda, Ghana and Malawi, in between renovating a 300-year-old house in Fez, Morocco. Currently living between Rwandan and Burundi, she is now the Country Manager at SPARK, a Dutch NGO that supports young people in post-conflict countries to become entrepreneurs and job creators.

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3 thoughts on “WorkDev #3: Climbing the career ladder

  1. […] my last post, I touched on developing T-shaped skills: technical depth and professional breadth. If you start […]

  2. […] WorkDev #3: Climbing the career ladder | Maia Gedde – […]

  3. That’s right, at the start, it’s hard to chart the direction of your career in development work because you tend to grab whatever is available at the time that your project has ended. But the most important is that in each project that you have been a part of, you have gained important skills that you can transfer to any project that comes your way. Developing right attitude in working with teams is equally important as gaining those skills. One of the good habits that development or humanitarian workers needs to acquire and which I am also a strong proponent of, is adopting a lifelong learning philosophy. One must never get tired of learning. It may not only be about your industry but also on how you can develop yourself personally. Those skills, attitude and habit are not project specific but will be useful for you as you continue your journey whether in development or in humanitarian sector. For some inspiration, please drop by at my site

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