Getting a job in international development

Alanna Shaikh’s five tips for getting a job in international development:

1. Get an office job while you’re still in school. As I’ve written, most development work is office work. You need to prove you can handle an office every day. Really, the only way to do that is to have an office job. Do it in the summers if you can’t hack it while in school. Office work is not the most profitable way to spend your time, but it will be worth it later.

2. Study something useful at university. For example, technical subjects like nursing and IT are useful. Epidemiology is useful. A master’s degree is more useful than an undergrad degree.

3. Learn to write. I don’t mean you need to be a novelist, but with practice everybody can write a clear, useful report at decent speed. Have writing samples to prove you can do it.

4. Study a second language. You don’t have to get all that good at it, but making the effort demonstrates you are willing to commit yourself to international and intercultural work. If you are already bilingual, you don’t have to learn a third language. People will assume you are good at intercultural navigation.

5. I think this is the hardest one: have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific. “I am interested in food security and emergency relief” has a good level of specificity. “I want to work for UNDP” is too specific. “I am interested in women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and community development” is too vague. There is kind of an art to this; basically you want to give people a sense of who you are and what you want. Too broad and they don’t have any sense of you. To narrow and you’ve ruled out too many jobs. If you’re having trouble with this, it’s a good thing to talk over with a mentor. (Yes, if you don’t have a mentor, I will help. Within reason.)

I would echo #2 and #3 especially, and add the following:

6. Be prepared to volunteer your first couple of jobs. The paid opportunities will come in droves, but only after you distinguish yourself from the mass of inexperienced undergraduates who want to work abroad. Offer to work for free, and consider paying your own airfare over to look for opportunities. Could be the best investment you make.

7. Pound the less-trodden pavement. Everyone applies through the front door: the UN or NGO internship, the junior professional program at [insert development bank here]. Do that, but also e-mail country offices and program managers directly, or even visit country offices in person to drop off a CV (see above).

8. Consider a private firm. The most exciting and educational jobs in development could be Celtel (growing gangbusters across Africa) or Ecobank (started in Togo–yes, that Togo–and now in 26 countries). Not too many students are e-mailing them looking for an internship.

9. It’s a numbers game. Sit down every day and aim to write just 5 people. After three weeks, that’s 50 e-mails. Forty-five will go unanswered, three will say “thanks, but no vacancy”, two will say “let’s talk”, and one will turn into a job.

10. Be willing to go to uncomfortable places. No worthwhile NGO should send you to a danger zone or challenging emergency on your first go, but many will need staff in secure but less desirable destinations. Express a willingness to work under difficult conditions and it may open up extra doors. So long as you mean it. Travel experience in difficult countries will help.

See all posts on getting first jobs in development and developing countries. Or working in war zones. Or getting a PhD and saving the world.