Getting a job in development (UN edition)

Probably the number one question I get in office hours and e-mails: “how can I get a job working in development?” Unfortunately I have news for you. It’s quite simple. I call it the Fundamental Theorum of Bad Undergraduate Advice: your Professor has never had a real job.

Fear not, because there’s a Second Fundamental Theorum too: sometimes your Professors have friends with real jobs (or at least watch real jobs on TV).

Since there are no TV programs about international development (Aaron Spelling: if you’re reading this, call me–I have ideas) I’ve begun to annoy colleagues around the globe with requests for their stories and advice. This marks the inaugural post.

Advice from a UNHCR staffer in Africa (head of a sub-national office):

Getting a job with the UN is possible, though it seems a bit tough. Yes, some get in with connections, but I am an example of someone who got a job knowing no one. It required, I believe, a combination of a relevant CV, persistence, and luck/good timing.

Relevant CV

You need some experience in the developing world for at least 6 months, ideally a year-plus. It should be in a region where you want to work, or a “hardship” place. This gives the hiring party reassurance that “you can take it” and won’t quit. Recruiting for jobs abroad, especially for non-private sector jobs, is done without spending much money. It is tough for the hiring party, and requires taking risks often without getting to meet people. (My example of experience pre-hiring, 2 and 1/2 years Peace Corps in a small village in Africa plus summer job in Guatemalan town).

Second languages are essential for most UN jobs unless you are a PhD in something specific for a very specific job (I have English, French, Spanish). Make sure it is one of the UN languages. I took language courses during grad school rather than sit on law review.

Have a graduate degree (they won’t look at anyone from developed countries without one, I have a JD). If you can, try to make sure it has some “international bent.” If you can spend a semester working abroad and getting credits (or a summer) then go for it.


Apply, apply, and apply again. I applied to hundreds of jobs on all the websites. I was always looking at the different sites all the time. Apply to rosters (like IRC, DRC, NRC, and so on). Visit with your career counselor and ask what they can do to help, and do it. If you aggressively pursue and have a good CV, eventually you will have…

Luck/Good Timing

In the end, the competition for these jobs is fierce. So if you have a great CV and perfect background, the likelihood is someone else does as well. So you need good timing and luck. Your CV will land on someone’s desk the right day when they are ready to take action and hire someone like you.

Finally, Although I was lucky and didn’t have to do it, networking really does work. Apply to any and all UN internships and aggressively follow-up on your applications. Call people, ask for “HR persons” or whoever hires interns.

After my 1st year of law school I took this route (I was sending CVs and cold-calling looking for follow-up) and landed three offers of internships with different sections of UNDP. In the end, I took none as I couldn’t afford spending a summer in New York paying to work. But if you can – then go for it, link with a “mentor” (i.e. someone intelligent who takes interest in you and you are interested in), and nurture that relationship.

In the end, if you are good, then it will be in the benefit of the organisation to try to get you on board.