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.

29 thoughts on “Getting a job in international development

  1. Funny thing about Ecobank, I did email them to get an internship in their Ghana office back in the summer of 2005. It was a great experience, both for getting to know the country and for understanding that I will never work in a private bank. You are right though about no one emailing them: I was the first white person in their office, ever.

  2. Thanks so much for this post. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am one of those droves of undergraduates,and I have definitely found (as you point out) that emailing organizations directly is one of the best ways to get their attention and get in (not to mention working as a volunteer). Thanks for this follow-up post…I’m trying to navigate the world of international organizations and NGOs and finding it complex, to say the least.

  3. Thanks for the follow-up post, Chris. We’ve linked to you and Alanna on the Working World careers blog (https://digitalcommons.georgetown.edu/blogs/workingworld/).

    One question we consistently get at Working World from students and young professionals is: how necessary is a Master’s degree in a career in international affairs? From your perspective, what is the value of a Master’s degree in a career in international development? And if it is indeed necessary, at what point do you suggest pursuing a higher degree? Right after college, or do you need a few years of experience to make the degree more worthwhile?

  4. I propose #11: travel first and find work when you get there. Orgs are much more willing to hire you overseas if you show up at their door, it demosntrates ability and comfort with travel, and you are low cost. This has worked for me several times, even post-Masters as a professional.

    #12: go to small, undesirable countries where your relative influence and responsibility will be greater. Advising the head of a development bank sounds interesting, even if it’s the Cape Verde Development Bank.

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  7. Hi all, I am Michelle and doing an internship with http://www.workforcehumanity.com. I have been doing a little survey on what internships are out there and how competitive they are. I spoke with Merlin and they have had over 100 candidates to fill 8 positions. This internship was pretty nice you spent 6 mths in the HQ and then 6 mths in the field (but not guaranteed). It was the same at Save the Children however in their internship program you don’t get the field experience you need. Alanna is right to get your first PAID job you need to have experience volunteering overseas and at least 6 months. This has to be also in the same area as your ‘goal’ that Alanna speaks about. There is a new program in development at Workforce Humanity that is built to find the right field placement for you. The candidate speaks to an expert to draw out their ‘goal’ and then a local organization in Africa or Asia is targeted and a TOR developed that will help you get the skills you need to put on your resume. Honestly it’s really difficult to get in the sector so I would ask advice to someone in it or an organization so that you target your approach right.

  8. Hi all, I am Michelle and doing an internship with http://www.workforcehumanity.com I have been doing a little survey on what internships are out there and how competitive they are. I spoke with Merlin and they have had over 100 candidates to fill 8 positions. This internship was pretty nice you spent 6 mths in the HQ and then 6 mths in the field (but not guaranteed). It was the same at Save the Children however in their internship program you don’t get the field experience you need. Alanna is right to get your first PAID job you need to have experience volunteering overseas and at least 6 months. This has to be also in the same area as your ‘goal’ that Alanna speaks about. There is a new program in development at Workforce Humanity that is built to find the right field placement for you. The candidate speaks to an expert to draw out their ‘goal’ and then a local organization in Africa or Asia is targeted and a TOR developed that will help you get the skills you need to put on your resume. Honestly it’s really difficult to get in the sector so I would ask advice to someone in it or an organization so that you target your approach right.

  9. Nathan Fiala
    April 20, 2009

    Funny thing about Ecobank, I did email them to get an internship in their Ghana office back in the summer of 2005. It was a great experience, both for getting to know the country and for understanding that I will never work in a private bank. You are right though about no one emailing them: I was the first white person in their office, ever.

    NATHAN,,…THIS SOUNDS CONDESCENDING FOR SOMEONE LOOKING TO WORK INTERCULTURALLY. I’VE BEEN TO PLACES, ESPECIALLY IN EUROPE, WHERE I’VE BEEN THE FIRST BLACK MAN TO TRY WORKING THERE. THERE’S ALWAYS A FIRST. I LIVE AND WORK IN WEST AFRICA AND WE HAVE A LOT OF DEVELOPMENT NEEDS. YOU CAN BE THE FIRST WESTERNER IN A LOT OF PLACES IN WEST AFRICA…WHAT’S STRANGE ABOUT THAT?

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  12. As a recent LSE International Development graduate, I very much enjoyed this post! I was especially intrigued by your brief mention of a few lesser-known NGOs doing innovative work in places one may not expect. I myself am looking for living-wage field positions, particularly those with a communications component. My areas of interest include agricultural development and livelihoods. If you know of any hidden-gem organizations which may be aligned with my interests, I would appreciate it if you could point me in the right direction.

  13. Very useful post, indeed…However I was wondering for the following
    “consider paying your own airfare over to look for opportunities”
    Well I was thinking to do something like that, but as far as I know the NGOs hire mainly locals for more junior positions. So I dont really know if it will turn out good…
    The city I had in mind is Nairobi, because it seems to me like a center for most NGOs working in Africa…
    Any opinions and any suggestions on where (country) would be the most appropriate place to go and leave your CV?
    Thanks!

  14. Hey,so this may be random but i’m having troubles. I want to eventually go work in the U.N somewhere but im having troubles getting a clear explanation of what i should study. Some people say a masters in econmics, or masters in commerce or masters in business administration. I mean which one is the easiest….not the easiest but the most productful for what i want to do. Thanks!

  15. Great post. Now as a person who graduated from LSE three years ago, I am still struggling to secure a junior field-based programme officer role. I thought having three yeras of experiences on my hand would help me moving to next level. I think one of the reasons that I am more struggling than others is because NGOs tend to distinguish certain nationalities for so many reasons. That makes me feel very depressed. I do however agree that working at developing countries would give more opportunities. I worked in one of the developing countries as a policy researcher and it has opened up more opportunities than before. My finger crossed for an interview on one year programme officer role.

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  20. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for your helpful advice. Any recommendations on how or where to find the best journalism/statistics/quantitative methods courses for those looking to widen their skill set between jobs?

  21. Great advice to incorporate in your job search in the international organizations and NGOs sector. Volunteerism does help to get your feet inside.

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  23. Chris,
    Great advice. I think a lot of young people out there will really benefit from this. Tip #9 is so true, it really is a numbers game. Only a small percentage of people will get back to you, so you can’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Thanks for sharing!

  24. Has anyone studied a technical subject such as Physiotherapy or Nursing on top of their International Relations degree and managed to get a job in the field? I would be very interested in hearing your story. Thanks in advance

  25. Thanks a lot for sharing this perfect article.I really, really appreciate your time and efforts for writing such a quality article.