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How to Get a Job in Development - An FP2P Guide

Duncan Green's picture

There’s nothing like a lecture tour to bring home just how many bright young people are desperate to work in development, and how hard we make it for them (is this a deliberate form of institutional Darwinism, in which only the most determined survive?)  So I’ve gone back over a few previous bits of advice from me and others, to produce this revamped FP2P guide to throwing your life away getting a job in development.

I won’t give advice on what to study – if you’re reading this, it’s probably too late anyway. But in any case, qualifications are not enough – you need to get involved in organising relevant activities at your university, depending on your interests (e.g. Engineers Without Borders, Amnesty International, assorted International Development committees). You’ll learn a lot, make great contacts and friends, and develop skills that NGOs prize (organisational abilities, putting on events, writing, debating etc).

Then, decide what kind of work you are interested in. Research? Programme work on the ground? Emergencies (conflict refugees, disaster reconstruction etc)? Advocacy and lobbying? Public campaigning?

Next think what kinds of experience will help – experience often marks you out more than gaining another post graduate qualification, but you have to find some way to get over the inevitable first-rung problem of ‘how can I get experience when I haven’t got enough experience to land a job’ – it’s not easy, but it can be done.

For emergencies and programme work, try and get out there and get some experience in developing countries – it’s very hard to arrange that from this end, unless you have a particular network (eg a Church or university connection) that you can call on, so many people just try and sort something out on the spot. For campaigners, a record of activism at university or afterwards is always helpful.

For advocacy work, NGOs are often impressed by people who have worked in other sectors, especially the institutions we are keen to influence – governments north or south, multinational companies, aid donors. Many of them are much larger than Oxfam, and have good graduate entry schemes – a further advantage if you’re trying to get your foot on the ladder. Many are highly competitive, but check out the schemes for DFID, the World Bank, or the Overseas Development Institute. And if successful, make sure you get out before you get too comfortable, as NGOs are likely to pay less!

Show your face. Putting in a spell as an intern may not help with your student debt, but it enables you to make your mark and prove your commitment. It also enables you to apply for jobs that are only advertised internally, including short term jobs (maternity cover etc) that help you get on the paid employment ladder. But be choosy who you intern for, and what jobs you accept – even if there is no pay involved, you are offering skills and time to an organization, and should demand things in return.

And remember that research, advocacy and campaigning jobs are often the most sought after and competitive. It may be advisable to try to get a foothold by applying for more ‘corporate’ areas such as marketing, HR and finance, and then start from there.

Once you get an interview, follow all those useful guides to how to prep etc, but also, don’t hide your passion (even if you’re English). I’ve given jobs to interviewees because they were more passionate about development than the other candidates, (and never regretted it).

And here are some thoughts from a couple of other development bloggers

Alanna Shaikh

1. Get an office job while you’re still in school. 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. Too 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.

To which Chris Blattman adds

6. Be prepared to volunteer your first couple jobs

7. Pound the less-trodden pavement (e.g. try contacting program managers, country offices, etc. directly rather than applying through the front door)

8. Consider a private firm

9. It’s a numbers game (so understand that 50 emails will yield 45 non-responses, 3 immediate rejections, 2 interviews – and one job)

10. Be willing to go to uncomfortable places.

Alanna and Chris are both included in the exhaustive and excellent set of posts and links on Whydev.org

And once you get the elusive job, you can of course get your disillusionment in early by signing up to the excellent Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like blog. With that, good luck to all. Anyone know of any books I can recommend on this?

This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power

For more on the topic of development jobs, including a poll on whether or not interns should be paid, please read this post.  

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