This site is about getting your first job as a humanitarian aid worker. Whether you want to run refugee camps, micro credit programs or health programs, this is my personal opinion (not my employer’s) about ways to make the transition to international relief and development work.
If you find this site at least as useful as a coffee and a bagel, and wonder how you can possibly thank me, please consider buying my e-book on Amazon! Getting your first job in relief and development.
My take on getting a job as a humanitarian aid worker is organized by chapters (on the right-hand side under the heading Book chapters) – and is supposed to be read top-to-bottom more or less like a book. Book reviews and other pieces are posted below. Find out more about this blog here.
Please read the disclaimer, and understand that this line of work is not risk free. You need to do your own research, make your own decisions, and take responsibility for them.
If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my new Kindle eBook, which contains much of the content from this site, thoughtfully formatted for off-line reading on a Kindle, iPad, laptop, or other e-reader. It’s $6, and honestly, what can you get for that these days? Get it here
One more thing – I would love anyone who likes this site to go to Amazon and review the e-book – it really helps me to recover some of the costs of hosting this site – thanks!
Kristin’s article appears on Ramen IR, and is an interesting take on the trials of getting a foot in the international development door. Read the article here.
Q. Hi Nick,
Thanks for your website and very straight up answers to questions. I’ve found a lot of the advice you give to be hugely helpful.
I had a question about ‘field based roles.’
I’m beginning to think that I took some bad advice a few years back and did an MA in Development Studies. After an office based internship with a big NGO I quickly realised that I was heading for an ill-fated career bolted to a desk with a label stuck to my forehead saying ‘generalist.’ To make matters worse the carrot that this NGO dangled in front of me under the guise of a job ‘in the field’ was in fact another in office role just this time in the target country. A cruel play on words as I found out, although I can laugh at my naivety now.
For someone who has always wanted to work directly in the field (in the literal sense) I’m having the realisation that I probably should have studied something more inline with humanitarian and disaster relief work or got myself a specific skill.
I’ve been having a lot of difficulty identifying genuine field work roles that someone such as myself with generalist training could be working towards.
I’ve a couple of years volunteering under my belt in Africa and Latin America but largely quite informal stuff with small NGOs like construction, food distribution and helping with community medical camps but none of this has lead on unfortunately.
I was hoping you might have some suggestions about possible roles that might be out there?
Thanks for your time mate, its most appreciated, Jim
A. Hi Jim – thanks for the question.
There are a couple of issues going on here. First off, while I think graduate development studies are a good thing, I agree with your assessment that they are a mistake too early in your career – don’t worry about that though, I think you’ll be glad you did it in the end.
Secondly – the ‘generalist’ label. You know, the grass is always greener… Public Health specialists and engineers complain about being pigeon-holed as well – there’s nothing wrong with being a generalist, although you may want to look at how you market that as a skill set. Most ‘generalists’ are project managers, team leaders, and problem solvers – skill sets that are in high demand in the field.
Thirdly – office jobs in ‘the field’. We use the term (and I’m coming to believe that we probably shouldn’t) to mean ‘countries where we undertake development projects’, and, as you point out, jobs in these places may or may not meet your need to be in a literal field. I don’t know what kinds of jobs or organizations you were working with, but my sense is that you are more at the development end of the relief/development spectrum. More so than the emergency response side, front-line jobs are usually done by national team members, with expatriates doing technical or senior management roles that rarely cause them to get dirty. You’re just too expensive to deploy on less senior roles. Where you will find more expatriates in more active and practical jobs are disasters and conflicts. You might want to look into the response in the Syria region right now if you want a job that gives you more contact with the more tangible aspects of the work.
Making that transition isn’t always easy, but the major INGOs have pipelines for training and deploying people from more developmental contexts to more emergency focussed programs. If you are employed in one of them I think it’s a question of talking with your supervisor or the emergency team leaders to get on those rosters.
A lot of the kinds of jobs that I think you’re looking for are recruited for internally or from informal networks, and it may take you a couple of years to move into them. That said I don’t think it should be too hard given what you mention about your resume.
Good luck – let us know how you do!
Q. Hi Nick,
I am volunteering in Uganda as a financial consultant for a local NGO and have been offered a finance internship with an international relief agency or 6 months. I already have 18 months in graduate finance/accounting experience from home in Australia. Finance is not my passion, and I want to be in operations more, but this is that ‘foot in the door’. For me, I’m trying to decide whether to take this opportunity or hold out for better paid spots. Your page here essentially tells me to “take the career hit” and start from the bottom. Do you agree? Thanks, Rhys
A. Hi Rhys,
My short answer is ‘yes’ – take the hit, take any job, and then once you have a few months of experience under your belt you can use it to leverage a move into other areas.
The biggest single issue that prevents people from getting their dream job in international work is not having appropriate field experience. This is important because, without it, hiring managers are worried that you might not know what you’re letting yourself in for. They are worried you might end up in a country and decide that, after all, you don’t really like the conditions. Six months to a year of developing world experience on your resume is all you will really need to convince them otherwise.
Your experience in finance will give you good insight into how aid operations work, and an ops manager with a strong finance background is a very desirable proposition! Take the job, take every opportunity you can to help integrate finance and ops (they should be tightly nit anyway!), and I don’t think you should have a hard time moving into operations in a few months time.
Good luck – let us know how you do!
OK – so I get this question so often I’m going to take them three at a time this time around. I feel like I’ve answered it on the page ‘What should I study in university to get a job in humanitarian work?‘, but I still get it so often that it might be worth repeating.
So here goes – Natlie writes “Hi Nick, I’m 16 and exploring what I might be interested to do as a profession. I went on a short-term mission trip to Guatemala and it was really interesting to see the way that helping people in developing countries is really complicated. Now I’m looking into what I might want to major in college for humanitarian aid work. I took an AP Human Geography course and it was more interesting than any other class I’ve taken to me so I was thinking possibly Geography and Spanish as majors. How would that do to set me up in the field? Thanks!”
Nasra writes “Hi … I’ll be starting college soon. I’ve always wanted to help people around the world learn about different cultures but the thing is I don’t know which courses to take I want to be a humanitarian relief worker do u think majoring in international studies would help me get there if not what do u suggest I take?”
Jen writes “Hi Nick, as most above I am passionate about working for an international humanitarian aid organization. I have an undergraduate degree in management. I am debating between taking a Masters in Public Health or an International MBA. Do you have thoughts on which Masters degree would be best to take in order to get my foot in the door to work for an International Humanitarian Aid organization?”
OK – so – let’s deal with this head on. I don’t think what you take in college matters much at all. You should take what you’re interested in. Clearly, something with an international bent might be viewed more favorably, but what matters most is overseas experience.
That said – there are a couple of occasions when what you take does matter:
1. If you really want to work in Spanish-speaking Latin America (and I want to try to convince you not to!), you will need fluent Spanish. The same goes for the Russian speaking world, or French-speaking West Africa. Other than that, languages don’t make much difference (clearly they are always a plus, but when an agency is hiring for Vanuatu, not speaking Bislama will not be a deal-breaker).
2. If you want to work in public health, having an MPH is pretty important. Likewise, if you want to work as an engineer, an engineering degree will help, and if you want to be a doctor or a nurse, well, you see where I’m going with this.
Other than that, it doesn’t matter. I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, and a masters in Post-war recovery studies. Do you know how many times in interviews anyone has asked me about my university work? What courses I took? How many times anyone has ever asked to see my transcripts? Never. Not once.
Do you want to wager how many times I’ve been asked about my field experience? Every single time. Let me repeat myself in case I wasn’t clear:
1. I don’t think it matters what you take in school, unless you subject is a technical specialty you will need.
2. I don’t think a graduate degree will help you get your first job (for more on this see this post).
So – take what you’re interested in, use the time to study development issues, and get as much overseas experience and as many internships as you can!
Q. Hi Nick,
This website has been very helpful and I am going to buy your book to get even more insight. I am new to the international development world and am trying to get my foot in the door. My biggest struggle right now is that I cannot relocate. I live in Dallas, Texas. I have been looking for a career position that is based in TX but where I could still travel internationally for aid relief throughout the year. It seems that all organizations that have a home office in the United States are based in Washington DC. I am looking for something like project management where I could work on clean water projects, food aid, etc in the developing countries but work mostly out of Texas. Do you know any organizations like this in Texas? Any advice for me on how to get my foot in the door? Thank you!
A. Hi Jenni,
Thank you – glad you liked the site!
First off – you are right that many aid organizations in the US have their headquarters in Washington DC, but there are also lots that don’t. IRC, CRS, CARE, Mercy Corps, IMC, and World Vision spring to mind immediately (although it’s certainly true that they have representational offices in DC as well). The reason for the DC thing is ease of access to the US federal government, where most of the money for international aid comes from.
Second – Unfortunately you don’t mention what kind of skills, and experience you have, so I don’t know how realistic your goal of working on water and food aid projects are. Most of the people who are technical advisors or evaluators based in the US with travel are people with years of experience who can go and give advice to those based in field locations. That kind of consulting arrangement is rare for people without impressive resumes.
My advice would be, honestly, that if you don’t want to live and work overseas for years at a time, you should seriously consider whether this is the career for you. In most organizations its very hard to get promoted without those years of field experience.
There are a lot of ways to have impact on important issues in Texas – one thing that springs to mind is that the IRC has a substantial program helping refugees arriving in the US to settle and integrate. If I were working with you as a career counsellor I would ask you to unpack what about the situation that you describe really inspires you, and think about ways to get that outside of international relief. Trying to square the circle of living in Texas and getting your foot in the door may not be a good idea.
Good luck, and let us know how you do,
Q. Hi Nick,
I want to volunteer in aid work. I’m a 16 year old Canadian with no skills, just an able body. Is this possible?
A. Hi Peter,
First off – I want to recognize your desire to help, and salute that as a noble thing. I don’t want to sound negative, but as you know, when someone says that they don’t want to sound a certain way, it’s because they are about to do just that!
There are two main issues here – the first is that you are a young man with ‘no skills’ – I’m afraid the developing world is not short of that particular commodity. In fact, you probably lack the basic skills of getting by in culture and speaking the local language that your counterparts in other countries do have, plus nobody will have to pay to ship them overseas and support them there. So my short answer is that this isn’t much demand for unskilled volunteers.
Secondly though, the question presupposes that there is a lot of unskilled work to be undertaken, which I don’t really think is the case. Development and relief work is a sophisticated and skilled undertaking, with potential serious downside risks. In few other professions would someone say that while they have no skills they want to have a go.
So – my advice is this – go to college, get some skills, travel and work a little overseas and see if you’re serious about a career in this line of work.