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Welcome!

March 13, 2012

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. It also helps me to recover some of the costs of hosting this site when people review the e-book – thanks!

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 $7.99, and honestly, what can you get for that these days? Get it here.

If you have questions please do send them either by email or in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them or find someone who can. I also offer individual coaching services for people who have in-depth questions about their particular situation, want feedback and support with resumes and cover letters, or want interview coaching and critique. To learn more about that see my career coaching page.We answer phones at a relief org, and we direct almost all of our requests for informational interviews to this resource. It's an honest, clear summary of what you need in order to work in international relief. Thanks for this great reference.

Remembering Otto Warmbier

June 19, 2017

I want us to spend a moment today remembering the life of Otto Warmbier, who died this week after returning home following over a year of detention in North Korea. Job-seekers in this line of work are often told to seek experience visiting, living, and working in the kinds of places where development and relief takes place. Otto’s tragedy is a reminder that this can be a dangerous thing.

I don’t know any aid workers who don’t have a story or two about a close call. These are often told as badges of honor, but we need to always remember that the line between a great story and a tragic headline can be very fine. Read some of Otto’s story here, and please, please travel safely, wherever you are going.

Do I need a degree to do humanitarian work?

May 10, 2017
Q. Dear Nick,
Thank you so much for the useful information. I have a quick question for you. Do I absolutely have to have a degree to do humanitarian work? I am 36 years old and am willing and wanting to volunteer but do not know if the degree is worth going back to school for at this point. It seems to me that volunteering would make more sense and make more of a difference.
Thanks!
Heather
A. Hi Heather,
While there are some people who make a career in humanitarian work without a degree, they are few and far between. Without a degree you will fail most recruiting screens and your resume won’t get presented to hiring managers. The only way you’re going to get hired without a degree is to have some really compelling skills or experience, or make great contacts in the field and get hired on using a less formal channel.
It’s not impossible, but getting a degree is pretty much a requirement theses days.
Good luck!
Nick
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I just want to let people know that there’s a new way to support this blog (other than buying my ebook!) – you can make a contribution through Patreon – it really helps me to offset the costs of running the site when people kick in the cost of a cup of coffee!

INGO nursing jobs

May 4, 2017

Q. Hi Nick,

First of all, thank you for your blog and your insights. I’m a 25 years old nurse from Belgium with a specialization in community health. I worked in several countries, for example, in Guatemala with homeless youth in Guatemala City, Burkina Faso in a rural clinic center, in Belgium with homeless adults/families/asylum seekers etc. and for now, I am working as a medical case manager for homeless youths based in New Jersey in the United States.

I completed certificates in International Humanitarian Law with the CICR and a Humanitarian Healthcare Provider Program. I really want to work in relief and development, which is my goal since I’m 16. But it feels like most of the NGOs are looking for a project/program manager, media communication officer, monitoring, and evaluation specialist etc. not a nurse. What should I do? Getting more professional experience as a nurse then do the tropical medicine course of should I do a master in project management or others?

Thank you
Marjorie

A. Hi Marjorie,

Thanks for the kind words – first off I just want to let people know that there’s a new way to support this blog (other than buying my ebook!) – you can make a contribution through Patreon – it really helps me to offset the costs of running the site when people kick in the cost of a cup of coffee!

Ok – to your question – it sounds like you have the kinds of qualifications that a medical agency would be looking for in deploying nurses – and I’d be interested to hear about which organizations you’re targeting. My suspicion is that you’re looking at the general job listings for international agencies and noticing that most of them are not for nurses?

That’s certainly true – most agencies don’t field front-line medical teams, and of those that do, most jobs are not nursing. That said, there are a few that do. Since you’re in the US I would check out MSF (check out my interview with MSF Canada’s recruiters here), IMC, and the ICRC as a start. All of these groups recruit nurses for field postings. I would see if you can get one of their recruiters to chat with you about what specific requirements they want from nurses, and whether your resume stacks up in that regard.

As to whether you should do a Masters in Project Management, that sort of depends on how passionate you are about project management. Mid career that might not be a bad move if you really want to get out of nursing and move into line management, but at this point I wouldn’t advise you to quit looking for nursing positions.

Let us know how you do!

Nick

 

Your chance to get involved – Patreon launch!

April 5, 2017

Folks!

I’ve always wanted this site to be a free resource, and that’s a vision I plan to stick to. Keeping the site up-to-date and adding new material takes time and effort though, and I’ve decided to launch a Patreon to help offset the costs and keep this a project that I can prioritize.

The site will remain free, but Patreon supporters will get to help pick topics and interview candidates, as well as get access to job-search resources that are not on the site currently. Please consider subscribing for as little as a dollar a month – if even a fraction of the tens of thousands of people who use the site monthly are able to do this I can kick the site up a notch in terms of new content!

Please click here and sign up!

Thank you!

 

Journalist transitioning to humanitarian aid

April 3, 2017

Q. Hello Nick

I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years now, and recently purchased your book on Amazon. Thanks for the enlightening, enjoyable read, and for providing such a valuable service.

I’m a South African journalist, with over a decade of experience. In recent years, I’ve specialised in health, science and development, and am currently completing a Masters in Public Health. Having covered the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya, I have some experience in a conflict setting.

I plan on transitioning to Public Health, preferably in the development field. The obvious transition would be to work in communications, and it’s an option I’m exploring. However, I’d prefer to work in program implementation. With no public health or field experience, I’m at a disadvantage, so I’ve started applying for internships.
Some friends in the field suggest I take a mid/senior level in Comms, and then change within the sector, while others say I should take an entry-level field job or internship. What would you recommend?

I have an upcoming reporting trip to Zambia and Tanzania. While in Tanzania, I’ll be going to the Burundian refugee camps. And I may travel to Ethiopia too. I’m thinking it may provide an opportunity for field volunteer experience.

Recently, you gave this advice to a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia. “Network like a thing possessed. Work out what NGOs and UN agencies are in the country (or the region if you’re really dedicated), and use every opportunity you can to make yourself useful and known to them. You should be using LinkedIn and in-person connections, and building a network of people who can vouch for your work and consider hiring you when you leave.

Would you suggest I do the same? I’m considering contacting people prior to arriving in Tanzania & Ethiopia. Or should I introduce myself when I’m there? How likely is it that I can land a volunteer job there?

I’m open to any advice you have about transitioning, and gaining experience.

Thanks, Bibi

A. Hi Bibi – thanks for your question!

Public health is one of the areas where my normal advice of ‘avoid grad-school until mid-career’ doesn’t apply. You’re definitely doing the right thing getting your master’s. As to your strategy, I would think either of those would be viable, but I would think you would be well positioned to go straight into program implementation.

As a career transition, specific field experience as a public health professional is going to be your weak point, so absolutely take advantage of travel to network and volunteer if you’re able to do that. It’s going to be a huge asset.

I would definitely introduce yourself before you go, and explain that you’re going to be available to volunteer. I would suggest doing a little research on each person and pitching something specific that you could do for them. The ‘I’ll do anything’ approach is really not a good move.

I would make sure your linkedin and resume are really marketing you in the language of the jobs you are looking for as well. Make sure you’re hitting the keywords, and using each item on your resume as a way to show you excelling in something they are looking for.

Good luck!

Nick

MSF Canada’s recruitment team answers your questions!

February 2, 2017
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unknownLast year you posed questions to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières Canada about their recruitment priorities and perspectives, and here are their answers! Thanks to the team at MSF for taking time to answer in-depth on this!

  1. How would you say that working for an organization like Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is first and foremost a medical organization, might be different than working for other relief agencies?

One of MSF’s distinguishing features is our funding structure. In 2015, 92 per cent of MSF’s income came from private sources. It took more than 5.7 million individual donors and private foundations worldwide to make this possible. Unlike other organizations, MSF’s financial independence allows it to respond quickly to medical needs without being beholden to large institutional loans. Furthermore, when we work in contexts where there are many parties to a conflict and humanitarian assistance is at risk of abuse, we rely solely on private donations to fund our activities. MSF’s financial independence not only allows us greater freedom in the management of our budget and in the choice of our projects, but also in our desire to bear witness to injustice.

MSF’s actions are first and foremost medical. MSF is known for going where the medical needs are and centralizing its programming around medical action. Consequently, the organization’s work sometimes occurs in settings of active conflict and internal instability, or in post-conflict environments, in which there are inherent risks and ongoing threats to safety and security. That often means MSF ends up going where other organizations do not and as such, where the needs of the population are that much greater. With over 45 years of experience, MSF does its utmost to mitigate and manage the risks it faces in the field, through strict and comprehensive security protocols. It is also important to recognize that, in 2015, 45% of MSF’s intervention were identified as being located in “stable” contexts.

 MSF is an association. All current and former MSF employees or volunteers are invited to become part of an MSF Association in their home countries, through which they have the right and responsibility to voice their opinions and contribute to the definition and guidance of MSF’s social mission. The associations bring together individuals in formal and informal debates and activities — in the field, in associative gatherings at national and regional levels and in an annual international assembly. This associative set up allows our fieldworkers to get involved in a whole different way than is possible with other organizations. Although Médecins Sans Frontières is a huge international NGO, the associative model allows it to stay close to its founding charter. MSF has a non-hierarchical and decentralized structure and the associations ensure that each member has a voice where they can enrich and challenge their organization.

  1. It’s been my impression that medical staff more often take breaks from their regular career to do an occasional assignment. How typical is this and how easy is it to do?

Our experience has shown that Canadian medical staff often resort to one (or more) of the following options in order to combine their medical work in Canada with their work with MSF the field:

  • They have a colleague, within their practice, take care of their patients while they leave on mission.
  • They find an employer that is supportive of their work with MSF and flexible with their absences during field assignments.
  • They complete locums between missions, which allows for more flexibility.
  • They combine contracts for medical work in Canada’s north with MSF contracts (usually taking well-deserved pauses in between assignments).
  • They are semi-retired or retired, and have decided to integrate field missions into their life schedule.
  • They are foreign-trained doctors who are not licensed to practice in Canada, but who have been validated and are willing and motivated to work with MSF in the field.

Alternatively, some people also grow their careers within the organization into senior leadership and operational roles in headquarters in Canada, Europe or elsewhere.

  1. What types of employment do you offer and what do you look for in terms of experience when recruiting medical as well as non-medical staff?

Terms of employment:

All MSF fieldworkers are employees with contracts, salaries and benefits; we do not send unpaid volunteers to the field. Information on salary and benefits for Canadian fieldworkers are readily available on our website. MSF is transparent about what it offers its fieldworkers, as we look for people who know what to expect if they are successful in their recruitment process. We like to reassure interested candidates that you can indeed earn a living working with MSF, but that you should not join the organization with financial gain as a main objective. MSF salaries are set so as to reflect the humanitarian spirit of volunteerism, while recognizing the high level of professional expertise we require from our field staff.  Volunteerism helps to maintain the vitality, flexibility and eagerness that drive the determination, willpower and creativity of the organization.

What we look for in candidates (both medical and non-medical):

MSF if equally transparent about what we look for in our applicants. Interested Canadian candidates should go through the “Work in the Field” part of our website, where they will find all the relevant information they need in order to evaluate their own profile and prepare their application. Particularly important sections are:

Who We Need: What kind of profiles we are looking for and what are the criteria to work with MSF for each of them.

Do You Have What It Takes: To help potential applicants reflect on things such as their levels of flexibility, ability to manage stress and willingness to live and work as a team with others.

Life in the Field: To learn more about living conditions, as well as security and safety considerations in the field.

Below you can find a summary of what we look for in general when we filter through the hundreds of Canadian applications we receive every year.

1) Professional experience is the first thing we look at.

It is important to realize that when applying to MSF, you are applying to join a team of professionals who work in remote, low-resource and sometimes insecure contexts. An MSF field assignment will expose you to an array of stressors that most individuals have never experienced before. This challenge is stimulating, and what draws many of us to the job. It also means that when we look at your professional path, we need to be convinced you have enough experience under your belt to be able to do your job well in such an unfamiliar environment.

Another reason why significant, relevant and transferable professional experience is so important is because, by definition, international fieldworkers are recruited into management roles. It is crucial to highlight that 90 per cent of MSF’s 36,000 staff around the world are locally hired — so if you are hired by MSF to work in Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, 90 per cent of your colleagues will be Congolese. Referred to as “national staff,” they do most of the hands-on work. In relative terms, we recruit very few international fieldworkers — usually known as “expats” — from countries such as Canada. Expats are recruited into manager roles and often end up supervising entire teams of national staff. What is important to remember is that when we look at an applicant’s profile, we do not just consider whether he or she has enough experience to do a good job independently (be it as a nurse, an engineer or an accountant), we consider whether he or she has enough experience to be a supervisor to a team of national staff colleagues who likely know the job, the organization and the context better. This is why, for all profiles, we look specifically for experience managing, supervising or training others, in past roles you might have held.

These are some of the reasons why we insist as much as we do on a solid level of professional experience prior to applying with us. For most profiles, the minimum is two years, but in all cases, additional professional experience will always make your profile stand out more among our large number of applications.

Finally, for non-medical profiles, MSF values professional experience that is relevant and transferable to our fieldwork more than we do your academic background. As an example, for technical logisticians, we look for engineers with formal backgrounds in mechanical, electrical or civil engineering to name a few. However, we also look for “jack-of-all-trades” types of applicants who have years of experience in construction, vehicle mechanics, plumbing, electricity and other work, even if they have never formally “studied” them. We have technical validations and testing in place to evaluate candidates who apply with us and present interesting backgrounds. For profiles such as these, the first requirement is that you can demonstrate you can do the job well, not that you have studied it in books.

2) We also look beyond your professional experience.

Once you have ticked the “professional experience” box off the list, it is just as important to look at some of the other criteria we consider:

Travel: MSF generally asks for at least two to three months of independent travel or work experience in developing countries in regions such as Latin America, Asia or Africa. This is important because it helps build cross-cultural sensitivity, and reflects some of the realities of living/working conditions in the field.

Language: French is considered particularly important since 60 per cent of our projects are located in French-speaking countries in Africa. For most profiles, we require a level of French that will allow you to  work and live in a French-speaking environment. The more fluent you are, the stronger your application profile will be. (English is mandatory, and Arabic is highly valued, especially if in addition to English and French.)

Availability: For most generalist profiles (administrators, nurses, GPs, logisticians, etc.) MSF usually asks for nine to 12 consecutive months of commitment for your first assignment. It is therefore important to ensure that your professional and personal commitments will allow you to be available for such a period before you apply to work with MSF. In some cases, these requirements vary by profile — for instance, surgeons, anesthesiologists, obstetricians and sometimes epidemiologists can be assigned to much shorter contracts, starting at six weeks in duration.

Openness to contexts:  While a candidate’s “regional” preferences will be considered, MSF field missions are driven by medical needs and candidates must be open to working anywhere where the needs are highest. While recruits always have the possibility to refuse certain projects for legitimate security concerns, the reality is that over 50 per cent of MSF’s programs are in contexts where there is some level of internal instability. While there are varying degrees of conflict, when applying with MSF you need to be open to working in contexts that present some level of insecurity. Of course, MSF places the highest possible priority on the security of all of its staff and, as such, the most unstable projects are usually not assigned to first-time fieldworkers.

3) Do you have what it takes?

Finally, aside from the requirements listed above, which are easier to highlight in an online application and CV, we also look for other things that indicate to us whether you are the right “fit” for the organization.

Motivation: What motivates you to work in the humanitarian field? For a medical organization? For MSF in particular? How committed are you to MSF’s principles? When did you start thinking about doing this type of work? Why? How would you like MSF to fit into your long-term career path and your personal life? What have you done in the past that demonstrates your motivation to work for MSF?

Soft skills: This is where we reflect with you on past experiences that demonstrate your level of flexibility to change, your ability to manage stress, to live and work with others as a member of a team, to comply with procedures and so on.

MSF fieldworkers do remarkable work, and our recruitment process is built in a way that enables us to find remarkable people.

  1. Lack of relevant field experience is often a barrier to recruitment – what advice would you have for people interested in working for MSF in terms of gaining relevant experience?

Although prior professional experience is required as mentioned above, prior field experience is not. Similarly, although independent travel experience in developing countries is compulsory, having worked for another development or humanitarian organization abroad is not. The distinction is important. We obviously highly value candidates who have prior field experience, but it depends on the type of experience involved. The best way to think about it is by asking yourself how similar your experience was to the work you would be doing with MSF. The more comparable it is, the more likely we are to value it. As an example, having volunteered for two weeks to teach English somewhere while backpacking as a tourist through Southeast Asia as a student one summer is interesting, but would be counted more in the “independent travel” category. Having worked for two months as a nurse in a rural clinic in Guinea after completing a Tropical Nursing course would be counted more in the “relevant professional experience” category. In sum, if you fill the “professional experience” requirements (even if you have only done HR management in an office in Canada for instance) but also have interesting independent travel experience in developing countries (where you pushed yourself well outside your comfort zone), it is not obligatory to have previous experience in humanitarian or development contexts to apply with MSF.

  1. Are there opportunities for mental health specialists with MSF?

Yes, there are definitely opportunities to work with MSF as a mental health specialist. Within MSF we often refer to this position as Mental Health Officers or MHOs. Over the last 20 years, mental health has become an integral (and growing) part of our programming and more information can be found on our activities at: http://www.msf.ca/en/mental-health

In general, this is what Canadian mental health specialists interested in working with us should keep in mind:

  • For Mental Health Officer positions, MSF only considers psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, therapists & social workers who have a master’s degree at minimum.
  • Additionally, MSF looks for mental health workers who have solid clinical knowledge as well as experience in emergency and trauma counseling both in individual or group therapy settings. Experience working with migrants, refugees, children, survivors of sexual violence, northern communities as well as people living with HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis are all of interest to us as well.
  • At the same time, we also look for candidates who have excellent leadership and management skills, experience with community-based programs, and especially the ability to train staff in providing basic mental care and psycho-pedagogical activities.
  • For Canadians, more information can be found on the Mental Health Officer profile at: http://www.msf.ca/en/mental-health-specialists
  1. Are there opportunities for registered practical nurses? What are the requirements to apply as a registered nurse?

The wording used to identify categories of nurses in Canada can be a bit confusing. Essentially, MSF Canada recruits Registered Nurses and Nurse Practitioners. We do not recruit License Practical Nurses and Registered Practical Nurses as international staff for our projects. Our experience in the field is that we have been able to find this type of expertise with locally hired staff in the countries where we work.

Additionally, and in general, applying as a field worker with MSF is highly competitive, and MSF Canada is just one of the many international sections also recruiting for the organization. For nurses in particular, the competition is even stronger. Historically, there have been few positions available for nurses proportionally to the number of applications we receive. As such, it is that much more important that the nursing profiles we select stand out.

Considering the competitive nature of the recruitment process, we look for nurses with relevant work experiences in fields such as ER, maternity/obstetrics and pediatrics. In Canada, working in northern/remote communities is also very relevant since we know that healthcare workers in those contexts are placed in positions with more responsibilities.  A tropical nursing course and a certain level of fluency in French are also great ways to differentiate oneself from other applicants. Experiences as charge nurse and as a preceptor, or even triage training, can equally be quite useful, because while in the field with MSF most of a nurse’s responsibilities are to coordinate and supervise locally hired staff.

For Canadians, more information can be found on the nurse profile at: http://www.msf.ca/en/nurses

Answers provided by MSF Canada Recruitment team, January 2017

Pathways to my first job in development?

January 17, 2017

Q. Hi Nick, I recently purchased your book on Amazon and as someone who is looking to get into international development and humanitarian aid, I found it very helpful. Thank you, for sharing all of your advice and wisdom!

After reading your book, I’ve been thinking about the different pathways and steps towards getting my first job in the development field. I am currently a research and development coordinator for a wine import company (lots of supply chain logistics), but previously worked in an immigration law firm with political asylees, and have taught English in France. I have been in touch with an organization in Serbia that works with refugee populations living in and around Belgrade. I have a fair amount of teaching experience and have been volunteering my time locally in Seattle with the International Rescue Committee, mostly with ESL help and tutoring, and would mostly be helping this organization in Serbia with their English classes as well as setting up elementary math and reading programs for children living in camps.
I am thinking about applying to graduate programs in international development/peace and conflict studies and feel a bit stuck as to what to do next career-wise (find paying job vs volunteer). I’ve been applying for jobs in the international development field, but am wondering if it volunteering for an aid-focused NGO would be more successful in terms of getting a paying job in the aid field. I would love your advice, based on your experiences working in the field. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you!
Best,
Katy
A. Hi Katy!
Thanks for the kind words – glad you liked the book! On a personal level I’m excited to hear about the opportunity in Belgrade – my first real job in this line of work was with a small organization out of Belgrade that was working with refugees from Croatia. Belgrade is a fantastic city, and I think you’ll love it! Also, it’s great that you’ve been racking up some experience with IRC – while not directly applicable to overseas work, that never hurts.
If you’ve read my blog and my book then you know what I think about graduate school – you should put it off until you know what graduate degree you need and why. It’s really unlikely that a graduate degree will help you get your first job overseas.
The short story is I always think getting practical experience living and working overseas will be much more helpful than getting more education. Go to Belgrade, network, and network more – I think you should be able to find something that route much more easily.
My only caveat here is that I don’t know how many international agencies are still operating in Belgrade. That is to say I do know, and it’s not many. You may have to travel a little to meet people who have good potential to hire you. There are a lot of agencies responding to the European ‘refugee crisis’ right now that you should definitely be checking out.
Good luck,
Let us know how you do!
Nick
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