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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.

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!
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!

Leveraging the Peace Corps

December 30, 2016

Q. Hello Nick,
I found your blog while doing some extensive research on career options as an international development aid worker (or anything of the sort). Its helping me narrow down my options and I would like to thank you.
My name is Angela and I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Namibia (South- West Africa). My tour ends in about 9 months and I need some advice on how to obtain a job working in the humanitarian field; I have a ton of interests ranging from Foreign Service to non-profit work to the United Nations, however, I am certain that I would like my concentration to be focused on Africa.
Do you have any ideas on how I can go about looking for grad schools (domestic and international) and careers paths I could look into to get my dream job?
Thanks in advance!
Angela S.
P.S. I also like to blog about my time in Namibia thus far and I would be extremely grateful if you checked it out! Its

A. Hi Angela,

Thanks for the comments and the question – your blog looks great! So – let’s cut to the chase – if you’ve read my blog then you know my opinion on grad-school! There’s a proper post on this, but the TL:DR is: Don’t go to grad school until you have a couple of years of experience under your belt. Especially don’t go to grad school until you know whether you want to work in the FS, the UN, or a nonprofit, or what you want to do in ‘Africa’.

Grad-school is expensive, time consuming, and won’t help you get your first job. It might give you some great skills and contacts down the road that will help you mid-career.

My advice? First: While you’re 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.

Second: Don’t take your ticket home. Stay in Namibia, or somewhere else that you think has organizations that might hire you. Your chances of getting hired there are much greater than if you’re applying from the US!

Good luck, let us know how you do!


The problem with “I’ll go anywhere, do anything”.

November 25, 2016

Q. Hi Nick,

I don’t know if this is the right place but I would be very much interested in humanitarian aid in all aspects of it. I have a variety of skills I’ve picked up in my life and can pretty much be suited anywhere. My main goal is to help the less fortunate people. I am 25 Years old male and would do anything, even be sanctioned where no one wants to go. Put me in the worst of the worst situations, I can help. Not really into the whole salary/ wages thing.

A. Hi! Unfortunately you don’t leave a name, but thanks for writing. I get quite a lot of these kinds of questions, and don’t usually get a chance to respond, but this one is sort of the platonic ideal of this enquiry.

Firstly, a significant number of readers seem to think that I am a recruiter for aid agencies – to be clear, I’m not. I can’t put you anywhere I’m afraid.

Secondly, to the issue of skills. It’s a shame that you don’t mention what the variety of skills you have are, as that’s kind of critical. Skills like project management, engineering, nursing, financial management, staff development, negotiation, logistics etc are in demand in these lines of work, but recruiters will want to know what particular skills you bring to the table.

I know why you mention that you will ‘do anything’, but strangely that’s not an attitude most recruiters appreciate. I would encourage you to cultivate a pitch that show recruiters that you understand the environment and job that you are applying for, and know what kinds of roles you will be most suited to. That kind of self-awareness will encourage recruiters to believe that you know what you’re letting yourself in for. The same goes for the places ‘no one wants to go’.

On the face of it you would think that most organizations would appreciate you not being ‘into the whole salary/wages thing’, but I think putting it like that might be another red-flag to a recruiter. It indicates either that you are independently wealthy (which is fine, but perhaps not the assumption that they will make) or that you lack judgment.

I would really encourage you at this point to look for opportunities to spend some time living and working overseas in the kinds of environments that you’re interested in getting a job, perhaps volunteering or interning, and honing your ideas about what, specifically, you’re like to be doing.

Good luck!


Job posting from Oxfam, Humanitarian Programme Manager Malawi

November 23, 2016

Humanitarian Programme Manager (INT3011)

Shaping a stronger Oxfam for people living in poverty.


Oxfam is a leading, global development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty. Oxfam works directly with communities and we seek to influence the powerful to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods and have a say in decisions that affect them and to work with others to overcome poverty and suffering.
Oxfam is currently working in the following district: Lilongwe, Mulanje, Balaka, Phalombe, Kasungu and Mzimba South. We are engaging in direct and indirect service provision through our local partners, consortium with International NGO’s in Development programming and humanitarian activities.

Job Purpose:

The Humanitarian Program Manager will be expected to lead Oxfam’s humanitarian response, monitoring, evaluation and contextual analysis of the EFSVL, WASH and Protection/Gender situation in Malawi and to design and manage the implementation humanitarian projects in response to emerging needs.

Contract Length: 6 Months fixed term, December 1st 2016 to June 30th 2017.

Location: Lilongwe, Malawi.

To Apply :–int3011/5043/description/

The Great Food Experiment

October 30, 2016

Bear with me – it’s rare indeed that I use this platform to plug something unrelated to relief and development jobs, but this is something I’ve been doing in my ‘other’ career! It would help me out if you were able to take a look at this video I shot for a local magazine and ‘like’ it on their YouTube channel!

Hey – you might even like it! Thanks!


Surviving violent environments?

October 10, 2016

So, I was questioning some life-choices this month as I pulled out my books relating to security in violent environments. I thought I’d give you a run-down (in no particular order) on my favorite guides to not getting murdered, kidnapped, or have your day ruined in some other way.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-10-10-40-amOperational Security Management in Violent Environments – Humanitarian Practice Network

The revised (2010) edition of the classic ‘GPR 8’ is the standard manual for INGO security in the field. It’s heavily policy focussed, but should give you a good idea of how organizations manage safety and security strategies, and what to expect from an organization that you might be working for. It does contain some useful tips on personal security as well. You can download the PDF free from the HPN website – I couldn’t find any print copies at reasonable prices, although there are always tons of them kicking around INGO offices.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-10-08-08-amStay safe – The International Federation’s guide to a safer mission – IFRC

Another classic work, this time from the IFRC, who have a slightly different take to most agencies. This is a pretty good mix of theory and personal safety tips, again a free download.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-9-57-57-amHow to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone: The Essential Survival Guide for Dangerous Places – Rosie Garthwaite

While it focusses on some of the most extreme cases, this is a very practical book, with a lot of advice for independent travelers and people wanting more information on personal security. It’s an interesting read that I would recommend to anyone regardless of their travel plans.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-9-58-39-amCome Back Alive – Robert Young Pelton

While some of the content in this one is hyperbolic, some of it inaccurate, and some of it not relevant to prospective aid workers, it has enough useful tips to make it onto my recommendation list.


I’ll leave you with a nice BBC article that is focussed more on journalists here, and please let me know if there are other books or resources that should be on the list, and stay safe out there!

Ask your medical questions!

September 20, 2016

No – not about your health – I’ve lined up an interview with a recruiter from Doctors Without Borders next week, and this is your chance to ask them anything you want about volunteering, working, and anything else about medical organizations in humanitarian aid!

Put your questions as comments to this post, and I’ll post the interview next week!

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