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How do you get field experience without a job?

April 16, 2015

Q. How do you get field experience without getting an entry-level position somewhere? You need the entry-level job to get experience, but can’t get the entry-level job without experience. That just doesn’t add up.

A. Hi there – it’s a good question, and it’s really the central problem that most people face when trying to get into this line of work. The problem is that aid agencies don’t want to hire people with no field experience – they don’t want to risk finding out whether or not they are able to do the job, and they don’t want to spend time training them.

Agencies prefer to hire people with a track record of work overseas, and the fact is that there are (usually) enough of those folks to fill open positions. Without the critical 2-3 years of experience living and working overseas it’s very tough to land a field job with an aid agency.

So – how do people get past the catch-22? A lot of them go into the Peace Corps, or do other voluntary or low-paid programs that give them a first step on the ladder, some find (or make) their own opportunities to volunteer or work for local organizations.

For some they happen to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, for example a friend of mine was a Fulbright scholar in Sri Lanka at the time of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and was hired for her knowledge of local civil society.

I don’t recommend getting on a place to volunteer in the next crisis, but being present in areas where international organizations have field offices can be a huge advantage in terms of looking for jobs. The opportunities to network and volunteer are much better. Just make sure that if you go that way you look for places that have regular tourist infrastructure so that you are not putting yourself at undue risk.

Hope that helps somewhat – unfortunately there’s no simple answer – most people have some sort of story about persistence, creativity, and luck.

Good luck,


2 Comments leave one →
  1. J.P. permalink
    August 14, 2015 8:28 am

    Hi Nick,

    I had a similar question to this poster. I’m going into my senior year in college majoring in International Business and Marketing and minoring in International Development and Conflict Management. I discovered that development and post conflict transformation is my passion later in college so most of my experience is in marketing and PR. I had a position researching international conflict this summer, I’m doing an outreach internship with a DC-based development NGO this fall, and I have a volunteer position with an NGO in rural Moldova next winter. I’m getting worried that I won’t be able to transfer from the outreach/communications side into the programming/field work area of development. Do you have any advice as to how a student (and soon-to-be recent graduate) can do that? I also have student loans from my undergraduate degree, so I guess you could say I’m worried about volunteering right out of school. It just feels like I’m already creating a path towards a desk job in marketing which isn’t what I’d like to do.

    Thanks and sorry for the long message!


  2. Mia permalink
    March 29, 2018 5:33 pm

    What happens when you are too poor, crumbling desperately under the immense weight of student loans…? How can you get that experience if you cannot volunteer for 5+ years and work for free? It makes no sense, no other field of work requires this type of slave labour.

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