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What subject should I take in school (again)?

July 19, 2015

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!

Good luck!


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