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Field based roles

August 5, 2015

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!


2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2015 11:49 am

    Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had.

  2. Ariane permalink
    August 10, 2015 1:54 pm

    Hi Nick–I just found your blog and I’m looking forward to reading through it. In reference to Jim’s question, could you elaborate upon how to market one’s skill set as a “generalist”? Thanks.

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