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Psychology degree for career in aid work?

June 1, 2016

Q. Hi Nick!

Why didn’t I find this site earlier?!! It’s such an amazing feeling to meet other people sharing the same heart. Feel like an alien sometimes when I share what I’d love doing. Lol
So I’m just in a little bit of a dilemma and could really use some advice. I graduated with honours degree in psychology in the UK about 5 years ago then was full on traveling to Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, rural and urban South Africa where I did work in a whole range of areas from community development, education, a lot of work among rural villages as well as was smack in the middle within the gang culture in Cape Town.

Now I’m living in Australia just starting my first semester masters in social work. But I’m losing my Mind!!! I feel like I might have made the wrong choice in my course. Social work is so different from what I thought I would be learning. There’s so much focus on case management, referrals and Australian policy but not really on actual front line working with helping people through a crisis, disaster or community development. I’m going to be heading to Fiji for a month in July to help with a cyclone disaster relief team. And I feel myself coming alive again just thinking of it. That’s where my passion is and I feel like I’m dying on the inside at uni and struggling to see the link between social work and where I’d want to be…

I’m just in a dilemma if I should just stay and finish it, ends end of next year.. as I get an opportunity next year to do an international placement which would help me stay sane in the course… Or completely switch to something else. But Im not sure what that something else could be ;/
I just am doing my masters because I couldn’t carry on just being a volunteer and having amazing family and friends support me… I couldn’t get a job with just a degree in psychology… and I don’t see myself being a psychologist… Really want to be more in the front line and hands on working with people right at where the crisis and disaster is… I don’t have a specific country in mind but refugee camps, disaster relief and human trafficking and some of the core areas I feel really led to… Just confused how I can there as a paid job instead of only carrying on as a full time volunteer. I know it probably wouldn’t be much money … But I don’t care even just some basic income to sustain myself..

Would me carrying on in my masters in social work help me get there?? Do you feel that’s considered a skill I can bring with my psychology honours background and social work?

Or would carrying on the path in clinical psychology or counseling be a better more recognised option to get that skill and work with people in trauma /community development internationally?

Or should I change and look into a specific course on international aid, but I’m not sure what course that would be..

I know this was long, but hope to hear from you soon! Need to decide whether or not to say at my course or go within the next week :s

Thank you Soo much!! Hope to hear from you soon.


A. Hi Stephanie,

Oh boy – this one is huge. For what it’s worth, I, too, have a bachelors degree in psychology. While not directly relevant to what I do now, I do feel that it gave me a good grounding in social science research, stats, experimental method, behavioral science etc.

As I’m sure you’re aware, I can’t tell you whether to keep going in your social work degree, but it does sound like you’re looking for someone to give you permission to ditch that career path. If that’s what you need, then sure – you totally have my permission to ditch it. As bad as it may seem now, and as much time and money as you may have sunk in it now, it’s nothing compared to coming to the same conclusion in five years time. For what it’s worth, I ditched from a neurology PhD program before I had started to go join the humanitarian circus too.

It sounds like you’ve had a great few years, and are lucky to have a supportive family and network. That’s awesome. I wonder whether, in your time traveling, you managed to build any connections in the aid world? If you’d managed to drop in on some of the major aid agencies while you were in those countries and take the Country Director, Director of Operations, or even some of the project managers out for coffee those would be awesome connections to work at this point.

If you’ve read my blog, you know what I think about courses in humanitarian aid. TLDR? They are great for making you a better practitioner, but they won’t help you get your first job. You need field experience. TLDR? Given what you’ve told me about your recent travels, and assuming that you can presume on your friends and family for a few months more, perhaps a trip to Turkey is in your future?

Now, I don’t usually recommend this to random people, but it just so happens that the world’s largest humanitarian response is happening right now in a country with an established tourist industry and a relatively good safety record. If you have your head screwed on right, and are prepared to make yourself useful, it’s not going to be too hard to find a job there. You need to network like crazy, without making a nuisance of yourself, and be prepared to pitch in with anything to help. Once you make a name for yourself as someone who leaves situations in better shape than they found them I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble getting hired.

Good luck, let us know how you do,


PS. I’m going to get criticised for this advice. To be clear, I am not recommending that people show up in war zones, disaster areas, or unstable environments. I am recommending that, if you are serious and prepared, a trip to a country with stable tourist infrastructure (hotels, taxis etc) and a good safety and security situation, can help you network and find a job. Please, please, please, don’t show up in the aftermath of a disaster, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, CAR, etc, etc.

If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my 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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rachelle Schaar permalink
    June 1, 2016 10:29 am

    Hi Nick,

    I am wondering if it is possible to have a career in development if you have a family. I have two Yong kids and my husband is a pastor, but humanitarian work is my passion. It seems however, that most jobs are suited for singles, and definitely not safe for kids. Do you know anyone who has successfully made a career in development with a family?

    Thank you!

    Rachelle Harding Schaar On Jun 1, 2016 8:43 AM, “Getting Your First Job in Relief and Development” wrote:

    > Nick posted: “Q. Hi Nick! Why didn’t I find this site earlier?!! It’s such > an amazing feeling to meet other people sharing the same heart. Feel like > an alien sometimes when I share what I’d love doing. Lol So I’m just in a > little bit of a dilemma and could really use ” >

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