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Journalist transitioning to humanitarian aid

April 3, 2017

Q. Hello Nick

I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years now, and recently purchased your book on Amazon. Thanks for the enlightening, enjoyable read, and for providing such a valuable service.

I’m a South African journalist, with over a decade of experience. In recent years, I’ve specialised in health, science and development, and am currently completing a Masters in Public Health. Having covered the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya, I have some experience in a conflict setting.

I plan on transitioning to Public Health, preferably in the development field. The obvious transition would be to work in communications, and it’s an option I’m exploring. However, I’d prefer to work in program implementation. With no public health or field experience, I’m at a disadvantage, so I’ve started applying for internships.
Some friends in the field suggest I take a mid/senior level in Comms, and then change within the sector, while others say I should take an entry-level field job or internship. What would you recommend?

I have an upcoming reporting trip to Zambia and Tanzania. While in Tanzania, I’ll be going to the Burundian refugee camps. And I may travel to Ethiopia too. I’m thinking it may provide an opportunity for field volunteer experience.

Recently, you gave this advice to a Peace Corps volunteer 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.

Would you suggest I do the same? I’m considering contacting people prior to arriving in Tanzania & Ethiopia. Or should I introduce myself when I’m there? How likely is it that I can land a volunteer job there?

I’m open to any advice you have about transitioning, and gaining experience.

Thanks, Bibi

A. Hi Bibi – thanks for your question!

Public health is one of the areas where my normal advice of ‘avoid grad-school until mid-career’ doesn’t apply. You’re definitely doing the right thing getting your master’s. As to your strategy, I would think either of those would be viable, but I would think you would be well positioned to go straight into program implementation.

As a career transition, specific field experience as a public health professional is going to be your weak point, so absolutely take advantage of travel to network and volunteer if you’re able to do that. It’s going to be a huge asset.

I would definitely introduce yourself before you go, and explain that you’re going to be available to volunteer. I would suggest doing a little research on each person and pitching something specific that you could do for them. The ‘I’ll do anything’ approach is really not a good move.

I would make sure your linkedin and resume are really marketing you in the language of the jobs you are looking for as well. Make sure you’re hitting the keywords, and using each item on your resume as a way to show you excelling in something they are looking for.

Good luck!


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