Challenges to finding your first job in the field
There are a number of common things that people do to try to get a job in international relief and development that, in my opinion, simply do not work. I am not suggesting that you should never do any of these things, simply that doing them will not necessarily help you get your first job, and may even make it more difficult.
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Many entry-level positions in humanitarian agencies are what is called ‘unaccompanied’. That means that the agency will not pay for spouses, partners or children to accompany you to the post – what’s more, they may not even allow it. This might be a simple cost issue – the agency does not want to pay for two or more people, or it might be a security or safety issue – they don’t want to take on the liability of emergency evacuations or healthcare. Having a dependent partner who you need to take with you will limit the number of posts that you can look at, and will rule out many of the entry-level ones you might be most suitable for or most likely to be considered for.
The more flexible you are in terms of being able to drop your life at a moment’s notice and go somewhere remote and potentially hostile, the more likely you are to find your first job. Husbands, wives, beloved boyfriends, dogs and children all make that more difficult.
Having said that, none of these are necessarily a deal-breaker, some friends of mine who have been willing to be flexible, and spend a year or so apart from their spouse, meeting up every three to four months, have broken into this line of work and maintained a healthy personal life. Others have a partner who is prepared to take a risk and go with them independently (perhaps figuring out somewhere close by to volunteer or look for work). Make sure that your partner is supportive of the project you are undertaking and / or consider whether you are prepared to sacrifice the relationship.
A word to the wise – if you have these kinds of (delightful!) complications in your life, make sure they don’t make it more difficult for someone who is thinking about hiring you, at least until you are established enough in your career that shipping your husband with you in order to recruit you seems like a good deal to a recruiter. Agencies like people in stable relationships (they often stay longer in postings) but don’t necessarily want to pay for them when you are untried and untested, and don’t want to have to deal with more complications.
My wife and I (before we were married) met in the UK. We both decided that we wanted to work overseas, and applied separately to work in the Balkans. She ended up on the Croatian Coast, while I worked in Serbia. We used to commute by bus on weekends (a 12 hour journey one way!) to see each other. We both briefly found work in Pristina, Kosovo (not mentioning our relationship on our applications) but when NATO bombed Kosovo, she was evacuated to Macedonia while I went to Albania. I persuaded her to move to Albania, and then we both got moved back into Kosovo, to different cities, without a lot of opportunity to see each other.
In those days we had a strict ‘turn system’, and when it became my turn to choose a location, I picked West Timor in Indonesia over Uganda because it looked like the possibilities of her finding a job there as well were better. Sure enough, we both managed to find unaccompanied posts in the same city, with different agencies. When we got evacuated from that post because of deteriorating security, we stayed with friends in Jakarta for a couple of months looking for work. She found a job with an agency working out in Eastern Indonesia, and left, and a couple of months later I got a job with the same agency in the same place as her for the first time!
Our case is a little different because we were both working independently, but my point is that you have to be flexible. You also have to be committed, this kind of lifestyle took a huge toll on our relationship at times, and needs a lot of work to get right.
The UN, and some contractors pay very well. Most NGOs / PVOs and non-profits do not. That is not to say that you will be on the breadline, especially when you look at the overall benefits package – many give great health insurance, free housing, shipping, and education for dependent children, and you can sometimes avoid paying income taxes (consult a tax advisor on this one). Plus your expenses may be very low if you are in the middle of nowhere (be careful with this though, since major cities like Jakarta can be as expensive as the West). The fact is though, many people who are coming out of US graduate schools tell me that they simply cannot pay their student loan fees on NGO salaries. Given that I don’t think the value of grad school pays off until later in your career, my advice is not to incur large debts early on.
Volunteering or working at headquarters
Helping out or working in the headquarters office of a relief agency can be very rewarding and a great experience. It is pretty unlikely to help you find a job in the field though. There are exceptions to this rule, so I don’t completely want to discourage you from this avenue, but there are a small, small number of people who manage to make the transition from headquarters staff to field staff without prior field experience. Later in your career, a stint in headquarters can be very valuable, but early on, I think your time is better spent somewhere else.
Be careful of getting into fundraising or other departments which won’t actually connect you to field work. It is very tough to transition from a headquarters job as a fundraiser or admin officer to a field position – the different business units (program, accounting, fundraising etc) often have very different organizational cultures and can lack understanding of how each other works. The issue here is that, while you may be getting to know the issues and understand the agency, you are not getting the all important field experience that most hiring mangers look for. Unless you can network with hiring managers as part of your job, you are still likely to be looked on as not knowing enough about what things are like in the field when compared to other candidates in the pool.
Making the transition from fundraising to program
Don’t assume that if you get a job in fundraising or administration you will be able to transfer into a job in the field or the program operations department. A friend of mine who has years of experience successfully writing grants for major US organizations left his job with one organization after they refused to consider transferring him to work overseas. He persuaded another NGO to take him on as part of their grant writing team in headquarters for a trial period with the understanding that he would be looking for jobs with that organization in the field. After six months this didn’t happen – the field hiring managers were not taking his resume seriously (or listening to recommendations from his headquarters based colleagues) and the somewhat unstable places he was offered jobs did not fit his needs (he was recently married).
He left in frustration, and took another headquarters fundraising job with a third US aid agency shelving his plans to go overseas. The moral of this story? It is really, really difficult to transfer from admin or fundraising to the field, especially if you don’t want to go to a war zone and have a dependent spouse.
Personal travel and tourism, no matter how adventurous and independent, is not viewed in the same light as living and working in the field – it will not count towards the all-important ‘field experience’. Even the ‘working vacation’ type experiences are of limited value in this respect, in that they do not demonstrate to a recruiter that you are able to live for months on end in remote and challenging environments without extensive support.
Tourism is great – it broadens your horizons, and is fun – you should do it – but it won’t help you find a job. The only caveat I would offer on this is that, if you find yourself visiting areas with an aid agency presence, by all means try to set up meetings and network with staff, especially Program Managers, Chiefs of Party, Country Directors and Deputies. These personal contacts are gold when it comes to looking for jobs, and the fact that you turned up counts for a lot.
- Lost N Words is a blog about working in headquarters and overseas. It is well worth the time to read her insights. One of the areas she touches on is the difficulty of making the transition from headquarters to the field – her approach was unorthodox, to say the least!