How to find your first job in the relief and development field
This chapter is about the things that you can do that will increase your chances of getting a job overseas in relief and development. All of them are good, but I’m going to give away the farm right now and tell you that overwhelmingly there is one thing that I think works better than anything else: Get experience living and working in the kinds of places you want to find a job.
If you find this site at least as useful as a beer in New York, please consider buying my e-book on Amazon! Getting your first job in relief and development.
Sure, there are people who break into this line of work in other ways, but they do it largely through luck or existing connections – they are standing around at the right time and get chatting with the CEO of an organization, and he takes a chance on them, or some other connection gets them noticed. Good luck to you if you can make that work, some people do, but not many. If you have the kinds of connections and skills to pull this off, you don’t need my advice.
For the rest of us, the only reliable method I can really recommend is to get field experience. Lots of it. Let me say that again, in case I wasn’t 100% clear: In my opinion, the best and most reliable way to break into this business is to get lots of experience living and working in the developing world. Let’s look at some ways to do this, first, some general tips:
Be graciously persistent
It will take you many, many letters, phone calls, visits and interviews to find someone who wants to give you a foot in the door. Don’t be put off by a series of rejections. In some ways, the determination and thick skin you will develop are great training. You need to develop a gracious persistence that keeps on gently pushing until opportunities start to crop up without annoying people and developing a reputation for being a pushy pain in the neck. A lot of the same advice applies here as with any other job search – hone your networking skills. Don’t ask people to return your calls, set up a time to call them, keep the contact ball in your court, but don’t be so persistent you look like a stalker.
Use your network of contacts
The humanitarian community is even more tightly knit than most, and personal referrals can be hugely influential. Developing and using your network of friends, colleagues and contacts is essential. Make sure that you use every opportunity you get to genuinely connect with people you meet who do the kinds of things you are trying to do (or who know people who do). Having said that, the same caveats apply to networking in humanitarian communities as in anything else – don’t make a nuisance of yourself, or get a reputation as someone who is more concerned about exchanging business cards than getting to know people. In fact, while we’re on the topic, indulge me for a moment – there are so many great people in this line of work that I hesitate to use the word ‘network’ at all. Don’t do that. Instead take the time to get to know people, make friends, and don’t feel you have to spend time developing relationships because they are good for your career. You’ll be happier in the long run, I promise.
Have a bit of humility
Prepare yourself for the fact that just because you have graduated from a prestigious school with an impressive degree, or have years of experience managing millions in the corporate world, those things will mean little or nothing to hiring managers in the humanitarian world. Expect to be made to start from the bottom rung and work your way up. For better or worse, pretty much the only currency that the aid world values is experience in the aid world. Paying your dues is a part of every industry to some extent, but unfortunately it’s huge in this line of work.
People gain credibility in large part by the amount of time they spend in harsh places, and the degree of harshness of those places. Someone who has spent two years as a program manager in Sudan or Afghanistan has a good deal of organizational karma accrued, and there is an informal seniority attached to this. Don’t expect to be able to walk into a job in a capital city with great facilities ahead of candidates who have served their time on the organizational ‘front lines’. People in this line of work who are closest to the field operations are often given more respect and credibility than people who are theoretically more senior than them but work in a headquarters office. You’ll come to be familiar with the odd ritual that takes place when aid workers meet – they will invariably ask each other where the other has served, and tell a couple of anecdotes about the extreme circumstances they work under. These ‘so-there-I-was’ stories play a role in establishing an informal ‘pecking-order’ of status. Try not to take this too seriously.
Do your homework and use informational interviews
Informational interviews are a way of getting ‘face time’ with hiring managers or other agency staff in ways that make them more comfortable talking to you. The unwritten rule is that you don’t explicitly ask for a job, but rather ask their advice in how to get one. Of course, we all know what is really going on here. Develop your pitch, and remember that you are absolutely interviewing – the person you are talking to is definitely sizing you up to see if they should consider hiring you or recommending you. You’ll want to avoid coming across as flattering or sycophantic, a professional respect is all that is required. Don’t go on about how much you admire their work or commitment – aid workers tend to find that embarrassing and a sign of naivety.
Don’t call someone up or ask for informational interviews without understanding what their organization does and what they do within it. I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed. Read the organization’s annual report, read their website and any publications they’ve put out lately. Search for the person you’re making contact with on the internet and figure out whether they have been interviewed lately, written articles etc. A little bit of research will make you sound a whole lot more informed. Don’t ask questions in an informational interview that a few minutes research on the web could have answered for you.
Have a specific proposal
It is tempting to say that you will go anywhere and do whatever is needed, but people will actually be more impressed if you call them up with a specific proposal about what you want to do and where. It shows that you have thought it through, and understand the environment, and it reduces the burden on the agency to try to ‘find you something’.
You might think that it is appealing to be flexible and be prepared to do anything, but to the agency it makes you look clueless and as though you don’t understand where you can actually add most value. Do your homework on the agency, their programs, and the direction they are moving in, and try to figure out what kinds of things they will be interested in. Of course, in the end, your proposal may not be what they ask you to do – you should be prepared to go anywhere and do whatever is needed, which brings me to:
My advice to you is that you should take pretty much any job in the field that you are offered, and not worry too much about whether it is what you really want to be doing. It’s a fast moving business, and the chances are you will be able to move on pretty quickly. My first job with a major aid agency was running a heating fuel distribution program. Needless to say, it wasn’t my dream posting, but it got me a foot in the door, and I only ended up doing it for three months. A word of caution on this though – beware of getting a reputation for never finishing a job. It’s ok to move from one place to another if there is a good organizational reason, or if you’ve served a couple of years, but you want to be careful of ending up with a resume full of six month assignments.
If you are volunteering, bringing your own funding in terms of air ticket, insurance, living expenses etc will help a lot. Agencies are worried about the substantial ‘hidden costs’ of free help – costs that add up when they are working on tight budgets. Be prepared to reassure agency staff that you will not cost them anything! Sure – it’s a big deal to save up the money to live for six months in a developing country and volunteer, but it’s probably not that much more than a set of business suits for Wall Street, and certainly less than tuition at a respectable university for the same period of time.
Think of it as an investment in your career, just as you would student loans. Budget properly, and treat it with the same level of seriousness that you would a school assignment or job. It’s not permanent, and with any luck the investment will pay off and you’ll actually be earning money soon!
Make sure you have money saved for coming home too. One of the things you will get told about is culture shock – the sense of disorientation at being immersed in a new culture. What you often won’t be told about is that it can be worse coming back home after an intense experience overseas. Family and friends are pleased to see you again, but you may be frustrated at being unable to communicate the things you saw and learned. Make sure you have some money saved to cushion your return while you look for work and get re-established.
Some specific suggestions about things to do:
The good news is that, in the United States, an enormous number of people who end up working for humanitarian agencies start out in the Peace Corps. The reasons are pretty obvious – it’s a structured, relatively easy way to get two years living and working in a developing country.
Peace Corps took on 3,181 recent graduates in 2007, and a few more in 2008. They have a total of about 8,000 volunteers at any given time in 73 countries doing everything from working on water projects, teaching, advising small businesses, and providing health education. You can sometimes get forbearance 1 or deferment 2 of your student loans (check with Peace Corps and your lending institution, since policies vary and change frequently). You get your living expenses paid, and you can network like crazy while you’re there. Who knows, you might get lucky and get a job in the country where you are serving. If not, by the time you’re done you certainly know a lot more about a region, about development in general, and should have lost much of your naivety about how the developing world works.
I’ll say again that you should have networked like a thing possessed. I occasionally get contacted by people who have just come back from Peace Corps, and are looking for a job, and look blankly at me when I ask them to get one of the people from an aid agency in the country they were posted in to write them a reference. Seriously – make it your business to get to know the staff of every organization that is working in your country, or, even better, the whole region. It’s a small, small world – you’ll run into them sooner or later, and one of them will almost certainly know the hiring manager whose attention you are trying to attract.
The bad news is that simply having spent time in the Peace Corps is usually not enough experience to get a job. Sometimes it is, particularly if the job you are applying for is in the country that you are posted to and you know the hiring manager, but more usually it is not. Another year, or more likely two, is often necessary if you cannot leverage connections you made in your two years.
Trying to line up a job while you are still in the country where you are volunteering or serving in the Peace Corps is always a great idea. Staying on after you finish to volunteer and look for opportunities is also great. The trick is to line up a job in the country you are in (or through a contact there) while you are still there. It’s these field level contacts that are really valuable – don’t let them go cold by going back home and applying through headquarters human resources. Being there on the ground is a huge advantage over people who are somewhere else.
Fellowship programs and internships
The good news is that some major aid agencies have fellowships or internship programs for students and recent graduates. An example of this is Catholic Relief Service’s International Development Fellows Program – it is one of the most established and comprehensive programs, offering 20-30 one year placements per year, which come with a stipend, and a chance to work in a range of different locations and departments within the organization. Furthermore, the rate of people being hired on from this program is high at about 80%.
The bad news is that, like many other international internship programs they only accept applicants from people with graduate degrees. Furthermore, they require fluency in a second language. An alternative approach is Mercy Corps, which offers about 60 graduate internships overseas each year. They are completely unpaid (although local housing and local travel is usually provided), but for 3-4 months.
The UNV program can be a good way to get your foot in the door as a young development professional, but the program is very competitive, and has a reputation for selection based on existing contacts within the UN. Why do these agencies set the requirements so high for these entry level opportunities? Well, it’s partly because they can – it’s not uncommon to get 40-50 highly qualified applicants for an unpaid internship, many more for real jobs.
So if these examples from major agencies require graduate degrees, why am I telling you not to get one? Well, the fact is that, if you already have your masters degree (or are getting it) these programs are appealing, but I would not recommend anyone sign up for a graduate degree just to try to get on them – the number of people they accept, and the number of people who get jobs as a result is a small piece of the pie. When you combine this with the number of applicants they get, I just think that this is one of the tougher ways to make it.
One last thing on internships and volunteering – sometimes you might find an internship where you don’t get the supervision or structure, or even the task, that you wanted. It’s up to you to salvage this and find something that needs doing. Make sure you are able to communicate to the organization the value that you added.
Volunteering in other ways
While the Peace Corps is certainly the highest profile way to do this, there are other structured ways to get field experience. I spent a year volunteering with a small religiously affiliated organization in the Balkans before I got my first paying job, other people I know from that time were volunteering with human rights monitoring groups. The value to these opportunities is that it is a chance to get experience living and working in these kinds of environments, while building networks of friends and contacts who can help you get a job. I deal with this topic in more depth in ‘Volunteering overseas‘.
Get a skill in an area that is in high demand (e.g. finance and administration)
It’s a stereotype, but it’s not entirely wrong – most people who go into accounting don’t do it so that they can go live in a developing country and earn much less than they could in their home country, and most people who want to live overseas don’t pursue accounting. The practical upshot of this is that there is always a struggle to find good, qualified admin and finance staff who are willing to put up with the pay and conditions of international development organizations.
If you have this skill set, you will find it much easier to find work, and many of the usual restrictions will be applied much less stringently. I’m not saying that you won’t need any field experience, just that you’re going to have an easier time of it. Of course, you still need to be able to live with your chosen career. If you hate spreadsheets, you’re not going to enjoy your accounting job any better just because the office you are stuck inside is in Nairobi. To make it in this line of work you have to love what you do.
There are other skill sets that are in high demand – good construction managers and engineers are always in demand, and public health experts rarely have trouble finding work.
1 interest accrues, but you don’t make payments
2 interest does not accrue
- An interesting blog post by Alanna Shaikh on Change.org called “How to find your first bad job” emphasizes the need to be flexible in your first assignment.
- Alanna Shaikh also writes on Blood and Milk about how she funded her first volunteer assignment in Uzbekistan. “I didn’t get funding. I estimated how much it would cost me every month to live in Tashkent. I figured out how long I wanted to stay – six months. Then I got a job, saved up my money, deferred my student loans, and got on the plane to Tashkent.“