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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:

Be flexible

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:

Peace Corps

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

Further reading

35 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2010 6:03 am

    Thanks for posting all this mate. I am interested in this kind of work once I complete my degree, so it has been very useful to get my head around the concepts of this kind of work. Thank you very much and hope to see more posts!

    • April 13, 2010 1:51 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Hallam – good luck in your job-search!

  2. May 13, 2010 6:56 am

    Before embarking into the charity/NGO jobs one should also be aware of the negative side of this world. It is completely a different proposition when you work in a developing (e.g poorer countries) country as opposed to working in a charity/NGO in a developed country (US, UK etc). It is likely to be glamorous, adventurous when you work as an expat staff in a developing country for an international organisation. But when you choose or compelled to work in developed country, you will be in the lower end of salary even compared to public sector staff.

    There is one more aspects that really irritates me as I find often now a days that NGOs attached more importance of your commercial world experience. Basically these NGOs are saying that experience in NGO is somehow less valuable. I observed this trend in UK with several larger NGOs in their recent job advertisement.

    Now in terms of finding jobs, you can look at all sorts of job sites specialist in aid field. I would mention the following where they any job posting is FREE. – specialist in UK charity job – specialist in international development jobs gloablly.

    Good luck.

    • May 14, 2010 8:46 am

      Thanks for your comments Golam, I agree that working in a headquarters office can be a very different experience to working in a field office, although I think that the range of possible situations in both is huge – while I don’t want to downplay the positive sides of working overseas, it’s certainly not all glamorous adventure!
      On the salary issue, I’m less familiar with UK NGO pay scales, but certainly in the US this varies more by field than by sector – by that I mean that in health care, for example, average salaries are higher within the non-profit sector than the for-profit. It’s definitely worth checking out the salary scales in the country you will be working in and making sure that they fit your needs and expectations.
      The trend in NGOs to look favorably on commercial world experience is an interesting one – my personal take is that it reflects a recognition that there are skills from other sectors that non-profits can usefully utilize. I’m not sure it reflects a lower value placed on non-profit experience. I think in some places we’re starting to see the honeymoon with the for-profit sector coming to an end a little, not in the sense of not valuing that skill set, but a more realistic assessment of what for-profit experience can bring.
      Thanks again for your comments, and for the job-site recommendations,

  3. May 25, 2010 4:40 am

    Hi Nick,
    I’ve been really enjoying this blog- thanks for all the effort you have clearly put into this!
    I am an ex-teacher trying to break into the humanitarian/NGO sector. I have lived abroad for 6 years, in South Korea, Kuwait, Nepal, India and spent 2 months working with an NGO in South Sudan. I have no fear of difficult environments, and have lived and worked in places without running water and electricity for months at a time without any major drama. I have also recently completed an MSc in Humanitarian Programme Management. I have a lot of great skills in staff training, using PRA tools and techniques and tons of admin experience, as well as conducting needs assessments etc.
    However I’m finding that almost every job I apply for wants a minimum of 5 years experience. I have already volunteered for a year in Nepal, and can’t really afford to do it again, but don’t know how else I can get this experience (mine is currently around 3 years in the general development sector, but not all with NGOs specifically).
    Can you offer me any advice or tips on job-hunting at this stage?
    I have been trying to sign up to some professional rosters, but again they usually require 5 years as a minimum requirement. I’m just not sure how anyone manages to get 5 years, as it can’t all be from volunteering!

    • Kathy permalink
      November 26, 2018 5:05 pm

      Just found this website on Google. I think it is very informative! Thanks Nick!

      Also, Stephanie I am really interested in your case. Have you managed to find any job? I am also considering a change in career field and would really love to learn from your experience.

  4. Jeff permalink
    February 13, 2011 11:27 am

    How important are language skills in critical language areas, such as Arabic in the Middle East or Chinese in China?

    • March 6, 2011 4:03 pm

      Languages are always a huge bonus – the give an huge level of insight into culture and are a massive help in working effectively. Having said that, how important a language is in terms of getting a job is a different question, and depends largely on how common the language is among qualified applicants for the job. For example, there are many, many skilled development professionals who speak Spanish, so it is more or less required for people seeking jobs in Spanish speaking Latin America. Likewise French in Francophone Africa and Russian in parts of the Former Soviet Union. For places where there is not a huge supply of qualified people who speak the language organizations will generally settle for skills over language, and assume you will use an interpreter when you need to.

  5. shirley marie permalink
    December 23, 2011 3:26 am

    this website really gave me a good insight on the humanitarian feild. just want to encourage those who are interested in finding a job in this feild to never give up….we are needed out there.

  6. Matthew Robinson permalink
    March 17, 2012 4:28 pm

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for all your efforts on this blog – this is easily the most informative site I’ve found about breaking into the sector.

    I wanted to pick up on your point about acquiring a useful skill. This is something everyone I’ve spoken to who works in the sector has stressed as being particularly important. I don’t have any training in engineering, finance or administration; what other specialisms are there that are in high demand?

    I currently work in mountaineering instruction and industrial rope access – have you heard of a demand for these type of skills in the Himalayan countries, for example?

    Over the next year or so, I’m considering becoming qualified as a helicopter/light aircraft pilot. Are these skills in demand or are the costs involved prohibitive for all but the biggest aid agencies?

    Also, out of interest, are there many ex-military personnel involved in aid work? I imagine one could gain a large number of skills in certain military careers (I am thinking more of strategic officer roles rather than combat roles) that would be very useful in the delivery of aid on the ground. Is there any likelihood that a military background may count against you if you are looking to move into humanitarian work?

    Thanks again for all the effort you’ve put into the site,



    • March 18, 2012 1:36 pm

      Hey Matt,
      Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate it – please consider posting feedback on my e-book on Amazon, and think about buying it if you haven’t already – it really helps me to cover the costs of maintaining this site!

      I’m long overdue a post on the issues of practical skills, but just quickly while we’re on the topic – specifically, I’ve never come across a situation where mountaineering and rope skills would be demanded in the aid world – I can totally see that might be a good fit for mountain rescue work, but most agencies don’t do a whole lot of that. On the helicopter / light aircraft pilot issue, agencies do sometimes charter or rent planes, but they rarely maintain their own fleet. The exceptions are some UN agencies that run humanitarian airlift capacities. You will sometimes see the World Food Program and the like hiring air traffic controllers, pilots etc, but in general they are looking for experienced professionals in those fields, not someone who just happens to have a pilot license. Also, they are just as likely to lease capacity from transportation companies as to hire their own air operations people.

      In terms of the military, I’ve touched a little on this one, as it is a common question, and the answer is that it cuts both ways. There are certainly people who make the transition from the military to the NGO world successfully – I think that the discipline, leadership and organizational skills that people in the military pick up can be very valuable, but you have to be careful. I’ve seen a lot of military resumes that read like a series of certifications, trainings and postings that don’t mean a lot to a civilian. You have to make sure that you can re-cast your experience in language that the civilian world can understand. Even simple things, like not assuming that a civilian knows how many people you led if you commanded a company. You really need to spell out how your skills are transferable. You might also not want to disclose everything you’re skilled in – I honestly read a resume once where one of the skills listed was ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. A lot of NGO types are going to have an opinion about that kind of thing.

      You need to be prepared to articulate very clearly that you understand the organizational cultural differences between NGOs and the military. A lot of NGO hiring managers will have unhelpful stereotypes about the kinds of management styles and approaches to problem solving that you bring to the table – you’ll have to work hard to explain that these are false.

      Hope that helps! Good luck,

  7. Samir Tanib permalink
    March 29, 2012 3:51 am

    Thank you for the info…..My name is Samir Tanib ,originally from Palestine living in the state ,for the bast two years i have been looking for such job ,and i have no luck ,the truth is i wish i could do it as a volunteer ,but i cant ,because i do believe that Allah (God) create each one off us for a reason ,and i feel my reason is to be in such an organization ,,,why ….because ,i have traveled a lot in my life time ,and i know,the culture ,custom ,believes off all the Middle East …and that it self its an assets to any organization …! and yes there is a lot people out there who need our help and we have to do our part ,,,,may God helps us ,,,,,any advice ???

    • March 29, 2012 11:12 am

      Dear Samir,
      Thanks for your feedback – good luck with your job search, the only additional advice that I have for you is to focus where you feel you might have added value – it sounds like languages and regional experience might be appealing.
      You might want to have a native English speaker review any applications to organizations that deal primarily in English, and make sure that you can operate fluently in organizations that expect fluent written English. Good luck!

  8. Rachel permalink
    April 30, 2012 9:12 am

    You’ve mentioned that public health experts rarely have difficulty finding work. Do you know what would be best to get into this and what other health related proffesions are in high demand? I’ve seen epidemiology a few times during my research, is this a career you’ve come across much in your field work?

    • April 30, 2012 6:58 pm

      You know, in all honesty, I would recommend for public health (and any other area for that matter) that you pursue it only if it really floats your boat. My comments on it as a profession that is in demand are largely anecdotal, although Alannah has much better sectoral knowledge than I do. I don’t have any current data on the professions most in demand – it would be an interesting project if someone wanted to do it – otherwise I would suggest a quick look at the open positions lists of the major agencies as a way to get a fast impression of what is in demand – sorry!

  9. Rachel permalink
    May 7, 2012 1:53 am

    Thanks for the advice. I’m doing a medical related degree already so hopefully it will float my boat. I’ve been in contact with someone at the department of public health at my uni so I can find out more and see if it definately does before I sign up for more study.

    • May 11, 2012 11:04 am

      Cool – don’t forget to let us know how you do!

  10. Valeriya permalink
    July 16, 2012 8:50 am

    Hello Nick,

    I am really glad I ran into your blog. There is a lot of info to wrap my head around… Thank you.

    25 years old, Russian by origin I leave in France on permanent basis. I have a bachelor in Foreign Relations and a master of science degree in International Marketing and Business Development. I’ve chosen that unusual educational passage some years ago specially in order to be able to serve NGO. I was very naïve thinking that NGOs would be interested in my diverse business education, international experience, multilingual and multicultural capabilities, creative mind and great set of soft skills. Unfortunately, in a real world it turned out to be extremely difficult to find an opportunity in NGO straight after the business school (as they seems to hire only highly experienced professionals). So, I worked as a manager of internal communication for a huge international B2B company and currently I am an account manager in this firm (1,5 years of serious professional experience overall…not that much unfortunately)
    This job and the whole company doesn’t match my values and I feel an extreme need to realized my lifelong goal and ambition. So, nowadays I’ve restarted my job search in a humanitarian sector.
    Any thought of where I can start? I would really appreciate any advise or direction!!!

    • July 16, 2012 9:21 am

      Hi there – I’m glad you like the site – please do consider buying the e-book or rating it on Amazon – that makes a huge difference to me.

      So – sorry to hear about your problems finding work in the humanitarian sector – ‘m afraid what you’re dealing with is the experience trap. As you mention, INGOs only hire experienced professionals. I’m afraid that my advice is the same to you as to most people – you must get some field experience under your belt. Unfortunately simply being Russian isn’t enough – you need to show you can work and get things done in the kinds of environments where you want to work.

      I don’t know the company you work for, but it is possible that they have affiliates in the developing world you could request transfer to, otherwise finding ways to volunteer overseas is a good step.

      You should also check out BioForce if you’re in France –
      They run some great training programs and would be a good first step for networking.
      Good luck!

  11. Allan Bei permalink
    November 26, 2012 5:41 am

    Iam currently studying in the field and the comments in this blog has been helpful as expect to continue in this area of study.You are doing a perfect job big up guys.!!!!

  12. Sam permalink
    February 6, 2013 10:05 pm

    Hey Nick,
    I’m sorry for asking for personal advice on a discussion forum, but I saw that you reliably respond to comments, and you seem qualified to give advice on this topic. I’ve read a lot of your articles on this website, and have found them extraordinarily helpful (and grounding).
    I am very interested in having a career in international relief work. Until recently, I wanted to do academic work professionally, but the more I think about it, the more mind-numbing the thought of spending all of my time trapped in a library seems. I’ve always played with the idea of doing relief work, but recently it’s moved from the periphery of my plans to the center. However, I’m a year and a half from completing a BA in philosophy and, while I don’t regret my major choice (philosophy is fascinating, after all), pretty much everything I’ve read has advised that, in order to get into international work, one must major in something ‘useful.’ As interesting as it may be, I can’t imagine philosophy is particularly useful for relief work. Still, I’d like to start at least working towards a career in international relief as soon as possible. The only experience I have which seems slightly relevant is an informal internship with a Central Asian citizen media website (I’m good friends with the editor in chief, and he gave me the internship), but I’m willing to go anywhere and do just about anything immediately after graduation, if only to get my foot in the door.
    Do you have any advise for someone in my situation? How might I be able to make my degree relevant for relief work? Would it be possible to get a bottom level job at this point, or would I almost certainly have to get some work experience in the public sector just to make myself more marketable?
    Thank you for your time and thought,

    • February 7, 2013 10:30 am


      Thanks for the positive feedback, it’s great to hear the site is useful. Please do consider buying the ebook, or rating it on Amazon – that really helps me offset the costs of the site! I don’t at all mind questions, but I’m afraid I may not have very different advice for you than most…

      You know, I had a similar experience, of coming very close to starting a doctoral program when I graduated. Depending on your field, it may or may not be easy to get back into academia at a later date, but you might want to look into the growing field of academic work related to relief and development. There are people who make a living moving between the two worlds.

      As to whether or not philosophy is ‘useful’, that one I’m not touching! The question of whether you need a particular degree to get into this line of work depends greatly on what you want to do. If you want to work in a field like engineering, health, or finance, then I would say yes, you do need a relevant degree. For anything else, I think it doesn’t matter that much – certainly not as much as the relevant field experience that you have.

      As an aside, I would suggest that you might want to think about how you ‘market’ your degree. What kind of philosophy is it? Is there any way that you can pull elements from the courses that you took that are relevant to development, or cross cultural issues? Just think about whether there is a more practical ‘spin’ you can put on it…

      My main advice to you is to get as much experience as you possibly can living and working in the kinds of places where you want to work. Get internships, volunteer opportunities, networking travel, anything. Make contacts, make yourself useful, and get a feel for what you want to do and what value you can add.

      I don’t think a public sector job would make you particularly more marketable – to be honest, I think one of the best ways to do this is to commit to 3-6 months somewhere – pick a place you like that is calm, safe, and has good tourist infrastructure as well as a lot of aid agencies, and go live there. Make yourself useful – volunteer – get to know everyone, and let them know you’re looking for work. It’s much easier than looking for a job from Europe unless you have a very compelling CV.
      Good luck – let us know how you do!

  13. Sam permalink
    February 7, 2013 12:16 pm

    Hey Nick,
    I bought your ebook, I found it very inciting and interesting, I’m sure it’s one I’ll end up rereading several times. I wasn’t necessarily expecting different advice, but it’s still reassuring to hear from someone who’s been tried and tested in the field.
    My philosophy degree is very general, the focus is primarily historical. However, it offers few opportunities to study anything outside of philosophy. Still, I’ve tried to take politically, legally, or anthropologically focused courses whenever I could. I’ve been playing with the idea of getting a masters degree in finance or economics, do you think that would boost my prospects in the long run, or do you think my time would be better spent going straight from my BA to a developing country and trying to find work? I’ve heard mixed reports on this account. On the one hand, I know that experience on the field is the most important consideration of employers, but I’ve also read that someone with a background in finance will have a much easier time than someone with a liberal arts. I’ve also always been a ‘math person,’ and miss number-crunching. Thank you for the advice about looking for a job outside of Europe, I found it quite reassuring. The idea of finding work in a developing country seems far more exciting (and definitely more up my alley) than hunting for a job in the US or Europe.

    • February 7, 2013 12:53 pm

      Sam – good to hear from you, in terms of whether to get a finance or economics degree, I would say it depends on what you are passionate about doing – if you want to work in financial management of NGOs, or economic development, then a relevant degree is pretty much essential, but you should check current job postings for the qualifications of the kinds of positions you want. In general, I think relevant field experience is much more useful early on in your career.
      People with a background in finance who are willing to do financial management jobs are in demand, although generally agencies want to see a work history managing finance for some other organization first. I wouldn’t recommend it unless that’s your passion.
      Good luck,

  14. November 12, 2013 1:10 am

    Hi Nick, great information here, and just what I need. I’m unfortunately, one of those people who wants to jump on a plane to the Philippines after the devastation wrought by the cyclone in recent days. I’m not qualified in anything really, other than driving a heavy truck, but I can’t help but feel I’d love to be able to go there and be somehow useful. I’m a volunteer fire fighter with an advanced first aid certificate. I know that’s not much, but I’m thinking along the lines of being a handy person to have around. There must be plenty to be done surely. How does someone like me approach this situation?

  15. Cortni permalink
    February 23, 2014 7:55 pm

    Hey Nick,

    Sorry, having a bit of trouble with the comments on here. I think your site is fantastic! I am wanting to get my foot in the door with a first job however I will be moving to Germany this fall for 9 months and I am not sure where to start on how to get a job/start volunteering there. Do you have any suggestions on organizations that I can get involved in while I am there? You mentioned that it would be good to have a background in administration or accounting. I will have a Bachelor’s Degree in Science by the time I get to Germany. Should I pursue an education in administration or accounting while I am there or should I go ahead and try to find a job?

    Let me know if you have any suggestions for me! Thanks for your time!

  16. June 12, 2014 12:11 pm


    Thank you for all of the information on this site, it is extremely useful and well written. A quick questions..Do you happen to know of any staffing firms that recruit for humanitarian aid organizations? I haven’t been able to locate any, thought you might know more.


    • June 13, 2014 9:48 am

      Hi R,
      Thanks for the feedback. While there are some headhunting firms that work in the humanitarian sphere at the senior and executive level, I’m not aware of many that work at the lower level. RedR is probably the only one that I can think of, and even then I don’t think they do a huge amount of this.
      Good luck,

  17. Jenni permalink
    June 30, 2015 8:42 am

    Hi Nick,

    This website has been very helpful and I am going to buy your book to get even more insight. I am new to the international development world and am trying to get my foot in the door. My biggest struggle right now is that I cannot relocate. I live in Dallas, Texas. I have been looking for a career position that is based in TX but where I could still travel internationally for aid relief throughout the year. It seems that all organizations that have a home office in the United States are based in Washington DC. I am looking for something like project management where I could work on clean water projects, food aid, etc in the developing countries but work mostly out of Texas. Do you know any organizations like this in Texas? Any advice for me on how to get my foot in the door? Thank you!

  18. James Michie permalink
    August 1, 2015 3:50 am

    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


  19. Roi De Pense`es permalink
    July 20, 2016 10:51 pm

    Hey Nick
    I am a fresh law graduate from India. Do you have any advice on how to find a job in this field in my case, seeing as the Peace Corps is only open to Americans? Can you please give me suggestions on how should I start my career?
    TIA Nick

  20. Joely Michelle Worthey permalink
    January 1, 2018 10:13 am

    Are nurses in demand ?


  1. How to get a job in humanitarian aid and relief – live chat – The Guardian | Bcst Connect

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