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What should I study in university to get a job in humanitarian work?

This is probably the most frequent question I get, and there are two basic answers:

1. If you want to work in a professional field like finance, administration, HR, engineering, monitoring and evaluation, health services etc, then there may well be a professional qualification that you need. Look for the kinds of qualifications that those professions do in other situations, and compare them with the qualifications required in aid agency job postings. You will likely need a graduate degree (like an MPH for public health, for example) and field experience.

2. If you want to be a generalist, a camp manager, logistician, project manager etc, then I think it doesn’t much matter. The main thing is to have a degree that you can make a straight-face case is relevant – you won’t go far wrong with an internationally related degree, but to be honest in the fifteen or so years I’ve been working in this field no one has ever once asked me what I studied in college or in grad-school, and I’ve never been on an interview committee where the question has been asked. I have heard recruiters mention that degrees without any obvious connection to international development are perhaps seen as less relevant that those with direct relevance, but only in the context of entry level positions where credibility with the field hasn’t be established any other way.

Frankly unless you are entering an area of work with fairly tightly regulated professional standards (like engineering, health or HR), then field experience is so much more important than your degree that I think you should choose your major based on what will give you most exposure to living and working in the kinds of environments where you want to get a job.

My personal take on this question is that it is asked so often in the hope that there is a degree that will shortcut the requirement for field experience. If there is then I have never heard of it. That said there are courses that will give you more exposure to networks in this field, and greater opportunities for field experience – my advice is to seek those courses out, and ask questions about where graduates ended up getting jobs and how connected alumni are in this field.

47 Comments leave one →
  1. shawn permalink
    April 8, 2014 9:50 am


    I am health care provider and specialize in group homes for people who have mental or physical disability. These can include OCD, Bi- Polar, BPD, Autism, and Schizophrenia to name a few of the more common ones. My question is around the need for disabilities workers at NGO’s and Aid programs over seas and is there a need or openings for such?

    • April 8, 2014 12:27 pm

      Hi Shawn,
      Mental health in the aid world is an evolving area – I’m honestly not certain what current best practices in this area are, but one major issue is that diagnoses and treatment of the kinds of disorders you’re talking about really require relatively sophisticated public health infrastructure that is often absent in emergencies. I would suggest that you look at the positions that mental health focussed organizations are recruiting for, or call one or two up and ask them. If you don’t get any traction then drop me another note and I’ll see if I can rummage up someone to interview,

    • Samar Misra permalink
      July 7, 2015 2:57 pm

      Shawn, if you don’t mind me asking, do you have a Master in Social Work degree or something similar?

  2. shawn permalink
    April 9, 2014 7:56 pm

    Another thing to mention is that I am from British Columbia, Canada. Would you happen to know of any specfic organizations from Canada the only one I know about is ADERA and Red Cross.

  3. shawn permalink
    April 9, 2014 8:01 pm

    I have sent ADERA, Red Cross, and United Way inquiries so far, they might be able to point me in the right direction.

  4. April 9, 2014 10:52 pm

    While they’re not all Canadian by any means, a good place to start is the Canadian govt development agency’s funding list:

  5. Teo permalink
    May 29, 2014 1:19 pm


    First off I would just like to say that your blog is extremely helpful and informative so if you’re aim was to provide insightful information I think you’ve done just that! Awesome job! I’ll also be checking out your online book!
    Okay now onto the question, I’m a second-year university student and what I know is that I want to go into humanitarian aid work, that said, I don’t want to go into and of the professional jobs mentioned in this post (just not into that).
    My current major is sociology accompanied by a minor in global development. So my question is: do you think that this is a step in the right direction or should I reconsider my choices? I don’t even know if this is a good question or a rather unanswerable one but I was just wondering what you thought.
    Hopefully all of that made sense haha!

    Thank you!

    • May 29, 2014 10:43 pm

      Hi there –
      Thanks for the feedback – I guess I need to re-write this article, because I don’t think it’s clear to people! I honestly don’t think that what you study in college matters significantly. Anything with an international bent will be fine!
      Good luck, let us know how you do!

  6. July 24, 2014 5:50 pm

    Hello! I’ve just discovered this blog at a great time in my life and I think it’ll really help me to make some big choices in the near future. I’m a third year architecture student and I would like to get into humanitarian architecture, but the way I’m being taught in school is in no way guiding me in that direction. The kind of work the school expects is far from humanitarian and I almost think the work it way too stressful and not even helping me learn. I want to try to push through it though, because I believe that a degree will be helpful to my ultimate goal. Will it though? How much? Also, since I’m learning nothing about humanitarian architecture from my studios, what would you suggest (other than reading your wonderful blog!) me to do to learn more about the field?

    • November 10, 2014 9:03 am

      Hi there – what exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about ‘humanitarian architecture’? I’m assuming you mean reconstruction of damaged or destroyed buildings? To be honest, there are not many internationals employed as architects in that field – you should check out Architects without borders though – construction management is a huge field though.
      Hope that helps,

  7. Miriam permalink
    October 31, 2014 11:41 am

    Hi! I currently have over a decade of domestic disaster response experience and I’m trying very hard to enter the International humanitarian aid field. I can’t seem to find a barrier of entry, do you have any suggestions, helpful hints, guidance?

    • November 10, 2014 9:01 am

      Hi Miriam,
      Unfortunately you don’t mention where you live, which would be useful information, what kind of experience you have, or what the barriers to entry are that you’re experiencing. A little more detail would help a lot – sorry!

  8. Kate permalink
    November 10, 2014 6:57 am

    Hi my name is Kate, I have also found this blog very useful. I have just completed my nursing degree and I am looking into humanitarian aid work. Where can I go with my degree?

    • November 10, 2014 8:43 am

      Hi Kate – I’m glad you found the blog useful – it’s really useful to me if people rate and review the ebook on Amazon – if you could do that it would be awesome! As to where you can go with a nursing degree, as long as you have some nursing experience, I would check out the medical agencies that regularly deploy nurses, and look at the REDR courses on this.
      Good luck!

  9. Tashina permalink
    December 2, 2014 8:34 am

    Hi I am currently in the process of applying for the Peace Corp and my bachelors in in sociology. I was planning on getting my masters in social work. Will this degree possibly hinder me from working humanitarian aid in the health field? If so what degree do you find similar that may look better for this sort of field?

    • December 2, 2014 11:18 pm

      Hi Tashina – I think the article above sort of addresses these questions – is there something I missed?

      • Tashina permalink
        January 11, 2016 10:38 am

        I see that you said experience is the key…I have studied abroad and I plan on joining the Peace Corp in the future. Do these count as experience in the developing world?

      • January 11, 2016 3:45 pm

        Peace Corps definitely ‘counts’, but on its own is probably not enough – it’s a great start, and connects you to a huge and important network, but you’ll want a little bit more ‘real work’ experience. Peace Corps is often seen as an environment that takes care of people a little more than most INGOs, and organizations are reluctant to hire people with just PC. Likewise study abroad – it can ‘count’ depending on the location, but is not enough on its own.

  10. Khrystyna permalink
    January 1, 2015 8:29 am

    Hello Nick, you have done extremely well with this website! Thank you, it has been very useful. I think my questions are similar to Tashina’s ones. I have Masters in Administration and three years of working experience but now I want to completely change the direction and start working in humanitarian aid, refugee camps etc. Im Ukrainian and currently in Ukraine so I realise that here is no vast choice of jobs in this area. Im going for a year to Holland and after that I would like to get another masters in social work or related field. Would that make sense and give me better chances for working for UNICEF, UN etc?

  11. Emmy permalink
    February 22, 2015 6:20 am

    Hello Nick,I thank you so much for using this medium to explain this subject to us.

    pls i have a B.A History and a Post graduate diploma in Education.So which role or position do You feel i should apply for in any humanitarian job or which M.A course will you prefer me to study so that i can get a higher advantage when applying for humanitarian jobs?

    • February 23, 2015 9:52 am

      Hi there Emmy,
      Perhaps you can help me understand how your question isn’t the exact one that is answered in the article above?

  12. Annq permalink
    March 6, 2015 5:51 pm

    Hi Nick,
    I just discovered your blog and its so useful at this point of my life. I just finished a degree in Anthropology at Montreal, and of course, like everyone, I want to participate in humanitarian aid. The thing is that I dont know if with a degree in Anthropology people would hire me (because Im not specialized in anything); and in what I will be useful at a NGO. Also I was planning on taking a year for doing some volunteer work, hoping it’s a good idea. Can i have some advices?
    Thank you very much!

    • March 8, 2015 4:01 pm

      Hi there –
      I’m not sure whether ‘everyone’ wants to participate in humanitarian aid, but never mind! If you read the article above you’ll get my take on this, and if you read the rest of the blog you’ll find out what I think of volunteer work – I don’t want to spoil the ending for you!
      If you have a question that isn’t answered on the blog I’d love to hear it,

  13. Lost old soul permalink
    March 7, 2015 3:09 am

    I love how people cannot apply themselves to the generalist situation giving in the article including myself.

    I guess the main thing for anyone out there who wants to try to get into international aid/ development, there is not much point asking others ‘are you good enough from your own degree courses’ because as long as you try harder such as aim with that niche of international development, use your common sense ( which you will need a lot on the field) to think if you can apply the skills you have learnt in your degree and connect like crazy about your go showing well balance euthasium, you will get closer somewhere to where you will enjoy/ be happy, hopefully.

    • March 8, 2015 4:01 pm

      Hi there – thanks for your comment,
      Good luck,

  14. Phiona permalink
    April 18, 2015 3:12 am

    Since childhood I have always wanted to work for NGOs. Most expecially the UN. I would like to know which bachelor’s degree programmes are in the right journey to working with the UN. I would like to study something that is very demandable by such organisations.

    • April 21, 2015 9:22 pm

      Hi there – if you take a look at the article you commented on you’ll get my thoughts on degree programs. The UN is a ticklish organization to get a job with, but there is some advice on this site – take a look, and if you have a more specific question please do let me know!

  15. Kels permalink
    April 29, 2015 2:17 pm

    Hi Nick – Truly insightful site! I am a consultant at a global consulting firm – based out of the US – specializing in crisis preparedness/management for major companies. As part of my role (at a high level), I prepare companies for crisis situations by developing crisis plans, as well as provide on-site crisis management support should an incident occur. I’d like to move into the implementation and project management side of humanitarian and relief assistance work, leveraging my experience and bachelor’s degree in political science. Ultimately, I’d love to work at an international development consulting firm focusing on crisis response. Is a graduate degree in IR with a focus on humanitarian assistance my next step then? Although I’m an avid traveler, I also lack the requisite field work. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

    • May 5, 2015 4:43 pm

      Hi Kels –
      I think you’ve got an interesting twist on the classic lack of field experience problem. There may be something we can do to market your domestic experience, I’d like to take a look at your resume though – drop me an email and we can chat.

  16. Happiness Ndlovu permalink
    May 2, 2015 12:04 pm

    Hi, my name is Happiness. I’m in college and I want to be a Social Humanitarian. I’m studying law, sociology, photography and art, but have to drop one next year. I’m not sure what course to take at university that would give me more knowledge of the industry. I live in UK and I don’t know places to go to find more information about social humanitarian, I would be very great full if you can help.
    Thank you

    • May 4, 2015 8:26 am

      Hi Happiness – thanks for your question – I wonder whether you read the post above? It addresses exactly this question – thanks!

  17. Ibrahim permalink
    August 16, 2015 6:52 am

    I have recently graduated from Norwegian University with Masters degree in Development Management. On top of those challenges you mentioned, getting a job here (Norway) is very challenging and competitive, so local people often get a priority and truly talking, even if the system is fair enough, the ethnic minorities are always beaten in the competition due to language advantage and values and cultural issues in which loopholes are always there. What is your experience in relation to this situation.

    • January 1, 2016 2:53 pm

      Hi there – I regret that I have no experience with the employment situation in Norway, good luck!

  18. November 19, 2015 1:43 am

    Hi Nick,

    I just found out about your blog and immediately got hooked! I have read this post several times and I understand your advices. I am currently majoring in International Studies and minor in Public Health. I can speak fluent English, fluent Vietnamese and basic to intermediate French; possibly will upgrade to fourth language like Spanish. I am also considering studying abroad/volunteering in Africa or Asia before graduation then joining Peace Corps if got accepted. I just want to ask your opinion. Do you think I’m on the right track?

    Second question: I have been doing tons of research and noticing that doctor, nursing and engineering majors are always in demand by international aid organizations. But how about agriculture major? If I study agriculture or some environmental-related degrees, do you think it will increase my change of getting my first humanitarian job (beside gaining as much field experience as possible) ?

    Thank you Nick! Your blog has been truly helpful for newbies like me!


  19. Mariaa permalink
    January 8, 2016 9:28 am

    Hi, I am curently a junior in highschool and I have always wanted to be a humanitarian. A degree that I am aiming for is Psycology. Do I really need a degree to be a humanitarian?? I would not like to spend additional time in school getting a degree i wouldn’t need to be a humanitarian. Would a degree in psycology aid me in any way to be a humanitarian? Or should look in to something else?

    • January 8, 2016 10:17 am

      Hi Maria,
      You know, I have a degree in psychology, and I think it’s a great option. The only thing I would say is that it isn’t as directly relevant as something with an international focus. I wouldn’t worry too much about what degree you get, just focus on getting as much experience in the developing world as you can.
      Do get a degree though, it’s really a bare minimum for most jobs in this line of work.
      Good luck,

  20. Geraldine permalink
    March 21, 2016 7:49 am

    Hi Nick,
    It was great reading your article…so much insight. Thanks.
    My daughter, all of 16 years wants to work or do something in the humanitarian field/red cross…somewhere along that line and I really don’t have much idea”as to what kind of subjects she needs to choose in University. (We are in India).
    Could you help and give me some sort of guideline for the subjects to choose?

    Thanks again

    • March 21, 2016 7:59 am

      Hi Geraldine!
      I feel like the article above gives my thoughts on this – is there something more specific that you wanted to ask?

      • Geraldine permalink
        March 22, 2016 7:44 am

        Thanks Nick. I will read your blog thoroughly.

  21. Tracey Black permalink
    May 3, 2016 3:04 am

    Hi Nick,
    Your site is awesome!
    I would love your input to my situation, but totally understand if time doesn’t allow! Please don’t feel pressured.
    I am in Australia and have a dual diploma in community services, and community development. I have spent 6 months volunteering in an orphanage in Guatemala (privately), and more recently planned and organised a charity trip to Fiji, post cyclone, where my family and I went to work for 2 weeks. My husband is a physiotherapist and a doctor, and I would love to be an aid worker doing community development projects, while he is doing health related aid work. We’re looking to the future, in say 6+ years. My question is, should I go back to school and get a degree/masters? My diplomas here in Australia qualify me to work in community services with NGO’s etc, but I’m not sure how it goes internationally, and in the context of experience vs qualifications, I want to find the balance. From what I got out of your articles, would I be better off not worrying too much about it, and just putting the energy and focus into the experience aspects?? Your help would be really appreciated!!

    • May 18, 2016 2:55 pm

      Drop me an email would you Tracey? Thanks, Nick

  22. Pierre-Louis permalink
    August 18, 2016 9:21 pm

    Hi Nick! I’m at a point in my life where I do not like where I am going and I want to get more concretely invested in the world, and I think dedicating myself to relief and development could finally provide me with a reason to live, feel, and become a more active, useful human being. So I’ve been reading as much as possible about the subject and, needless to say, it’s far from being simple — questions aboud in my head currently. Your blog is great help so far, even if a bit depressing at times (it’s just hard to accept that the will to help isn’t enough to actually help, and that most people will get rejected), so first of all thank you! I have tried buying the book from Amazon and they wouldn’t let me…but I’ll try again! I guess there are many things to be asked, but I also shouldn’t get ahead of myself so I will stick to the most essential points. And those would relate to, of course, the next year or two. Mainly: school, local volunteering, and summer international volunteering.

    I first thought I could give up with University since it has so far failed at stimulating me in any way, and I thought starting field work asap would actually maybe help me most. But I now realize you are also quite vocal about the need to have at least a graduate degree, and you got me going back at observing my options. In that post up there, I definitely relate more to the second option, meaning that I really want to take the “internationally related” way, or the more “generalized” way, you might say. Project-related work just interests me most. Currently, the only university program I have completed is a film studies minor (I know, not interesting at all for that field). The fact that I have that, combined with the fact that I am interested by a certificate named International Cooperation (it takes a multidisciplinary and multicultural approach to the concept of intervention in the world, and the program even offers the possibility for work experience somewhere in the world — field experience!), brings me to one very important question: how recognized is a cumulative degree? That’s what you call it in USA, right? Just to make we understand each other: I mean a complete degree obtained by the accumulation of three different minors/certificates. Would that be good enough to get me started in the field? Hopefully you will say yes, cause that really seems like my best option right now! And of course, I am also very curious about what other program such a certificate could be interesting to merge with..I’d love if you could give me some examples of paths you’ve seen, or mention to me anything you think could be seen as relevant (and as fitting well with my two other minors/certificates, especially the International Coop one). Well, not only “seen as relevant”, but also hopefully genuinely relevant!

    Actually, I think I’ll stop my questions there. As I said, I shouldn’t get too much ahead of myself. And maybe later, once I’ll know what I’m doing with school, then I could ponder the other things. I’d love if you could email me at, I’d love talking a bit to you. You seem to usually ask your commenters for more information, so if you have specific things to ask me you could go ahead, it would be a pleasure to answer. Some info that’s missing already is that I am 21, and that I am located in Canada (Quebec). I don’t think I already have much relevant experience other than having fluent French and English, but this is why I want to get started in the field as soon as I can, so by 30-something I could have actual jobs, and who knows, maybe an actual impact! Cheers, talk to you soon I hope

  23. Brian permalink
    September 15, 2016 10:00 am

    “That said there are courses that will give you more exposure to networks in this field, and greater opportunities for field experience – my advice is to seek those courses out, and ask questions about where graduates ended up getting jobs and how connected alumni are in this field.”
    Could you be more vague?

    • September 15, 2016 10:29 am

      Hi Brian! “Could I be more vague?” Well, probably, but I guess what this comes down to is that there area now literally hundreds of courses, degrees programs, and other offerings from universities, development organizations, and training companies that promise all kinds of things. I’m just not in a position to track them all, let alone evaluate them. In terms of picking which courses are going to give you the best shot at field experience and networking, I’m afraid I can’t really help you.

  24. Disha permalink
    October 17, 2016 7:27 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I’m writing to you from Sydney, Australia. I have completed my bachelors business degree and am currently working at Deloitte (a big 4 accounting firm). I am nearing the completion of my CA to become a chartered accountant and want to see myself in the relief and development sector in the future. What is required of me to work my way up to that position. Ideally I would like to travel and be involved somehow in the assessment of internal controls in operations and projects overseas or be dedicated to deciphering the most efficient use of funding to provide the greatest impact.


    • October 19, 2016 9:11 pm

      Hi Disha,
      You know, accounting skills are in high demand in the INGO world. For some reason, a lot of people who get their CA don’t want to go work somewhere really tough for much less money than they could make in New York. Who knew, right?!
      Well, I would really encourage you to begin to network, volunteer, and build relationships with people in finance and administration at major international NGOs. The skills you have are in high demand, but you will have to demonstrate an understanding and willingness to engage in the kinds of environments where the work takes place!
      Good luck!


  1. What subject should I take in school (again)? | Getting Your First Job in Relief and Development

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