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.