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What about graduate school?

My short answer

I get questions about whether to go to graduate school and what to study a lot. My short answer is: Don’t go to graduate school until the lack of a graduate degree is stopping you from getting the job you want.

What I mean by ‘graduate school’

In some technical areas, like public health, primary health, engineering etc, there are professional graduate certifications or degrees that you need to practice those professions. Of course, if you’re going to be hired in one of these technical capacities you need the appropriate (most likely graduate) qualification. By ‘graduate degree’ in this context I’m talking about a masters degree in something like Development Studies, International Relations or some such.

If you find this site at least as useful as a beer, please consider buying my e-book on Amazon! Getting your first job in relief and development.

Good things about graduate school

A graduate degree in a relevant field can be a hugely positive experience. The opportunity to learn about development theory and practice, to study the successes and failures of the past, and think about trends and future innovation is a great thing. It can make you a better professional, it might help you grow as a person, and it will probably make you more appealing when you are applying for highly competitive jobs in the aid business.

Organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Mercy Corps that have overseas internship or fellowship programs generally restrict applications to graduate students or people with grad degrees. One reason for this is a perception that those folks have a level of maturity that many undergrads lack, another reason is just the practical desire to reduce the number of applicants to a manageable level. Being on the graduate school track opens these options to you.

One trend that I see is that as relief and development begins to mature as a profession, a graduate degree is increasingly being looked on as a minimum requirement for a lot of more senior or competitive jobs, and the way things are going you’re most likely going to need one at some point in your career. Humanitarianism is such a competitive field to get into that I frequently see people with graduate degrees taking jobs essentially doing filing work in order to get their foot in the door (for the reasons for this, see Why is it so difficult to get your foot in the door?).

There are some schools these days that are specializing in humanitarian related issues, whose curricula are very tailored towards the kinds of things that are needed in the field, and whose alumni and networks are deeply embedded in aid organizations. If you’re enrolled in one of these programs, you can get access to these networks, which can sometimes help you get the field exposure you will need.

The catch

In itself, without field experience to back it up, a graduate degree is unlikely to help you to get your first field job as an aid worker if you don’t also have a passport full of developing world visas. Without some field experience you will likely not even get an interview with most relief and development organizations for field jobs. You may even be placed further down the pile of resumes than someone without a graduate degree who spent the last two years volunteering in Africa.

Relief and development is a young field of endeavor. The profession has not yet settled on what the core skills of a practitioner really are, and the hiring manager who is interviewing you may not even care what courses you took in grad school. While the field is slowly professionalizing, not every hiring manager will understand why you think that course in public policy uniquely qualifies you to fix on-farm water systems in Uzbekistan. They will be much more interested in evidence that you can solve practical problems in difficult environments and keep your head under stress.

Graduate school can be expensive. One thing to bear in mind is that, even after you graduate, you may have to take unpaid or poorly paid positions to build your resume. I hear from quite a few students that debt incurred during their student days makes this difficult. Some schools have fabulous debt forgiveness programs for people who work in the non-profit sector, some don’t. You should check this out, and make sure you have a plan for how to do deal with any debt you take on.

I don’t want to deter anyone from going to graduate school, but there is a case to be made for waiting and going back to school when you have some experience under your belt. You may appreciate it more, you will certainly have more money to pay for it, and you will probably have a better idea of what you want to study. At that point in your life, it will likely help you more in your career too.

If you go the graduate school route before you have much or any field work, it is vital to make sure that you use your time in graduate school to network, get internships in the field, and build contacts that will help you after you graduate.

Further reading:

  • A number of schools are developing partnerships with the Peace  Corps to combine two years field experience, some of which counts as credit towards a Masters degree. Read more about it at the Peace Corps website.
  • The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs website has some interesting resources about international affairs related jobs, some of which are international (they estimate about 29% of their graduates go into non-profit work – I don’t know how much of that is overseas).
  • SIPA at Columbia maintains a (by no means exhaustive) Global Humanitarian Studies Index.


50 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2010 9:41 pm

    First and foremost, I want to thank you for writing all these chapters with references and all. It proves that you’re truly interested in helping others either achieve their goals, or alternately figure out that this line of work isn’t for them.
    Secondly, I’m sad to have to report that I clicked on the Association of professional Schools of International Affairs website and it gave me a 404 not found error.
    Again, thank you for all your help!
    L.Michelle Medina

    • May 2, 2010 8:00 pm

      Hi there – thanks for the kind words, and for the link-audit – the APSIA link is fixed now,

  2. Jeff permalink
    February 13, 2011 11:26 am

    Lets say I’ve been blessed with a fellowship that will pay for grad school, what type of degree do international aid organizations look for? The options I can think of are specializing in a region (like Middle Eastern Studies), international conflict and mediation, and something like non-profit management. In your experience, which degrees are most helpful and looked favorably upon?



  3. Matthew Dwyer permalink
    April 24, 2011 10:58 pm

    I am Peace Corps Volunteer and I am starting to look at graduate school for when I retrun. I would like a career in Emergency Humanitarian and Disaster Relief, hopefully on the ground level. I am strggling findng the right graduate program because it staddles disciplines and everybody seems more interested in International Affairs or Development. Do you have any advice for programs? Pleae keep in mind my bachelors degree and resume is good but maybe not Harvard/Yale good. Thanks.

    • April 25, 2011 8:10 am

      OK, so first off, I’m afraid I don’t really stay on top of the best programs in these areas, and since you don’t mention what part of the world you’re wanting to go to school in, that’s doubly difficult. That said, as I mention in my article on grad school, I don’t think any graduate degree will help you much in getting you first job. It may very well help you get subsequent ones though.

      My honest advice would be (depending on where you are in Peace Corps) to not come back, and instead use the networks you have there already to find a job with an international aid agency in that area, or stay overseas but move somewhere else and look for work.

      I don’t mean to sounds discouraging, but with only Peace Corps (I’m assuming you don’t have other large amounts of overseas experience on your resume) with or without a graduate degree you won’t be competitive for even entry level disaster relief jobs. You need to get field experience (beyond Peace Corps – although PC is a good start). Once you’ve had two or three jobs in emergency environments (and you’ll have a much easier time getting those if you’re physically in the area where the work is) then is the time to go back to grad school. Hope that helps!

  4. Theresa permalink
    May 3, 2011 4:41 pm

    My question is regarding international social work jobs. Are there a decent amount of jobs for people with a Masters in Social Work doing psychosocial support work in the humanitarian field abroad? Is an international relations degree more favorable than a social work masters degree?

    And as far as making ourselves the most marketable, would you look more favorably at someone who has worked in the US with refugees/asylum seekers or someone who went to a more internationally focused social work program?

  5. Theresa permalink
    May 3, 2011 4:44 pm

    My question is regarding international social work jobs. Are there a decent amount of jobs for people with a Masters in Social Work doing psychosocial support work in the humanitarian field abroad? Is an international relations degree more favorable than a social work masters degree?

    And as far as making ourselves the most marketable, would you look more favorably at someone who has worked in the US with refugees/asylum seekers or someone who went to a more internationally focused social work program? I am based in NYC and referring to NYC schools.

    • Maria permalink
      November 3, 2013 8:38 am

      Hi Theresa,
      I would like to know what you ended up doing? I have three years experience working with resettled refugees in the US and I am ready to start Grad school. I have been looking into different programs but I am not sure still which will take me to my “ideal job” (working in he camps).

  6. Jason permalink
    October 12, 2011 10:37 am

    I am graduating in two months with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Safety Administration/Disaster Response. After this, I was planning on trying to get a job in disaster response while volunteering at the Red Cross and joining wither the Air Force Reserve as a Emergency Management operator or the Navy as a corpsman.

    Would this be enough to get my foot in the door for international aid work or should I change my plans in order to better make myself marketable?

    • October 12, 2011 4:43 pm

      You know, there’s only one way to find out, and not knowing precisely what your plans are or what your resume looks like I wouldn’t like to say. That said, if you’ve read this site then you know what I think about the importance of getting lots of field experience. Good luck!

  7. lucy permalink
    January 22, 2012 2:00 pm

    I am graduating with a Bachelors degree in Speech Pathology at UTDallas and already have done plenty of local volunteer work in my town of Plano, Texas. I am definitely interested in volunteering abroad. I have heard of non-profit organizations like Operation Smiles, Doctors Without Borders, and Mercy Ships that do hire healthcare professionals but since I only have my BS, I can’t do much as a speech pathology assistant, I am guessing. Do you suggest I still continue to volunteer locally as much as I can to gain as much volunteer experience and continue on to graduate school in Speech Pathology, if I get in? Or should I completely veer to a different direction and maybe get a Master’s in something else if I want to do something with international human rights issues?

    • January 27, 2012 2:44 pm

      Hi Lucy – congratulations on your Speech Pathology degree! First off, medical ngos are not my specialty, so you should take this with a grain of salt. I’m not certain how many positions there are in speech pathology with the kind of emergency organizations that you mention. You should definitely check out Mercy Ships and Operation Smiles, since they do do tours, but are mainly surgical if I understand it right. If you manage to get an informational interview from one of their recruiters I’d love your thoughts. You should check into what skills they recruit.
      MSF certainly recruits medical staff and medical coordinators, but I’ve never seen a speech pathology professional with them – of course that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m not certain a graduate degree in speech pathology is going to make you much more desirable to the international sphere.
      You should check out Alanna’s newsletter, since she is much more plugged into the medical scene than I am.
      Finally – you mention international human rights issues – this is a completely different field, and requires a totally different skill set – perhaps you meant something else, but your medical background doesn’t really bring much to the table there.
      Good luck!

    • May 24, 2012 4:56 pm

      Hi Lucy. You might be interested in the book i just helped to co-author called Working in International Health (Gedde,Edjand and Mandeville) published by Oxford University Press and available on Amazon. It is aimed at health workers who want to work internationally so might be of use to you.

  8. HMSW permalink
    March 19, 2012 8:14 pm

    If someone knows they want to focus on a particular region of the world then would getting a graduate degree in for example, south asian studies be the best option?

    Let’s say I wish to become an expert on south asia, with a focus on human rights, development, aid, etc. If my only graduate degree I ever got was in south asian studies rather than a degree in development or human rights etc, could I work my way up to a experienced position or would organizations demand I have a degree more like aid and development, human rights, global health, etc?

    Basically I want to become a south asia expert with a focus on the problems in south asia and how to go about improving the conditions of countries in that region of the world.

    • March 19, 2012 10:49 pm

      Hi there – I’m overdue an update to talk about this issue, but here’s my short take:
      1. There are organizations who really value area studies – think tanks, regional organizations, organizations that are doing some really specific regional work.
      2. Then there are the mainstream relief and development organizations. While they probably won’t mind an area focus rather than a technical focus, they tend to view their value added as some kind of process or technical input rather than a rich understanding of the region. Most of the staff in any given country will be from that country anyway, and the organizational philosophies of mainstream development organizations tend towards the idea that they provide process help for communities to make their own decisions. This can lead them to under-value regional expertise, since in their view the people who live in the region bring that piece to a greater degree.
      I don’t want to talk you out of an area-studies approach, there are certainly area specialists, and they make very successful careers in every area of this line of work, but from where I sit a generalist who can move between regions is going to find it easier to find work. There is a danger in finding yourself an expert in a region that is rapidly nationalizing too – Latin America, the Balkans, Eastern Europe – all these areas no longer really have a lot of need for foreigners who have an in depth knowledge of them.
      Ultimately you have to weigh your passion for a particular region, and the value of a really in-depth understanding and commitment against the upside of flexibility and generalist.
      Good luck!
      PS – Please consider buying my e-book, and, if you like it, reviewing it on Amazon! That really helps me – thanks!

  9. Conner permalink
    March 30, 2012 4:35 pm

    Hi, and thank you for a truly informative site.

    You mention grad school a lot, but not law school. I was just curious about what you know regarding humanitarian jobs and someone with say, a degree in international law. Are lawyers in high demand, or not so much? It seems like agencies like the ICRC and Amnesty International deal with a lot of legal issues in the work they do, so I was just curious if getting a degree in international law would be a smart thing to do, and what the job opportunities are like?

    Thank you very much,


    • April 2, 2012 2:58 pm

      Hi there – thanks for the feedback – I’m going to add some more content on this issue soon, but wanted to jot you a quick reply.
      My short answer is the same as this person:
      INGOs do employ lawyers, the need general counsel, labor lawyers etc just the same way any other organization does, and human rights organizations employ more of them than most – although probably not as many as you think. Much of this legal work gets done by pro-bono lawyers, and much of an organization like Amnesty is not really ground-breaking legal work, or even legal work at all, so much as monitoring and commenting. The amount of unsettled law in the international field is pretty small, and very high level.
      So – should you become a lawyer? Only if you really want to be a lawyer, and work internationally as a second string. You’ll graduate with a high level of debt with will restrict the entry level positions you can take, the opportunities available to you will be narrower than if you hadn’t gone to law school, and if you didn’t really want to be a lawyer in the first place you’ll probably hate it.
      Hope that helps,

  10. Kim Kelly permalink
    May 28, 2012 3:54 pm

    Hi Nick,
    This site is exactly what I was looking for as I go into my senior year of my undergraduate experience.
    My question refers to what type of master’s degree would be most beneficial to a job in humanitarian aid. My undergrad degree will be in International Studies with a specialization in cultural affairs and a minor in Spanish. Would you suggest a Masters in Humanities? Or Non-Profit Management? Or what exactly?
    Secondly, I want nothing more than field experience, but how do you fund it? I see you have written that the Peace Corps isn’t values as highly as other field experience, yet it seems to me that it is most, if not, the only feasible option for field work. Suggestions?
    Thanks again for all the info, it’s invaluable!
    – Kim

    • May 31, 2012 7:39 pm

      Hi Kim – glad you like the site – please buy my ebook on Amazon, and rate it – it really helps me cover the costs associated with the site – thanks!

      So – to your question – I’m a little puzzled, since if you’ve read the page on the site on education you know my take on this – wait until you have some experience under your belt before you go and get a masters. I don’t think it helps you in getting your first job overseas, and the extra debt hurts you. As to what kind of masters, that’s going to depend on what you want to specialize in, and I would hazard a guess that at this point you don’t know that – another reason to wait.

      You’re right that my take is that field experience is much more important in getting your first job than education. Firstly – it’s not that I don’t think that Peace Corps is as highly regarded, you just have to articulate what transferable skills you got from it. The best thing about it is that it gets you two years of field experience, and most importantly the opportunity to network like crazy somewhere overseas.

      As to funding it, for me it’s the same as funding anything else – you save up money until you can afford to do it. A semester in Kenya or Nepal volunteering is certainly going to be cheaper than grad school, and will definitely do you more good in getting your first job.

      Hope that helps!

  11. June 22, 2012 6:26 am

    I’m glad I came across this site when I did. I just finished my first year of undergrad and need to start thinking about what I want to major in. I was leaning towards either marketing or a field where I could could find relief jobs after graduation. No matter which route I choose, I was planning on attending grad school. Would it be possible to study marketing as an undergrad and then when I go to grad school choose something like Development Studies? Or should I choose something like International Relations as an undergrad with a minor in marketing? Also, would you suggest studying abroad and while there volunteering? Thanks for the help!

    • June 22, 2012 8:40 am

      I’m glad too Kelly! Do please consider buying the ebook if the site is helpful, or at least rating it on Amazon!
      As to your grad school question, I think you know what my advice usually is. I actually don’t think it really matters what your undergrad degree is, with the usual exceptions for medical, engineering etc, but the big issue for me is how will you get field experience and internships on a marketing course? That’s the big show-stopper for me. If you want to work in this field you must must must take every opportunity to get out to the kinds of places you want to work and get experience living and operating there.
      Yes. Yes I would absolutely recommend studying abroad, but bear in mind that developed world experience, while overseas, doesn’t count as field experience. Not at all. You need to get developing world experience on your resume.
      It’s not impossible to imagine doing this if you study marketing, and it’s true that NGOs hire marketers to run their fundraising campaigns, so if you were able to specialize in non-profit marketing that might help somewhat.
      Good luck,

  12. July 10, 2012 9:57 am

    Hey Nick. I noticed that you did not answer Theresa’s question about a masters in social work. I am also very interested about this too. Since I want to be a social worker but want to work as an aid worker as well. I have heard that it is good to be professional already because you will have skills needed for NGOs. Is a social worker counted as having necessary skills in the humanitarian aid sector?

    • July 10, 2012 10:40 am

      Wow – sorry – you’re right – I missed that! You know, I don’t think that a masters in social work would directly qualify you to be a humanitarian aid worker – although the skills you would pick up might be very applicable, it is all about field experience. There are lots of degrees that provide relevant training and skills, but what you really need to do is to be able to demonstrate your ability to solve problems in tough environments. INGO hiring managers are looking for people they can drop into fast moving complex situations and have them get things done. Social workers definitely do that, and there are lots of transferable skills, but evidence that you can do that in developing world environments is key as well.
      Hope that helps,

  13. Marvie permalink
    July 12, 2012 6:28 am

    Very informative, well done..

    I’m also quite in a dilemma. I’m currently working in the developing world (Philippines) but in the corporate social responsibility sector. At the same time, I am pursuing my Masters Degree in Community Development. My career helps me understand various elements of development but I wish to eventually work on the field.

    I’m actually facing a job opportunity that would allow me to do field work in various provinces around the country, but this means I would need to stop my Graduate Studies (which, in the long term, I also believe would be beneficial in my future goals).

    What would you recommend I do?

    • July 12, 2012 8:04 am

      Hi There Marvie – thanks for the feedback – if you like the site please do consider buying the ebook and rating it on Amazon – that really helps me out!

      Your question is about whether you should stop your graduate studies to pursue a job that gives you field experience. I agree that graduate degrees can be helpful, and that having a graduate degree is a good idea. However, the generally don’t help in getting your first field job. If you can swing it my advice is to talk to your grad school about suspending your studies and coming back to them later – most will let you do something along those lines. Field opportunities are tough to get and if you’re interested in field work I would advise you to take the job.

      Let me know how it goes!

  14. Samar permalink
    October 27, 2012 12:10 pm

    Hello Nick! Thank you a ton for this useful article and resource. I have always had a strong desire to engage in professional work of helping alleviate poverty, illiteracy and other social issues from local to global. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology-Psychology with post college NGO internship/volunteer experience in India and then did a year of AmeriCorps Vista with a nonprofit in Birmingham, AL. After my service term ending this past May, I am still job searching. I am planning on finishing up my application for Peace Corps. Do you happen to know of any other programs of international humanitarian work besides Peace Corps, VSO and the UN Volunteer Program where people can be provided room, board and insurance? I am trying to find out all different opportunities I can go for to pursue my dreams and still be able to support myself financially. Also, I have thought of pursuing a MSW few years later at my local university and this is just a general MSW. I am thinking of pursuing a MSW so I can have lot of options open and still be able to provide counseling legally or provide rehabilitation for Vets or others with disabilities along with having the choice for humanitarian work abroad. I look forward to hearing any feedback from you. Thanks so much!

    • October 29, 2012 1:37 pm

      Hi Samar,
      Thanks for the feedback – please do consider buying the e-book or at least rating it on Amazon, that really helps me out!

      I’m guessing that you’re currently searching for work overseas? If so from what you say the issue may well be that while you have some overseas experience, you still don’t have enough to be competitive. While the dream of a program that gives you overseas opportunities with room and board and benefits is appealing, and while there are some others out there (CRS’s program springs to mind), I’m not up to date on which ones are good. Frankly, if you can get into one of these that’s great, but if I were in your shoes I would seriously consider researching a place you’re interested in that has good security and a lot of international organizations, and just going there.

      I know this sounds like a frightening prospect, but if you’re not getting bites after this long applying, it might be worth trying this strategy. Think of it just like graduate school – you’re going to need to save money to travel and live off, but it’s an investment in your resume. While you’re there you need to network and volunteer until you get hired.

      Best of luck,

  15. February 23, 2013 12:41 pm

    Don’t forget VSO. I started out as a volunteer,thanks to their amazing line up of youth exchange programmes and the 2 year volunteering opportunities in developing countries for mature people. Great blog!

    • February 23, 2013 2:38 pm

      Thanks Anne – I think I do tend to underestimate VSO as an entry level route into this – drop me a note if you’d be willing to write a guest post about your experience with VSO – thanks! Nick

  16. June 1, 2013 1:46 pm

    Hi there, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer right now and I think I want to go into humanitarian work, but I’m really interested in the M&E side of things. I’m almost done with my service, so I’m both applying to grad schools in the US and looking for jobs in country (I’m serving in the Middle East…), but I’m conflicted as to what degree programs I should look into. Some people have told me MPA, others have told me to apply directly to Human Development programs. What do you think? I studied anthropology undergrad, and I would love to continue with that, but it doesn’t seem like there are many job prospects unless I go for a PhD.

  17. June 12, 2013 11:03 am

    Hi VM,
    Thanks for your question.

    Secondly – what grad schools should you go to? You’re asking the wrong person – I think you should focus on finding a job and go to grad school later in your career! That said, if you want to go the grad school route now, then it’s really important to understand WHY you want to.
    From your letter it sounds like you don’t know that. You say you want to study anthropology, but are concerned about jobs, and are weighing up an MPA or a Human Dev program – but are interested in M&E. To be honest, this is exactly why I think you should not go to grad school! It’s expensive and time consuming and if you don’t know what you want from it it can be a waste of time. Wait until you know more about what your career goals are, then you’ll know what program you need to help you achieve them.
    Oh, and since I’ve just saved you tens of thousands of dollars in debt, please do consider buying my ebook and rating it on Amazon – that really helps me offset the costs of running this blog!
    Good luck – tell us how you do!

  18. Eunice permalink
    July 5, 2013 1:19 pm

    Hi, I have been googling how to find a job in development sector and ended up on this page. Thanks for wonderful but practical advice! ( I wish I saw this before I considered my career in international dev/humanitarian field).
    As I come from a background that does not have an adequate capacity to support to developing countries (particularly countries that have been suffering from endless armed conflicts in Central Africa) due to a particular regional political condition, it has been extremely difficult for me to find a proper full-time entry job. I already did a several internships and did research work for several organisations that deal with Central African security issues. I also worked as a researcher in one of the East African countries although I should admit the country was not direcly exposed to conflict. If internships are combined with ‘paid’ jobs, I have been in this field for almost 3 years. (I should also say those ‘paid jobs’ were not well paid as I expected. I had to earn extra money to support myself but I was totally in love with what I worked on it)
    But most of my works have been mundane ‘office work’, such as monitoring, researching, drafting reports and sometimes involved in providing logistical support to the office. Also, my work was more related with examining (security and economic development) policies of countries I researched on and sometimes I feel like what I have done so far is not helpful at all in getting a job in this sector. FYI, I have been targeting those jobs require 1-2 years work experiences, programme officer roles (which involved research, monitoring, reviewing huge amount of reports, logistical support or other work that I have covered so far, hopefully)
    More to that, to be honest, I never thought my unique nationality would hold me back untill one of the my previous supervisors told me it would be better for me to work in the region that I grew up. I was shocked at his comment but did not really think my nationality would matter. I actually thought my unique background gave me different perspective and I thought that was the strength I have. But looking at the progress I have made so far, I was thinking maybe my supervisor was right, and he was just being honest.
    I had a job offer from one of the big4 consulting firms last year (from my country where ‘name brand’ is much important than ‘experience’) but I rejected. Fearing continuation of unemployment (I have been unemployed for last 2 months) I gave another shot at one of the consulting firms and was invited for an interview. But I am not even sure if some expeirences in consulting firms will ever help me getting back to the field that I have been desperatly eager to properly enter.
    If that is not the case, is there any advice you could give?

  19. Haley permalink
    July 23, 2013 5:50 pm

    Hi Nick,
    First of all, thank you for the upfront, honest advice about working in developing countries, it is extremely helpful and appreciated.
    I am currently in Year 12, in Australia, and I am looking for opportunities for job experience in Eastern Africa such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Instead of the clerical and coordination lines of work, I am more interested in field work teaching, health informant, or care worker for young children. Do you have any advice for contacts, organisations, degrees etc. that can provide specific information about this area. Thankyou

    • July 23, 2013 6:05 pm

      Hi Haley,
      Thanks for the feedback, as ever, please do take a minute to rate or review my ebook on Amazon!
      So – I’m afraid that I don’t have any specific contacts for you, but luckily, there is a ton of information on the internet… I’d start with the AusAid homepage, ( that gives a huge amount of information about where your government’s aid money goes, and talks about some specific programs that they recommend. I don’t want to blow off your question, but I’d love it if you came back with some more specific ideas of what you’re interested in – post some avenues that you think are cool and we can talk about the details –
      good luck – let us know how you do!

  20. Nicole Brannan permalink
    July 27, 2013 11:00 pm

    Hi Nick

    Thank you for your blog and e-book they are really informative and have helped a lot. Given what you have discussed in this and your previous chapter I’m pretty sure I know what your answer to this question will be but I thought I would ask anyway. Next year I have the opportunity of either starting and completing a graduate diploma in International and Community Development (I have no current development qualifications only bachelor and postgraduate diploma in psychology) or volunteer overseas for a year – I am currently leaning towards a year in Kenya with International Humanity Foundation however still need to do further research. I volunteered in Kenya for 7 months last year however at that stage had not planned on a humanitarian career and therefore barely did any networking while I was there.
    Which direction do you suggest I go in?

    Thanks again


    • July 28, 2013 10:17 am

      Nicole – thanks for the feedback – please do rate and review the ebook on Amazon – it really helps me cover the costs of this site.

      OK – as to your question – yes, if you’ve read any of this site you do already know my opinion on this. Take the year in Kenya, volunteer, NETWORK – get to know the humanitarian world there – a lot of INGOs have East Africa HQs in Kenya, and you should make it your business to get to know everybody there – don’t plan on coming home, but stay on and find a job there!
      Let us know how you do!
      PS Caveat Emptor – I have no idea who IHF is – you need to do some due diligence on them and make sure they have their act together!

  21. Akua permalink
    March 5, 2014 12:28 pm

    Hi Nick,
    To give you some background, I am 30 years old, married with two kids. My husband and I have a dream of starting an orphanage in Ghana in either 5 or 10 years (depending on finances). We would be using our own money to start with, but would make a business to support the orphanage (tourism like a bed and breakfast or resort). I am transitioning to specify my career track. So far, I have not really chosen work that had a clear goal (Clerical worker, Employee Benefits Worker, Information Security Analyst) and the jobs were always very short term (2 years each). I have always wanted to get into development work, specifically Microfinance. My two (2) questions are do you think that actually working for an aide org, or a microfinance org will give me the network (people that could help fundraise, donate, etc) that I need to have support when we actually start this endeavor? Question #2 Do you think that it would be necessary to get a masters to work in this field? I was given the advice by someone that´s worked in development for almost 30 years that it is necessary to get a Masters degree just to be competitive enough to get a job on the east coast of the US but the Masters degree will not give me any knowledge.
    By the way, just wanted to mention that you didn´t reply to Eunice´s question.

  22. March 6, 2014 6:26 pm

    Hi there Akua,
    Just a quick note, as it’s a bit of a hectic week for me – first, you’re right, I didn’t answer Eunice’s question. I think I was a little puzzled by exactly what it was, I’m really not sure I can give any meaningful advice on her situation without a lot more information. Sorry… ;(
    Right – so – your questions. First of all – re orphanages in Ghana. It’s not my area of expertise, but please, please do make sure you do your research on child protection best practices. It seems to me that orphanages have lost favor with most professionals in the field right now.
    Will working with an aid organization give you the skills you need to do this? I really don’t know – so much of it depends on what you end up doing. I would suggest that you spend some time in child protection work, and figure out what the most impressive organizations are doing in this space rather than start with the goal of founding an orphanage.
    Do you need a masters? You pretty much know my thoughts on this. I do think that a masters is really useful for career development, I don’t think it helps you get your first job.
    Hope that helps,

  23. March 12, 2014 10:56 am

    Hi all,

    I just wanted to let you know that Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has a great Program on Forced Migration and Health – it focuses on the hard skills needed for careers in refugee health, humanitarian assistance, and emergency/disaster response. I’m finishing up my second year in the MPH program now (I was a Peace Corps Volunteer prior to graduate school).

    You can email Beth at if you have questions, she’s absolutely wonderful.


  24. Trevor permalink
    March 29, 2014 10:00 am

    Hey Nick,

    I know this is an older article but well worth the read. What is your view of Americorps VISTA being valuable field experience. I know its not international but right now I’ve been working on capacity building, grant writing, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, community development, partnering with other organizations, etc. I also have a certificate in Non-Profit Management. I’m hoping to go to graduate school to focus on Public Administration with concentration in Non-governmental International organizational management. I’m more focused on work such as USAID, World Bank, and especially ADB, since the region I want to work in is Southeast Asia.


    • March 30, 2014 9:58 pm

      Hi Trevor,
      Glad you liked the article. Please do consider buying and rating my ebook on Amazon – that really helps me cover the costs of maintaining this site!
      So – your question is what I think about Americorps VISTA as valuable field experience. You’ve really answered the question yourself – it sounds like there are lots of valuable elements to what you’re doing, but, as you point out, it’s not international experience.
      There are two important elements to getting hired – having useful skills, and being able to show that you know what you’re getting into and can function in the kind of environments where you want to work. VISTA sounds like it will help with the first, but not the second. ;( sorry.

  25. Keith Patton permalink
    March 31, 2014 4:44 pm

    I have a masters in zoology, many years of field work in remote, environmentally hostel, I have no direct medical experience other than Red Cross aid courses, I have been thinking for many years to apply with USAID, the process for federal US jobs is long and I have friends that work for US government in the states and its very competitive and insular, more of a recommendation gets you the job not your CV, and this was true in my years as a field bio. I also have taught, university level only, biology, ecology, conservation and adult education courses but I have no social work experience other than working for a university outreach program in a urban area…..I have thought of taking EMT classes, but I am not sure that would help my chances either, experience is what is needed for expats, would arctic logistics be useful in turkey or jordan camps? Would I stand a chance at all to apply, or is this a dream to help that I do not have the skills for? any comments, recommendations ect. would be great. Great website, have not read everything but the style is realistic and the no BS approach refreshing. I would need an income but not much, but as it is said over and over they need top managers not hole diggers……thanks, Keith

  26. Mona permalink
    April 27, 2014 3:38 pm

    Hi NIck,

    I hope that you can answer my question and give me some sort of advice. I’m just about finishing my undergraduate degree (BA of arts) and I’m debating between attending graduate school or learning foreign languages. I definitely want to work internationally doing humanitarian work or do some sort of work with an international organization such as the UN. So what do you think would be more beneficial, attending masters school or learning foreign languages, such as French and Arabic. If I do attend graduate school I’m planning on studying public health or public policy.

    Thanks, Mona

    • April 27, 2014 3:54 pm

      Hi Mona – thanks for the question – did you read my post on my thoughts on graduate school? Let me know if you have a question that you don’t think I answered!

  27. July 11, 2015 7:23 am

    Hi Nick,

    First, thank you so much for this blog. It offers so much inspiration and development reality for starters like us.

    I have initiated social projects in countries like Nepal, Cambodia and Mexico before. And I come from a multicultural background (I am from Hong Kong but grew up in New Zealand). I have worked on a project-based contract in Habitat for Humanity China and right now I’m working in a private family foundation in Hong Kong.

    The truth is… my passion lies with developing countries, especially in the area of poverty reduction in the rural context. I understand that field experience is super important.. but as you have already pointed out, it’s super challenging to land a job or even an internship (rejected bt 3 jobs last week!). However, I got a full scholarship to pursue a MA Poverty and Development degree in IDS. Was wondering what advice you would give me? My ultimate objective is to land an internship/job in Southeast Asia/China after the degree. Any networking tips? I also find it awkward to strike up conversation in a conference with a development professional… small talks.

    Your advice would be great!! Thanks Nick again.


  28. Jen permalink
    July 12, 2015 10:53 pm

    Hi Nick,

    As most above I am passionate about working for an international humanitarian aid organization. I have an undergraduate degree in management. I am debating between taking a Masters in Public Health or an International MBA. Do you have thoughts on which Masters degree would be best to take in order to get my foot in the door to work for an International Humanitarian Aid organization?

    Thank you

  29. Stephanie permalink
    May 27, 2016 1:51 pm

    Hi nick! Why didn’t I find this site earlier?!! It’s such an amazing feeling to meet other people sharing the same heart. Feel like an alien sometimes when I share what I’d love doing. Lol
    So I’m just in a little bit of a dilemma and could really use some advice. I graduated with honours degree in psychology in the UK about 5 years ago then was full on traveling to Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, rural and urban south Africa where I did work in a whole range of areas from community development, education, alot of work among rural villages as well as was smack in the middle within the gang culture in Cape Town. Now I’m living in australia just starting my first semester masters in social work. But Im losing my Mind!!! I feel like i might have made the wrong choice in my course. Social work is so different from what I thought I would be learning. There’s so much focus on case management, referrals and Australian policy but not really on actual front line working with helping people through a crisis, disaster or community development. I’m going to be heading to Fiji for a month in July to help with a cyclone disaster relief team. And I feel myself coming alive again just thinking of it. That’s where my passion is and I feel like im dying on the inside at uni and struggling to see the link between social work and where I’d want to be..

    I’m just in a dillema if I should just stay and finish it,ends end of next year.. as I get an opportunity next year to do an international placement which would help me stay sane in the course… Or completely switch to something else. But Im not sure what that something else could be ;/
    I just am doing my masters because I couldn’t carry on just being a volunteer and having amazing family and friends support me.. I couldn’t get a job with just a degree in psychology..and I don’t see myself being a psychologist.. Really want to be more in the front line and hands on working with people right at where the crisis and disaster is.. I don’t have a specific country in mind but refugee camps, disaster relief and human trafficking and some of the core areas I feel really led to.. Just confused how i I can there as a paid job instead of only carrying on as a full time volunteer. I know it probably wouldn’t be much money .. But I don’t care even just some basic income to sustain myself..

    Would me carrying on in my masters in social work help me get there?? Do you feel that’s considered a skill I can bring with my psychology honours background and social work?

    Or would carrying on the path in clinical psychology or counseling be a better more recognised option to get that skill and work with people in trauma /community development internationally?

    Or should I change and look into a specific course on international aid, but i’m not sure what course that would be..

    I know this was long, but hope to hear from you soon! Need to decide whether or not to say at my course or go within the next week :s

    Thank you Soo much!! Hope to hear from you soon.


  1. What subject should I take in school (again)? | Getting Your First Job in Relief and Development
  2. Guia de Preparação #2: Qual formação acadêmica devo ter para trabalhar com assistência humanitária? – Carreiras Humanitárias

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