Advice for international development careers: 6 points (and a few sub-points) for graduating seniors

A few weeks ago, a college senior in Virginia emailed to ask for career advice on starting out in development work. The email:

I had a few questions about how you got your career going. I am a graduating senior… I majored in International Affairs, Economics with a minors Humanitarian Affairs and History. I was fortunate to do some service work in Ghana and South Africa and today I intern for [micro-lending organization]. I am extremely passionate about the subject but as I get ready to graduate I am at a loss of where to start. I am looking at graduate programs in development but I have an itch to get back on the ground. I look forward to hearing back from you and truly enjoy your insight.

Aw, shucks. Unfortunately, since I didn’t move into international work until about six years after undergrad, my experience isn’t directly applicable. Fortunately, I’ve read a lot of career advice (from people smarter than me), seen others make their way through the sector, and navigated my own career successfully enough that I have a few thoughts. Our dear Virginian friend is in a common spot, so some general comments are in order.

To grad school or not to grad school?

Let’s start with that confusion about where to start. The sector is huge with a lot of potential career paths. What you need is not just entry into the sector, but a way to find your path within it. I typically recommend against going to grad school right after undergrad, mostly because grad school is an expensive and inefficient way to do that sorting. Much better to go back to school for specific skills or knowledge, after you have a better sense of what you want to do and can be sure that grad school is worth the investment. (Caveat: This advice holds mostly for generalist programs like development masters or MPAs. Law, medicine, and doctoral programs are special cases.)

So what to do instead?

I’ve got six pieces of advices, with a few sub-points:

1. Build skills, build skills, build skills. Both soft skills (like communication or working cross-culturally) and hard skills (like writing, budgeting, and data analysis). Start with your strengths. Are you good with words? With data? With people? Can you program in python or build a webpage? If you’re not sure about your own strengths (I made it through college without having a clear idea) start asking people who you’ve worked with, so you can communicate it to others. Then find a way to leverage those strengths and build other skills. Any role you take should build skills.

2. Cast a wide net. Your strengths and current skills can be applied in many ways. Don’t get locked into thinking that you have to be working “on the ground”, or that you need to work on policy decisions because those are the most important, or even that you belong in a particular sub-sector. Keep an open mind. Look also at related fields like domestic nonprofits or political jobs. Skills you build in those jobs can be transferrable to international work later—which is exactly what I did. Working in related fields will also broaden your understanding of the many problems afflicting the world (spoiler: US policies and politics are closely intertwined with the problems the international sector seeks to address).

  • (Sub-point) Know your own constraints. You may have your eye on a few particular organizations, and some may have good entry-level roles, but your tolerance for waiting on the perfect opportunity depends on your own finances and personal situation. You can’t re-pay student loans with passion.

3. Be accountable for the work. Accountability is a feedback loop that forces you to improve your skills over time. This is 20% personal and 80% structural. Which is to say: a minor part of being accountable is your personal willingness to decide that you will be the type of person who gets shit done; but a much larger part is putting yourself in roles where someone will hold you accountable for your outputs.

  • (Sub-point) Beware the unpaid role. Many people end up doing a full-time internship or two. It sucks, but sometimes there’s no way around it. If you go that route: be very cautious about internships where you’re just putting in the time. While you’re still in school, internships are great, but avoid making them part of your career path unless you’re getting some real skills and opportunities. If you’re giving away your work for free/cheap, ensure that your work is adding real value so that you get more than a resume line in return. Fellowship programs might be a bit better, but some are just glossy internships or voluntourism—resume builders but not skill builders. (And they’re not even that good for your resume, because a future hiring officer can often see through meaningless resume lines.)

4. Don’t forget that you have much to learn. Let’s assume you’re smart, talented, hard-working. You’ve traveled a bit and you think you know how the world works. I have some terrible news for you. The problem isn’t even that you’re wrong in what you know. The problem is that the world is infinitely more complex and nuanced than you imagine. Your knowledge is correct, but it barely scratches the surface. That will always be the case. Never forget it. Stay humble and stay hungry.

5. Learn to like coffees. Or teas, or beers, or another beverage that can be enjoyed while asking people about their work, their career paths, and what they’d do if they were in your position. You’ll always get the best guidance from people who know you and your work. If you land at an organization, find time to sit one-on-one with as many people as possible. Go to events, sign up for discussion groups, find any excuse to meet people.

  • (Sub-point) Go someplace new. Pack a bag and move to DC, Ghana, South Africa, or someplace else where you have a couch to crash on. Being new in town provides a great excuse for meeting people and building connections.

6. Learn to love the hustle. School is where you learn; work is where you work. Don’t expect that school will have prepared you for the work, or that school somehow earned you a job. If you don’t have something lined up by the time you graduate, don’t worry too much (but do worry a little—the secret to a happy professional life is worrying just the correct amount). Once you’re out in the real world, that’s when you need to start hustling.

Anyone have other points they’d add? If so, hit up the comments below.

An important overall caveat: There are many systemic problems in the way the development sector recruits, rewards, trains, and promotes staff. Some of those problems will work against our dear friend in Virginia, or any other reader of this blog; some problems will work in their favor. The points above aren’t meant to be commentary on them, as there are entire books written on the subject. That said, if you notice biases in the above, please let me know.

In any case, that’s all I have. I know it’s awfully general, but hope it helps. Good luck!