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!

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

  1. I’ve been getting a lot of the same questions and whipped up the following reply a few weeks ago. This was written primarily for people who want to get into the UN and have done a masters (pretty much required for UN work, though I agree with you that generalist masters should wait until you really know what you want to do with it).

    It may or may not be applicable elsewhere:
    1. Apply for consultancies. They’re far less competitive than staff posts, available with a much shorter turn around time, and a great way to get in and get to know an organisation. If you perform well, lots more opportunities become available after getting the first gig.
    2. Don’t be afraid of short term jobs. Again, doing well in the first one can very often be a pretty easy ticket to a second one — or to a new country where interesting opportunities have a way of opening up.
    3. Do pay attention to the minimum required years. This is especially true for staff jobs — competitive candidates will all have at least the minimum number of years and, quite often, exceed the upper bound. There really isn’t any sneaking around this one.
    4. Make your CV as self-explanatory as possible. If you want that M&E consultancy but your last M&E gig was three jobs ago, don’t be afraid to pull it to the top of your CV. Same goes for your cover letter. Hiring managers are sorting through tons and tons of applicants — don’t make them do any extra work to find out why you think you’re qualified.
    5. Pay attention to the key words in the TOR/JD/RFP. It’s possible that someone is using a formal or an informal key word search to cut down the pile of applications. Identify the key words that match your experience and make sure they’re reflected in your materials.
    6. Look through the sites for each specialised agency or fund for the best information. While, in theory, there are centralised places for UN recruitments, the most up to date information will always be on the sites of agencies and funds (think UNICEF, UNDP, FAO, WHO, etc.).

    If you really want to get into the UN long term, it’s totally possible, but know what it means — it’s primarily field-based work in a large bureaucracy. Even if you manage an HQ job for a few years, long term success will mean being in many places and learning to live with change (or not, as the case may be for some characteristics of a bureaucracy).

    To this advice and yours, I’d add: pack a bag and move to a country with a lot of work. This obviously depends on your financial wherewithal and appetite for uncertainty, but in my experience and that of many friends, it’s by far the fastest way to stumble into opportunities. It’s really risky for an employer to go through all the effort of recruiting someone, moving them to a new place, and seeing if they can hack it in new circumstances. It’s way faster, cheaper, and less risky for them to give a short term piece of work to someone who already lives in town and has shown an ability to apply bug spray appropriately. Do the first one well – and have coffees with the right people – and you’ll be amazed how easily the second and third opportunities flow…

  2. Facebook comments don’t seem to be porting over automatically, but I thought it’d be worth sharing the following from the anonymous J. (of “Tales from the Hood” fame):


    Speaking as a humanitarian sector hiring manager:

    1) Someone in their mid-30’s who has only or mostly been “consultant” is a red flag. We know from experience that this person is more likely to struggle to integrate well with a team, slow to feel/look/act like part of the organization (this is a two-way street). Very often a short-term investment, even if unintentionally at first.

    2) Someone with a long CV full of short-term jobs. More or less the same comments. Exudes, “unable to commit and/or disengaged employee.”

    3) Ability to articulate understanding of the industry and how it works, is more important than a string of short-term assignments, cobbled together as “3.5 years in the field.”

    4) Skills are great. Make sure that list of skills includes solid, expository writing.

    5) Even the slightest hint of drama is a red flag.

    6) I will Google you. I will search for you on Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. I will form an opinion of you based on what I find, and I will triangulate that opinion with former employers listed on your CV.

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