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What blocks you from getting that dream international development job? How to overcome 3 common mindset challenges

Many new entrants to the international development jobs market find it difficult to get a foot in the door. Or even to open the door a bit wider after getting a toe through.

Take this story from an international development job-seeker on one of the most popular Facebook groups:

This job-seeker is half a step away from getting a job in another sector. She has a MA degree. And has put in a ton of effort. In the comments thread, she goes on to add that she has even done two internships at the UN, and volunteered with other organizations, and still: no job.

Or take this job applicant:

Getting two degrees and failing to get a job? That’s frustrating. In the comments, this applicant says he submitted over 1,000 job applications, and this after working for a few years for an NGO.

Both development job-seekers put in the time to get degrees and to undertake relevant internship or job experiences, some of the hardest to get. And still, they don’t get hired into their dream job in development. They’re not alone: the majority of the 82 comments share a similar experience, with many others expressing they’ve given up on even trying to get an international development job.

In my 15 years working with seasoned experts and recent graduates, in five major development agencies as everything from intern to consultant to director, I have seen a number of common problems that keep smart, hard-working people from fulfilled employment in the sector.

  • Many development job-seekers send out hundreds of applications to any and all opportunities that remotely pique their interest, failing to learn what works and what doesn’t work in their CV and cover letters.
  • The hiring process international organizations follow is complex, with many different organizations, opaque rules and job postings.
  • Conflicting and ill-informed advice continue to make rounds on the Internet. For instance, many claim it’s all about secret insider connections who give jobs only to their friends. This once may have been, but human resource regulations in international organizations like the UN system, for instance, must advertise all opportunities above a certain pay level.
  • And it can be hard to know if you’re being scammed as those who will prey on your lack of understanding of the sector are out there.

It’s a tough job market for those seeing careers in global development and human rights. One that requires the ability to learn fast, tell good information from the bad, and know who you can trust.

Compounding these challenges is a lack of genuinely useful resources to help. This because those who succeed in getting jobs, keep getting them. And rarely look back to share insider perspectives on how UN, major NGOs and other organizations hire.

In discussions over the years with dozens of colleagues, friends and aspiring UN and NGO staff, I’ve come to believe the root cause of these challenges is a series of mindset issues. They can be grouped into three types:

  • Conflating passion with professionalism
  • Misunderstanding what organizations need
  • Undervaluing your experience

Let’s explore how each of these mindset problems hinder the job search of so many, before turning to a few ideas to break out of them.

Conflating passion with professionalism

Global injustice ignites the passion of many to work for the United Nations, NGOs and community-based organizations. A range of frameworks explain why some countries are comparatively less-developed than others: lack of capital; unfair trade regulations kicking away the ladder; under investment in schools and hospitals; corruption; policies that fail to protect all groups or to get properly implemented; climate shocks that erase progress in one event; not enough randomized evaluations to know what works and doesn’t. There are many more.

What attracts many to the international development sector is the sense of moral outrage that poverty afflicts more than a billion people, while affluence grows in other parts of the world.

This passion is important and necessary, but passion is insufficient to get a job in any sector. Much less one where much technical understanding is needed.

Managing project budgets, work plans and evaluations. Analyzing cross-country statistics. Designing participatory stakeholder consultations. Conducting a survey of 2,000 households. Having an innovative idea no one implemented before. Persuading donors to fund your idea. These are difficult things to do that passion alone poorly prepares you for.

The sector requires professionalism, skills and talent. Global development does not owe you a job for simply wanting to help. In fact, there is a fundamental concept in development everyone should be aware of: you must first do no harm in your actions. Yet the recent history of “clicktivism”, volunteerism and the itch to do something is littered with example after example of passions without technical expertise causing harm to communities.

Global development requires impassioned, committed thinkers and doers. But what else do you bring to the table to get a program implemented alongside communities?

Misunderstanding what organizations need

The network of multilateral, bilateral, governmental and non-governmental and civil society actors operating in global development is complex, unregulated and decentralized. It all amounts to a difficult system to grasp. While academic literature studied in university or graduate programs is improving, it sheds little light on how organizations actually deliver development.

Take the UN system for example. What international relations students may learn in school can include the history of peacekeeping operations, the ethical dilemmas of Security Council action, and the details of various human rights instruments.

This would miss the dozens of specialized agencies, from UNICEF to UN Women, that work across a myriad of issues most academics will unfortunately have had little reason to learn about themselves.

Demystifying how the UN system works, its various parts, where they get their funding from, and how their mandates define project activities that actually lead to the hiring of staff: that is the additional substance you need to understand in order to get a job doing development.

Undervaluing your experience

Working in international development can draw on your education, volunteer or professional experiences in many ways that entry-level applicants tend to undervalue.

If you study in the social sciences, your knowledge of a country, historical events and of social theories will be relevant in engaging development work. This is even more true if you come to development from engineering or other ‘hard sciences’ backgrounds: your knowledge of how boreholes function is indispensable to running a project to improve access to improved water in rural communities. Advanced regression and statistical analysis skills will definitely get used in a development job.

Volunteering to help a local organization fund-raise special events immediately teaches you about budgeting, identifying priorities that align with donors’ interests, and gives you insight into persuading others to give you money: one of the most essential skills development organizations need.

Work experience in an office setting will teach you how to prioritize your email inbox, contribute to staff meetings, and manage 14 individuals’ inputs in track changes on MS Word. You can’t get far in a development organization without these fundamentals.

What often goes missing for entry-level applicants is connecting their education and other professional backgrounds to the organizational need. A lack of experience can be overcome by a wealth of knowledge about a country, language or issue area gained from university coursework. Having some “breaking-in” under your belt in how offices work, the basic tools of the trade (like Word and PowerPoint) and managing a meeting to a scheduled agenda—believe it or not, these are skills still needed in organizations from Atlanta to Zanzibar City.

These three mindset challenges infect many job-seekers, sending them down a spiral of frustration, disillusionment and eventual exit from the development labor market.

This is a shame, as the sector needs more talented people, not less.

Overcoming these mindset limitations

There are multiple ways to overcome these challenges.

  • Do your organizational research. Development organizations can be mysterious to the first job-seeker, but not secretive. The opposite, really: most major organizations want to communicate their work to inspire others to contribute to their mission. In today’s online world, reviewing websites, Twitter feeds, LinkedIn and other social media will tell you volumes about the culture, interests and strategies organizations have. Study up on these to learn what priorities, funding sources and job trends exist.
  • Build knowledge and skills that are in-demand. If you’re selecting which courses to take in graduate school or have the chance to gain additional professional certification or skills, do so with the actual needs of organizations in mind. Look up what open opportunities the World Bank or UNDP has, review the trends and common gaps, and study the profiles of people who actually work for these competitive organizations. These will give you a major head-start in pointing to knowledge or skills you have built that immediately translate to delivering results in an entry-level job.
  • Market yourself in a persuasive way. By this I mean pulling it all together. Use your knowledge of the demand for employment, the way organizations work and hire, and link them to your experience to clearly demonstrate how you’ve prepared for the specific job you’re applying to. Your main tools for this are your CV and cover letter, but your own blog, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts can also be used as hiring managers increasingly turn to Google to look-up potential candidates.

Breaking in to development is extremely competitive

A recent Devex interview of a World Bank human resource staff notes: “Out of approximately 150,000 job applications they receive each year, only around 1.3 percent, or 2,000 people, are hired.”

1.3%. That’s harder than getting into Harvard for undergraduate studies (which was 5.6% in 2016).

Once you get in, you know you’re among the best.

Don’t let these three mindset problems block you from getting a job in the sector, where you can make a living and a difference at the same time. International development needs you to help solve the social problems diminishing the potential of millions round the world.

Have you fallen prey to any of these mindset challenges? What did you do to overcome them?

Christopher Kuonqui is a policy and data adviser for several United Nations agencies and multilateral banks. He supports getting the best talent into global development work through www.ImpactGrowthLab.com

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