Breaking into international development

I wrote this a few months ago for Development in Action’s blog (original here). It mainly reflects things I have found helpful thus far in my career and is essentially advice I give to friends looking to break into the sector.

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Trying to break into a career in international development? Don’t wait for a job to come to you; be proactive and positive. Here are six areas you can work on.

  1. Think about your skills. Start by thinking about your achievements and your skills; you’ve probably got more experience than you give yourself credit for. Take time to find out about the kinds of jobs you could be doing now or in the future. Student Hubs have an excellent list of development jobs sites. Look up what skills and knowledge you require to get the kind of job you want; now think what you can do to gain those skills and knowledge. This could be through an online course or within your current role, for example volunteering for public speaking. Remember your career is not a one-shot game and you will steadily accumulate a wide variety of skills. It’s up to you to do that and use your time effectively.
  2. Do your background reading. Be curious about the development sector and know enough to have an informed opinion. Subscribe to a few blogs using Feedly or another RSS reader to get an idea of current development debates. Especially if you’re coming from outside the sector, read development-related books avidly. Follow current affairs – for example sign up to DAWNS Digest for humanitarian news – and relate theory to events. Read beyond ‘development’; economics, politics, sociology, psychology, geography, ecology, medicine, law and more are all relevant in different ways.
  3. Get experience however you can. You don’t have to take an unpaid internship to be gaining skills relevant to the development sector. There are many things you can do alongside a full-time job or university course. You can volunteer for a local, national or international charity, be on the exec committee of a university society, write blog posts or campaign. Think laterally. Show initiative by building your own website. And if you do get the opportunity to work with others in the sector, take it seriously, be adaptable and take the opportunity to impress.
  4. Build relationships. Get to know individuals and groups working in the sector both online through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (an easy win) and offline at events. Get to know people at the top, middle and bottom. If speaking to someone senior, don’t go straight in there asking for a paid internship – have a chat about something you read recently or about the talk you just saw. Then ask them whether they’d be available to have a coffee with you to talk about something specific. If you get on really well with them, consider asking them to be a mentor. Most people are flattered to be seen as someone who can help – use this to your advantage. And remember, it’s often your peers or people just starting out who will be the most help and able to give the best advice since they best know the job market right now. The point of knowing more people is not that they could all give you a job but to increase your serendipity – your exposure to a positive coincidence where you find a great job.
  5. CVs, cover letters and application forms. While applications are partly about you, a bigger part is why you’d be perfect for this role in a particular organisation. Make sure you really understand the organisation and exact role you’re applying for and make this evident in your cover letter. It’s really obvious when someone has sent the same CV and cover letter to 100s of organisations, and no employer wants someone who isn’t really interested in what they do. Ask others to proofread and offer to return the favour. You can learn a lot from seeing how others write their applications – from both the good and bad. It may be worth asking a careers consultant – from university or a specialist in international development for advice to make sure you stand out in the right way.
  6. Interviews. There is lots of advice out there. Remember the interviewers really aren’t that scary – they’re often just ahead of you in the pecking order. Talk to others who have been through a similar process so nothing will surprise you. Even better, ask a friend to run a mock interview with you. Have the obvious questions well prepared but also be ready to think on your feet. And be likeable. If you don’t get the job, think about what you could have done differently and ask for feedback from the interview panel.

If you do some of the things suggested here, you’ll gradually get a better idea of what you want to do, get to know the right people and learn a lot in the meantime.

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