How to start a career in international development

This blog post originally appeared as an answer to the Quora question “How do I start a career in international development?”, and has been slightly edited.


I am a young professional with seven years of experience in international development, and recently got a job at the headquarters of a regional development bank. This list generally leans toward graduates fresh from university, and to a lesser extent those coming from another industry. It is by no means exhaustive, but here’s what I have personally done and observed from my peers to land jobs and build a career in international development:

    1. Volunteer. School breaks are the best time because it allows you to work without interfering your studies. I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, tutored high school students in an island, organized and joined river cleanup and other community outreach programs, and joined a coastal resource management planning project. When I graduated from university, I already had two months of development ‘work experience’. Starting early also establishes your dedication to development work come job-hunting time. This will set you apart from other applicants for that first entry-level job.
    2. Get a government job. Government ministries directly work with many international development organizations. In my case, I worked for the economic ministry. Moving on to the latter seems to be the natural career progression for most of us. Many of my colleagues are now placed in project offices, country offices, and headquarters of development organizations. You will learn the internal workings of bureaucracy, which is valuable when you start working on the other side of the fence. And yes, priceless professional network.
    3. Intern during grad school. Some of my former classmates have gone on to work for the organizations for which they interned. Whether you have worked in development prior or just entering the sector, you have definitely acquired work ethic, knowledge, and skills by this time which are useful in any organization. They would be willing to take you in without the long-term commitment, and it’s free/cheap labor for them. This assumes that you will pursue graduate studies because it is a requirement for many organizations.
    4. Work on a side project. I like writing, and am crazy about digital media despite having an entirely different specialization: environmental planning. I maintain this blog that has been around since 2003, dabbled with Twitter and other social media networks, created (crappy) videos, and have interned for Deutsche Welle, a German media company. I am not the most prolific blogger around the block, or a social media ninja for that matter. In 2011, I was selected as a Junior Professional Associate at the World Bank and stationed at the Global Environment Facility in Washington, DC, out of a pool of hundreds of applicants. The job mainly entailed formulating and implementing online engagement and digital communication strategies. My work experience and environment background definitely helped. But my director said he also hired me for my experience with blogs, Linkedin, and Twitter.
    5. Set-up informational interviews. As a form of starting your own international development network, the goal here is to get yourself out there and make it known that your are interested in international development, not really to ask for a job per se. Ask around or scour the internet for email addresses of potential people to meet. Only very few will reply, but do your homework for those who do. Be genuinely interested and ask questions on what they do, what they look for in applicants, what they think of your skill set, and how you can improve your profile and chances of getting hired. Tell them your areas of interest or expertise, and finally, to keep you in mind if an opening comes up that fits your profile.
    6. Just submit an application. This is almost crap-shoot and probably not the most efficient and strategic approach, but it has worked for people, myself included.


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2 thoughts on “How to start a career in international development”

  1. what are the pros / cons to start through short missions, be a freelance in international development as for you? Is it possible to get such missions through websites like Devex / DevelopmentAid?
    Thanks!

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