Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

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When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.

Returning to live in Washington, D.C.

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The National Mall taken from the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

I’m more than a month into juggling two jobs as a consultant, one at my old office doing some web and comms work, and another with the Climate Investment Funds on climate change and organizational learning. It’s amazing how things fell into place, how one lunch led to two coffee meetings, and then two contracts a couple of months later. I had an open plan when I came to the US- reconnect with family and friends, attend a writing workshop, and meet some old colleagues. If nothing came up in the work front, I was ready to pack and move on. But I only realized how much I missed the District as soon as I came back, and thought it would be nice to stay here for a while and find something to do.

“How long have you been in DC?” I often get asked when I reveal I’m not originally from the area, to which I have prepared a spiel of my DC 1.0 circa 20112013, and how I ended up again in the East Coast this time around. This bitemporal experience makes me appreciate this city all the more. I now look at the city with fresh eyes looking with delight at my old haunts, curiosity with new shops and buildings, and nostalgia with those that have closed down. Many of my fellow former JPAs have left, moving on to do their PhDs, or back home. People, just as with places, have come and gone.

Before I lived in Foggy Bottom steps from the World Bank and near the White House during DC 1.0, I’ve now moved farther to a friend’s house in the North East about half an hour’s commute downtown (that is, if the Metro is working- I’m looking at you, Red Line). But I get to work from home, or make that work from Brookland, where there are cafes and more dining options. I’ve established a daily routine: I wake up early and start working, walk to the hip neighborhood around 10 or 11 in the morning to grab an early lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon at a café at a bookstore, then try to be back home before it gets dark. Weekends are spent on more walking and exploring other nearby neighborhoods or towns.

I make it sound like I’ve got this adulting all sorted out. Yes and no, depending on how you define “sorted out”. My work is far from stable and cushy contrary to how others may perceive it. And that’s fine. With these social and professional changes also come personal ones, mostly on realizing what matters to me: going for long walks, exploring interesting neighborhoods, keeping in touch with family and friends, and defining and redefining personal values and lifestyles. Whereas I only used to treat Washington DC as the city where I lived to work, it has become a more meaningful place where I live to live.

Woah, that’s a lot of introspection. Something to get us back to reality: Donald Trump just got elected President of the United States of America.

How to write a cover letter

Guide questions for each paragraph to help you write that kickass cover letter

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla

This was first published yesterday through my newsletter. Edited for style and updating of timeline. To get first dibs on my writing and other updates, subscribe here

I got a flurry of email requests to review cover letters and CVs over the weekend. Apparently the deadline for submission of applications for the World Bank Analyst Program is coming up, as in today, 05 April. I try my best to respond to all requests but alas, I’m only human and unable to do so. So I muddled through my slush pile and plucked out this (draft) quick guide on how to write a cover letter. Or at least it’s the guide I’ve been using all these years which has lent me varying levels of success (and countless rejections, too). Like most advice and things you read online, take them with a grain of salt:

You should treat the cover or application or cover letter as precious real estate. Keep it to a page, if possible, and do yourself and the hiring manager a favor. I believe the application letter should try to illustrate three things: your language proficiency, thought process and how you structure concepts, and knowledge and skills.

Below I formulate guide questions, where your response can form each paragraph that can make up the cover letter. Feel free to add a paragraph or two if the letter warrants the introduction of other topics.

Introduction

Guide question 1: Why are you interested in and what makes you qualified for the position? 

Paragraph 1 is the opening paragraph where you introduce yourself, and try to grab the attention of the reader. It could be someone from the HR, the hiring manager, or even the head of the organization itself. What you want to convey is that you’re the right person they’re looking for to perform the job. Cramming that information in the shortest paragraph in a job application letter sounds like a tough job (no pun intended), yet at a closer look it isn’t. Here you just state the position to which we’re applying and how you learned of the job posting, although the latter is really optional. The second sentence encapsulates your areas of expertise and skill set which you deem are valuable for the job and to the organization, plain and simple. Here you set the tone of the letter, and introduce our reader to what you have up our sleeve in the succeeding paragraphs. In these three to four lines of text your aim is to prime and hook the HR guy, showcase your abilities, that you’re the the best candidate for the job.

Knowledge and Skills

Guide question 2: What knowledge and skills do you possess, and how do you show that I am the perfect candidate to the job?

Paragraph 2: Establish your expertise in support to the first paragraph. Here you drill down on work experience and skills you have gained through the years, while linking them to the job requirements all the time. It is easy to dump all the jargons and get lost in the writing. But you have limited real estate. In this case, limit it ideally to a page. So every word counts and has to be relevant to the job. This is important to not to loseyour  focus in what you’re writing. Here you should also show that you speak their language-bureaucratese. It may sound like a jumble of technocratic jargon to those outside the field of international development, but this is really how they speak. In the world of search, without the right keywords, you won’t be found. This is not to say that you could and should lie in your cover letter by including terms and phrases you don’t really know about. Once we had a talk wth a senior HR staff, and he said one of the few grounds of termination is false declaration and falsification of documents. So keep that in mind. Simply review the job description and pick out technical and action words, and show how you have performed them in your previous work.

Your selling point

Guide question 3: What other special skills have you acquired that will pique the interest of your employer and set you apart from other applicants?

Paragraph 3: Boast about your other valuable skills that could set you apart from other candidates. It could be skills you have been learning from a side project. If you are applying for a research post which requires data crunching and bending, have you made a couple of coding tweaks on Stata to smoothen your data or improve your workflow (no, not to influence the result)? Did you render any volunteer consulting service for a non-profit school to improve their operations? Or maybe you’ve started a blog, and give tips to freelancers on how to find clients. This would be a good time to highlight those, but make sure the skills you will feature are relevant to the job.

Summarize

Guide question 4: To summarize, how can you perform the tasks at hand, and be of value the team/department, and overall objectives of the organization?

Paragraph 4: Time to wrap things up. End your story with your educational background. I am putting this toward the end because a diploma from a pedigree school can only get you too far. While some hiring managers may still put a premium on the school one went to, I believe it’s only valid two or three years down the road, and its value diminishes thereafter. Moreover, most likely the best of the applicants will have more or less similar education, so this shouldn’t figure into and be a clincher in most hiring decisions, unless it’s a research-heavy job, where certain universities may have a tradition of quality researchers. I would hire someone from an OK university who has been doing interesting work and with a multi-faceted personality, than someone banking on the prestige of a top university. If you’re both, then you’re the golden unicorn your soon-to-be employer has been looking for. As I write this, I just realized maybe I should stop mentioning my education background altogether, and stick to my own advice and use the free space to summarize how my knowledge, skills, and previous work experience will be of value to the organization.


Got more tips on how to write a cover letter? Do let me know. Good luck to all applicants and keep me posted how your application goes.

My alternatives to unpaid UN internships and staff positions

The past days, two separate yet related news have been going around in international development circles: the unpaid UN intern living in a tent in Geneva, and short-term consultants (STC) working long-term at the World Bank. These two career pathways could open doors to international development professionals. Both can parlay into much coveted long-term staff positions and a rewarding career in these development organizations.

One can’t deny the ‘wow’ factor an internship at the UN could give a fresh graduate’s CV, or the networking possibilities of working at the World Bank headquarters even as an STC. But at what cost, and in the intern’s case, even literally? And are there alternatives?

As an undergrad, I enlisted to the Oblation Corps, which is part of the extension arm of the university which deploys volunteer students and professors to provide community service. They initially told me that I would be assigned to teach high school students over summer in a far-flung village in Quezon province, which is anywhere between three to six hours south of Manila, depending on where the village is exactly located. At the last minute, they re-assigned me to Negros Occidental, an island province in the mid-western part of the country. Together with two university associate professors and three other volunteers, we travelled overnight by ship, and spent two weeks teaching junior public high school students in preparation for their college admission tests as part of my university’s affirmative action program. The hosting municipality housed us right beside the classrooms, which the school must have used for its home economics classes. Every day, a local caterer brought food which served a simple meal and fed us including the students. Looking back, we were pampered, and the experience is quite luxurious for a volunteer work.

Fast forward two summers later, I volunteered for a month for a coastal resource management project with WWF-Philippines. I got a call from them telling me that a volunteer had to cancel at the last minute and they were looking for a replacement. They asked if I was interested, and I said yes right away, even if I had started volunteering for a non-profit in the business district. My new volunteer work was in Anilao, a coastal town known for diving. One of the perks then, was that our lodging was just a few steps away from the sea. Here I went snorkeling for the first time.

We were four volunteers, each working on different project functions. I was assigned with general day-to-day operations, from collating project documents to drawing maps of project sites on Manila paper that were used in community consultations. I bunked with another volunteer, and occasionally, we had free leftover food from official project gatherings. The organization also reimbursed our weekly travel expenses to and from the project site when we would go home on the weekends (coincidentally, the WWF headquarters is located in Gland, not too far from the UN in Geneva).

On my two internships during my stint in Germany, at Deutsche Welle in Bonn and the World Future Council in Hamburg, I received an honorarium of 400 Euros per month. There must be a German law somewhere there that encourages firms to pay their internships however meager. Deutsche Welle gave me a peek into a media organization where I sharpened my writing skills. It has served me well even in my current job which entails translating technical documents into bite-size information. Meanwhile, the highlight of my other internship was being sent to Copenhagen to assist in the UNFCCC COP meeting back in 2009.

The recent report on the ‘long-term short-termers’ also makes me think about my own situation as a local consultant in an international organization similar to the World Bank. Do I want to be a national consultant long-term, earning less than my international counterparts? Sure, I am conducting research and communications work, maybe not as exciting than directly working to turn around a faltering Asian economy, or assembling a cutting edge econometric model that will predict the flux of labor in the garments sector in India. I’ve made amends with my professional strengths and limitations. What matters to me now is the flexibility of my job (work from home!) and its relaxed pace which allows me to do things that I love after office hours.

There are other viable opportunities out there to build your skills and your profile beyond that much-coveted UN internship. Meanwhile, any less than perfect opportunity, like short-term contracts, should have an upside to it, whether monetary or otherwise, such as flexible work hours (I chuckled when the auto-correct function changed it to “workhorse” – not that different, I guess), telecommuting, or level-headed supervisors to allow you of these little ‘perks’.

What about you? Would you intern for a non-UN and less renowned organization which offers a meager stipend, or maybe take on a short-term contract knowing you’ll be in such position long-term? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Top websites for international development job search

job-search-international-developmentThe world of international development job search can be daunting. Clicking through multiple jobs board to keep track of new job openings from different organizations can be cumbersome and frustrating at times. Thanks to techy folks in development, a few job search websites with add-on functions such as alert subscription, social media integration, and even data analytics have cropped up. How do they stack up against each other? Here’s a quick a look at popular websites for searching international development jobs:

UNjobs.org is the mother of all international development jobs board. I have relied on this website from way way back, and could be the pioneering website of its kind. It’s a basic, reliable database where you can quickly access opportunities according to organizations, duty stations, and those about to close soon in addition to new listings, of course. Other new job sites take inspiration from UNjobs, with a few added features here and there.

UNjobfinder differentiates itself with multimedia features such as podcast interviews of development professionals and articles on career entry-points in international development. Are videos not far behind? Let’s wait and see. The creator of the website is an HR professional, so you’re ensured of insider tips and him tapping his own network for future content.

UNjobslist brings to mind two words: data-driven. The website shows the most viewed jobs, number of days a job has been online, job suggestions from the same organization, a widget, and pie charts. Bonus points to the creator for his microsite about a Lego figure’s travels and troubles through The Little Peacekeeper . Analytics, graphs, and Lego? Geek out to your heart’s content. Remember, job-hunting is just a numbers game.

reliefweb is a platform that focuses on humanitarian aid, so job vacancies lean more toward ‘hardship’ posts. Think development work in areas classified as UN L3 emergency– disaster response, famine, civil war, you get the (harrowing) picture. HQ-types need not apply.

Devex claims to be the “world’s leading global development jobs board”. The website is a primary source of news, analysis and occasional career advice, but for job postings, not so much. The website needs to unclog its job filter system. For instance, openings under ‘entry-level’ includes a “Deputy Program Manager for Latin America” and “intern”. As an integral part of the Devex platform, it definitely has the best design compared with its barebones counterparts.

UN ICSC is an official UN website where you can filter information akin to an Excel sheet, based on organization, duty station, job title, level, deadline and type of work or job family. But seriously, no search function? Also, figuring out how to use “Create Advanced Filter(s)” at the bottom of the page requires an MS in Computer Engineering to make it work. Or maybe it is a practical test for a P-4 position as IT Officer.

These job search websites do not necessarily post all types of opportunities. It’s better directly go to the official jobs page of say, ADB or the World Bank, for national positions, short-term, technical assistance or consulting firm opportunities.

Other websites of note:

International Development Jobs for Young Professionals Facebook group (of course!)

Technical Assistance Consultancy Network; LinkedIn Group for discussions on working as a consultant.

Did I miss any online resource for international development job-hunting? Let us know in the comments!

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.


Updates on the new World Bank Group Analyst Program

World BankA few readers of my blog have asked me (here and here) how the World Bank Junior Professional Associate (JPA) interview process worked. Unfortunately I have no one standard answer because there was not one standard process when it was still existed. Most applicants submitted their application to a database, while others like myself sent it directly to the hiring unit as the job advertisement instructed. There was also no official webpage where once can find current JPA openings.

If the job advertisement and hiring process of the JPA program was an opaque blackbox many dared to break but with only a few who have succeeded to do so, the WBG Analyst Program (AP) process is perhaps an attempt to overhaul and improve the professional programs aimed at younger people (because there is also the Young Professionals Program) who want to gain experience at the Washington-based development institution.

So, is the AP selection process any better, you might ask. I perused the AP website, and also got a tip on the recruitment process so far, which is fairly straightforward:

  1. January to March: Submission of applications
  2. End of March: Selection committee contacts candidates to submit additional information (what information). Here’s the added bit: the World Bank also administered a battery of standard tests consisting of a personality test, logical reasoning, and mathematical deduction. Now that is new. Others who were not selected will receive an email stating so. 
  3. April to May (planned)/on-going: Hiring unit stream conducts interviews
  4. June (planned): Job offer
  5. September (planned): Welcome to Washington, DC!
  6. For the next three years: Happy hours!

The World Bank is a couple of months behind schedule based on the timeline on their website. By now, they should have made job offers already. However, some departments are still setting up interviews, while others are still putting together their shortlists. Whether the first cohort will march down 1818 H St., NW in Washington DC come September is yet to be seen. For now, congratulations in advance to those who have gone as far as the second round of selection, and I wish you all the best.

Do you have other information or questions on the WBG Analyst Program? Let us know in the comments, or drop me a message.