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5 Ways to Get Field Work Experience in Humanitarian Aid

Getting your first job in the humanitarian field is hard as it is, but gaining that invaluable (and, frankly, extremely necessary) field experience is another game. Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly competitive and challenging to get your first field experience- especially if you want a proper job that lasts longer than one month. In order to prepare yourself to be an optimal candidate, you need to pursue the right education, and demonstrate that you are dedicated and flexible. Volunteering on a project abroad for two weeks is admirable, but progressing in a career in this field will require more from a person. Often times, people must be willing to go anywhere at short notice, think quickly on their feet, and be able to remain composed in high-stress situations. In order to train yourself to be this way, you need to get your first field placement. So, just how can you do that?

  1. Through a University Program

There are so many benefits that come from being a student, and gaining useful, practical work experience while studying is just one of them.  This can be done in one of two ways: in between undergraduate and graduate school (you’ll almost always be required to have a Masters degree) or as part of your study course. In between degree levels, you will have to find a volunteership, internship, or job on your own. Whatever this is, it’s a great filler for the CV, and hopefully you can gain some practical experience- being the receptionist won’t help you here. However, enrolling in a graduate study program that has a field work component is perhaps the best thing that postgraduate study can offer to you. In this context, you can count on experienced mentors to find you a reliable placement where you can both learn and use your academic skills in the field. This can be for credit or for the purpose of collecting data for a practicum or thesis project.

  1. Volunteer on a Mission

This is one of the easiest and most commonly sought ways of getting experience in the field. You won’t be paid, and typically you’ll have to dish out fees to travel and find accommodation (not always, though). However, it’s a great way to get hands-on work, if you can afford the cut to your bank account. While any experience in the field is certainly valuable, going on a volunteer trip for two weeks unfortunately is not very impressive to an employer. Being able to commit at least a few months (i.e. seeing a project out/going through different stages) will make your CV stand out much more, so doing longer placements is always advisable, when possible.

  1. Volunteering/Interning at an Organization’s Headquarters

Working in the humanitarian field requires a commitment to the long-game if you want to be successful. Unpaid internships and volunteer work are all steps that everyone must be willing to complete- often more than once. When choosing an organization to apply to, do your research and try to get into an agency that does the type of work your interested. Furthermore, if you can avoid it, do not just accept any position in any department. In order to make your experience worthwhile for finding a job in the field, try to work in programs and similar departments which are typically occupied by people who’ve already completed field work. While fundraising is a crucial part of humanitarian projects, it’s not going to do you (or your CV) much good if your career goals involve practical, hands-on experience with beneficiaries.

  1. Enrol on a Rapid Deployment List

Registering for a rapid deployment list with a disaster relief organization is a great way to get experience during and immediately after a crisis. While most organizations will (for good reason) require the appropriate education, you can register for lower-level, hands-on positions that are incredibly necessary during a disaster. Again, it is almost guaranteed that you will not be sent to a heavy conflict zone on your first experience in the field, but rapid onset natural disasters often require all hands on deck. If you have the education and some previous experience, you might even get to work on the initial/planning phase of a response.

  1. Don’t Only Search for Opportunities with the Big Name Players

This one comes with a ‘but’- and a big one at that. When looking for a field position, most internet searches will immediately display the largest (and most visited) national and international organizations. There is certainly a benefit from seeking field work opportunities and placements with these organizations (think UN-grade reputations): they have more resources and are extremely experienced, which typically means that you can feel a bit safer about all of the details working out as promised. However, volunteering, interning, or doing research for a smaller, lesser-known organization does not necessarily mean that you will be putting yourself at risk. Smaller NGOs need support, as well, and, as long as your research their safety track record, you should feel comfortable approaching them, too. Being realistic and working on smaller projects in less critical zones is necessary for advancing your career. It’s highly unlikely that you will get sent to the epicenter of crisis to work on a project that you, realistically, are not yet qualified for. Pay your dues by learning the system and showing your dedication from the bottom up.