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10 Tips for Starting Out your Career in International Development

You will most likely need a Master’s degree, not necessarily in international development

If you don’t have a Master’s already, it will be worth your time to start searching for Master’s degree programs. However, that doesn’t mean your Master’s needs to be in international development. While the general principles learned in international development programs are helpful, organizations are often looking for professionals with specific experience in areas like health, economics, human rights, education, environment, etc. Depending on what type of job you’re looking for or what career path you’d like to take within ID, it might be worth looking into a Master’s in Public Health or Environmental Sustainability. These degrees usually require a more specific set of technical skills, but having that experience can be extremely helpful to having a successful career in international development.

Networking is important

While “who you know” isn’t everything, in the field of international development, knowing the right people can really help push your career along. Meet people in person, when possible. If you’re still in school, take advantage of guest speakers, professors, and staff members who likely have connections to organizations and can help you connect with other professionals in the field. Set up informational interviews. These show that you want to learn and can help you understand the steps you need to take to get your first job. Those people can also potentially introduce you to other professionals who may be able to help you learn and advance your career. When you start working, you may continue to run into some of these other professionals in the field, so keeping amicable relationships with your network will be helpful throughout your career.

Get as much experience as you can in school

While you’re getting your Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degree, try to get work experience and gain practical, transferable skills. Use your summers for internships, when you can. Get an on-campus job that requires leadership and/or office skills. If you can’t get a job or internship with direct experience, try getting one that will help you gain transferable skills such as management, program development, research, human services, planning and organization, or other administrative skills. Entry-level jobs often list 2+ years of work experience as a requirement, so the more experience, paid or unpaid, you can get while you’re still earning your education, the easier it will be to demonstrate to employers that you have the skills and expertise they are looking for.

Know what skills you need for type of job you want

Various types of job within the field of international development require different sets of skills. For instance, jobs working with economic development typically require extensive knowledge of economic principles and strong skills in math and statistics. Jobs in public health will need professionals who have an understanding of health issues and the healthcare system or even professionals with medical degrees. There are a wide variety of jobs in the ID field, but they can generally be grouped into the categories of technical expertise, project management, and research. Technical experts are those working directly in the field with specific issues. They need knowledge of specific issues such as environment, health, economics, law, food security, etc. Project management jobs deal with administrative duties overseeing development programs, including design, implementation, management, and evaluation. Management and organization skills are necessary for these positions. Researchers need to have strong skills in qualitative and quantitative research, including statistics, interviewing, surveying, and more. When you know what type of job you’d like to work in, you can work towards building the skills and knowledge needed to start your career.

Learn a second language

Many international development jobs require knowledge of a second language, and knowing a second language can be helpful for this field even if it’s not required for a position. Take advantage of language classes in college and graduate school. If you’re interested in a particular region, learn a language that would be useful in that region. Pick one that is spoken widely or can act as a base language to learn other related languages. If you’re not sure, pick a critical language that is used often for ID organizations, such as French. Learning a language will give you an edge about other professionals in the field and will eliminate one barrier for an organization to hire you.

Gain expertise in a region

In addition to learning a language, it can be helpful to gain knowledge and expertise in a specific region. Many international development organizations work within specific regions, and even organizations with global offices have regional headquarters. Many of these regions have specific challenges and needs that are unique to the people and cultures of those countries. Understanding the needs of the people in a specific region will allow you to be competitive when applying for jobs with organizations that work with your region of expertise. It will also show ID organizations that you’re willing to gain in depth knowledge about the countries they work in to understand who their target groups are and what the challenges of working in that region will be.

Gain expertise in specific issues

Learning about specific development issues will help you narrow your career path and gain the knowledge and skills you need in order to work with specific development topics. For instance, if you focus on rural development, you can gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges related to that area and the solutions that exist. You will be able to apply for specific types of jobs, tailor your resume, and show potential employers your commitment to development in your area of expertise. However, specializing in specific development topics does not mean you have to stick with it. Specializing in specific issues can give you a unique and diverse perspective on other areas of development, as well, which will show your creative and flexible thinking.

Be flexible with your first job

Chances are your first job will not be your dream job. Most entry-level applicants will not be getting jobs as program managers or area specialists. But you have to start somewhere. Be willing to apply to jobs that aren’t your dream job but will give you relevant and useful experience that you can take to your next job. Use your entry-level job as an opportunity to gain more experience, as well as diverse experience, and to network with other professionals in the field. For example, if you have strong writing skills, apply for a communications job with a development nonprofit, even if your ideal position is a program director. This also means that your first job may not be with a huge organization. It’s ok to start small. Just start somewhere!

…But also be strategic with your first job

While you want to be flexible enough to get into an entry-level position and just get your career started, you also need to be somewhat strategic about your first position. If you start in food security but want to work in migration, making that switch might be extremely hard without the right network and/or experience. If you can’t get in the exact specialization you want to be in, try for something close—like anti-trafficking or economic development to move into migration work. Also think about location. Getting a job in a small organization could be easier than starting out at a big, international organization, but you also need to think about the connections and network that the organization can offer. Is there upward mobility in the job? Will you be able to connect with other professionals in the field easily? Be flexible with your first job but also be strategic.

Think beyond big-name organizations

Getting a starting job or even continuing your career with a big-name, international organization is what most international development professionals often aim for, but it’s not always possible, and it doesn’t have to be the only way to have a successful ID career. Many of the organizations partner with small, local organizations, and smaller ID organizations often offer greater chances to interact directly with the people and have a greater impact in the areas in which they work. Starting out or staying in a small organization could be a great way to learn and grow professionally in the field of international development. Small organizations need expertise and can also often offer the chance to get more experience and gain more skills than you could at a larger organization.