Latest Issue

  • The mail function has been disabled by an administrator.

Getting a job in international development

By Trina Moyles

Make no mistake: international development and humanitarian aid are among the most competitive sectors out there for people at an entry level.

This is particularly true for graduates of international development studies programs. These degrees used to be the main entry-point to this kind of work, but it's no longer enough. This situation is further complicated by a lack of obvious or well-defined career pathways, and a paucity of entry-level positions.

The good news is that after you have a few years of experience under your belt, and have developed a specialty or area of expertise, jobs do tend to come to you. Those who can hack this work for five or ten years will usually find themselves in high demand. But this may be of little comfort to someone just starting out.

Do seriously consider whether this is truly where your passion lies. There are easier ways to make a difference in society, and there are other ways to see the world. Cultivating a career in international development requires hard work, determination and persistence, and almost always involves an extended stint working for free or very low pay before you are successful in securing paid work. Living conditions on field placements can be challenging and, at times, very isolating. “Not everyone who wants to work in international development will love working overseas,” cautions Jane Baldwin, a program manager for the MasterCard Foundation. Unlike other careers that offer opportunities for travel, working in international development can mean facing the harsh realities of life in developing countries, disaster areas or refugee camps.

If all of this hasn't put you off, then read on.

Education Requirements

In terms of post-secondary studies, there are many possible routes into development work.

It used to be the case that employers favoured those with an academic background in global studies. Anthropology, international development, international relations, and similar are all great degrees for acquiring world knowledge and, potentially, soft skills and global competencies valued in this sector. However, in recent years, demand has shifted to recruiting candidates who have specific expertise—so a degree in the social sciences is no longer sufficient. You will almost certainly need a graduate degree with an area of specialization, as well as relevant experience. Many people in this sector recommend gaining overseas experience in international development before studying for a Master's (see below); this can be invaluable in allowing you to learn more about the field, gain familiarity with some issues on the ground and better define where your interests lie.

Gaining a technical degree that gives you some hard skills, such as engineering, agriculture or computer engineering, is a good route into international development work. If this is your plan, be sure to incorporate relevant international courses and/or language courses. Be able to demonstrate that you have the vitally important 'soft skills' that are required to be successful in international development work—especially as these skill sets are not usually associated with degrees outside the social sciences.

Whatever field of study you choose be sure to:

  • integrate relevant electives with an international component;
  • acquire a second language;
  • learn about different areas of the world, both formally (through classes etc) and informally (through student groups, volunteering with international students, etc);
  • find opportunities to learn outside your class environment: study abroad for a year, an internship or a co-op term;
  • create and take advantage of opportunities to improve your global competencies.

In a nutshell, making serious efforts to cultivate relevant skills and experience is necessary in this field. It takes initiative and hard work, but will set you apart from other candidates. Please see the sections on global competencies and gaining experience at home, for further suggestions.

Supplementary experience

Experts in this sector shared a number of practical tips that will help you be useful in international development fieldwork.

Gain office skills

A large, unglamorous component of international development work is office work. Everyday tasks can include proposal writing, budgeting, project management, and report writing. Show that you can handle it, and that you are effective in this environment. Learn to write effectively and efficiently. Gain whatever experience you can in grant writing and budgeting—apply for a grant for a student organization, for example, and manage the project and budget, even if it is small. It will show you have a base in these sorts of skills along with initiative, and the ability to learn as you go.

Volunteer purposefully at home

Be strategic about your volunteering. Seek out organizations that are of interest to you for a particular reason—be it the work they do, their area of specialization, or other factors. While you are volunteering, be purposeful. Take opportunities to learn—from the work you do, from staff and from other volunteers. See if the organization offers training workshops. Get involved wherever you can.

I always tell people: volunteer to do the shittiest jobs, because no one wants to do them. Take minutes at meetings—that is a brilliant job. It puts you in the middle, gives you an opening to go back to the leadership and say, "Here are the minutes, can I bounce some edits?" It gives you an opportunity to ask questions, share thoughts—and that’s what going to put you on the radar. Even if you are making coffee... for whom? Take the opportunity to ask people questions, sit down for 10 minutes, find out how they got to where they are.
—Former recruiter for a large humanitarian NGO

Get overseas experience

Before they land a first job in this sector, most successful candidates will have had at least two relevant overseas experiences. The type of experience matters. An alternative spring break may be good for your first experience abroad, but it's not going to get your foot in the door in this sector. You need to demonstrate independence, show an ability to thrive when immersed in an unfamiliar environment and an ability to deal with difficult living conditions. Seek out experiences in more challenging environments. And make the most of any immersion experiences. If, for example, you spend a year abroad studying in Germany, which may not be directly relevant experience, make sure you take the opportunity to develop your global competencies: learn the language—and volunteer or intern in German.

Look here for advice on choosing and making the most of a volunteer experience overseas.

Getting that first job

Yes, it is possible to get work in this field! However, the Catch-22 of "I can't get a job without experience, and I can't get experience if nobody will offer me a job" is nowhere more true than in this sector.

To understand why this is the case, consider the employer's perspective. Hiring, training and sending staff to the field is costly. And, it is hard to know how someone is going to work out before they are suddenly immersed in an unfamiliar, high-stress, possibly dangerous environment. Unplanned staff turnover in this sector is problematically high, with some studies estimating that as many as 60% of expatriate hires do not work out. Why would an employer take on the extra risk of hiring someone with no experience?

Because the market is saturated with recent graduates wanting to work in development, it is important to think outside the box to get your first opening. Your first job is unlikely to be your ideal position. But things move fast in this field and once you have your foot in the door, and the experience that comes with it, your next position will come much more easily.

It's difficult to board a moving train, but once you're on, you can move easily from one car to another. That's what it's like in relief and development.
—Piero Calvi, author of "Working in International Development and Emergency Aid"

With that in mind:

Seek out less-known opportunities

You are not going to get your first job on Reliefweb, at the UN, or at a development bank. Look for opportunities with smaller or lesser-known organizations. Contact field office staff directly, instead of headquarters. And don't overlook the private sector.

Consider going to the field to apply

Whether this is a valid way to get a first position is a topic of some debate among those in the sector. However, many experts and early-career professionals insist it can be an effective strategy. A field office that needs some help can hire you with relatively little risk: they are not paying to get you to the country, and can let you go if things do not work out.

Needless to say, this is not a good strategy in a dangerous environment, or in the immediate aftermath of a humanitarian emergency, where you are likely to be in the way.  (If you need more detail on why this is the case, please see this link, which also suggests how to get relevant training.)

Consider volunteering for your first (or even second) job

Paying your plane ticket and offering your time for your first position can be a great investment, as your next job will be much easier to find.

Offer something concrete

Some organizations are inundated with volunteers just wanting to help, which in itself can be a drain on resources. Offer a concrete plan of something that you can contribute which will benefit the organization's work or mandate with relatively little supervision.

Don't be picky

Take a less-than-desirable position, destination, or living situation (if you are sure you can commit to it). Be willing to do what needs to get done.

Be persistent

Almost everyone who works in this sector has experienced the same struggle to enter the field. They made it because they did not give up—and you can too.


Travel with purpose; travel for good. Articles, resources and events for ethical and meaningful travel, volunteering, working and studying abroad.

Verge believes in travel for change. International experience creates global citizens, who can change our planet for the better. This belief is at the core of everything we do.

Like what you see?

Follow us on social media