Whether you are a recent graduate or are changing career, this no-nonsense step-by-step guide should get you on your way to securing that elusive first job in international development.
Research the job opportunities and market
An obvious starting point is to find out more about what you are trying to get involved in. An idealistic approach is great, but a little research will reveal that the international development (often shortened to “development”) world is not just made up of do-gooders and volunteers: it is big business.
There are two major distinct types of development: short-term disaster relief and humanitarian aid;and longer term development. Disaster relief or aid is focused on providing immediate assistance in areas of critical need. This kind of development work is typically stressful, but the immediate and obvious impacts can be highly rewarding. Longer term development work is less glamorous, and the impacts can be elusive (or non-existent!), but if done correctly the results are long-lasting and sustainable.
A good starting point to learning more about development opportunities is to consult online job boards, join job mailing lists, and reading development blogs.
Choose your niche
Choosing a specialization is important, because very few recruiters are looking for a generalist, even if that is what some positions end up requiring.
If you already have a career, your easiest way into development is to market your current skills and experience and go for a similar role in a development organization. This could mean that you take your accountancy skills to become a financial manager in an NGO or that your IT background helps you land a job in the IT department of a donor organization. Although you may be looking for a quick major change to your career, taking the time to strategically get your foot in the development door gives you the opportunity to changing roles far more easily.
If you are a recent graduate, do not worry about working yourself into a dead end if you specialize:early in your development career you will always gain skills that you can transfer to a new position or sector.
Narrowing down your niche may also help you to select an organization to work for. For example, if you want to work with children, UNICEF or Save the Children would be logical organizations to approach. If focusing on specific organizations, you will need to know the organization inside-out and make sure you have the skill set they are looking for. Informational interviews are a great way to learn more about an organization and gain useful contacts.
Find the specific requirements for the job you have targeted
Once you have narrowed down the field or organization(s) you are targeting, it is time to find out where new positions are advertised and to start analysing job advertisements. If you are targeting specific organizations, they will probably post their adverts in the same places: obviously their website would be a good place to start, but it may be worth asking them directly, as some websites are not kept up-to-date.
The language used in development job adverts may contain unfamiliar words and phrases, but as you learn more about development, you will start to pick up on the jargon. A quick Google search will speed your bridging of the jargon gap.
Update your CV
Knowing the general requirements for the job type you are focused on will help you to ensure your CV is emphasizing the right skills and experience. It is amazing how much you can alter the orientation of any CV to be development-focused, but be careful not to stretch the truth too far: your summer bartending in Greece is not development work and will not impress a development recruiter, although evidence of international experience may justify its inclusion.
Once you have shifted the focus of your CV from your past career, as with any job application, you should further customize your CV to match the specific job you are applying for. After breaking down the job advert, rewrite your CV to ensure all the required criteria are covered and hopefully some of the desired criteria are met too. If your job history and skills do not meet the requirements, it may be time to gain more experience or learn a new skill.
If your CV is weak in certain areas, now is the time to work on building up your skills and experience. The easiest, cheapest and often most rewarding way of doing this is usually through an internship or volunteering. Future employers will place a very high value on the practical experience you will gain, and will acknowledge the commitment you have shown to embarking on a new career. Simply put, if you do not have the necessary skills and experience, there is no faster way to break into development than by volunteering or interning.
Expand your network
By increasing your network, you will hear more about available openings, get a headstart in your application, and learn more about development.
Volunteering or an internship has the additional benefit of providing you with key development contacts. If you do your voluntary work or internship in an organization you are hoping to work for you will be optimally placed to find out about any new opportunities that are in the pipeline.
Although many organizations aspire to be equal opportunity and unbiased recruiters, the sad truth is that most jobs are not formally advertised. Many positions are created on an ad hoc basis, and for an overworked human resources manager, a candidate stands no greater advantage than being physically present, with a known ability to perform the role.
Iterate and improve until you get your first break
Rejection is unavoidable, so be prepared for it especially when beginning your job search. Wherever possible, find out why you did not make it to the next round – whether that is interview stage or final selection. Trying to get honest feedback can be difficult, so explain that your motivation is to improve on your future applications and not to start a legal challenge! Bear in mind that many job positions are written with an existing candidate in mind (remember you can become that existing candidate by volunteering or interning!), so do not take rejection too hard.
Build skills wherever the feedback highlights shortcomings or wherever you think your CV is weak. Ask people in your network to review your applications or suggest changes to your approach. You might even consider asking them to show your CV to their hiring department to get some impartial feedback. This is a subtle way to get your CV in front of more people!
Remember that landing your first role in development is always going to be the hardest. Once you get that first break, you will find future job opportunities much easier to come by! The development world is a small one, so build a strong reputation and you will find your new career opening out in front of you.