If you are like me, you probably have a lot of causes that are near and dear to you. You might have pursued international development with hopes of giving back to the world, only to be dissuaded by the harsh realities that are exposed by this academic field.
Maybe you're passionate about climate change, but are frustrated by the limited interest that the rest of the world seems to have in addressing it. Or perhaps peace is of particular interest to you, and you come to learn that more people are displaced due to conflict today, than have been in decades.
But one of the biggest concerns you probably have as a current student is what you will be doing in a few years’ time, and how you will be making an impact.
I am not going to sugar-coat it: getting a job in international development can be extremely daunting. But, to be honest, finding meaningful employment in almost any field can be challenging in today's economy. From national governments to international agencies, from charities to foundations, there are a variety of diverse employers in the field of international development.
On a positive note, due to our increasingly globalized world, there are more diverse work opportunities now than ever before. There are ways to prepare for a career in development while you are still in school to ensure you are setting yourself up for success!
1) Find Opportunities on Campus
Every university has clubs, associations, and a variety of other initiatives that focus on international development. I’m sure this may not sound like revolutionary advice, but too often students overlook on-campus opportunities. Sure, the "Student’s Initiative for Global Peace" might not have any job prospects that you are aware of, but it might just help you to gain relevant experience that will be attractive to prospective employers. Apart from that, it could lead to a variety of networking opportunities through which you can connect with relevant people.
2) Go Abroad
One of the most unique things about international development is that in order to grasp what you are studying, you need to step outside of the institutional confines of your university and venture off into the Global South.
The number of students who complete degrees in development without spending time in the Global South is, quite frankly, alarming. Some university programs require students to go abroad, but rarely will they qualify what that experience should look like.
If you are studying development, find an opportunity, be it studying, interning, volunteering, or something else, that has you spending at least a term, if not more, in a developing country. There truly are a number of reasons why spending at least a term in the Global South is an absolute must for those considering a career in development.
3) Do Well in School
Undergraduate degrees can be strenuous, but they are not nearly as challenging as the somewhat soul crushing realities of sitting around on the couch post-graduation.
Many international organizations you might want to work for, such as the United Nations, World Bank, etc., now consider a Masters Degree a mandatory minimum.
What I’m saying is, though challenging, university is not nearly as tough as the real world, post midterms and papers. Invest your time in your studies, aim high, and keep your options open. You might want to go to grad school, so make sure you have the grades to get in once you have decided what you would like to explore.
A good GPA says a lot about an individuals’ willingness to commit. Not great at writing? I have personally seen below average writers put in the required time and effort to turn into excellent writers. Not fantastic at exams? Again, there are ample resources to help you prepare. Consider visiting your university's Student Learning Commons or academic centre for help with writing and assignments. Whatever the possible excuse is, chances are you just need to commit.
4) Find Local Volunteer Opportunitites
While local opportunities to volunteer specifically within your field of interest might be limited, especially in smaller cities or more rural communities, there are always going to be a few organizations who could use some extra hands.
I would suggest you take the initiative to reach out directly, rather than waiting for postings for positions. Organizations may not post asking for volunteers often, as they may be shy or limited on time to formally recruit them.
Prepare to be taking on quite a bit of initiative as a volunteer with an NGO or smaller organization, as resources are often limited.
5) Learn the Skill of Networking
Networking is not showing up to a speaking event with business cards in hand ready to eagerly hand them out: left, right, and center. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve had people ask for my card, only to never do anything with it. Many times I don’t even bother bringing cards to events anymore because those who really want to find you, will find you.
Similar to finding local volunteer opportunities, one of the best methods of networking is reaching out to an individual and asking for some advice. Offer to meet them for coffee, and always offer to pay (as a current student, the person you have reached out to, will kindly decline).
Like anyone else, those working within development like to talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they ended up here. Having these face-to-face conversations with prospective employers is very valuable. At worst, you will get an hour of useful advice, at best, you will have developed a contact who now knows who you are.
It is likely that the person you have just met with is going to hire the next summer intern, or will soon become the HR manager. It is also likely, that because of your efforts to connect with them, they will keep you in mind. The last 4 people I have personally hired, have all been within my network.