Landing an aid job…

4 Oct

Over the past several weeks an increasing number of you have written directly to me asking for advice on how to find an aid job or how to successfully apply for an aid job.

This is the condensed version of my best advice, as a frequent hiring manger:

I will Google you. I will look up your profile on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. I will check all of your references. Make sure that you really really want me to see your blog before mentioning it on your CV. Just saying.

Have at least a Masters Degree in something not totally irrelevant.  A technical degree (MPH, something in agriculture, etc.) lines you up for a technically focused position. A generalist degree (MBA, something in the social sciences) lines you up for a generalist position. But once you’re in either way there is a lot of latitude for lateral movement. Don’t overthink it. As much as anything else, I’m looking for evidence that you can handle the pressure, deadlines, multiple demands and overall stress of a graduate level academic environment.

(Yes, we all know people who have managed somehow to get in with less than an MA. They are the exception, not the rule. An MA Degree is a basic aid industry minimum. Don’t assume that you’ll be an exception.)

Be a good writer. Have solid expository writing skills. Be able to get your thoughts down in succinct, clear prose. As much as anything else, the heavy lifting of aid work comes down to good writing. Prove that you have this basic, universal skill from the get-go: Include a good writing sample with your application.

Know another language. I’m not all that concerned about which one – in my experience the chance of getting hired into a position where the specific second or third language that you happen to know is a point-of-sale is slim. The chances of your next job being one where your second or third language is a point-of-sale is next to zero. Language ability is one of the best proxies I know of for evidence that you are able to work cross-culturally, and that is what I’m looking for primarily.

Experience commensurate with the position that you’re applying for. You don’t need years of field experience under your belt if you’re applying for an entry-level position. But if you’re applying for a senior position with a large number of direct reports and a lot of management responsibility, I’ll be looking for some pretty solid evidence on your CV that you’re capable.

Don’t tell me about the NGO you started. Really. Don’t tell me.

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14 Responses to “Landing an aid job…”

  1. angelica 5 October, 2010 at 1:37 am #

    gawd! if I had a penny for every time someone has asked me that question…. I suppose in a way it is not as straight forward as with other professions.

    To your list I add what I think are the skills needed to land that job (probably somewhat specific to the UN): perseverance, patience and luck.

    cause it’s probably gonna take a while….

  2. Alanna 5 October, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    Thanks for the shout-out! Your point about language is really good; I’ve been trying to articulate that for a while and never managed to phrase it as accurately.

  3. Mo-ha-med 5 October, 2010 at 2:57 am #

    Good list, J, thank you. Will be sharing.
    Want to elaborate on the “don’t tell me about the NGO you started” part?

  4. RPC 5 October, 2010 at 5:24 am #

    Excellent post. I have found that Google is the “poor mans” background investigator — truly amazing what you can find. The development world is a small one where a bozo performance in some far flung field office can go viral in a matter of moments.

  5. Wayan 5 October, 2010 at 5:26 am #

    Great list. I will concur with all of it, even the Masters. I seem to have somewhat arrived w/o one, yet I will say that to be the exception you have to work 2x harder than everyone else to prove your worth to the exception. That and be in ICT.

    Oh and yeah, sign up for Alanna newsletter. I have a dream job I hope never to leave, yet I still find value in her newsletter every time she sends it.

  6. c-sez 5 October, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    You forgot one, J: Make sure your cover letter includes at minimum of 7 paragraphs describing how much you rilly rilly rilly want to Save Africa.

  7. Ian 5 October, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    Great list of pointers. I’m currently doing some hiring and a couple of other do nots come to mind:
    1. (Maybe UN specific) don’t have someone from your local diplomatic mission contact me to tell me how great you are and how your nationality is underrepresented.
    2. Don’t drop string hints about how you are good family friends with someone senior in my hierarchy.
    3. Understand that if I have 50 candidates for a short term position (yes it happens) that I’m not going to have time for an in depth discussion with everyone who is interested in a job.

    On the dos side:
    1. Do keep trying – it takes time and patience to land the right job
    2. Keep your ears open and your mind open. You might not land the job you thought you wanted or that you are a shoo in for, but you might just find something else more interesting instead.

  8. lu 5 October, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    i also love the way that you have articulated the language portion of the application. i include the fact that i speak spanish on applications where tetum would be much more useful, but you’ve made it more clear about why it is important.

    and seriously, people mentioning their ngo they started would make me want to throw up a little. ew.

  9. Amanda Makulec 5 October, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

    Thanks much for the list, J. I seem to know too many people who think they can just become an aid/development worker/professional with little to no qualifications/experience (i.e. your comment on the Masters). I’ll pass your list along for them to start working on if they’re really interested…

  10. Anna Stefani 7 October, 2010 at 1:36 am #

    I don’t agree with the Master’s requirement for landing an aid job, especially if we’re talking entry level. I did have one before I launched my career, but these days as a senior manager, when I hire somebody looking to break into the field I look for more personal characteristics – is the person flexible, realistic about their job expectations (expecting to enter into the field and make as much as your buddy in private sector is just going to leave me with a consistently unhappy employee who is too worried about what others are making than the quality of his/her own work), is the candidate resourceful, are they problem-solvers, curious, respectful, and just basically, do they have street smarts. This is not something you get from a Master’s degree.

    A Master’s Degree is what you spend your money on after you’ve spent 2-4 years working in the industry and hone in on a subject that makes you passionate. Yes, I want to see that Master’s degree in middle and senior manager’s, but don’t be telling kids fresh out of college to go get a Master’s degree if they’re going to end up strapped by debts after sitting in a classroom for 2 years in a subject that they find out they really don’t like.

  11. Peter 16 October, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    Hello J
    So you have two posts next to each other. One about all the academic qualifications you need so you can sit in a cube and write grant requests. And then another talking all the rich Ivy League aid workers siting in cubes talking about helping all those they would never invite into their home. I have to say I agree with Anna… always take character and life experience over someone who chose to sit on their butt in the ivy halls writing papers.

    I only spent a short two years as an aid worker in Africa before I left in disgust. I strongly feel that the system you seam to be promoting of lets hire the educated and multilingual is a big part of the on going crisis in the aid field. Especially in Africa where most people writing on the aid experience of the last 30 years admit aid work has done more damage than good. Yes there have been specific success in elimination of certain diseases (thanks to Carter and Gates Foundations for example) but overall nothing to be proud of as a community. Tell me how many ill formed and rushed grants have you seen written by people with the hallowed Masters who never left their office put into motion (after bright people like USAID or ECHO) that wind up costing millions in wasted aid and continuing to create dependency in the very population you are trying to serve.

    And please the arrogance of yourself and fellow posters (probably fellow managers) who cast negative aspirations on those who want to talk about an NGO they might have started. Based on what you state you would not even have talked to a Bob Pierce or Henry Dunant…..

    Take a look at who you are hiring and take a look at your system. Have you become an industry that is changing the world for the better or are you part of the problem.

    And yes I only have a BA degree from a State school and only speak English.

    • J. 17 October, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

      Your comment is very much what I’d expect from one who, on the strength of a B.A. and of having “only spent a short two years as an aid worker” has come to believe he/she knows all there is to know about what is wrong with the aid industry.

      It is important to note that not one of the problems you mention (the waste of millions of dollars, grants being written from cubicles, etc.) would be remidied by lowering the bar and insisting on less than a M.A. degree or multiple language capability.

      My M.A. is from a State school.


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