Let’s take a hypothetical development student. Mary is about to graduate with a first or upper second degree from a leading university. She is bright, ambitious and her dream is to work in international development. She knows it’s tough to get in and she’s determined to do everything it takes to get that first job and then progress. If you are reading this, chances are that you are quite similar to Mary.
At the London International Development Centre (LIDC) we’ve been running a graduate internship programme for the past six years, during which we have trained more than 70 interns selected from hundreds of applications. Our interns are clever, highly motivated young people and it’s a privilege and a delight to work with them. But many of them share the same misconceptions that sometimes hinder their progression into careers in development. I usually tell them what I’m about to reveal to you now.
What you think you need
Aspiring development workers like Mary believe that they need prior experience to get into development. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation; you need experience in order to gain experience. Mary believes that she also needs a master’s degree to secure that first job. She knows that getting her foot in the door will be a struggle and therefore she is ready and willing to “do anything” as long as it’s related to development.
“Surely she’s right?” you ask. Well, not exactly.
What you really need
Experience: Of course, the ideal candidate will have some professional experience, and someone who has not worked a day in their life is unlikely to be successful. However, you need far less experience than you think. It doesn’t have to be long or high-level at all – bar tending, waitressing, temporary and administrative jobs also count. These jobs may not always be glamorous, but they show that you have initiative, time-management skills and that you are used to the rigours of a workplace.
Advertisement: Internships count too, but before you start piling one after another onto your CV, remember that a badly chosen placement can be a waste of time. Volunteering is often a far better route to gaining experience. It can be done part-time over a longer period – which allows you to grow over time – and you can often get more relevant experience similar to the job you’re after in the future.
Field experience is one of the most important things you can have as an aspiring development professional. It demonstrates your understanding of what development is like on the ground, and shows your genuine commitment to working in the sector. Even a few months in the field scores you more CV points than a much longer period in an office in London or New York.
What’s more, you may be able to land a position with more responsibility than you would back home. For example, our intern Marcus has just returned after two years as a manager of an educational project in Ghana, a job he secured with little previous experience.
As with internships, you need to keep your wits about you when applying for overseas placements. If the hosting organisation is asking you to pay a lot of money and offers to drive you around and show field projects, chances are you will not get much out of the experience.
Master’s degrees: As someone with two master’s, I struggle to accept that you actually don’t need an advanced degree, but my 10 years of experience in development suggests this is true. It’s a “nice to have” and may be required for certain jobs, but a poorly chosen master’s can be a waste of both time and money. On the other hand, a specialist degree can make you more employable. I’m not saying that one is always worth more than the other, but I have certainly noticed that our interns with general Development Studies degrees struggle more to get a job than those with more specialised ones like Public Health or Education. So by all means do it, but think before you leap.
Rather than focus on degrees, consider investing in transferable skills. Skills in project management, video making and fundraising are all sought after in the development sector and can be gained through internships, jobs outside the development sector, volunteering or short courses.
Doing anything: It is helpful to be flexible and willing to start in a less than glamorous position and work your way up, but that doesn’t mean you should be telling employers you will “do anything” as long as it’s in development. When you say that, what I hear is: “I have no idea what I want.” Instead, try to become good at something – in other words, develop a specialism.
Think about what area of development interests you and invest in it. Gender? Migration? Malaria? Read about it, do a paper on it, go to a workshop, volunteer for a relevant NGO.
If you develop an interest in a region, make sure you also learn the relevant language and, if possible, travel and experience it first-hand.
Lastly, don’t forget the basics. Make sure your CV is polished, get some interview practice, and learn about the sector through following news and going to events. Your university’s career service is your ally and so is Google.
Development is not an easy sector but if you are as determined as Mary you will make it, sooner or later, and it will be worth it. Good luck!
Anna Marry is communications manager at the London International Development Centre (LIDC). Follow @LIDC_UK on Twitter.
First published on Guardian Global Development Professionals Network