4 steps to transition to a global development career

By Kate Warren 20 March 2017

A health worker examines a patient at a mobile health clinic in Pakistan. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DfID / CC BY

Global development can be an exciting and rewarding career. Those who are driven by social impact and purpose often look at the work being done in this sector and dream of being able to make the switch from their current career path to one in global development.

The global development landscape is evolving and the definition of what makes a global development organization or professional is expanding. The role of business in development has progressed from a niche sub-sector to a critical must-have, streamlined across the work of global development organizations and businesses alike. So, while they may not think of themselves as development professionals, many people working in industries such as high tech, infrastructure, design or even within large corporations are getting involved in what is essentially development work.

Looking for a career transition? Here are tips on breaking into global development from another sector, taking your career international  or domestic  and how to translate your skills to resonate with recruiters.

►  Top skills and professions you can transition to a global development career

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Transitioning from the field to HQ

The expansion of the sector is opening up more opportunities for professionals from a variety of backgrounds to leverage their skills and experience for a global development career. In fact, in the Devex 2017 Hiring Trends Report, 62 percent of recruiters surveyed predict there will be an even greater interest in candidates with a nontraditional background in the future.

With that said, breaking into global development as a mid-career professional is no easy task. While the sector is opening up to outside people, ideas and organizations, it is also one that tends to value deep experience working on development programs, with donors and in developing countries.

If you are considering a transition to a global development career, here are four steps to help you make the leap.

1. Understand the employers and who they hire

Before embarking on your job search, spend some time getting to know the different kinds of employers engaged in development work, from consulting firms to nongovernmental organizations to funding agencies and beyond. Understand the role each of them plays in the system, and, as a result, what kinds of professionals and skills they seek to carry out their missions.

Where to work: 7 types of global development employers

Deciding what kinds of organization you want to work with is an important step to breaking in or advancing your career in global development. Here are seven different kinds of employers to consider.

On Devex, you can search thousands of organizations engaged in development work to find ones working on the issues and in the countries that interest you. You can learn what skills and professionals they hire, projects they work on, and types of jobs they typically recruit.

Understanding the employment landscape and the universe of jobs available will help you get a sense of how you could fit in.

2. Map your skills and experience to global development jobs

Once you have a sense of the wide array of global development employers and what kinds of jobs are available, map your current skills and experience to the jobs that most closely align.

For example, if you have significant experience managing large, complex projects, look for jobs managing development projects that may value your experience overseeing budgets, deliverables and stakeholder coordination. While the subject matter may be different, focus on what is functionally the same.

The jobs where you see the most overlap with your skills and experience will be the jobs you have the best chance of landing. By focusing on these positions, rather than say, your “dream” development job, you have a better shot of getting your foot in the door.

Most successful career transitions do not happen in one career move. It can take a couple of job changes to pivot to where you want to be. The global development sector is a hard one to break into, but once you do, it becomes much easier to move around.

Search thousands of jobs on the Devex job board and set up alerts to be notified of new opportunities in your areas of interest.

3. Round out missing skills

As part of your skills mapping exercise, identify any skills gaps you may need to address. For many people transitioning to global development this can be experience working in a developing country or experience working with specific donors such as USAID, DfID or EuropeAid.

Look to round out these skills through training courses, volunteer programs or by trying to gain some of this experience in your current job. For example, if you work for a multinational corporation, ask if you can help out on a project in an emerging economy, or even relocate to an overseas office. Or, offer to pitch in on a corporate social responsibility initiative that may expose you to development programs and alongside development organizations.

If your ultimate career goal is to work in an area vastly different than where you are today, starting with the development jobs that most closely align with your current experience can be a good way to build up the skills necessary for a more dramatic career shift over time. Look for jobs where you will be competitive based on your current work experience, but will help you gain one or two new skills, such as experience working in a specific country or with a specific donor, that will help set you up for the job you really want down the line.

Understanding your weaknesses will help you to either build up those areas of your resume or plan on how to address them when applying to jobs.

4. Translate your experience to global dev speak

If you’re looking to make a transition from a military job to a development, here’s how three Marines found a new purpose. And here are some tips on how to write your CV when transitioning to a global development job.

Every industry has its own terminology to describe what they do. When transitioning to global development it is critical to use development vocabulary when describing your experience to resonate with a recruiter or hiring manager.

If your CV is full of say, military or academic jargon and acronyms when you are applying to an advocacy NGO, this will be a flag to the recruiter that you do not have the right experience or understanding of their work.

Mirror the language used in a job description and on an employer’s website. By no means make up experience or skills you do not have, but rather reframe your teaching or military operations training as, for example, “capacity building.”

When managing a career transition it will take patience and strategy. But, the hard work can be worth it when you finally land in a job and a career that you love.

No matter if you're a recent graduate looking for your first job in the field or an executive level professional looking for your next leadership challenge, Career Navigator offers articles, reports, videos and online events to help guide you on the first step, or next step, of your professional journey. Where do you want to go?

About the author

Warren kate 1
Kate Warren@DevexCareers

Kate Warren is the senior director and editor of careers and recruiting content at Devex. With more than a decade of international development recruitment experience working with international NGOs, consulting firms and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.


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