A Peace Corps Volunteer informs youth about HIV/AIDS at a conference. Photo by: Peace Corps

It’s a classic chicken and egg dilemma: International development jobs in the field require previous international experience. But, how do you ever break in if no one will give you that first experience?

This is a challenge anyone working in the aid sector has faced. With trends such as localization increasing local hires and lean budgets trimming international hire and relocation packages, securing an overseas job in global development is becoming even more challenging. However, is is precisely this kind of work that attracted so many young professionals to this career path in the first place.

Here are seven tips for landing that first overseas job in global development.

1. Volunteer overseas

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Volunteering is one of the best ways to get experience abroad when you don’t yet have a lot of experience. There are countless programs that will place you in the field working hands-on with beneficiaries giving you basic training and skills that will help prepare you for an international development career. Programs by organizations such as Voluntary Service Overseas, Peace Corps and U.N. Volunteers are all great breeding grounds for future development professionals.

But you can’t just rely on volunteering being enough. You need to make the most of the experience. Look at the skills required for jobs you hope to land in the future and work on getting those skills in your assignment, even if it means requesting specific assignments or offering to take on extra duties.

Also, be weary of new “voluntourism” or other pay-to-volunteer programs popping up. These are unlikely to impress an employer and may actually turn them off. Most development professionals do not view this as effective initiatives — and many even see them as harmful.

Beyond the skills and experience, a volunteer gig can help you create a network of contacts in the sector. Focus on building relationships with your colleagues and stakeholders, as they can be an invaluable resource for referrals and recommendations later on.

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Volunteers in aid program can take six months to two years out of their lives to live and work with developing communities. But what happens when the journey is over? Devex spoke with recruitment experts and developments professionals for their advice on making the most of your volunteer experience professionally.

2. Just move there

Many aid professionals got their start by making the gutsy decision to just move to the field. They picked a country based on language expertise, some previous experience or simply because they had good contacts on the ground. The expat community in most places is pretty tight-knit and breaking in can be as simple as finding out their preferred watering hole and hanging out there.

Knock on doors at international development organizations and volunteer your services. It’s much easier for someone to say yes when you are there in person, and most NGOs and development programs could use some extra hands. Then make yourself indispensable. They may just hire you as a paid staff, and if not, you have at least built up your resume and network of contacts that can help you land a paid job.

3. Start at the home office

While it may seem counterintuitive, most entry-level jobs in development start at the home office. Many people think you need to start in the field to “pay your dues” to end up later at a cushy home office job. In fact, it is often the reverse. Sending people to work internationally is expensive. When you combine an expat salary with all of the benefits that usually come with it, such as housing, it is much more economical to hire someone locally whenever possible.

This means that most international positions in the field require a high level of expertise that cannot be found in-country. It’s hard to become an expert overnight, so most professionals start in a home office helping to manage, or “backstop,” programs in the field. Over time — including short-term trips overseas — you can build up that expertise to later be experienced enough to get those overseas jobs.

Truths and misconceptions: The leap from a domestic to an international career

While the process of finding employment with a notable international development institution is as competitive as ever, one UNOPS HR manager’s foray into the field both confirmed a few facts and helped him correct a number of misconceptions along the way, too.

For aspiring development professions who are from a country with active development projects, your best bet may be to stay close to home. Organizations are increasingly looking to hire local national candidates for their project positions for the financial reasons mentioned above — but also because local candidates understand the national culture and context better than an outsider. In our Devex 2017 Hiring Trends Report, 81 percent of recruiters we surveyed predict local candidates will be in even more demand in the future.

If you are part of a diaspora, consider heading back to your home country, because you too are also in demand. Once you have some experience, look for international jobs that are in your geographic region first, which could then set you on the path for a truly global career.

4. Get a graduate degree — but not right away

Most global development jobs eventually require a graduate-level degree. However, jumping from undergrad to grad school without any experience in between will not necessarily place you in a better position. Without real work experience, you will still be competing for entry-level jobs. Employers often prefer candidates without a post-graduate degree, assuming their salary and responsibility expectations will be less demanding.

8 things to consider before pursuing a graduate degree

The field of global development places a high value on education and credentials. But pursuing an advanced degree is expensive and time-consuming, so it's one of the bigger decisions you will make in your career. Here are 8 things you should consider before diving back into the books.

Go back to graduate school after a couple of years’ experience in a home office or volunteer position. Choose a program that will offer you field experience through a class project or practicum so you will have something to show on your resume upon graduation.

In a recent Devex survey, recruiters once again named a master’s in international development or development practice as the most in demand degree, followed by a graduate degree in economics, econometrics or statistics.

5. Don’t focus only on the big names

When applying to jobs, candidates often focus on the big name organizations. The problem is, so is everyone else, and it can be much harder to get noticed. There are many small organizations that do great work and give you the same practical experience as the big names.

Smaller organizations often offer more responsibility at an earlier stage in your career, given their smaller staff size compared to their larger counterparts. On Devex, you can search thousands of global development organizations to find ones working in your country, sector or field of expertise.

6. Be willing to go where others won’t

Devex recently spoke with over 100 global development recruiters to find out the countries where they have the hardest time attracting international candidates. The list may not surprise you, consisting mostly of countries mired in conflict such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

While some organizations shy away from hiring inexperienced professionals to work in what are arguably the most complex and difficult environments, they may be willing to give you a chance if they are unable to find anyone else and you can prove you have the resilience and smarts necessary to succeed. Some organizations may put you through a simulation or other kind of assessment to see how you may react to the realities of working in a fragile context before sending you over.

7. Be realistic and flexible — but focused

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Getting that first job in the field is difficult. It will not happen without significant effort on your part, so be open to many opportunities. Don’t hold out for that dream job in one narrow sector, function or country when you could get a pretty good job that will provide the skills and experience to set you up for that dream job down the line. And who knows, your dream job may change once you start working.

At the same time, be focused on what you want to do and what you can provide to an employer. An “up-for-anything” attitude is great to have, and some argue it’s a requirement to work in this field. But, it can also make it hard for an employer to understand how you would add value to their work. Being able to clearly articulate your core skills and goals, while remaining flexible, will make it easier for potential employers — or those in your network helping connect you — to understand why they should take a risk on you.

Have any tips for early career professionals for getting that first job in the field? Please leave them as comments below.

Looking to make a career move? Visit our career center for expert advice on how to navigate your job search — all you need is a Devex Career Account to get started.

This article was last updated on 19 March 2018

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising 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.