How to get that first aid job in the field, a Google hangout hosted by Kate Warren

It’s May and for a lot of students, that means graduation time. It’s a time of excitement and new beginnings, but also of uncertainty as recent grads prepare to enter the work force.

If you want that first job to be in the competitive field of international development, it can be particularly daunting. This week, I received a couple of questions from soon-to-be and recent graduates asking how to get that first job in the field.

‏@SusanneHedberg tweeted: “hi! How do u get the first job in the field? I soon got a degree, doing an internship now at UNDP #jobs #career #development

‏@Heiress_2_Bhovu37m asks: “I have a degree in Development Studies and 1 year’s experience, is it possible to get a job abroad with my qualifications?”

These are great questions and ones any international development professional has dealt with. Getting that first job in the field is often like the proverbial chicken and the egg. When all of the jobs require previous overseas experience, how do you ever get that first job?

Here are a few ways to get a foot in the door:

1. Volunteer overseas

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 like VSO, 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. Beyond the skills and experience, a volunteer gig can help you get exposed to a network of business contacts. Focus on building relationships with your colleagues and stakeholders — they can be an invaluable resource for referrals and recommendations later on.

To learn more about how volunteering can launch your global development career, check out the Devex series #DoingMore

2. Just move there

I’ve spoken with many professionals who 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 one or a few 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 counter-intuitive, 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 the field 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 “back-stop” programs in the field. Over time, which usually includes short-term trips overseas, they can build up that expertise to later be experienced enough to get those overseas jobs.

4. Get a graduate degree — but not right away

Most overseas positions require a graduate-level degree for consideration. However, jumping from undergrad to grad school without any experience in between will not necessarily place you in a better position. 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.

Read: 8 things to consider before pursuing a graduate degree

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 they do not have the sheer staff size as their larger counterparts. Search the Devex organization database for institutions that work in your country, sector or field of expertise.

6. Be realistic — and flexible

Getting that first job in the field is difficult. It will not happen without significant effort on your part. 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.

Have any tips for our members on getting that first job in the field? Please leave them as comments below. Tweet me your career questions at @DevexCareers — your question may just be the focus of an upcoming Career Matters blog post. You can also subscribe to my video blog on YouTube.

About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    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.