How to network your way to an aid internship

So you’ve finished your (international development-related) studies and have started looking for that next step on the job ladder. You realize soon, as I did, that you stand little chance without some previous experience.

It’s a Catch-22 that more and more young people find themselves entrapped in, especially those trying to catch a break doing good.

You begin to apply for unpaid internships. Admin, photocopying, making tea — you don’t care what it is, you just want to do something. Because of the dreaded “No CVs please” note on many job ads, you spend hours filling out page after page on each aid organization’s custom application form. More time goes into customizing the cover letter for each job you’re applying for.

Yet, after all that work, the response to your application is … silence. All you know is that if you have not heard back within a month or two you “should consider your application unsuccessful.”

What a frustrating scenario — and a reality for many seeking a job in development cooperation.

How do you break this cycle and secure that all-important internship that now seems to be an unwritten prerequisite to landing your first “real” (paid) job? I’ve learned a trick or two about it while working as a recruiter in London for two and a half years. I’ve learned even more in the past year when, without previous work experience in international development, I spent three months as a visiting researcher with INESAD, an international development research institute in Bolivia, and another three months with the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s trade and investment department in Bangkok, Thailand.

The bottom line is: Internships are as necessary as they are competitive in international development, and although they often require previous experience, you may be able to get your foot in the door following some basic advice:

1. Make yourself known.

It is very difficult to differentiate yourself on plain paper. As a recruiter, the people I remembered were the ones who called and who followed up. Just getting your voice heard can be a powerful differentiator.

So, before you even start the application process, collect as much information as you can on the position, from the personality fit they are looking for to the details of the application and interview process. Call the HR office — if only to find out who to address your cover letter to.

But be careful not to annoy the recruiter — follow up once in a while and have something to say (whether it’s a question or comment about a new development within the company you’re applying for, or a new career move you’re contemplating).

If you do this right, you’ll avoid mistakes and misunderstandings, and you’ll look “hungrier” and more proactive than your fellow job seekers.

2. Apply speculatively.

Many organizations don’t like to receive unsolicited applications. But when it comes to internships, smaller organizations will take note — and you just might avoid stiff competition and end up molding your position more closely to your interests than you’d otherwise have been able to do.

If the aid NGO you’ve applied with doesn’t respond immediately, says timing isn’t ideal, funding is unclear or a key team member is traveling, don’t give up. Show them that these hurdles represent a bigger, better and more exciting challenge for you.

That’s exactly what happened to me with INESAD. I remember my soon-to-be supervisor saying: “Well, the timing is not perfect, we are moving offices and in any case, since you are interested in research, we are not sure how much research we will be doing. But, if you still have the courage to come…”

Courage — well, that was a challenge I could not refuse. I went anyway and had one of the most fantastic, productive experiences I could have hoped for. I am still in touch with my old colleagues, who became like family in a short three months, and the internship is consistently providing me with glowing references for other endeavors.

The main point is: Internships at good organizations are tough to find. So, be flexible, and grab an opportunity when it presents itself. In the end, the quality of your experience will always depend as much upon you as anyone else.

3. Network.

Last year, I was aching for an internship in UNESCAP’s trade and investment division. I have no background in economics and econometrics, so I knew that my application would likely be relegated to the bottom of the CV pile.

So I improvised. I made a list of previous interns mentioned on the UNESCAP website and tried to look for their contact details online. LinkedIn was helpful and I was able to message three interns that way, but did not hear back. (At the time, I didn’t know Devex either; now I would search the Devex people database as well, the largest database of development professionals.)

So I ran a keyword search both in LinkedIn and Google with “intern Trade & Investment Department, UNESCAP,” which generated a few more people. Again I looked for their details on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google advanced search (a very useful tool). I contacted them saying that I was very interested in the internship and wanted to find out about their experience there and the name of the supervisor they worked under. Most did not reply, but one friendly, professional ex-intern did. Not only did she reply to me, but she put me directly in touch with the supervisor with whom an initial conversation led to a speedy process of acceptance to the internship.

This kind of personal introduction, from someone you don’t even really know, can put you at the front of the queue and effectively bypass some of the arduous application procedures of even the largest, most bureaucratic of organizations. It may seem unfair, but put yourself in the shoes of an HR person looking for interns: If a supervisor says they have found the perfect candidate to fill a slot, it cuts out hours of applicant screening. Become that applicant and you will get the internship.

Read last week’s Career Matters.

About the author

  • Ioulia Fenton

    Ioulia Fenton advises job seekers on resume writing as part of the Devex CV Writing Service. She also blogs about international development career matters. Ioulia has worked as a headhunter in London and now serves as assistant editor of the Global South Development Magazine. She has worked with the Institute of Advanced Development Studies in La Paz, Bolivia, interned with UNESCAP in Bangkok, Thailand, and is currently based in Guatemala.