A staff member of The Alliance of International Doctors' helps with a health monitoring campaign in a Somalia refugee camp. A degree in public health, econometrics, agriculture, environmental science or engineering can be more useful to an international development career than a general degree. Photo by: İHH İnsani Yardım Vakfı/TURKEY / CC BY-NC-ND

In this day of information overload, career advice is plentiful. Articles, blogs, books, career coaches and peers all have ideas on what you should and shouldn’t do to land a job. Most universities have whole career centers devoted to the cause. When it comes to managing our careers, who couldn’t use a little advice from the experts?

But career advice, while often doled out with the best of intentions, isn’t always good. And the same rules that apply in other fields may not apply in development.

Here are five pieces of career advice you can feel free to ignore:

1. The one-page resume rule

No matter what articles you read on the internet or what advice your career counselor gives, the one-page resume rule does not apply in international development. That doesn’t mean you need to publish a book detailing your life, but don’t feel like you have to shrink the font and stretch the margins. And most importantly, don’t leave crucial information out just to fit onto that often-advised one page. (Is that a sigh of relief I hear?)

While other industries may still operate by the one-page resume rule — though I hear it is changing in other industries as well — international development is different. People often use the term CV (for curriculum vitae) interchangeably with resume because recruiters want to see details. They want to know all of the projects you worked on — where they were located, who funded them, how big the budget was and the results you achieved. Experience is your biggest currency in global development, and you often need more than one page to show it.

You do not need to make your resume longer for the sake of doing so; a good target length is two to five pages depending on your experience. However, rather than focusing on page length, focus on taking the amount of space you need to succinctly convey your relevant experience in an easy-to-read format.

READ:International development resumes: What you need to know

2. The more jobs you apply to, the better your chances of landing one

I often hear people say something like, “I have applied to over 300 jobs and haven’t received even one interview request,” followed by a statement that they just need to keep applying to more. I’ve even heard career advisors give this advice. While this may be true when playing the lottery, the odds in securing a job do not quite work this way.

If you are focused on the quantity of your applications, it is highly likely you are forsaking the quality of them. More than 100 subpar applications to jobs that likely aren’t even a fit for your qualifications will yield less results than just 10 well-tailored applications to jobs that are a close match to your expertise.  

Applying to a job without tailoring your CV and cover letter is probably one of the biggest career mistakes you can make. Recruiters can tell when you submit a generic cover letter, and it does little to impress them. You are also missing out on the opportunity to explain how you are the perfect fit for this job.

Applying to jobs outside your area of expertise can also reflect poorly on your judgment. Recruiters may remember this when a job you are actually a fit for opens up or dismiss you as a serious candidate altogether.

READ: Writing a cover letter: What you need to know

3. You have to get your first job in the field in order to break in

This sounds good in theory. Getting overseas experience in the field, particularly when you are young and more flexible, seems like a good entry-point in development. However, most global development professionals actually get their start in their home country, working from a headquarters environment. That’s not to say you can’t get your first job in the field, but it is actually rarer to start your career this way.

READ: How to get that first aid job in the field

Sending employees to the field is expensive. You are often paid an international salary, typically with benefits like housing, travel or living stipends. In order to justify the costs, you need to bring real value and expertise with you that cannot be found in-country. If you are just starting out, chances are a project can find someone with your level of experience locally. A local professional will likely cost less to employ and know their community’s needs better than any expat.

Most international positions in development are reserved for senior levels of expertise that are hard to find in-country. First jobs usually entail paying your dues doing desk work from a headquarters office before going out to the field.

4. You need to get a degree in international development

I was talking to an engineer recently who said she really wanted to work in global development but was advised by others that she would need to go back to school to get a master’s in international development, despite already having a master’s degree in engineering.

A master’s in international development can be a fine degree program to choose if you aren’t sure about where you want to specialize and will provide fundamentals that can cross-cut many sectors of development. But the industry is becoming more specialized, resulting in a higher demand for technical degrees. A degree in public health, econometrics, agriculture, environmental science and certainly engineering can be more useful to an international development career than a general degree.

For this aspiring global development engineer, her time and money would be much better spent on gaining real experience rather than adding an additional degree.

READ: 8 things to consider before pursuing a graduate degree

5. If you want to work in humanitarian aid, you will live as a pauper

If your parents were envisioning you as a future doctor or lawyer, they may have concerns about the stability of life as an aid worker. While missionaries and volunteers will likely live a very modest lifestyle — typically by choice — that doesn’t mean you need to give up financial security to pursue a career of doing good.

International development is a profession that requires a high level of education, experience and expertise. Global development employers are often competing with other industries for top talent, and that talent doesn’t always come cheap. In fact, development workers have been criticized for the high salaries and benefits they often command. This isn’t to say you will become rich helping the poor, and I certainly don’t know anyone who chooses this career path for the money, but you can have both a rewarding career and comfortable lifestyle as an aid worker.

READ: Foreign aid salary spotlights: The complete Devex list

Have you heard any career advice recently that you think global development professionals should ignore? Please leave your comments below. If you have any questions about managing your career in international development, tweet me @DevexCareers.

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.