Job interview secrets: How to win over a development recruiter

Customs may differ around the world and among employers, but there’s one factor to landing a staff or consulting gig in international development, humanitarian aid and global health that tends to be universal: the job interview. Here’s how to ace that face-to-face.

Do your research

Before the interview, do some research on the donor agency, consultancy or nonprofit you’re seeking to work with. What are the organization’s strengths? Who are its partners in your field or region? Who would you be working with, and have you worked with them before? And how does your work relate to things that the company or the department within it has achieved recently?

Much of that research can be done right on Our company directory contains valuable business information about thousands of public and private-sector development organizations. Devex members can set up jobs, funding and news alerts for an organization, sector or keyword – or subscribe to our daily Newswire, which showcases the world’s top development headlines delivered in your Inbox every day. The site also aggregates projects & tenders from more than 150 of the world’s largest donors, and our contract awards database will help you identify who an organization has been partnering with. And of course you can network with others that are part of the Devex network to find out more about an organization you’re interested in.

In addition to doing background research on the organization, you might also want to try to find out more about the person who will be interviewing you. Has the person you’ll be interviewing with worked on an advocacy campaign you’re really impressed with, or in a country in Latin America that you’ve visited or even worked in?

Before your interview, review the job description and think of ways that your skills and experience match the needs of the organization you’re meeting with.

“Speak their language, and show that you are interested in them and staying with them, not just the job,” said Valarie Barksdale, a recruitment specialist for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, Md., who does recruiting for both domestic and overseas positions.

Dress for success

Look professional for your interview. Dress a level or two up from the job you want, and keep the culture of the organization in mind. For additional tips, read our article on how to dress for an international development job interview.

Arrive with time to spare

Get to the interview a few minutes before you need to. Arriving late not only looks bad, but it will also make you feel stressed.

Note that many aid organizations, especially bilateral and multilateral donors and any aid group’s office in the developing world, have strict security procedures. If you’re interviewing with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., or one of the U.N. agencies in New York, it may take 30 minutes to get through security, and perhaps even more time to find the right office.

Leave extra time, and bring the interviewer’s name and phone number. If you’re held up at check-in or if the security guard doesn’t want to let you in, you may call your contact inside. Consider printing out the invitation letter or e-mail.

Bring a few extra copies of your resume with you. This will help the recruiter if they misplaced your CV, and it also demonstrates that you are prepared.

Be positive

Keep in mind that a job interview, first and foremost, is not all about you – rather, it’s about the organization you’re seeking to join, and how you may be able to serve it. So, try to identify the organization’s needs, and highlight what you can bring to the table.

“Present yourself as a candidate that’s positive and proactive,” said Debra Wheatman, a certified professional resume writer and certified professional career coach, as well as the owner of Careers Done Write, a New York-based company providing job counseling services.

Instead of bashing a program or project manager with your previous employer, talk about why you want to work for the multilateral development bank or humanitarian aid group where you’re interviewing. Describe why you find the job or consulting gig that’s on offer so interesting, not why you want to escape your current employer or project. Stick to these points and avoid topics that could be controversial.

It’s also important to articulate clearly and avoid distractions – so, your cell phone should be switched off.

“Give the potential employer your full attention,” Barksdale advised.

Answer the interviewer’s questions

Be as thorough in answering the question as you can. If you aren’t sure you understood the question, repeat it back to the interviewer.

“It’s okay to ask for clarity and to take a moment to gather your thoughts together,” Barksdale said.

Again: Be sure to discuss how you will add value to the organization rather than simply rattling off a list of your qualifications and experiences. If you’re applying for a consulting gig focused on primary education in Kenya, explain how your previous job managing EuropeAid’s education portfolio in Angola may have prepared you for that work. If you’re applying for a public information position with the United Nations, highlight your master’s degree in communications, experience in broadcast journalism, and knowledge of the U.N. system gained through the United Nations Volunteers program.

Be as relaxed as possible

Although it isn’t easy, try to be relaxed during your interview. Smile and be friendly, and avoid doing things like biting your nails or tapping your fingers. If the recruiter asks a tricky question, stay calm: There may not be a right or wrong answer to a question about how small and medium-size enterprises or agricultural production could be boosted in Africa or gender violence reduced elsewhere. The recruiter or hiring manager may be more interested in seeing how you approach a challenge rather than in the particular answer you give. Problem-solving and consensus-building are desirable qualities, especially for project managers and those applying for jobs in complex operations or large organizations such as the World Bank.

Be aware of cultural nuances

If you’re from a different culture than the one you are interviewing in, do some research on cultural subtleties and keep them in mind during the interview. For example, in certain cultures sustained eye-contact, which is the norm in the United States, may be perceived as disrespectful. Questions from the interviewer about family, marital status, age, et cetera are illegal in the United States, but they may be common in other countries.

Come with quality questions

Chances are the interviewer will give you a few minutes toward the end of the conversation to ask questions. Asking thoughtful ones is an opportunity to set yourself apart from the competition.

Avoid asking question about salary and benefits or saying anything like, “Would I have to work overtime?” Don’t ask about anything the interviewer has already covered, because that would make it seem like you weren’t paying attention when they were talking.

It’s safest to stick with questions about the agency and the job. You may also ask about the individuals who are interviewing you, for example: “How long have you worked here and why?”

“People like to be asked about themselves,” Wheatman noted.

But keep in mind that in some cultures it may be considered inappropriate to ask the interviewer personal questions.

Another topic you may wish to cover is the next stages in the hiring process. For a list of possible questions, see our article on questions to ask during a job interview.

Thank the interviewer

Following the interview, be sure to send the interviewer a note thanking them for their time.

“It’s a courtesy and a good business practice,” Barksdale said.

According to career experts, either an e-mail or a hand-written note is fine. The most important thing is for you to express your gratitude to the interviewer. You may wish to expand on how you will help the organization address a problem it is facing, or you may want to address any concerns the interviewer expressed during the meeting. In the thank-you note, you can also discuss what you like about the organization.

Ten things to avoid doing during a job interview

According to recruiters and career experts, never do these things during an interview:

1. Show up late or on the wrong day.
2. Chew gum.
3. Eat (unless it is a lunch interview).
4. Answer your cell phone or send text messages.
5. Cut off the interviewer while they are talking.
6. Talk too much or discuss personal issues.
7. Describe how much you hated your last boss or job.
8. Make inappropriate jokes or curse.
9. Lie about your background or skills.
10. Ask too many questions or no questions.

Read more:

Secrets to a Successful Phone Interview for Development Aid Job Seekers 
Development Aid Job Interview Basics: How to Answer 10 Common Recruiter Questions
It’s Your Turn: 20 Questions Aid Workers May Ask in a Job Interview
How to Dress for an International Development Job Interview

Check out more career advice stories online, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news.

About the author

  • Ingrid Ahlgren

    Ingrid is a Devex correspondent based in New York City. She worked as a staff writer for from 2007 to 2009, helping to write guidebooks, including the "Vault Guide to the Top Government and Nonprofit Employers." Before moving to New York, she was a researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine in Washington, D.C. Ingrid holds a master's in journalism from the University of Missouri. As the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, she grew up all over the world.