Consultants at a workshop in Tingo de Ponasa, San Martin, Peru. Photo by: CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

Working as a consultant can be very appealing to global development professionals at different stages in their career. The flexible nature of consultancy work means that during or in between projects you can pursue studies, take care of family, or travel. For professionals transitioning from another sector or simply looking to get their foot in the door with the employer of their choice, consultancy roles can be a way to gain the relevant experience that could eventually lead to a staff position.

Multilaterals, aid organizations and NGOs across the sector rely on consultants for project-specific expertise, and some often work with consultants on an ongoing basis. Many international organizations use short-term technical consultants, explains Katja Juvonen, senior strategy officer with the African Development Bank Group. But most of the them, including the AfDB and International Fund for Agricultural Development, also hire many long-term consultants. Contracts can range from six months up to a year. They rarely exceed a year term as consultancy funds are often decided on an annual basis, but they can be extended. Juvonen, who is based at AfDB’s headquarters in Abidjan, previously worked as a senior strategy consultant for over two years with the bank. She says most departments or divisions within the institution are working with at least one consultant at any given time, and often more.

“There is no right or wrong career path,” says Juvonen, but working first as a consultant can help better position you to land a staff position down the line. Here are some additional tips from global development professionals on making the move from consultant to staffer.

7 ways to leap to the next level of your career

If you have been in your current position for a few years, you may be feeling restless and ready for a new challenge. It can be difficult to see where your career is leading you and to know next steps to prepare for your next position. Here are seven tips to help you leap to the next level of your career.

Work toward your career goal

Set yourself clear career goals and look for roles that will help you get there. While any work experience can of course be beneficial on your CV, if you want to work in a particular region or with an organization focusing on certain issues, look for consultancy gigs, which will allow you to gain hands-on experience in these specific areas.

“One needs to make sure that you have enough relevant experience,” says Juvonen, “so if you want to work in operations in Africa, you should look for consultant opportunities that will allow you to have that type of exposure.” This will also allow you to build a network of relevant contacts within the sector and within that region, she adds.

Build your skillset

As a consultant, the emphasis is often on technical experience to complete a specific assignment. Possessing a technical in-demand skillset can also lead to a multiyear assignment on a project or, in some cases, a full-time staff position with a company, says Leif Kindberg, environmental and natural resources associate at Tetra Tech. Kindberg, who has now been with Tetra Tech for over two and a half years, first started working with the company as project staff on a USAID-funded program looking at African and Latin American resilience to climate change. He was full time for the duration of the three-year program, which came to an end in 2015, at which point he joined Tetra Tech. In addition to proving your technical skills and expertise, he advises demonstrating your ability in areas such as people management and communication.

“A well-rounded skillset with leadership and management skills, the ability to effectively communicate with diverse audiences, and some in-demand second language skills [are] important to success in a long-term staff position at most organizations,” says Kindberg.

Get to know people in the organization

As a consultant, you might be working remotely and only communicating with the organization’s employees via emails and calls, or you might be based in their field or regional offices. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity to build relationships with the different departments and staff in the organization and their partners. Many organizations often recruit internally for positions that come up, so knowing people who already work there can help you find out about job openings and opportunities. The staff you have worked with during your consultancy gig can provide a reference for you when a position does open up, which could make a difference to your application.

Juvonen recommends finding a mentor or seeking out a colleague who is more senior and can help you find out about and apply for staff positions. “It just helps a lot if you have someone you know who believes in you,” says Juvonen. This person can help you make connections and talk to the people with hiring power, she adds, because often the technical staff who you are working with on a daily basis are not those in charge of hiring. Kindberg also focused on building trust and relationships within the company, in addition to taking on new responsibilities and proving himself a team player, during his multiyear project with Tetra Tech. “Had I not focused on these important aspects of professionalism,” he says, “my colleagues at Tetra Tech would not have had the confidence in me or been willing to recommend me for a long-term staff position.”

Be patient

Don’t expect any immediate job offers and be prepared to extend your consultancy contract upon completion of your original assignment. Even when you have proven you possess the necessary skills and experience to become a staff member, budgets, hiring restrictions and bureaucratic recruitment processes mean that an international organization is not likely to open a staff vacancy for you after just six months, explains Juvonen. She recommends being patient and staying with the organization you want to work for to ultimately get where you want.

“It is important to stick to it if you know where you want to be, you need to build your career towards that direction. I would say that there is not a right or wrong way of doing it but sometimes it is perhaps worth it to stay a little longer with one organization,” says Juvonen, “the more time you stay with them, the more people you know, the more exposure you get.”

This article was last updated on 27 November 2018

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.