In international development, the recruitment field is crowded with many candidates for most roles. Recruiters spend an average of 6 seconds looking at a CV, as they may have over 500 to review for a high-demand role.
To overwhelmed recruiters, this crowded candidate pool can begin to feel like it is full of nondescript gray squirrels — the kind you hardly notice on a walk through a city park because there are so many of them and you’ve seen them so often. The “purple squirrel” candidate — one who has you stopping in your tracks, so rare you’ll remember it forever — stands out to hiring managers because they have a unique blend of donor and project skills, geographic and cultural experience, and deep sector knowledge to add guaranteed value to teams.
The stand-out candidate will have developed relevant professional skills and acquired expertise in a sector and in working with international donors — such as the United States Agency for International Development or the United Kingdom Department For International Development — and have gained a deep understanding of a particular geography. Ideally, candidates will have knowledge of multiple sectors, donors, skills, or geographies — a solid foundation in each of these areas is essential to be viewed as a well-qualified candidate for many positions in international development.
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For example, you could be a gender specialist with strong writing and quantitative research skills, and a deep knowledge of West African language and culture, as well as familiarity working with the U.S. government through your time in the Peace Corps in Mali. Perhaps you’re an Indian water and sanitation expert with a solid grasp of the people and languages of Southeast Asia and substantial monitoring and evaluation skills gained through working on DFID-funded projects.
Whatever the case may be, you should be thoughtful about the time you spend in graduate school, and use the opportunity to continue your education focusing on the following key areas:
1. Develop a professional skill
Choose one or multiple skills to develop fully in graduate school and over the course of your career. Some examples could be outstanding writing and communication skills; strong proficiency in qualitative or quantitative research methods; monitoring and evaluation skills; or project management ability — preferably with a project management professional or other certification. The more thoroughly you develop these marketable professional skills, the more desirable a candidate you’ll be, and the more easily you’ll be able to pivot in your career if you’d like to, as these skills are all highly transferable.
2. Acquire thematic and donor expertise
It is important to develop expertise in an area that you consider to be fundamental to helping effect change and to keep up with trends in the development industry and with donor priorities and preferences. Recently, donors have encouraged a more multisectoral approach by overlaying certain issues, such as gender, on each project. Innovation has also been a common theme across many sectors recently. Your ability to develop expertise in one or more sectors, to know how donors work, and to propose complex and collaborative approaches to development problems will help you to stand out from the rest.
3. Learn about a geography different than your own
Finally, you must understand a part of the world, its languages, and culture deeply in order to be an outstanding candidate for jobs in development. In other words, you should develop comfort, fluency, and expertise in an area such as the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia, or South America. Your ability to speak multiple languages is critical. Skills in French, Arabic, and Chinese are especially valuable now, along with English and Russian. If you can converse well in a range of locations, and if you have made a concerted effort to gain expertise in a part of the world different from your home region, you have demonstrated two key competencies: That you can adapt to the remote settings to which you may be deployed and that you have passion for the work.
When considering candidates to work on development projects, recruiters are skimming CVs to see if candidates have experience working with international donors, if they have fluency in English and the operating language on the ground in-country, and if they have the right number of years of experience as a manager or technical expert.
“Ideally, candidates will have knowledge of multiple sectors, donors, skills, or geographies, but a solid foundation in each of these areas is essential to be viewed as a well-qualified candidate for many positions in international development.”— Caroline Korda Poole, assistant director of professional development for the Master of International Development Policy Program, Duke University
Recruiters find it especially helpful when candidates include a summarizing paragraph at the top of their CV with concrete information, such as this:
“International education specialist with 10 years of experience on USAID projects in West Africa. Native English, fluent French, proficient Wolof. MA in International Education, BS Special Education. USAID-project experience as an early grade reading expert in Senegal, Benin, and Togo. Returning Peace Corps volunteer, ESL teacher, Senegal.”
Notice that this summary gives the recruiter an immediate idea of who and what the candidate is and how they could fit into a role without taking too much of the recruiter’s time. The fact that it is very easy to understand the candidate’s profile is yet another way helping the candidate to stand out.
There are no magic formulas for guaranteeing that a recruiter will call you to interview for your dream job in international development, but you can greatly increase your chances of standing out if you can demonstrate your depth of knowledge in the key areas outlined above. Your combined knowledge of a skill, sector, and geography will make you a versatile, prepared, and well-rounded candidate, and that can sometimes be almost as rare as a “purple squirrel.”
For more coverage on professional development, visit the Skills for Tomorrow site here.