How to get a job in development – an FP2P guide

lecture tour to bring home just how many bright young people are desperate to work in development, and how hardngo logos we make it for them (is this a deliberate form of institutional Darwinism, in which only the most determined survive?)  So I’ve gone back over a few previous bits of advice from me and others, to produce this revamped FP2P guide to throwing your life away getting a job in development. I won’t give advice on what to study – if you’re reading this, it’s probably too late anyway. But in any case, qualifications are not enough – you need to get involved in organising relevant activities at your university, depending on your interests (e.g. Engineers Without Borders, Amnesty International, assorted International Development committees). You’ll learn a lot, make great contacts and friends, and develop skills that NGOs prize (organisational abilities, putting on events, writing, debating etc). Then, decide what kind of work you are interested in. Research? Programme work on the ground? Emergencies (conflict refugees, disaster reconstruction etc)? Advocacy and lobbying? Public campaigning? Next think what kinds of experience will help – experience often marks you out more than gaining another post graduate qualification, but you have to find some way to get over the inevitable first-rung problem of ‘how can I get experience when I haven’t got enough experience to land a job’ – it’s not easy, but it can be done. For emergencies and programme work, try and get out there and get some experience in developing countries – it’s very hard to arrange that from this end, unless you have a particular network (eg a Church or university connection) that you can call on, so many people just try and sort something out on the spot. For campaigners, a record of activism at university or afterwards is always helpful. For advocacy work, NGOs are often impressed by people who have worked in other sectors, especially the institutions we are keen to influence – governments north or south, multinational companies, aid donors. Many of them are much larger than Oxfam, and have good graduate entry schemes – a further advantage if you’re trying to get your foot on the ladder. Many are highly competitive, but check out the schemes for DFID, the World Bank, or the Overseas Development Institute. And if successful, make sure you get out before you get too comfortable, as NGOs are likely to pay less! Show your face. Putting in a spell as an intern may not help with your student debt, but it enables you to make your mark and prove your commitment. It also enables you to apply for jobs that are only advertised internally, including short term jobs (maternity cover etc) that help you get on the paid employment ladder. But be choosy who you intern for, and what jobs you accept – even if there is no pay involved, you are offering skills and time to an organization, and should demand things in return. And remember that research, advocacy and campaigning jobs are often the most sought after and competitive. It may be advisable to try to get a foothold by applying for more ‘corporate’ areas such as marketing, HR and finance, and then start from there. dilbert job interviewOnce you get an interview, follow all those useful guides to how to prep etc, but also, don’t hide your passion (even if you’re English). I’ve given jobs to interviewees because they were more passionate about development than the other candidates, (and never regretted it). And here are some thoughts from a couple of other development bloggers Alanna Shaikh 1. Get an office job while you’re still in school. Most development work is office work. You need to prove you can handle an office every day. Really, the only way to do that is to have an office job. Do it in the summers if you can’t hack it while in school. Office work is not the most profitable way to spend your time, but it will be worth it later. 2. Study something useful at university. For example, technical subjects like nursing and IT are useful. Epidemiology is useful. A master’s degree is more useful than an undergrad degree. 3. Learn to write. I don’t mean you need to be a novelist, but with practice everybody can write a clear, useful report at decent speed. Have writing samples to prove you can do it. 4. Study a second language. You don’t have to get all that good at it, but making the effort demonstrates you are willing to commit yourself to international and intercultural work. If you are already bilingual, you don’t have to learn a third language. People will assume you are good at intercultural navigation. 5. I think this is the hardest one: Have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific. “I am interested in food security and emergency relief” has a good level of specificity. “I want to work for UNDP” is too specific. “I am interested in women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and community development” is too vague. There is kind of an art to this; basically you want to give people a sense of who you are and what you want. Too broad and they don’t have any sense of you. Too narrow and you’ve ruled out too many jobs. If you’re having trouble with this, it’s a good thing to talk over with a mentor. To which Chris Blattman adds 6. Be prepared to volunteer your first couple jobs 7. Pound the less-trodden pavement (e.g. try contacting program managers, country offices, etc. directly rather than applying through the front door) 8. Consider a private firm 9. It’s a numbers game (so understand that 50 emails will yield 45 non-responses, 3 immediate rejections, 2 interviews – and one job) 10. Be willing to go to uncomfortable places. Alanna and Chris are both included in the exhaustive and excellent set of posts and links on And once you get the elusive job, you can of course get your disillusionment in early by signing up to the excellent Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like blog. With that, good luck to all. Anyone know of any books I can recommend on this?]]>

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29 Responses to “How to get a job in development – an FP2P guide”
  1. A much more interesting blog would be – what can NGOs do to build the skills of and retain all the bright young things that have just got jobs in development. There is an oversupply of graduates wanting jobs that makes NGOs lazy about recruitment and what they do with the ones they have. Far too many NGOs have economic structures built around interns and lower grade churn rather than selection for long-term potential and planned career development.

    • Duncan

      Spot on Chris, when we advertise an entry level post like research assistant, we get inundated with great candidates, but often find it v hard to recruit for more senior positions

  2. Thanks Duncan, I agree with most of this, and great to see the mention of Engineers Without Borders! (disclosure: I’m one of the trustees). Worth noting that EWB is also keen to involve non-engineers, certainly any of the organising work that goes on from the UK and provides fantastic experience. I also think engineers and, say, anthropologists also learn lots when thrown together, so would encourage non-engineers to try it out.
    One thing that Oxfam (and others) could do better: pay interns, at least at minimum or living wage levels.
    One specific bit of advice that I gave on a careers panel recently: use your dissertation wisely (applies to many university subjects). Try to do it with a partner organisation, including some sort of fieldwork/primary research. Should be hugely useful in terms of experience and contacts.

  3. Gareth Price-Jones

    I have two tips, particularly if you want to work in the field:
    Study management (probably on top of your other devt topic). NGOs have a ton of great technical people, but only relatively recently started getting professional managers on board.
    Secondly, get out to the rough spots. Evidence that you can cope with the rough edges (both of the life and the work) is the first thing a recruiter will look for, there is less competition, and fantastic experience to be had.
    In both cases, this will help you get over the challenge that expats are less needed nowadays – after years of building capacity, in most locations we can generally find skilled local staff at all but the most specialised and senior levels. My $30m/85 staff country program employs just two.

  4. Halima Begum

    Really good post. I entered development a long time ago now, but was struck by how difficult it was to break in – seemed very middle class – whatever the colour of our colleagues. Funnily, the civil service (DFID and FCO) with its structured career path was more diverse on class. So, I’d urge INGO and NGOs to think about the diversity of their talent pool – who is able to pursue the volunteering and internships and gap-year trips to Tanzania and Guatemala – many talented low-income individuals cannot afford to do this. People who advocate internships also miss the point of development: to create fair, and equitable ladders of opportunities – this must also apply to how we recruit into our own organizations.
    I turned down an internship at Saferworld because I couldn’t afford to work for no money, and couldn’t rely on parental support. My first job in development was with Action Aid to develop jointly with Oxfam the first phase of the current Global Campaign on Education. I was hired after a year at a UK think-tank. Times have changed now, but I still believe there is a problem in the way NGOs and INGOs recruit. It tends to be stuff white (or brown or black) middle class folks do. With so much uncertainly in this world – seems sensible to recruit people and develop potential in more creative ways. Even investment banks are more diverse.

    • Duncan

      Can only agree Halima, one of the things that struck me when moving from DFID to Oxfam was how much more diverse DFID looked, both in terms of ethnicity and class. There may of course be extenuating circs (Oxfam stuck in Oxford, and probably more diverse than DFID at country level – see Gareth’s post)

  5. I would add what I think to be a key point that’s often left off such lists: Make sure you have a basic (at least) understanding of economics, politics and sociology, whatever your specialism may be. I have seen many bright, enthusiastic young engineers, or medics, or whatever, starting out in the development world and failing to take account of economics and/or politics.
    Good intentions are not enough, and neither are good intentions plus technical expertise. You need to understand the context properly as well, which means economics, politics, anthropology, history, etc.

  6. Good advice, although I am a bit sceptic about the numbers game : “so understand that 50 emails will yield 45 non-responses, 3 immediate rejections, 2 interviews – and one job” – only TWO interviews to get a job, Chris has been a lucky man! 😉

  7. Hi Duncan, I must say I was surprised to see you commending the intern system – I personally think it’s shockingly exploitative – I’ve seen people go from internship to internship in a desperate bid to get that much ‘needed’ and touted experience; and yet they’ve been given very little back for their efforts. It’s basically cheap temping for the organisations who run them. I would suggest people find paid work for the kind of experience (mostly admin) they would get as an intern – preferably, as you suggest, with the kinds of orgs their dream dev agency may already work with or be targeting.

  8. Duncan, how can you go along with the unpaid internship route? It’s bad enough that influential organisations such as Oxfam have contributed to the normalisation of unpaid work — and the systematic confusion of unpaid jobs with volunteering — but to recommend it to young people overlooks that this is socially discriminatory.
    Do you really want new entrants to the development world being restricted to those who can work for nothing — and are willing to (what happened to self-respect)?
    Volunteering is the lifeblood of charity — but unpaid internships are sucking it dry. Please read our report Ethics and Interns, at

  9. Sophia

    Interesting that someone said that it’s difficult to recruit people for senior positions. Your next blog post could be on people who’ve done 10 years in the field and now want to work in humanitarian/development stuff in London and find that no-one wants to hire them (sniff) because they haven’t spent the last 10 years climbing the greasy pole in London. Or appear over-qualified. Or don’t know the right people in London. Or whatever. Not that I’m bitter… 😉

  10. Duncan, this is a great post. There is also a huge number of aspiring development professionals here in Australia that constantly bemoan lack of guidance in how to break into the sector. I have begun blogging on this topic as well ( with an ongoing interview series with development specialists. Some key themes that have already emerged from these interviews are:
    – Persistence is key. As Blattman says it is a numbers game. You need to get used to, and not phased by, hearing no.
    – Networking is vital. This starts at university and never stops.
    – Go to distant places. The further off the beaten track you go the more opportunities you will get. The longer you stay put in a place the more this will compound.
    – Volunteer. Both at home and abroad, and don’t wait for the opportunities to arise, cold call agencies/NGOs until someone takes you on board.
    Thanks again for the terrific post.

  11. Enrique Mendizabal

    Good post. I only realised I had a career ‘in development’ when I came to the uk to study a masters in social policy and planning in developing countries at LSE. I thought I was working on policy but found that no, it was development policy.
    10 years later I realise that development policy is what we in developed/donor countries like to call the policies in developing countries. Not health policy or education policy as in the uk; in Zambia or in Bolivia it is development policy.
    A shame because this separation has bred the creation and rise of the international development studies graduate and expert. A career in development, I fear, has become synonymous with working through the different leaders of jargon that each sub-sector uses to define its boundaries and protect its own role in the industry.
    If development is not the same as Aid then we should think more broadly when disk ins a career in development. Working in manufacturing, logistics, retail, education, health, infrastructure, etc. creating jobs, creating wealth, giving people opportunities, etc. should all count as a career in development.
    A new airport or a new port are more likely to impact on the development of a country than an empowerment project run by an NGO.
    This idea that only NGOs and donors do development and that the private sector needs to ‘join in’ is quite preposterous. It’s a perfect example of how the aid industry has confused everyone into thinking that aid and development are the same things.
    My advice, then, don’t study development studies or anything related. Study a profession: economics, engineering, science, medicine, sociology, etc. ideally a profession that will have a big impact in the social, political, and economic de development of your country or the world. (Let’s not dismiss the arts, a cultured society is surely a more develop one)
    Don’t be bamboozled by the bright lights of high level fora or flashy NGO reports.
    Unless what you want is a career in the aid industry. But that is a different thing.

  12. Halima Begum

    My advice is to stick with a specialism. We’re in the midst of a pendulum shift that is pushing us away from generalism towards more specialism.
    Developing countries are changing – and changing fast – and our added value as foreigners has got to come from something, which isn’t generic.
    Perhaps I’ve internalized too much from austerity Europe, but if we’re going to prove our relevance to the rest of the world, it’s going to be through our technical brilliance – not from competition in generalist and cheap labour.

  13. Tom

    Hi Duncan,
    Thanks very much for your blog post. The subject matter is something I feel very passionately about.
    Oxfam’s current internship policy is unethical because it excludes the less well off from working in development and humanitarian work. Not only is this wrong, but it is worse given what we do as an organisation and what we campaign on.
    As you mention in your blog, one of the obstacles to getting a career with an NGO is the “experience trap”. Internships help provide a small step towards getting that experience and certainly the contacts necessary to know when opportunities are coming up. I got my job because I used to be an intern and after I left to return to university I was tipped off by a former colleague about a forthcoming opportunity. Less well off people cannot afford to work for free, particularly not if they don’t have family that live in Oxford that are willing to put them up. This means that they are excluded from that crucial first step.
    I am not against the idea of internships per se. What I have the problem with is Oxfam not paying interns a living wage. This restricts those that can get internships to the wealthiest and excludes everyone else, or forces them to waive their rights under the European Working Time Directive and moonlight 6 days a week to afford it. What about people with family responsibilities and who work as carers?
    I have to declare that I am one of the white middle class people who was lucky (for want of a better word – bourgeois perhaps?) enough to have parents that could afford to indulge my career aspirations and pay for me to work full time as an unpaid intern at Oxfam and live in Oxford. I’m not blind to the privilege and access that that has given me at the expense of others.
    As a global leader, Oxfam has a responsibility to show the way and to practice what we preach. Other NGOs pay their interns. How can we campaign on a living wage if we are ourselves being exclusionary?
    The organisation is unwilling to recognise that we have a problem.
    Thanks for sparking the debate!!

  14. Evie

    There have been a huge proliferation of unpaid internships in the sector in recent years – I did one of them myself (age 30!) to move into development and now have a paid job but not in the exact area I want to work in. To move into the area I want to work in, I would have to give up my paid job to do another unpaid internship, which is completely unfeasible. I have tried moving sideways internally and have been told I do not have relevant experience. Another issue is that there are way more of these internships than there are entry level jobs one rung up. What were once paid entry level jobs are now unpaid internships. Every short project that needs an admin assistant is now an internship. It is unfair of organisations to claim internships will help you to get a job in the sector when only a tiny fraction of the people who do the internships will be so lucky.

  15. Bangkok Bob

    I was one of the few that was lucky enough to work without pay for a few months after graduation and was recently hired by an international NGO. My person strategy was simply take as much work as possible from everyone. Once the internship is over, leave a black hole of workload for those same people. They will be very enthusiastic about hiring you then.

  16. I completely agree with Gareth Price-Jones (comment 8) in particular the first point, learn to manage, not sure you do that by studying it, but either way, learn to manage. The development sector will catch up to the importance of the skill, and if as stated elsewhere above specialism is in (returning) and generalism is out, that would be the wrong, clearly both are needed, and the importance of generalism/management too often underestimated.

  17. Anon

    Dear Oxfam,
    One of your hiring managers loved me until she saw that I was white.
    After acing the phone interview and the technical section of the in-person interview, I spent 10-15 being harassed about being white. One week after the interview, the hiring manager saw me in a social situation and drunkenly ranted at me about my ‘white privilege’.
    I guess it’s OK to discriminate against white people at least– EEOC be damned.

  18. Louise

    I think it would be good to write a post on how experienced people from private industry find their way in – I think it could be difficult even if you do have a shed load of transferable skills.

    • Duncan Green

      lots of private sector people find their way in Louise – to policy work, fund raising, HR etc. I work with ex City types, oil and gas, all sorts