Stop working for free: How to Jumpstart a Career in International Development

I am lucky enough to work in the international development field. I’ve been afforded the opportunities to travel throughout sub-Saharan Africa with my work, and trust me it was a long time coming. It has not by any means been an easy career path to pursue and let me tell you why: I have had to work throughout high school, college, and graduate school; I attended expensive private universities; and Navient owns my first born. I say all that to say this, I didn’t have any hook-ups from parents who knew important people. I didn’t have any high profile professors vouching for me. I have had to struggle bus it all the way to where I am now. Nonetheless, it’s possible to get that dream job and this is what I think could help:

Never work for free: Seriously, this is a never ending cycle that you do not want to get into. If you are a freshman or sophomore in college, ok perhaps. You are only two years removed from high school and may not have a skillset to take to an employer yet. BUT, interning for free well into your 20’s is absolutely unnecessary. You have to sell yourself and you can’t sell yourself for cheap, by the time you graduate you do have a skillset and you have to have the ability to express that in a convincing manner. Your language skills, your research abilities, your study abroad stint, these are all assets that are worth something! If you are already of the mindset that you will work for free just for the experience, you are beginning your career backwards. Seriously, because when you do end up applying for a job and you must tell them how much you were last paid, the fact that you worked for free at the UN will overshadow any work that you did there. It devalues your contribution to the organization you worked for because if you made a big enough impact they would have found a way to pay you. Let’s not even start with the “pay to intern” programs, stay away from any organization that makes you pay to work for them. JUST SAY NO.

Begin learning a language: It’s so important, particularly if you are interested in working in sub-Saharan Africa. French is a vital tool that will propel your resume to the top of the pile even if you many not have that 3-5 year professional experience. Entering a language institute may be even more valuable than graduate school; you will spend 1-2 years building the foundations of a language like French, and by the end will be proficient enough to add it to your resume. BELIEVE me, having a language is a shoe in for many international development agencies.

Find an actual niche/focus: It’s not good enough to say you want to work in international development, or you want to work in Africa. WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO, what do you want to change? Public health? Food security? Economic empowerment of women and girls? Reproductive health? There are dozens, if not hundreds of niches within international development, it is important you find yours. That is where graduate school plays a great part, it allows you to learn the different sectors within international development and helps you figure out what the hot topics are, who the institutions are working on the ground, where in the world is this issue most pressing.  For example, I work in population an health->specifically, reproductive rights and access to contraception for young women->this issue is most pressing in countries like DRC and Niger where a woman has over 3 to 4 unwanted pregnancies because she has no access to contraception. Pretty specific. And when you find a niche that interests you, do your research, write about it, read about, tweet about it, enter the dialogue online. Attend events, listen to webinars, this will get you on the radar, and start building you a mini portfolio before you even apply for the job.

Apply for work/travel grants: This is huge. To work in international development YOU MUST HAVE OVERSEAS, ON THE GROUND EXPERIENCE. This is not an exaggeration. You have graduated school, you have a basic understanding of a second language, you have even found your niche! That is not enough to land your first position. You need real on the ground experience, in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East. You need to get your butt over there for at least six months. So if you are like me, you don’t have any money to just move overseas for a year. Apply for travel grants ASAP. One of the best ones is the Christianson Grant that awards young people under 30 with up to $10,000 for flights and cost of living. All you need to do is find a place to work (and get accepted by the selection committee of course.) One of my close friends was awarded the grant and spent a year working at an education NGO in Kigali, Rwanda. The $8,000 she received from the grant was enough to pay her housing, her monthly expenses, and her flights there and back. There are other grants like Princeton in Africa which places you at an NGO across sub-Saharan Africa, along with paying for flights and housing. You’ve got to get creative, start a go fund me campaign, work for a year at some desk job then take your saving and move overseas, somewhere cheap where you’ll be able to live on about $700  (or less!) per month.

Take a pay cut: If you’ve been denied all the travel grants, and can’t save the money for an overseas stint, there are other options to get that overseas experience. Get on idealist.orgUNjobs.org, and devex.org, and look at the jobs/paid internships they have posted in developing countries. You’ll see many small local NGOs who are looking for program managers, site coordinators, capacity building managers, and they are paying close to nothing. What they will pay for is your flight out, a small monthly stipend, and housing. These are golden opportunities to get that experience, while still being compensated (NEVER WORK FOR NOTHING!) For example, I found a job in rural Tanzania in 2013. It was working with women (check), it was based in Africa (check), and it paid $600 per month. UM NOT CHECK! I was taken aback by the low salary, but after realizing that I did not have the on the ground experience to get the job I wanted, I knew I had to consider it. The position also offered me housing, flights, and a “Program Manager” title (check). Thattime working with women in rural Tanzania is what finally got me in the door with larger organizations, and how I ultimately got my international development career started.

I am a strong believer that you have got to be strategic in planning out your career. It’s not enough to have interest, you must have something to back it up. This list is what worked for me, what I found to be the most important aspects of my career development. It is not the only path, just my path: a twenty something trappin to the top.