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Careers in international development

Graduate careers in international development

Find out what's required to work in international development, what working in this sector is like and what our top tips are to start off your career in the field.

Working in international development means that you work to improve living standards around the world in areas such as the economy, healthcare and education. This can be done in the form of emergency efforts in communities experiencing crisis, or as long-term projects to support vulnerable areas. This is a career path to consider if you are motivated by a wish to help others more than economic gain. It is also an asset if you would be happy to work abroad at some point in your career.

What you need to be able to work in international development

While international development is offered as a degree subject by some universities, employers rarely ask for this. They are usually interested in any relevant degree, which will depend on the specific position you apply for. Your work could include, for example, project planning, finance, research or campaigning.

Just like there isn't one degree that fits all roles in this area, the skill set you need will be different depending on what job you apply for. However, some of the skills that recruiters often look for are:

  • cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness
  • problem-solving
  • organisational and administrative abilities (particularly for entry-level positions)
  • commitment
  • teamworking skills
  • written and oral communication.

A postgraduate degree is required for some roles, but experience is key in this sector. There are a few relevant internships and graduate schemes, like Charitywork's graduate scheme, Wellcome's graduate development programme and some of the internships on ReliefWeb. However, volunteering is most people's way in. Speaking a second language fluently is also likely to be helpful in your job search. Find out more from our advice on the career benefits of being bilingual.

Have a look at our full list of paid and unpaid graduate schemes and internships in the charity sector.

What it's like to work in international development

You can do a variety of things depending on what organisation you work for and where in the organisation you work. Here are some examples of key employers in the sector:

  • governmental institutions: Department for International Development (DFID)
  • international organisations: the United Nations, the European Union
  • non-governmental organisations (NGOs): Oxfam, WaterAid, Save the Children
  • research institutes: Institute of Development Studies (IDS), the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

If you work for one of these organisations in the UK you are likely to be based in an office, while working abroad often includes both office and field work. Those working in international development abroad are often on fixed-term contracts, which can allow for time at home with family before starting on the next overseas role.

How to get a job in international development

Volunteer

In an area where experience is key but paid roles are few, volunteering is the best first step. You can have a look online at what your local NGOs offer, join a student club or an organisation such as Amnesty International, or even start up your own initiative if you see an opportunity to support a local group. Any of these options allows you to show your enthusiasm. You'll be able to support any future application with specific examples demonstrating your drive to help others, and you'll be in no danger of making general, over-the-top statements such as ‘helping people is the only thing that makes me happy'. If possible, substantiate examples of volunteering with specific numbers to indicate the impact you had: stating on your CV that you helped fundraise a project to get clean water to X amount of people shows employers that you are results driven and understand the importance of numbers and stats in the industry.

If you volunteer during your time at university and later change your career plans, your knowledge of how important issues are being tackled ‘on the ground' will still be helpful in other jobs, as will any interpersonal skills that you may pick up.

Volunteer your way to a graduate job

Be open and flexible

When you're looking for paid positions, don't be picky with the roles you're willing to take on. Organisations that work in this area provide plenty of opportunities that you wouldn't necessarily connect with international development, such as IT and administration roles, marketing and event management. These could allow you to network with others working in international development, understand how the organisation works and be the first person to hear when other positions are advertised. While your CV should indicate that you are enthusiastic about working with certain issues, it shouldn't make out your goals to be narrower than they need to be.

Your graduate career options in charity work

Get inspired (in person)

Seek out people from the organisation you want to work for. This way, you can make contacts, show enthusiasm and get advice from people who have done what you want to do. To find people to talk to, use LinkedIn, browse the web for relevant blogs, go to an organisation's events and follow charities on social media.

If you find someone who is willing to discuss their role with you, prepare your questions beforehand. You could have a look at project documents and research papers online if you want to spark specific discussions – these can often be found by searching an organisation's webpage for issues of your choice.

Thank the person via email as well as in person and, if possible, share any successes with them afterwards. This will give them a positive impression of you, and you get a reason to stay in touch. If you're lucky, having established this contact might be helpful in a more concrete way down the line.

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