How to Get a Job in International Development

August 14, 2023


A month ago, I published a tweet thread that outlined five key pieces of advice for new graduates seeking a job at the Center for Global Development (CGD) or other international development organizations. Commentators from the wider international development community piled in with their own fantastic thoughts. This blog summarizes that advice, providing concrete ideas and resources to help job seekers on their journey.

1. Understand the different roles in the sector

There are obviously many different types of organizations that work in the international development sector—international organizations; non-governmental organizations (NGOs); think tanks; university departments; government departments; advocacy groups; consultancies—but all have a set number of roles largely in common.

As a new graduate, you can work in project management / implementation; communications / journalism; policy development / advocacy / campaigning; research; fundraising; monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL); and back-office support, including administration, IT, and HR. Take some time to read organizational websites, look at advertisements, and talk to people about what the different roles entail (see #5). As BOND mentions, “being clear about your objectives will help you target your efforts.”

A quick word on lateral moves, as this came up frequently. If you have an organization that you are desperate to work for, consider taking any job that comes up and trying to move laterally once you’re in. Many commentators also pointed out that it can often be an advantage to do something else first, such as public health, accounting, engineering, or law, and then cross back into the international development field. Building such skills will change your perspective and give you something concrete to offer.

2. Build your hard and soft skills

Unfortunately, most roles in international development require a degree of some kind. Some senior positions will require an advanced degree, although I feel organizations are increasingly prioritizing experience over such degrees (academia being the exception, of course). This degree could be in international development, or in related fields such as economics, politics, or human rights. I personally completed an online MIT degree through EdX, the fees for which were means tested, and I hope more online (therefore cheaper and more accessible) degree options become available in the future.

Then, have a think about what hard and soft skills you may need. Experience with platforms such as Excel, Salesforce, SurveyCTO, Stata, R, MailChimp, or InDesign can be helpful, depending on the role. Find YouTube videos to teach you. Knowing another language never hurts—especially English, French, Arabic, and Spanish—although this blog notes “the time spent getting you to a working level could perhaps be best used doing volunteer work or training courses” instead. Soft skills are essential. Show that you are curious, flexible, eager and willing to learn, passionate (see #4), and organized.

Then, gain some experience. If you can, go spend some time working outside your own country: in a paid development role, as a volunteer, or even in a bar. Many organizations offer paid internships, such as CGD’s Summer Delegates Program (see lists of other opportunities here, here, and here). (To those that don’t, pay your interns.) Others run longer-term placements, such as ODI’s Fellowship Scheme and the Peace Corps.

Depending on what you want to do, it may be advantageous to look for roles in headquarters / major cities, or to prioritize those doing service provision on the ‘front line’. Smaller NGOs will receive fewer applications, so go beyond the big players. Some commentators suggested that, if you want to work in research, “even if the conditions, compensation, and medium-term prospects are all bad, do something that involves primary data collection.” Such skills are invaluable, and will tell you whether you want to do a similar role long-term.

The other option to pursue is remote volunteering. UN Volunteers is a platform that includes a vast number of placements across topic areas, while organizations such as Accounting for International Development (AfID), Translators without Borders, and the Cherie Blair Foundation directly connect volunteers with those that need support. 

3. Write and proofread a short, tailored, application

There are many platforms which advertise roles in the international development sector, such as Devex, Devnet, Bond, and CharityJob. Entry level roles often require a bachelor’s degree and / or a few years’ experience. They could be listed as an ‘officer’, ‘coordinator’, ‘assistant’, or ‘analyst’.

Every time I recruit for an entry level role, I receive over a thousand applications. To make sure you stand out, a few pointers. Firstly, make sure to absorb the role requirements. If you don’t have one of the essential requirements, talk about what you do have and how it would cross over. Make sure you include how you can work independently, manage competing pressures, and deal with feedback from supervisors. Secondly, tailor your application to the position and organization; hiring managers can spot a generic cover letter a mile away. Thirdly, take your time and proofread your application. Triple check the name of the organization is spelled properly, and that you’ve ticked all the essential boxes in some way.

If you make it to the interview stage, commentators put forward a range of tips. Try and get some insights on the kind of interview the organization runs and the questions they are likely to answer. Most will start with some version of: “Why do you want this job?” Think about what you can contribute to the organization’s goals, and how the role will help you in your career. Spend time preparing your answers, practicing them with a friend, and anticipating curve-balls.

4. Put forward your own ideas

There was a very interesting debate in the thread about the role that “passion” plays in an application. Certainly, some roles require very specific technical skills (for example, research assistants at CGD often require experience with Stata and / or R). Without these skills, it will be impossible to progress to the next stage. 

However, looking for a strong interest and engagement in the topic can be one way to separate applicants who already have this base level of technical skills. As mentioned in this excellent Guardian international development career advice blog, “individual passion is really important in this line of work, and can compensate somewhat for a CV that is lacking in experience.”

This could be demonstrated before you submit your application by writing a blog, running a social media account or podcast, or volunteering for a society. When you get to the point of writing your application, demonstrate you understand what the organization is trying to achieve and how you could best contribute to that mission. Show them you’ve read their work and put your own ideas in the cover letter. This can really set you apart.

5. Get your name out there

When reading applications, you want the hiring manager to go: “Oh, I recognize that name…” To do that, you need to get your name out there. While studying, create a list of all of the companies you might want to work for, and keep an eye on them. Many commentators found networking and building their contact list to be hugely beneficial in landing their first (and subsequent) jobs. One way to do this is utilize your university alumni service. Once you have found the right person, send them a short, tailored, email asking for an informational interview. Most people will grant you a 20 minute chat if you pitch it right!

Once you get that chat, prepare: do your research on them and have specific questions prepared. Make sure to wrap-up promptly; thank them for their time; and offer to pay for the coffee! Even if you’re not entirely sure what you want to do with your career, you can always ask them questions about how they got to their position; what they find most rewarding / challenging about their role; and the necessity of gaining specific hard and soft skills. 

Other ways to get your name out there include starting a blog, newsletter, or podcast that discusses the issue; volunteering for a society which hosts events; attending external events and asking questions of the speakers; commenting on social media posts with thoughtful ideas; and seeking paid and volunteer roles with your chosen organizations.

A final note. This is not easy; I applied to over 100 jobs before I got my first. But as one commentator pointed out: “Getting your first job is incredibly hard. Getting your second job is a lot easier. By the time you look for your third job you’ll be able to pick and choose.” So yes, you need a healthy dose of luck (sometimes it’s just the right place and the right time) and privilege (not everyone is able to develop the expertise necessary to meet the essential criteria). Spend some time working out what you want to do, and on your application, as those things will help set you apart. But also, know it will all turn out okay!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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