For Good Politics

Want a career in international development?

Last week I spoke at Kings College London’s International Relations Career Challenge about my winding road into the international development sector. I spoke at the same event the previous year and published this blog with my top tips:

Follow the link there or read more below. I’ll be writing an updated version soon!

Want a career in international development?

Cracking into the international development sector may seem like a daunting prospect for students completing their undergraduate or masters studies or people seeking a career change. I often get asked for advice about how I got into the sector and what opportunities exist to get relevant experience.

This week I spoke to Masters students from around the world at King’s College London’s International Relations Career Challenge event. This is an exciting time for the international development sector in which I believe we will see a number of irrevocable changes in the way we think about “development”. This will inevitably have an impact on career opportunities and routes into them.

With this in mind, here are the three main pieces of advice I shared:

1. Don’t be afraid to take untraditional routes

Within one month of starting my Masters at LSE, one of my colleagues said to me: It’s totally normal not to have a job for 6 months after you finish your masters. Competition for a small number of jobs is high and the application processes are often long. This wasn’t an option for me — so my own route into the sector has been a rather windy one. I started my career in the private sector, working for a company called DTZ, now Cushman & Wakefield. I had moments when I wondered whether I’d ever break into the development sector; however the experience and skills I gained from working in the private sector have been one of my biggest assets. When I left DTZ I joined a charity that was looking specifically for a private sector approach to their DFID-funded education and communication projects. My knowledge and networks within the private sector was a key element in the decision to hire me as a Political Advisor in Parliament — and subsequently it has helped me manage complex global projects and speak a language which resonates with the increasing number of private sector actors in the sector.

Another option to consider is to seek opportunities directly abroad. I spent some time in Bolivia, and other friends of mine have confirmed, it’s easier when you are embedded in a country to find opportunities with local organisations and gain the experience and skills you need.

2. Build your networks

It may sound trite, obvious, or both, but I cannot stress enough the importance of building networks, attending event and being present — not only directly in activities in your field of interest but in other areas as well. I have often found opportunities in the least likely places — for instance, in accepting an invitation to the Parliamentary Space Committee’s summer reception. Let people know what you are interested in and if you are looking for opportunities. I have benefited enormously from the support of colleagues and friends I’ve met through networks outside of work, like the Fabian Society and Sponge Network, both of which I got involved with early in my career. I’ve also managed to build a small network for supporters who I know I can turn to at times when I need advice. Depending on your circumstances, time off in between jobs can be extremely fruitful if used to attend events, meet people, and explore what’s out there.

It’s also possible to do the same through LinkedIn or making online connections — but make sure to introduce yourself, be clear about what you are seeking and pitch yourself to the right level. The MD or CEO may not get back to you, but the technical advisor, senior project manager or policy officer may know about the right opportunities.

3. Be clear about what drives you

This is true for all jobs in whatever sector you work in. Understanding what elements of a job are attractive to you can help best guide your decisions — is it the opportunity to work in a sector or on a cause that you care about? Do you want to make a difference and how do you define that? Or is it that you like the challenge of trying something new and learning? Or do you seek flexibility and the ability to move around? Is it more important for you to have an internal or external facing role?

These are the types of questions I constantly ask myself in my roles. They help me determine whether the role is right for me and whether it’s time to seek other opportunities. Understanding your motivators are what make a job, not the job title or tasks per say, and understanding their relative importance will help guide your decisions and take you toward a role most suited for you.

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