How do I get started in a career in development?

Written by Jonathan Pryke

There are lots and lots of young Australians interested in development. Oaktree has thousands of members. The Australian Medical Students Association attracts some 500 medical students to its annual Global Health Conference. Development studies and international relations are amongst the most popular undergraduate university courses in Australia. How this young and enthusiastic generation can get started in a career in development is an important question. And it is one that I have tried to answer in my new Devpolicy discussion paper.

Based on my own experience and drawing on extensive consultation, the paper aims to start a conversation about what a career in development actually is, what you can do to better your chances of getting started and where you can look. The paper is by no means comprehensive or prescriptive and is intended to evolve over time with feedback and comments.

Instead of trying to summarise in this blog what has turned into quite an extensive exercise, I want to tell you my story, as someone just beginning a career in development, and share some tips that have certainly helped me in my career to date.

I am 25 years old and have aspired to a career in development for some time now. My path has not been linear and has been littered with some significant failures, changes of direction and crises of confidence. My passion to work in development was inspired largely by 6 months I spent in Laos during my undergraduate taking part in a very informal development internship with a Technical Assistance program sponsored by the Asian Development Bank and the European Commission (facilitated through a family connection). This experience helped me to realise (which has been confirmed by my colleagues) how important volunteering abroad is for an extended period of time, and how great opportunities such as the AYAD program are for facilitating that. Even if you don’t manage to do a lot of good, spending a substantial amount of time in a developing country will also help you to decide if this kind of career is what you really want (remembering that a career in development is not the only way to do good in the world).

This internship experience aside, by the time I made it to the end of my undergraduate degree (a Bachelor of Commerce from Sydney University) I had not been proactive enough and was still lacking direction and opportunities. It was at this point that I turned to more study (this time at the ANU, a dual Master’s in Public Policy and Diplomacy) to not only improve my chances of getting into graduate programs (such as AusAID), but also to gain more experience and a better feeling about what I wanted to do. Pursuing further study was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Some people get into development as generalists. But obtaining a specialization, whether it’s in economics or medicine, international relations or community development, is normally a good pre-requisite. Postgraduate study not only has made me more employable and productive, it also exposed me to a whole new network (networking is also very important) and eventually led to the opportunity of working at Devpolicy.

Upon moving to Canberra I also started volunteering (and still do) at organisations such as Oaktree and engaging in development outside of the classroom. I wish I had done this much sooner. Volunteering, both at home and abroad, is the singularly most important thing you can do to demonstrate your commitment, highlight your passion for development and expose you to similar like-minded people. It is also very rewarding. And it can make a difference.

I also began applying to various positions here in Canberra. It is really important to cast a wide net when you get started, as there are multiple ways to get started in the development industry. Applying for jobs gives you vital experience in application and employment processes where, particularly at the interview stage, you will certainly get better with practice. To illustrate this point, I have applied for the AusAID graduate program twice, and both times I have been rejected. The first time I didn’t make it though the first round, while the second time (after my first year of Master’s) I made it to the interview. It was the first in a string of graduate interviews I did that year and the first formal interview I had ever done. To say I was nervous was an understatement. Of the four interviews I did that year I was accepted into the other three (including treasury and DFAT), and I attribute a lot of that success to prior interview experience.

My failures illustrate a final point that I think is vitally important. You have to be persistent and keep an open mind. Every rejection is brutal, but the more it happens the more you realise how many pathways into development there really are. When moving to Canberra I would have never expected to be working where I am today. If I hadn’t been persistent and kept myself open to new opportunities I doubt I would be anywhere close to what I have achieved to date.

The story I have highlighted above is a very personal one. And it’s just one example. I plan in the coming months to provide a series of interviews and discussions with development professionals from all sectors and points in their careers. We would also like to hear your stories, either through comments below or contacting me directly. Getting started in a career in development is tough, but hopefully this resource can make it that little bit easier.

This is a part of our blog series ‘Careers in Development’. The rest of the series can be found here.

Jonathan Pryke is a Researcher at the Development Policy Centre.

Jonathan Pryke

Jonathan Pryke worked at the Development Policy Centre from 2011 as a Research Officer and Blog Editor, and left in mid-2015 to take up the position of Melanesia Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He has a Master of Public Policy/Master of Diplomacy from Crawford School of Public Policy and the College of Diplomacy, ANU.

18 Comments

  • Interesting post! this article is good in terms of ideas. for the people who are starting up their individual career, this topic can be their guide towards their own path.

  • Hey Jonathan,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I agree that volunteering overseas is very useful to those wanting a career in or related to international development (however that is defined!) but it is not essential.

    I am 26 and currently doing a PhD having completed my undergrad degree in Agricultural Economics. I have spent several months in South Africa for research purposes and have spent short periods in Cambodia and Laos working (really short- just a week or two) but have never volunteered overseas (Only for Oaktree here in Australia).

    I am towards the end of my PhD and this year I applied for some short term jobs with the World Bank (where I was successful) and for the grad program with AusAID (where I was also successful). While I have never worked substantially- even in a full-time job in Australia, evidently my PhD research and the skills I have developed as a researcher and an economist are enough to get me interesting paid work. (My grades aren’t spectacular either, I just have a credit average at USyd)

    I’v been at uni for 8 years, so can not claim to have any suggestions for a ‘fast tracked’ career in development, but I do know that there are many pathways into the sector (if you could even call it a sector). I’m sure you will come across a wide variety of stories.

    • Thanks Darian. Yours is certainly a story of academic perseverance paying off. All the best in your future career in the sector!

      Jonathan

  • Hi Jonathan,

    I’m a few short years into a development career myself. I did a degree in development studies and went off to work in a multilateral, and am now at a donor. I have come slowly to realise what it is I am interested in – something to do with history and languages and social and political change, regardless of where it is. And working on an aid program is a fascinating way to apply and learn about social theory. But I see it as part of a career as a social scientist, not a development worker. And there’s something about the idea of wanting a career in development that I find slightly unsettling.

    If someone are passionate about social justice, then mental health and Indigenous inequality and homelessness are all issues crying out for attention, and they are a damn sight less sexy than a career in aid. But there’s much less competition to work in those areas – and it is a hell of a lot easier to make a difference in a culture and society you know than one you don’t. Why is a passion for social justice to be selectively applied to exotic places only, particularly when so many of the talented young people competing to work for AusAID could achieve far more if they focused on some of the issues we face in Australia?

    If they are passionate about a particular country, then they should go and learn the language and live in that country. But the vast majority of expats never even learn the local language properly (obviously there are exceptions) – because they’re not committed to the country enough. Indeed, even the career paths in development don’t reward you for it.

    Some people are committed to an issue – health, or law and justice. But then you’re not really working in development – you’re working in health, and I would say the people I know who fall into this category would happily work on their issue of choice in Sydney or Port Vila or Paris.

    If we strip away all of these things – it’s not really about passion for social justice , it’s not about passion for a place, it’s not about even having an affinity for a particular technical issue – then what does it mean to want to work in development? I think – and this is where I become really cynical – that it is about people’s identity and self-image, that people want to belong to this imagined community of development workers who have a vocation that combines prestige and passion.

    I realise it’s hypocritical of me to be saying this and I’m not by any means attacking you – I’ve written versions of your article in my head a dozen times.

    But I do think that this is a conversation that needs to be had. The most provocative thing anyone ever said or did during my degree was to challenge a table of development students to go and work in Indigenous Australia, if they were so fired up about poverty. None of them have.

    Anyway – this was just some rough thoughts.

    • Tom,

      I share many of your sympathies but I shied away from writing about them as I was either afraid of spreading too much hypocrisy throughout the paper (as I said, this is built off of my own experiences and not meant to be a prescriptive exercise) or I am simply too naive about the issue (particularly when we talk about image, settling in a developing country, what people are looking for in a development career etc).

      On the point of volunteering in rural communities, I did make the point that any work done in Indigenous communities is valued far greatly than any other volunteering one does overseas. I stopped myself from going too far into the subject because I also have never volunteered in an indigenous communities. I do, however, know many people that have done it and found it very rewarding, and plan on doing it myself at some point in the years to come.

      Overall, however, I don’t think I share your cynicism about what drives people to work in the development sector. From the people I have met in my (limited) career to date they are all passionate and driven to see positive changes for those less fortunate. Or maybe I am just too well sheltered in my ivory tower think tank environment.

      If you want to flesh out your ideas further (and you are not prevented by your employer to do so) I would encourage you to write a blog for us to keep the conversation alive.

      Thanks a lot for your comments!

      Jonathan

  • Chris Blattman’s thoughts are some of the more original pieces of advice about getting a job in development.

    I would particularly highlight:
    8. Consider a private firm. The most exciting and educational jobs in development could be Celtel (growing gangbusters across Africa) or Ecobank (started in Togo–yes, that Togo–and now in 26 countries). Not too many students are e-mailing them looking for an internship.

    9. It’s a numbers game. Sit down every day and aim to write just 5 people. After three weeks, that’s 50 e-mails. Forty-five will go unanswered, three will say “thanks, but no vacancy”, two will say “let’s talk”, and one will turn into a job.

    • Hi Alex,

      I have been a fan of Chris Blattman and his blog for a some time now (it’s always one of the first development blogs I recommend to people, after our own of course!), though I must say I hadn’t stumbled across this particular post before. It is good to see that there is a common theme between our two pieces and that I wasn’t too far off the mark! I would encourage everyone to look at Blattman’s multiple posts on the subject and also this whydev blog post (which I mention in the paper), both of which are excellent (and likely better) complementary resources.

      Regards,

      Jonathan

  • I appreciate the paper, but if I were you I’d lose the 2nd hand Churchill quote. Besides, isn’t it likely that the older development workers who you have access to are more likely those who chose to come back to Australia later in their careers? (i.e. selection bias is at play)

    en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill

    Misattributed

    If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.
    According to research by Mark T. Shirey, citing Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations by Ralph Keyes, 1992, this quote was first uttered by mid-nineteenth century French historian and statesman François Guizot when he observed, Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head. (N’être pas républicain à vingt ans est preuve d’un manque de cœur ; l’être après trente ans est preuve d’un manque de tête.) This quote has been attributed variously to George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, and others.

    • John,

      Thanks for the comment. I was unaware that the quote was misattributed. As I said in the paper it was not supposed to be a comprehensive analysis/endeavor and most of the suggestions I made have been drawn out of anecdotal evidence from my own networks and the development experts I know and respect. I will look into removing the quote but still think, based off of the people and knowledge of the sector that I have access to, that the message it conveys is a sound one.

      Regards,

      Jonathan

  • Hi Jonathan
    I came here through Linked In and I’d like to share my own perspective.
    I am also a young professional, early in my career and I live in a developing country. The greatest challenge for me has been attaining my Master’s Degree as none is not offered locally and it is quite expensive to acquire overseas. It is widespread knowledge here though that a master’s will set you apart, mostly because we still have expats being hired for most of our jobs (as is expected because of the lack of experience and qualifications of locals).
    I find the advice provided by you and those commented to be really useful and relevant to my situation, however, even though I am in a developing country and I look forward to reading more.

    Chris

    • Hi Christina,

      Thanks a lot for your encouragement. As I mentioned in the post I have written this aimed at what I know, a developed country audience. It is comforting to know that at least some of the points I raise can be useful for you (and hopefully others in a similar situation). Best of luck and thanks again for your encouragement!

      Regards,

      Jonathan

  • Thanks for a thorough paper and stimulating Blog Jonathan

    I agree with the direction Bob is encouraging you to think. Having worked in development all my career – thanks to a lucky start in 1980 – I continue to believe there is a career in cross-cultural change. Plenty to do in Australia as well as other countries. But Bob’s questions have to be answered honestly to set the right path.

    For instance, a technical career path in development is increasingly unlikely for an Australian professional unless it is as a researcher or as a mature, highly experienced professional bringing additional skills such as cross-sectoral management.

    However, there continues to be demand for administrators of official development assistance (contract administration skills, program management skills) and for management of multi-disciplinary teams.- both in the private sector, the civil society sector and the public sector.

    More recent experience suggest a successful technical career in Australia, leading to management positions builds a set of skills and experiences that enables a mid-career shift to development work – because by that time a person has something of value to offer that is additional to what is available from professionals in developing countries. That is usualy the multi-disciplinary management and cross-sectoral analysis that supports more holistic decision-making and so better development.

    Keep up the good work – you might like to explore career paths of some current development practitioners: from Australia, and developing countries to understand the different supply-side options available to the development market.

    • Hi John,

      You raise some important questions and provide very valid points, some of which I have tried to respond to through my reply to Robert below. The next step of this endeavor will be to interview others in the sector and provide a broader narrative on the development sector, so thanks for the encouragement there!

      Regards,

      Jonathan

  • Jonathan, I read your paper and believe you have done an excellent and thorough job. Congratulations! I am sure it will be of immense practical assistance to others at the same career point as yourself.

    Let me suggest that you think through some tough questions. Two questions that come immediately to mind are:

    1. Why do you believe a career in this area is possible? Given that more countries are ‘graduating” from aid, that Australia, among others, is providing scholarships and graduating more and more people from developing countries with specific technical and development expertise, and that posts and projects seem to be recruiting more nationals than expats these days, is it reasonable to expect that a “career” is possible for expats, especially in the medium/longer term?

    Your answer to this question may help with the next:

    2. What knowledge, skills and experience do you bring to this career? Is it administrative ability? Is it a specific set of cultural competencies including a language? As you note, and also as Ashlee points out in her comment, professional training in an area such as health, education, engineering and so on is important. Equally important, I think, is that significant professional experience on top of this is essential. Without this kind of expertise, I worry that you may end up in the kind of unhappy situation, for all parties, that I saw several young people in overseas postings experience where they were attempting to ‘manage’ activities and people — both nationals and expats — with vastly more technical credibility and in-country experience of which they had little or none.

    In other words, I suggest that you need to do a really “tough-love” analysis of yourself, your goals, and career opportunities over the longer term. The outcome from this analysis may be very much more positive than these questions imply and I hope, given your enthusiasm and commitment, that this is the case!

    Then there is the more routine and mechanical stuff: networking, keeping CV’s right up to date (and in approved formats) for immediate use, monitoring vacancies and opportunities, etc.

    Finally, I recommend you develop a very tough hide to tolerate the way donors and contractors often behave towards their employees and consultants in this area. Cynical? Sour? Maybe, but I assure you it is realistic and some of your own remarks allude to this!

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your feedback. You weren’t wrong, these are very tough questions! I’ll attack them one at a time:

      1. It’s true that more countries are graduating from aid and (rightly so) more nationals are getting hired to work on development projects in recipient countries. That isn’t to say that the market is shrinking for expats working in the industry (and I think I am using the term ‘development industry’ much more loosely than your interpretation), as the (broader) industry for expats is largely based in developed countries (donors, NGOs, academic bodies, etc).

      The industry itself, for that matter, doesn’t seem to be shrinking either and will likely only grow in importance as our generation faces escalating global challenges (inequality, climate change, international governance architecture issues, provision of global public goods etc) that add to the already considerable challenges we face today in the field of development.

      So on this point I think it’s safe to say that the development industry, whilst evolving, is growing at a rate that both expats and nationals can enjoy employment. That isn’t to say everyone who wants to work in development will get a job, and that’s not the point my paper is trying to make. This is a competitive industry with finite demand, but demand that is still wide open for expats and members of developing countries.

      2. This is an important question, and a challenging one. If you are asking me what proficiencies you think I could take to a job in a developing country? I would have to say not much. That’s not to say I would have a negative impact, I certainly think I could do some good working on a development project or in an NGO working in an administrative role in a developing country. But I am certain I can have more of an impact in my current position here in Canberra, which plays to my already acquired critical/analytical and research strengths. As I pick up more skills, through my studying economics and through working at Devpolicy, maybe I can have a greater impact in a developing country (through the ODI Fellows scheme or some other program). But to be clear, I have no intention of working in a developing country any time soon based on the comparative skills advantage I have working here in Canberra. If I were a doctor, an engineer, or a country expert then of course my answer would be different.

      I do, however, think it’s important for young people (as long as they are having a non-negative impact on development) to spend some time working in a developing country to understand some of the complexities of development and spark/drive their passion to work in the industry. As we get older and our comparative advantage (of skills acquired, be it more vocational as you discuss or more administrative/academic as I seem to be heading) for working in a developed vs. developing country grows then I think the question of where you work becomes a lot more important.

      I hope that I have somewhat answered the questions you have posted. I think the most important point I would make is that it is important to remember that a huge part of the development industry operates in developed countries, and it is likely to stay that way for (at least) my generation.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      Jonathan

  • Great paper Jonathan. I would add UNV to the volunteering opportunities (however it is pretty competitive and you have to be over 25…).

    My tip would be to learn a strategic language. In many Australian schools and universities, there still isn’t enough focus on language. When I was still a journalist, at 23 I was lucky enough to land a job working in Indonesia. When I arrived, I didn’t speak a word of Bahasa Indonesia, but after two years I had reasonable proficiency. That (plus a masters degree and my professional experience and overseas experience) has opened further doors to NGO and think tank work in Timor-Leste and Indonesia. If you are looking at international job ads, multilaterals often require working proficiency in French or Spanish on top of English, even for desk jobs. So I would say, be careful not to neglect language. Many of the top schools in the US offering masters in development-related fields require you to demonstrate professional proficiency in a second language in order to graduate. Even if you want to work in another country where your second language isn’t spoken, having a second language in itself demonstrates your capacity to be multilingual.

    Another strategy young people can use is just moving to a cheap (safe) place where there are lots of NGOs and then volunteering/interning/building networks at various places until a job comes up. It’s much cheaper for NGOs to hire someone who is already in the country and who already has understanding of the language and context (AYAD and other volunteer programs are also a good vehicle for this with less risk – many people stay on to work in-country after doing a volunteer assignment and building their networks). Don’t do it without a safety net of savings though and make sure you have appropriate health and travel insurance and know the visa rules. Also, reach out to networks before going and do your research. Even if it doesn’t result in a job, it will probably be fun anyway and boost the CV… and it is one of those things that is much easier to do when you are young and not with family/mortgage etc. (This may be a controversial suggestion — a whole bunch of clueless people showing up in a fragile/least developed country could obviously create more problems than good – also short term ‘voluntourism’ stints are rarely very helpful).

    I would also say, once you have experience and skills you can offer, don’t be afraid to ask to be paid! There are a whole lot of people in their 20s who are seemingly interning forever at the moment. The economic situation in the US etc is compounding this… it is very much the culture in DC as well. Get in, prove yourself, get value from it, but don’t intern for the sake of interning. You need to be getting something – either professional development and skills training, an exciting life experience, some kind of fulfillment, contacts/referees… or money. If you can’t come out of an internship able to say that you have contributed to certain projects or learned new skills then it probably isn’t worth your time. Do a time/cost/benefit analysis. I’ve seen people making photocopies with an impressive Masters degree. I’ve also seen a number of job ads for unpaid internships (with no living or support allowances) that last for as long as a year in large organisations that could probably afford to pay their interns something. If you are skilled enough to be value-adding to an organisation for a year, you probably deserve at least a basic living allowance. It’s easier said than done, I know.

    Another thing to consider is that there are some large private companies out there handling development work as well through contracting etc. And diverse skills are needed in many countries, so having professional training in an area in health, construction, hospitality, education, engineering (especially for WASH) etc can be an extremely valuable way to contribute to development.

    I’d also add that a (positive) web presence is helpful in being recruited these days – LinkedIn, relevant writing on blogs or in newspapers, an online CV, an interesting Twitter feed on development… these things can all help and can be a way of reaching out to new networks.

    I’m no expert though (I’m also in my 20s and early in my career too) so I’d be really interested to see what suggestions others (especially those who are older and wiser) have to share.

    • Hi Ashlee,

      Thanks for your great feedback. UNV seems like the second step in a career to me (since, as you say, you need to be over 25 and experience is pretty vital), but I will still add it in.

      I think your point on learning a strategic language is very important. I had thought of including a section on languages in the paper but ended up neglecting it, much as I have neglected becoming proficient in a second language myself (and I am the first to admit it is likely the biggest gap in my education to date – and one that I hope to rectify). I will incorporate a section on strategic languages into the paper.

      I mentioned quite extensively in the paper the importance of just moving to a developing country for an extended period of time and seeing what pops up. It’s great to have that verified!

      Finally, what you say about web presence is also interesting, and another thing I have completely neglected in my own career to date. But I do agree that establishing yourself in the social media and online professional spaces can certainly help your chances. Social media, however, particularly in the case of twitter, only has real potential if you are a prolific tweeter and heavily engaged in that space. I’m not sure if I see the value in it if you don’t fully commit.

      Thanks again for your great comments. It’s interesting how they are points that I seem to have neglected in my own career, which only further justifies the need for this to be an ongoing conversation from multiple inputs.

      Jonathan

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