J from Tales from the Hood posted his “why I do this” story recently, and reading it started me thinking why I do this work myself. There’s a lot of twisted up stuff in my explanation – about wanting adventure, and doing what you’re good at, and the things my parents expected of me. But it really comes down to this:

It’s an awful fucking world out there. We are wrecking our planet, from Lake Erie to the Niger Delta. We’re killing each other with bullets and machetes and pollution and indifference to the needs of others. Humans are devastating machines that decimate each other and everything around us.

I can’t stand still while that happens. I don’t honestly think I am going to do much good. What can one person actually do? But the only way to avoid despair is to take action. If I didn’t try to do something I would never get out of bed. I took the action that struck me as most needed and – truly – most fun. International development. I like living overseas. I like learning other cultures. I like facing the weird problems of this life and knowing how to open a metal can with a paring knife. And I believe that poverty in most of the world is far worse than what we have in the US. (Even taking into account Mississippi and Appalachia.)

And I turned out to be good at it. Going to grad school for global health was like being a fish who finally found water. After flailing my way through Georgetown, fighting and bleeding for a GPA that rounded up to 3, I sailed right through my graduate degree and finished with a GPA of 3.97. And it wasn’t even hard. It was a lot of work, but it was joy.

Once I do something, I don’t do it badly. If I am going to work in international development I am going to do the best possible job of it that I can. That’s why I have this blog – to help me figure out how to do it better. That’s why I read so much (I link to most of it on my Twitter feed).

So I work in development because I have to do something, and this is the something I like best. I do it as well as I can because I’m an obsessed perfectionist. It’s not enough. It’s never enough. But it’s what I’ve got.

If you’re looking for the career-type info on how I ended up doing this, it’s very calculated. Here’s the short version, which leaves out all the embarrassing detours:

I have wanted to be an aid worker for literally as long as I can remember. When I was 16 I decided to go to Georgetown because it had a good reputation for international relations. I choose my work-study job to be internationally focused. I interned with a small international NGO. My first job out of school was a disaster, but the second was an internship with the American University in Cairo that let me live in Egypt for a year. While at AUC, I figured out I needed grad school, and an MPH, for all the jobs I really wanted. So I went to grad school, and interned and networked and studied foreign language while I was there. Then I finished school and networked my way into an unpaid internship in Uzbekistan. I got a paying job in Tashkent after that and the rest has been pretty standard.

(Photo credit: me. I took it out my windshield while driving the other day. It’s the tallest flagpole in the world, shown next to the president of Tajikistan’s palace.)

Finding a Job in International Development

Shop in Hanoi

I talked about this last month, but now that we’re really up and rolling, it’s time for my proper sales pitch. If you are looking for a job in international development, I can help. I’d been advising people on careers in this field for years. Now I am taking that to the next level.

I started the International Development Careers List. For $2 a month, I’ll give your personalized advice in response to your questions. So you get access to my answers to you, and everyone else’s questions and answers. Recent topics have included “Where do I work to get the best salary?”, “Can I start an international development career at age 40?”, and “Is it really all about who you know?”

In addition to the Q&A, I also post new job vacancies, often before they’re out on the general websites. And I tap my network of international development colleagues and friends to offer advice on any topic I can’t cover on my own. I’ve hired a lot of people for a lot of international development jobs, and I’ve applied for and gotten a lot of international development jobs, so I know what it’s like on both sides of that fence. I can help you get what you’re looking for.

And – added bonus – I maintain a dynamic ebook with every single newsletter in it, updated as I publish. I send it to every new subscriber, so you get access to everything we have talked about to date as well as all the new content as it publishes.

The details

The newsletter is an informal email that comes via letter.ly. Your name and address won’t be visible to anyone but me. I guarantee to publish at least once a week, but in practice I tend to send out 2-4 newsletters a week. So far, I have been able to answer every question I have received within a week, but that could slow down as the number of subscribers increases. I take the identifying information out of all questions, so you stay anonymous even after I publish your Q&A.

The subscription cost is $2/month, and I won’t be offended if you sign up to get your own question answered and then drop off the list. You pay via Amazon payments, but if you want to use PayPal instead, email me (alanna.shaikhATgmail.com) and we’ll work something out.

Some Happy Quotes from Early Adopters

“The best $2 you can spend on your international development career!” – Wayan Vota

“I’m loving your newsletter thus far. I’ve been reading your blog (and a whole lot of others on your blogroll) for awhile but haven’t wanted to bug you with my own questions just yet. Your writing is fantastic and I love the insight you bring to working in this field.”

“Thanks so much! This is very helpful.”

“I’ve already read through the collection of past newsletters. GREAT STUFF.”

“As someone who is beginning a career in development/aid, Alanna’s newsletter has provided for me a resource that answers the many questions I have.  From practical advice on how to blog, how to choose a grad school, and a listing of job opportunities, the newsletter is an absolute for anyone who is new to aid/development.” – Tom Murphy


photo credit: shapeshift

Chosen because it’s of a shop in Vietnam, where I have always wanted to work.

Boring Administrative Notice


I feel kind of awkward about this. But I’ve been getting a several emails a day asking for career advice. I really like helping, but I do have a day job and it pays by the hour so spending time on this costs me money. And I can’t make them all into blog posts or Blood and Milk would be nothing but jobs jobs jobs.

So, from now on, if you want career advice, you’re going to have to sign up for the newsletter. It’s not free. It costs $2 a month. But I’ll strip your question of personal information and answer it in as much detail as I can. You can sign up for just one month to see my answer to you, or you can stay on the list to see all the career advice.

I think this is going to be fun. It will give me a chance to vent in more detail and be less formal than I am on the blog. (I know, you’re thinking I’m not all that formal now, but you’ve never seen me in full late-night rant mode.)  I am hoping over time we can grow this into a community of people who help each other find their dream jobs in international development.

This is how it works: If you want to write me for career advice, sign up for the newsletter. Then, email me from the same account you signed up with, tell me you signed up, and ask me your question. I’ll make your question anonymous and send the answer out to the list. I’ll answer your follow-up questions on the list as well.

Like I said, I feel a little weird about this, but I just can’t keep up the way things are. I think this will be better for everyone.

– Alanna

Edited to add: I am putting each newsletter that goes out into an ebook, and when you subscribe, I send the ebook with every newsletter to date. So when you subscribe, you also get the whole archive.


easy button

I get a lot of questions on how to succeed in international development. How to make an internship turn into a job, how to use a bad job to get a good job. I give the same answer, every single time. Be easy. More than anything else – more than being skilled, more than being high performing, more even than brilliant – be easy.

This is a small world. You see the same people over and over again over the course of years. Hierarchies turn sideways and upside down in the space of months – every time a new grant gets awarded. My friend Simon has been my boss, my HQ backstop, my subordinate, and my colleague working at another NGO.  If you screw up your relationships with colleagues, you don’t get to leave your job and never think of them again. They’ll pop up in the future – maybe working for the donor that funds you, maybe managing you.

You will work with a limited pool of people. If it’s a good project, you have a big national staff and a small expat staff. Even the largest project is smaller than your average corporation. You need to be able to manage the complexity of the national-expatriate balance. If you can’t manage that, you can’t do your job – no matter what else you have going for you.

That means that when people are hiring, the thought at the front of their minds is, “Will this person be easy to work with?” Because it doesn’t matter how good you are if you’re hard to work with. I remember recommending a colleague for promotion and getting the rapid, muttered response: “We can’t move him up. He doesn’t play well with others.”

I have burned my share of bridges. You can’t be easy all the time. I have ex-colleagues that hate me, I am sure. At least one of them comments on this blog to express his disdain for me. But I do my best to be easy.

Four ways to be easy:

  1. When given a task to do, don’t complain to your boss about it. Just smiled and go do it, even if it’s awful.
  2. You can complain to your colleagues a little, but not all the time. You’re aiming for “this sucks but I can handle it” not “this sucks and I’m miserable.”
  3. This part is kind of awful: you can complain to your expat friends a little, but not all the time. Because very often your friends are the ones who tell you about job openings and float your resume around. They’re not going to do that if they think you’re whiny or bad at your job. (Though, honestly, it occurs to me that if you want to complain all the time you probably need a new job better suited to your skills.)
  4. It’s inevitable that your personal and work life will get mixed up, because living overseas does that. Keep them as separate as you can anyway.


Photo credit:  Jason Gulledge

Chosen because I was trying to be a little edgy with the word “Easy,” not over the top.

Finding Funding


One question I get asked very often by readers of this blog is how I got funding for my first overseas internship. It was an unpaid position with a multilateral organization in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and it pretty much launched my global health career. It led to the job that led to my next job and so on and so forth until here I am now with enough experience that I believe myself capable of blogging about it.

My answer generally depresses people: I didn’t get funding. I estimated how much it would cost me every month to live in Tashkent. I figured out how long I wanted to stay – six months. Then I got a job, saved up my money, deferred my student loans, and got on the plane to Tashkent.

There is funding for overseas internships, but most of it seems to be for graduate students. I actually ended staying at my internship for a full year, funding the extra six months with a US government fellowship that no longer seems to exist.

But I got to Tashkent on my own, and I don’t think I could have gotten that fellowship if I wasn’t already there.

I was lucky, I know. I had student loans that could be deferred, and I was able to find work that let me save money. But I don’t have a trust fund and my parents haven’t helped me financially since I was 18. (Yes, Mom, I know you would have. But it didn’t feel right.) (What, no one else’s mom reads their blog?)

I can happily recommend the place I worked to earn the money to go to Tashkent. I was a faculty member at NYLF, the national youth leadership forum. They teach specialized week-long programs to high school students on topics like medicine and international affairs. I had a ball teaching high school kids, and learned a surprising amount from the site visits. Plus, you stay in the program hotel with the kids so I had no living expenses to contend with. NYLF is pretty much always hiring faculty instructors, since that much time with teenagers will burn you out fast.


photo credit: penguincakes

The bare bones of prepping for an international career

I’ve had several requests lately for career advice and assistance. That makes me think it’s a good time to repeat some basic points. Here are Alanna’s essential five things to have any hope of getting a job in international development:

1. Get an office job while you’re still in school. As I’ve written, most development work is office work. You need to prove you can handle an office every day. Really, the only way to do that is to have an office job. Do it in the summers if you can’t hack it while in school. Office work is not the most profitable way to spend your time, but it will be worth it later.

2. Study something useful at university. For example, technical subjects like nursing and IT are useful. Epidemiology is useful. A master’s degree is more useful than an undergrad degree.

3. Learn to write. I don’t mean you need to be a novelist, but with practice everybody can write a clear, useful report at decent speed. Have writing samples to prove you can do it.

4. Study a second language. You don’t have to get all that good at it, but making the effort demonstrates you are willing to commit yourself to international and intercultural work. If you are already bilingual, you don’t have to learn a third language. People will assume you are good at intercultural navigation.

5. I think this is the hardest one: Have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific. “I am interested in food security and emergency relief” has a good level of specificity. “I want to work for UNDP” is too specific. “I am interested in women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and community development” is too vague. There is kind of an art to this; basically you want to give people a sense of who you are and what you want. Too broad and they don’t have any sense of you. To narrow and you’ve ruled out too many jobs. If you’re having trouble with this, it’s a good thing to talk over with a mentor. (Yes, if you don’t have a mentor, I will help. Within reason.)


(photo credit: foxtongue)

Chosen because it nicely displays the misery of the job hunt. And it was either this or a bone pun.

What to do instead of starting an NGO

Here’s a nice list of things you can do instead, excerpted from About.com:

1. Seek fiscal sponsorship from an existing NGO.

2. Volunteer for a non-profit that is doing something similar to what you have in mind.

3. Start a local chapter of a national non-profit.

4. Put together an unincorporated association to fulfill your mission without seeking tax-exempt status.

5. Form or join a giving circle.

6. Set up a donor-advised fund which makes grants to charitable causes of your choice.

7. Become a social entrepreneur by forming a for-profit social venture to accomplish your social goals.

8. Organize support for a cause at an online social networking site.

I particularly like numbers 2, 5, and 6. Volunteering for an NGO, or getting heavily involved in fundraising, give you the chance to learn the ins and outs of the situation before you try to run something yourself.