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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.)
- 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.
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
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.