If you are in the position where you are trying to help other people who are in the same boat, then you want to pull back the curtain and say, “Here’s how I did it,” because that’s what’s actually going to help people do the same thing. I wish I had that person in my life when I was starting out in International Development.

Work backwards to take several leaps forward.

I was a very diligent student. My parents are immigrants (Somali), and neither of them are at all involved with anything to do with social sciences or liberal arts. My dad is an accountant; he’s very much the type of person who, if he was going to give you advice, then he would recommend doing a major that corresponds directly with your career choice. For example, computer science, law, like something that’s just a no-brainer, in order to avoid that scary time between graduating and finding your niche in the world of work.

I didn’t know how to go about applying in an efficient way. My assumption was that it was just like school. You see a position that you are interested in and you apply to it, and you do that as many times as possible, and then somebody will see your innate value and get back to you. It took me awhile to realize that that is absolutely not how the International Development industry works.

The first year after I graduated from my undergrad, I probably sent out hundreds of applications this way. I had this neat little Excel tracker, and followed up diligently and it just was not working. I don’t know if someone suggested it to me or I came upon the idea of ‘looking backwards.’ Instead of looking at the position I wanted or looking that companies or organizations I was interested in who were doing work that was interesting to me, I began working back from that point and considering, who do I know that works there? Who do I know that has a contact that works there? Who works there that went to the same school as me, or that has some sort of connection that I can maybe ask out to coffee, or ask to a quick phone interview so they can give me some tips about the best possible way to secure a career path through that organization.

In terms of international experiences, it’s that much harder. When you going overseas, it’s an investment for the company that’s taking you, because if it’s a paid position, they’re paying for your flights. They also have to worry about your insurance, your health, a lot of things. Until you are sort of a known quantity, that’s a lot more difficult to do.

My original position that I went overseas for was an unpaid internship with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Nairobi, Kenya. I paid for my own flight, housing, and everything, but to me, I was sort of an investment, because until you actually go out and interact with these people, you’re never going to be able to get your foot in the door.

International development is a global yet small community.

What I realized after having gone was, these are such small Industries. They look very big but they’re very small in the sense that everyone knows everyone else. People cycle through the United Nations (UN) and work in technical positions and ministries in their home countries, maybe working in government as a consultant and then come back to the UN over the course of a year. Even though it’s definitely tough for people who are on a tight budget, it’s definitely an investment that I would encourage. That was the first position that I had overseas.

Afterwards it was a lot easier in a sense that once I was able to build up experience and skills in monitoring and evaluation. People in the humanitarian or development fields don’t really care as much about where they are placed; they just want to be working in the field. I knew I wanted to work in Somalia because I speak Somali and I have experience with the cultural context.

Working backwards again, I was able to look for positions there, and then say, “these are my marketable skills to work in this particular country, and the benefit to you as a company is that I’m not going to be flitting around every 6 months, wanting to be in a new location (like send me here, send me there, send me there). This is where I want to be.” It’s a matter of finding some creative ways to get your foot in the door, and then trying to create an audience to actually listen, because if you’re relying on people to just read your cover letter and CV, you will be sorely disappointed!

Is networking important? Absolutely.

I never realized how important networking was. One thing I wish I had known starting out was just how human the job market really is. It would be wonderful if people just gave positions based on how qualified you are or if you are the right person for the job, but the reality of it is that hiring managers want to mitigate risk. They don’t want to invest in someone who’s a complete unknown to them. Even if you have one person in the company who vaguely knows you or one person in the company who can vouch for the school you went to the program that you did, it’s a very human process and that makes them feel a bit more comfortable in taking a chance on you.

Go through your alumni networks — that’s exactly what I did. I looked and saw the organization that I was interested in working at, then went backwards: “Who works here that I may have a connection with?”

I was really lucky to go to a master’s program that sends its grads to a huge number of these international organizations. It isn’t difficult to find a London School of Economics (LSE) grad at most of these places. Often, people are surprisingly willing to help you, not just because you graduated from the same place but because it’s rare for people to reach out to them in that way. Most people are just focused on sending that application and hoping for the best. What I found is that people are open to helping you if you take the time to reach out.

What I found is that people are open to helping you if you take the time to reach out.

How to break into the international development sector.

I remember reading early-on after I graduated from my undergrad program an example or a metaphor for the International Development industry, and it really stuck with me. Trying to get into the International Development community is like trying to jump onto a fast-moving train. It’s really difficult and often fruitless, but once you’re on the train, you can move between cars. That was advice that I really took to heart. It’s a process that I’m still working on. I’m not naturally a data or statistical analysis person. I’m much more interested in working on interventions rather than trying to figure out the data behind whether that intervention was working. However, it’s much more difficult to get jobs on the programmatic side of the International Development field.

If you’re working in the humanitarian world, the most booming part of this sector is the monitoring and evaluation/assessment field. That’s what I tried to tailor my skills toward, and then once you’re in that first job (monitoring and evaluation or whatever it is), you can see the skills that are really valuable: statistical analysis programs (to include using Excel), data, and writing reports. While those weren’t things I was naturally good at, once I realized that that was where the demand was, I got into that field. Now I’m in the position where I’ve been in that field for a while and feel like it’s a good point to transition into doing what I really wanted to do originally, which was program/project development, or getting into what makes these interventions work and what makes them fail.

Be a little bit picky.

In my case, it was more about getting the field experience, so I was jumping at any opportunity to go overseas. I knew I wanted to work primarily in Somalia, and because of that, anything that was based there, I was going to say yes. I knew that I would have to travel there. Some people could take it as I was being too rigid. “You’re being too picky about what you want,” but it’s helpful to be picky about something.

I wasn’t picky about what I was doing in the International Development field. I wasn’t picky about whether or not I was going to be designing programs or whether or not I would be investigating them. Worst-case scenario, I would become a jack-of-all-trades, and that’s never going to be a waste of time. I wanted to work in this particular country, post-conflict, during fragile situations — it’s useful to have that thing that you are building your career around, because otherwise there’s a danger of becoming a little bit too flexible and that getting very overwhelming.

“OK, sure! I just want to work in development!” — but wait.

  • Where will that lead you?
  • How are you going to be able to put together a cover letter?
  • How are you going to be able to get your sincere passion across in an interview, when you’re confused, especially during that early part of your career?
  • You’re interviewing for these very administrative, not-as-exciting positions and the first thing that the interviewer wants to know is, why you want to do this?
  • Are you actually going to stick around for a meaningful amount of time?

You do definitely get that feeling, like “Oh my gosh, what am I doing here? Am I making progress? What’s happening?” You can mitigate it by having a plan. When I say plan, I don’t mean day-to-day, like “Monday, Tuesday, here’s what I’m going to do” — but what am I going to get out of this? If the number one thing you want to get out of this experience is a job in that country, great! Then that’s your plan, but you need to have worst-case scenario plans for “if this doesn’t pan out for me and I don’t get a job here, what do I want the bare minimum to have been that I got out of this experience?”

You don’t want to be so focused on getting a job that you’re ignoring opportunities to network with or get to know people or to have experiences that will come in handy later.

You don’t want to be so focused on getting a job that you’re ignoring opportunities to network with or get to know people or to have experiences that will come in handy later. Right now, this person could probably get a job, but in a few years, you’re in a perfect place to reach back out to them and say, “Hey, remember me? I was the intern. You’re now working for the company I’m really interested in. There is a mid-level position that I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about.” This goes back to the whole issue with unpaid internships — both in the U.S. and overseas — although I would say the U.S. has a bigger problem with it. It really puts people who are under financial stress at a disadvantage. It’s very much a luxury to be able to do an unpaid internship. I would never encourage someone to do it if it’s a case of “OK, it was job or bust,” because that’s a terrible plan!

For example, when I was in my very first internship after college, my goal was to find a job in Nairobi or Somalia and go on from there. It just didn’t work out. I got a couple of offers that weren’t really what I wanted; one was sort of in the field of journalism and one was a really low-paying job at a small non-profit. I felt like these were tangents. They don’t feel like they’ll lead me to where I want to go.

I came back to Washington, D.C. and I started over, but you’re going to have these experiences. I wish people talked more about their failures because that’s the kind of stuff that you look back on when you’re in these positions — how do you keep it casual? How do you stay calm? If you know that everybody goes through this stuff, instead of just having the Instagram moments of people’s lives, then you can kind of stay calm and say, “Well, I planned for this,” — but sometimes, it’s just luck.

Looking for your dream job? Keep things in perspective.

There was this position that I interviewed for — we went from seventy applicants to something like thirty interviewees, to just round after round after round, until it got down to me and another person. I’ll never forget, I was thinking, “this is my dream job,” but I was so devastated when I didn’t get it. It was at this small economic development firm, and then when I got my first real job a few months later in international development, I actually realized what that previous job had been. It was like a business development position, and because I had no context to understand much about it, I realized that they don’t do any technical work at all. It’s just proposal writing, so once we won the proposal, you pass it on to the program team and you go back to writing proposals.

It’s a perfect example of why you have to keep things in perspective and hopefully, if at all possible, do an internship in the field that you want to be in. Had I gotten that job, I would’ve had to stay for 6 months to a year and I probably would have been miserable. A person interning at the organization immediately would have known, “this is not something I want to do” or “it is something I want to do.” If you’re really interested in being in development, there’s no part of the work that is a waste of your time.

When I got a job as a Program Assistant at Social Impact just a couple of months after that, I was able to get that experience much more efficiently. Everyone contributes to proposals and proposal writing, so whereas the people who are specifically working on development — especially the very junior staff, which is how I would have started off — those folks were formatting CVs and doing this really administrative work. I was able to come in just out of luck in the position that I was in and do more technical work, and also get that same experience they were getting, but in a very quick fashion, rather than having it being your entire job for however long.

Learning the hard way.

Did I learn everything the hard way? Yes. It all depends on your background.

I have friends, we went to school together, and it seemed like they just had some sort of angle that I didn’t have access to. When I was an undergrad, I was kind of just chilling — they would be doing internships and I would say, “Oh, why?” It never occurred to me that despite being a very driven person, that this will immediately impact you once you graduate. You either do the internships when you’re in school or you them afterwards, but you will do them!

I wish more of this information was around. The ABPA blog is such a great idea because of these niche problems that not everybody has; if you are a first-generation in any industry or in any line of work, you really need people to tell you, “Hey, watch out for this,” or “Do that!” It can really save you years of time in your career. I’ve been really blessed to have great experiences with jobs in the U.S. and overseas, and I wouldn’t want people to think it’s ‘magic’ [that I got those positions]. No, there’s strategy to it — not that I had strategy — but you could go about things [to avoid] going through trial and error.


Maryam Hassan

About the Author

Maryam Hassan is a mid-level international development professional with experience in monitoring and evaluation, working on/in conflict zones, and project management. Her areas of technical expertise include post-conflict stabilization and strategic planning. Maryam received a BA in International Relations and Middle East Studies from The College of William and Mary in 2011, and an MSc. in Development Management, Development Economics, and International Development in 2014 from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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