(The Humanitarian Social Network)
I am interested in learning more about gaining solid domestic skills that are needed for international work. As I am a student in Boston who is actively searching for a summer practicum in the city, I am unsure as to what type of skills I should be prioritizing. What skills are considered most valuable when applying for international positions? Should I be applying to smaller local organizations for internships, or should I be looking for big name organizations with international counterparts? I am interested in maternal and child health in both urban settings and refugee populations.
Many thanks for any advice!
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I'm not sure there's a clear preference between smaller or larger orgs/charities/NGOs. You want to get your foot in the door of the industry. Timing your next move is more important, I think.
Realistically, getting into international work in the aid industry comes down to a couple of things:
1) Having the basic qualifications. Your MA in something relevant. For you, it sounds like an MPH with the right sorts of concentrations is the basic minimum. This doesn't get you the job or internship, but it does get your CV through the first level of filtering.
2) Solid office skills, especially writing, and willingness to do those things. Most NGO/aid work is office work. And before you get to go out and interview the breast-feeding mothers or whomever, you have to prove your worth by doing the unsexy, cubicle-based grunt labor. Shuffling papers and writing. Make it clear that you're willing to do this, and you're a sought-after commodity.
3) Willingness to take the job when it's offered. The aid world is a funny place. It helps to know that we're on a grants-driven cycle, and that what this means is your life trying to get in is a whole lot of 'hurry up and wait.' I've lost track of the number of times I've had a list of 15 hopefuls with the above 2 qualifications who, when that awesome opening finally happened, didn't even apply. Why? Dumb reasons, really. They'd just bought a car. Or got a girl/boyfriend. Or had a dog. And in the end, the job simply went to the one who reached out an took it. The opportunity of a lifetime never comes at a convenient time.
I'm sure others will have other advice...
Thanks for the great comments, J.!
...and take the job where it's offered! If you're willing to commit to a year in DRC, Afghanistan, Haiti, or South Sudan the number of opportunities widens and pool of competitors shrinks.
I worked in the domestic NGO sector for a few years doing project management, M&E, communications, and policy development/writing before moving full time into international work. Each of those areas gave me transferable experience that caught potential employers' eyes. Writing, stakeholder engagement (running consultations, facilitating meetings) and M&E were probably the most valuable.
"... and take the job where it's offered!"
Something that I have noticed during my internship is that the ability to do something outside of your degree specialty - in my case, being able to use InDesign - makes the proper staff more keen to get your help. I learnt to use that software through my student newspaper and it has been a big help: I wasn't brought in to design documents but the fact that I can files me as 'useful' in the minds of more staff members which means I get more (and more interesting) things to do.
If maternal and child health is an interest (and you are not planning on becoming a med student), I would look into public policy internships.
Another key skill is being able to manage data and do M&E (monitoring and evaluation). Strong technical and web design skills are a great addition to any resume. Rowan's advice about working outside your degree speciality is very good. Also, if there is a particular region of the world you are interested in, even a basic competency in the language is super useful. For example, having even beginner Khmer would greatly help you get a job in Cambodia.
Yes on languages -- and failing a specific regional/country focus, French is a good idea, followed by Spanish.
My Spanish is very strong and I am now beginning to tackle French! Thanks for the advice!
Re. the office skills, would you guys recommend trying to get experience in an office, any office, to get it down on the CV? I was thinking about volunteering doing admin.
And the IT skills and management skills, does doing short courses in these areas count? Or is it real-life experience that matters?
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