5 answers

What is the career path to a successful career in international development?

Asked New York, New York

I'm interested in working internationally and also on development issues. I'm wondering how to get into this field and how be successful. #international #development #international-development

5 answers

Niyati’s Answer


There is no established path but people tend to get involved in one of three ways - technical expertise, policy, or social enterprise. Technical expertise track involves using skills that are lacking in developing countries (doctors working in public health, engineers building roads and water systems) - for this you have to first follow the relevant technical track and graduate school. Policy track involves going to college and focusing on political science, economics or policy and then networking into jobs that entail shaping public sector policy towards developing countries (working for USAID, World Bank, development think tanks). Enterprise track involves first getting private sector expertise and then applying this to setting up businesses in the developing world or bring management to a poorly managed enterprise. Ofcourse there are a million jobs out there and I know some very successful people that came to a developing country for a gap year after high school and never left. NGOs take people from all backgrounds if they are bright, committed and motivated.

Thank you for your answer.

Jung Hwa’s Answer

Updated Washington, Washington

I agree with Niyati and Sandra. I personally took the route of getting field experience first, to make sure that the lifestyle of development work agreed with me. It's important to get experience early on living abroad in a developing country because many employers want to see that you have taken the initiative to get "field experience" and that you are aware of the sacrifices (e.g., being away from home/friends, living with the discomfort of minimal amenities, etc.) and challenges (e.g., having to communicate in different languages, being able to travel somewhere new with little notice, etc.) that come with this rewarding career.

International development offers lots of different opportunities in many different developing countries, and not every opportunity may feel or look like it's the right fit for you. Don't be discouraged if you don't think that you can brave it out in the Congo -- not everyone can! Try to find a job or pursue a volunteer opportunity in a country that is safe (pls don't underestimate safety; it is the most important thing!); has a friendly culture that you think you would enjoy or appreciate; and presents volunteer or work opportunities that will allow you to learn something new while contributing something meaningful. If you can, work directly with locals, so you get plenty of exposure to the culture. I couldn't find an international job in college, so I tried to be creative and think of an international research project that my university might be able to fund. If you're in high school, go to the career services office in your high school; counselors can have access to some great resources.

When you are in the field, it is very important to network with expatriates (or "expats") on the ground who are working in different capacities for charities, government, volunteer organizations, etc. and see what types of work you might be interested in, what type of lifestyle/pay that work comes with, what types of experience employers in that line of work are looking for. Making connections within the (usually) supportive expat communities in developing countries is one of the easiest ways to break into the field and be successful. Once you make the connections with people working on the ground, ask them questions, join their social events and keep in touch. When job opportunities come up, these people will think of you and let you know about these opportunities (and it can't hurt to reach out and ask once in a while -- in a respectful and friendly way, of course!)

Sandra’s Answer


i feel it's a good idea to spend one or two years in working in a foreign developing country before going to graduate school. first, it is a good experience for graduate study, as you sort of know about the development beyond the class, and may have some thinkings or questions to bring to the class. secondly, it is good for getting jobs later with some field working experience. field working experience, i think, is highly appreciated in the development field. gain it early, 20s or early 30s; at the later stage you may re think about job offers of high mobility. working internationally can be challenging to personal life.

besides development institutions, like USAID etc, you can also think about working on the research projects in developing countries. it may link you well with the professors and researchers in graduate schools too.

Helen C.’s Answer

Updated Cambridge, Massachusetts

Great question! I agree with all of the above and I had the same question when I was starting out. A few resources that could help you find a first job or internship- since I agree with the above writers that experience pre-grad school is helpful- Peace Corps, Idealist.org, Princeton in Asia/Latin America fellowship, The Carter Center internships, Volunteers in Asia. School study abroad programs or religious institution-led trips are also options for short-term exposure to new places and cultures.

I wish I had spent more time thinking about specific skills I might be able to bring to the table- a specific focus or skill can help you narrow your search and get others excited about bringing you into their work. You could start by teaching English or tutoring for SAT/GRE/GMAT etc (very common way to start working overseas before getting into more development work - e.g. EnglishFirst, Kaplan affiliates), being a research assistant and able to run surveys and analyze data for Professors (J-PAL, IPA, Ideas42, lots of other think tanks/Professors), support work public health/programming/engineering, etc. When I first started working in the Philippines out of school I was humbled to realize that there were plenty of other Filipino professionals who could offer far more than I could- what was it that I could do to support their work? It started off with just editing grant reports- this wasn't exactly what I had had in mind but it was what I needed to do to then start gaining other skills that could help me expand the support I was able to provide. As the others have mentioned a lot is just getting the first step- once you are somewhere then the connections you make will help you continue to find work elsewhere.

As a final note, international development doesn't have to be limited to non-profit or government work- e.g. if you are working in telecommunications and helping to bring better connections and faster internet to remote islands, this is international development too!

Jimmy’s Answer

Updated San Francisco, California

The first step to getting into the field, especially one as complex and interwoven as International Development, is to ask questions like this to explore what the options available are. You are already well on your way!

I don't want to be repetitive as I believe the answers above are excellent in guiding you toward specific actions to pursue a career in the field. What I would like to do is to ask you to is to take a step back and assess exactly WHY you want to go into the field and WHAT it is that you would like to do.

International Development is a fairly broad term that encompasses a whole lot of issues (if you look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for example, there are 17!). I would do some more research to figure out which of these issues interest you the most and then go with the advice shared here to pursue them. Once you have developed a direction, try to figure out a goal/end state that you would like to see and then work backwards from there!