One of the biggest challenges for students and recent graduates looking to get into the human rights field is getting the experience to be able to get that first entry-level job. Employers want to see that you have skills and experience that will be worth their time and efforts, to invest in you and make you a part of their team. Career counselors and professors will encourage you to apply for jobs, even if you don’t have the full amount of experience; and it’s true that employers are often willing to look past that 2 or 3 years’ experience qualification if you have substantial skills and credentials on your resume. There are several ways you can get this experience and gain skills while you’re in college and graduate school and during the transitional job search period.
Get into campus leadership positions
Using the time you have in college and grad school is critical to boosting your resume and getting qualifying, useful experience that can help you land an entry-level job in human rights. One option is to get a job during your time in school. Try applying for student positions that go beyond working in food or retail— e.g. the campus leadership positions. Jobs that work to engage with students, staff, and faculty give you transferable skills that are useful in jobs dealing with human rights, and you can often find a position that directly connects to issues you are passionate about. Any on-campus job that builds skills in communications, social media, event planning and programming, and fundraising will be immediately relevant to work that NGOs and international organizations do. Remember, the job you start in, doesn’t have to be a permanent position, so gaining skills that are often needed in entry-level jobs at non-profits can help with breaking into the field and getting a job that can lead to the position you want.
Get hands on experience with research
Use extra-curricular activities and clubs in college and grad school as opportunities to engage with other students interested in similar issues, get involved with human rights on campus, and get involved with human rights in the community. Most colleges have some sort of club for a human rights organization or clubs that focus on specific issues like human trafficking, AIDS, poverty, the right to water, etc. These clubs typically raise money for organizations that deal with the issues and can sometimes offer opportunities for students to travel and meet with representatives from the organization or bring them to the college. Joining these groups can help you network with other students and with professionals in the field, and they establish you as being passionate, interested, and knowledgeable about that particular topic. In grad schools, especially, research groups are often offered to students who are interested in particular topics. Students in these groups sometimes have the chance to develop their own project, and the staff and faculty involved usually try to connect the group to a real organization or to an issue that directly affects the community so that students get a chance to have real, hands-on experience with research and writing in human rights. Opportunities like these connect you to students, staff, professors, and professionals who are interested and working with specific human rights issues and will help you network in your field.
Pick a regional focus and learn the language
If you’re interested in working with human rights internationally, use your time in school to learn a language and take classes on specific regions. Having a regional focus can really help with marketing yourself and your skills to specific NGOs and international organizations. By showing that you’ve taken the time to learn about human rights issues in the context of a specific region, you show employers in that region that you’re passionate and invested, and employers in other regions will see that you are interested in learning about topics in the context of the countries they work in to find solutions that will fit the culture and people the best.
Don’t make coffee – Get real work experience
Finally, plan your internships carefully. Pick organizations that will give you actual work experience and will lead down the path towards the types of jobs you want. Interning for the US Department of State or the United Nations is great—as long as you can get meaningful skills while you’re there, connect with professionals in your field, and gain experience that employers will actually want to hear about. Working with a big-name organization is only helpful if you’re doing more than getting coffee and clicking around on your computer all day. Use your time at internships to network, hold informational interviews, and ask questions about the organization you’re working with and others connected to it. Additionally, one of the best ways you can leverage your internship is by setting it up for your final semester of school. This won’t guarantee that you’ll get hired, but you will know where to get started after your graduation. Use your time after graduation and while you’re searching for a job wisely; don’t stop getting experience, even when it’s unpaid or underpaid. It can be discouraging to have a continuing job search for a prolonged period of time after graduation. Many will choose to get retail jobs or simple administrative jobs to make money in the meantime, but that doesn’t mean you should stop getting experience in the human rights field.
Maintain and expand your network
Use connections you already have from college, grad school, or past jobs to network with other professionals in your field. Ask them what degree did they get? What experience did they have? What do they recommend for someone in your position? Let them know that you’re looking for a job because they may have suggestions! But also let them know that your main purpose for meeting with them is to gain insight from their experience that can help you know how to move forward in your job search. In the human rights field, working professionals are typically happy to help recent graduates connect to organizations and individuals who can help them get started in their career. They may know of job openings or be able to give advice for steps to take to get the experience you need to get that first entry-level job. And most of them are more than willing to exchange contact information and keep in touch as you continue to search for jobs and begin your career.
Volunteer in a field you love
Lastly, volunteering can give you an opportunity to use your skills, gain experience, and network with professionals in your field while you continue to apply for job. Volunteering takes a lot of time, but it can be extremely rewarding, especially if you can find an organization that deals with the issue you’re passionate about and has a place for you to use the skills you’ve gained. Many organizations need everything from volunteer grant writers to social media experts to safe house overnighters. Smaller organizations, in particular, rely heavily on volunteers to make their organizations run and the more actual training you have in human rights topics, the more useful you can be for their work. Giving your time and skills to these organizations can sometimes lead to a job, but it can also lead to networking with other organizations that may have job openings and can see the work you’re doing. Volunteering requires commitment, which is valuable to employers who are looking to hire. It will also give you a chance to do meaningful work that you’re passionate about while you’re waiting for your career to start, which can help encourage you in your job search.
Get that entry level job
Searching and applying for entry-level jobs can be difficult, but with the right preparation and planning, you can make it go a little easier and keep from discouragement. Use your time in college to get involved and engaged in the issues you’re passionate about, to learn skills (including languages) that you can easily plug into an entry-level job, and leverage an internship for meaningful experience. Take time after graduation, during your job search, to network and get insight from other professionals, take opportunities to continue to build and grow your skills and experience (like the Peace Corps), and volunteer with organizations that can add to your experience by allowing you to use your skills to help them with their work. Taking these steps can help in the process and will show employers that you are engaged in human rights and willing to put in the effort they are looking for.