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How To Build A Career At The United Nations


Lisa’s background:

Lisa Smyth is an international development communications specialist, currently Communications Manager at the Forest Stewardship Council in Bonn, Germany, and simultaneously completing a Masters of Communications for Development at Malmo University in Sweden. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Lisa got her first job in the field at the United Nations, without any connections, family money, or even a Master’s degree. Here, she talks about experience vs. education, and what to do when your application gets rejected…

What got you interested in development?

I didn’t really know I wanted to work in international development – I sort of fell into it.

I had always had a strong social conscience and need to help others – I joined Amnesty International when I was 12, and was a youth delegate and local group leader; I taught English to refugees in Sydney; I enjoyed volunteering at local events – but I didn’t look to work in the NGO or international development sectors.

How did you get your first job in the field?

While working as a magazine Editor in Sydney I came across the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development Program (AYAD – now AVID), a volunteer program that sent Australian youth (ages 18-30) to developing countries (mostly in the Pacific) to work on capacity building. I applied, and was quickly rejected.

That’s rough! What did you do after getting rejected?

They told me someone else simply had a bit more experience than me; I knew I was on the right track, and just needed to perservere. The following year, they offered me the role of Communications Officer at the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office in Papua New Guinea. The New Zealand Human Rights Race Relations Commissioner on their Race Relations Programme, where I had been working producing all of the content for their website, was my reference for the UN job in PNG.

On finally landing that first job in the field:

I thought the AYAD job would be a great way to live somewhere new and then come back to my life in Sydney. But that first post with the United Nations in Port Moresby (the capital of PNG), being surrounded by passionate people who made their living by trying to help others, that’s what triggered the idea that I could actually work in areas I had always volunteered in.

On volunteering in an expensive city:

The PNG program covered flights and insurance, and provided you with a monthly stipend to cover accommodation and living costs. For some people, this meant a lot of money left over at the end of each month, but Port Moresby was the most expensive place to live of all the placements, and while the stipend was adjusted for the cost of living, it was still a very small amount for living in the city – I was able to just get by.

On finding paid work after volunteering:

The UN hired me as a consultant after the end of my volunteer year because they had already worked with me and understood the value I could bring to the organization. And my next job was as a direct result from that, and so on. It is very hard to get your foot in the door in international development – you are literally competing with the whole world – so volunteering can put you in a position to show why you are a better candidate than someone they have only ever seen on paper.

What about foreign languages?

I am a native English speaker, and I don’t know Spanish or any other second language. It rules out a lot of job opportunities, and could definitely impede my future career if I wanted to work for the U.N. again.

On choosing a specialization:

I loved working in the ‘for profit’ publishing sector (for a magazine) – it’s a fantastic feeling to create material that people connect with, and it was the most creative period of my working life. When I started working for the U.N. and its agencies, I realized just how important communications was to the success of its projects…and just how little resources it actually got. Communications is very often an after-thought for NGOs, multilaterals, and donors – a way to talk about the (sort of) success of a project, not actually a vital and necessary component of its success. Not everyone is a communicator – it’s a specialized skill, and an organisation’s communication can make or break the success of its project or the organization itself.

On transferrable skills:

The success of Coca-Cola is because of fantastic marketing and communications: ‘for profit’ has this down – communications is front and centre. I try to use the skills I have to make sure that the great work that is being done in international development has a voice, so that it can continue. I am not only passionate about the particular organizations I work for – I am passionate about good communications making that work better.

Do you consider yourself an “expert in communications for international development” ?

In a broad way yes – I open most cover letters stating that I am aninternational development communications specialist’. However, my resumé and the rest of the cover letter will change significantly depending on the role – sometimes I am a ‘media relations expert’, sometimes a ‘content production expert’, sometimes a ‘knowledge management’ expert – I orient my skills to what is needed for the role.

How do you build your network?

I keep business cards, and a spreadsheet of all contacts I make in communications or international development for future reference. LinkedIn has of course made this a lot easier, because you just add them after you meet. If you aren’t yet in the sector there are likely to be events in the area – InterNations, group meetings for volunteer groups – where you will likely meet those in the NGO sector.

On meeting people even when you’re tired:

Networking is a social activity – people forget this sometimes. Even if you are exhausted, sometimes you have to make the choice to go for a drink or dinner with someone so you stand out, and are not just one of the 20 people they met earlier that day at a conference.

On being a connector:
When I meet people, I often realize they share an interest that aligns with someone else I know and so I put the two of them in contact. I love to do this on a social and professional level. This has resulted in people getting new roles (one person contacted me just the other day to thank me again for getting them their start with the World Bank); people making connections that benefit their work; or just people finding someone they get along well with. Which means that when they think of me, there is a specific benefit to them that they can relate to me. I think this goes a long way to making me memorable.

On successfully interviewing for a job:

Be confident, but be truthful. I readily admit the experience or knowledge I don’t have – but I show that I am willing to learn. Also, more broadly, show that you have actually researched the organization – so many people don’t do this and it’s clear they have answered the same questions, the same way, in all their interviews.

On having a good vibe in the interview:  

I can’t really tell you what got me to interview stage, but I definitely got the job because of the vibe I had with my boss in the interview: we agreed on the direction that the communications work at FSC needed to take…and we laughed a lot.

On Australian work culture:

Australia values experience much more than it values qualifications. While most people in the professional sector have Bachelor degrees, there is not one sector nor person I know who wouldn’t hire someone with five years of experience rather than someone with two years and a master’s degree. Nearly all of my friends went straight into working at the age of 21 or 22, and then studied part-time while working full-time to get a Master’s, if they needed to.

You work with several different consultants – how do you hire them?

For communications work, a degree is not necessary. I can’t say the same would be true of public health, or environmental management, but I would be happy to hire someone who has a portfolio of good work – whether it be volunteer or paid – and no degree. Microvolunteering is a great way to add work to your portfolio – I often used people on Skills for Change while working in PNG (the PNG Human Rights Film Festival logo – which I LOVE – was created for me by a volunteer from Skills for Change).

For me, it’s a no brainer: when hiring, I would choose experience over qualifications, every single time.

Do you need a Master’s Degree?

I don’t believe a Master’s is crucial to enter the field (though it makes it a lot easier), but it is pretty vital to progress. There will come a point where you just can’t move up without it – you can still find work in the field, but your career will be stalled at a certain level.

How do you look for the next opportunity?

I’m on the mailing list for all the major sites, all recommended to me by people who already had years of experience in the field. ‘Cold applying’ so rarely works, so if I see a job at an organization where I have a contact I will make sure to follow up by email or message once I have submitted an application.

What would you recommend to someone looking to get into international development ?

Volunteering is definitely a great first step. In my field – communications – it’s not necessary to have international development or NGO experience. Communications skills are definitely transferable that way. I can say, of all my friends in the field, only a handful came about it from the direct angle – working in the NGO sector straight after their studies. Most were doing other things in other sectors, and then found their way to international development.

Thank you, Lisa !

Interested in working at the United Nations in international development?

P.S. More international development careers, including how to get a job at UNHCR, and building a career in Latin America.

About the author

Malaika Neri

Malaika Neri is a strategy expert for international NGOs. She studied economic development and NGO management at New York University (NYU), and has since worked with in Ecuador, Haiti, Madagascar, and Ghana, and with projects funded by USAID, DFID, and UNEP. Malaika runs InternationalNGOjobs.com, where you can find tried and true methods for getting your foot in the door and landing your first job in international cooperation and development.