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How to Get a Job at the UN

Working for the United Nations (UN) is a dream of many young professionals around the world. It’s not just a job, but an opportunity to be part of global initiatives, to strengthen human rights and development, and to promote peace among nations. Although not a priority for many human rights workers, it also comes with a very healthy paycheck. Even early-career international staff members at the UN receive tax-free salaries of USD 100,000+ annually. So how can you enter?

To get a job at the UN you need an advanced university degree, fluency in English or French, ideally prior work and professional experience depending on the grade at which you hope to enter. Proficiency in other official UN languages (Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Russian) is an advantage but not a requirement for most available jobs. If you’ve ticked off these boxes, you can begin to explore more specific opportunities within the UN.

What you need to know first

The pathway to a career at the United Nations often involves gaining experience elsewhere first. Many individuals typically start their journey at NGOs or government agencies, moving to the UN after several years of hands-on working experience. A much smaller group enters the UN right after graduation. I worked at OHCHR as staff member and later as consultant after I had several years of experience working in human rights at Amnesty International and other organizations. Instead of trying to enter the UN straight away, you might prefer to join a small, lesser-known NGO first. In smaller NGOs, you’ll encounter a less competitive application process, have the opportunity to explore various roles to discover your fit, and often have more responsibility because you play a bigger role in a smaller organization. So, is it impossible to join the UN as a fresh graduate? No, it’s not. Let’s explore the options:

#1 UN Internship Program

The UN internship program provides firsthand experience with the daily operations of the UN, allowing you to work alongside professionals, attend conferences, engage in meetings, and contribute to the organization’s work. The scope of your work will largely depend on your supervisor and your experience. Eligibility criteria include being in the final year of or having completed a university degree, proficiency in English or French. Normally, the internship lasts between two to six months and should be started within a year of graduation. A big caveat is that interns are often not compensated by the UN. While some paid UN internships exist, you will likely be responsible for all associated costs, including travel, accommodation, visas, and insurance. There are groups like The Fair Internship Initiative who are trying to change that. If you are an unpaid intern, take part in their survey and support them.

Where UN internships are advertised: 

#2 Young Professionals Programme

The UN Young Professionals Programme (YPP) is a recruitment program aimed at hiring young professionals for the UN Secretariat. Applicants undergo an entrance examination and receive professional development upon joining the UN. The YPP exam is conducted annually in varying subject areas based on UN needs. Only nationals from specific countries (which change each year) can apply. Applications typically open in June through the Inspira platform. Eligibility criteria include being from a participating country, having a relevant university degree, being 32 or younger in the exam year, and fluency in English or French.

Where YPP positions are advertised: 

#3 Junior Professional Officer Programme (JPO)

The JPO Programme is a partnership (bilateral agreement) between the United Nations and a country. Typically, JPOs hail from donor nations, though some donors sponsor nationals from developing countries. These officers, generally young professionals, typically possess advanced degrees and a minimum of two years’ professional experience, holding P1 or P2 level positions. The number of positions fluctuates yearly and by donor. JPOs normally start with a one-year term, which can be extended based on performance and donor consent, but there’s no guarantee of a subsequent regular staff position.  JPO positions are typically advertised on the websites of the UN agencies that participate in the programme. In addition, individual donor countries might also advertise JPO positions designated for their nationals on their own respective foreign ministry or international cooperation websites.

Where JPO positions are advertised: 

What’s the difference between the UN Young Professionals Programme and the Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme?

Both the UN Young Professionals Programme (YPP) and the Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme are initiatives to recruit young professionals into the United Nations system. However, they differ in various ways. Here is a quick overview:

UN Young Professionals Programme (YPP) Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme
Which countries? Countries that are under or un-represented in the UN Donor countries
Languages Fluent in either English or French English or French, additional UN languages strong asset
Selection Process Entrance examination Job application
Frequency Held once a year Varies by donor contributions & UN needs.
Eligibility Nationals of participating countries Generally nationals of donor countries
Age limit 32 or younger Normally 32 or younger but depends on donor country
Academic  At least a bachelor’s degree Advanced university degree (master’s degree)
Experience Not required, but asset At least 2 years working experience
Duration Two-year fixed term Typically 1 year, extendable with donor’s agreement.

#4 UN Volunteer Programme

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme contributes to peace and development through volunteerism worldwide. As an international UN Volunteer you’ll receive a monthly living allowance (VLA) of USD 1800 – 3500 depending on the location. Note that UN Volunteers are not considered official UN staff members instead they are considered UN personnel. To be eligible you must be at least 18 years old, with age requirements varying for different categories: UN Youth Volunteers must be 18-26, specialists 27 and older, and experts 35 and above. Specific roles might have additional academic, professional, and language criteria. All UN Volunteers should align with UN values and principles, adapt to diverse environments, including challenging locations, and possess strong professional and interpersonal skills. International UN Volunteer assignments may generally last 3 to 12 months with a maximum period of 4 years. The terms and conditions change frequently so make sure you do not rely on my article but check the official website for the latest information. In the meantime you might find these two documents useful: Volunteer Conditions of Service Changes 2021 and International Youth Volunteer ToS 2023. UNV has furthermore built a very useful platform to learn about issues like Do I need to pay taxes on my VLA in my country?

Where UNV positions are advertised: 

UN Youth Volunteers International UN Volunteer
Age 18-26 27+
Living allowance $1,389 x UN Post Adjustment
$4000 Entry Lump sum
Source (2023)
Varies, between $1800 and 3200
Source (2018)
UN staff member Not a staff member but UN personnel Not a staff member but UN personnel
Experience 0-3 years 2 years working experience
Academic University degree / Higher Technician diploma University degree / Higher Technician diploma, master’s degree
Recruitment process UNV Applicant Pool
Application to special calls for fast deployment
Learn more
UNV Applicant Pool
Application to special calls for fast deployment
Learn more

#5 International Staff Positions (P1, P2, P3)

The United Nations has various staff categories with different levels indicating increasing responsibilities and requirements. Understanding these categories and levels is crucial when considering and applying for UN jobs. In general the UN separates these positions into entry level (P1, P2, P3) and higher level categories. P-1 positions require no previous working experience and are extremely rare. While P-2 and P-3 positions require at least 2 and 5 years of experience. Positions for these levels can be found on the official websites:

P1 P2 P3
Experience 0 years minimum 2+ years minimum 5+ years
Occurrence Rare Sometimes Frequent
Academic Bachelor’s degree Master’s degree
Bachelor’s degree + 2 additional years XP
Master’s degree
Bachelor’s degree + 2 additional years XP
Title (Example) Assistant Public Information Officer
Programme Assistant
Associate Human Rights Officer
Associate Programme Officer
Associate Programme Management Officer
Human Rights Officer
Training Officer
Programme Officer

6 Tips for Getting a Job at the UN

Getting a job at the UN is not easy. Here are some general tips that have helped me and others in successfully landing a job at the UN. Make sure you don’t understand this as a recipe. There is no manual for getting a UN job. The bottom line is that you need the required qualifications, you need to excel at your job and you need to have luck. Being in the right place at the right time can go a long way. Nevertheless, there are additional things you can do to enhance your chances:

#1 Consider focusing on a niche skill or topic

While the UN works across many sectors, there are always specific areas and skills that are in higher demand or are underrepresented. My focus is education technology and this area of work is so much in demand currently that I generally have a higher chance of a successful job application because there are less applicants. If you can carve out a specific niche in your CV and hone a specific skill, it can give you an advantage. All topics that relate to modern technologies are normally a good bet but also other emerging topics and trends are a good choice.

#2 Get field experience

Before I entered the human rights world, I worked as a lecturer for literature and language in Egypt. This coincided with the Egyptian revolution, where I learnt so much about human kindness, justice and injustices, human rights and myself. If you have the chance to travel and obtain any kind of relevant field experience, this will advance your chances of getting a job at the UN. Not necessarily because its part of the job description but because it changes your perspective and provides you with learning opportunities. If you get hired directly into an office job it gets much harder to get the field experience later because you are used to the comforts that come with it and arrange your life accordingly.

#3 Learn languages

It is no secret that language skills at the UN are important. You’ll work in multilingual teams on multilingual projects. So if you can, learn more than one of the official UN languages. While languages are important, don’t assume you’ll never get a UN job without enough language skills. I speak German and English fluently and a bit of Spanish. That’s not very impressive but I got recruited anyway. Yet, in some UN jobs language skills can make all the difference, especially if you have a less usual language combination or speak a language of a local community where the UN is active.

#4 Be present and network

Networking means building meaningful relationships with others in your work area. Let others know who you are, what you are passionate about, what your goals are and what you are looking for. If they have a good relationship with you, they’ll think of you and vouch for you when an opportunity comes up. While today networking also happens a lot in the digital space, don’t underestimate the power of being physically present when you attend e.g. a human rights movie night, a networking event or a poetry slam.

#5 Don’t waste your time

Securing a position with the UN often comes with its fair share of rejections. Rather than solely focusing on your ideal roles, be open and remain receptive to diverse opportunities. Remember, many pathways to the UN are winding, not linear. Not securing a position by age 32 doesn’t close all doors; You’ll have numerous chances to join the UN later in your career. Starting with a smaller NGO can be highly fulfilling. Engaging closely with beneficiaries and assuming significant responsibilities early can give you a great insight into the direct impact of your contributions. Such experiences, often more intimate than being in a high-security office setup, can ignite a passion that fuels your professional journey for years.

#6 Follow your passion

In today’s job world following your passion isn’t a luxury, it’s essential to stay competitive. If you care about an issue you’ll learn faster and be more creative. Note that there might be many ways to nurture and follow your passion. Even if you dream specifically of a career at the UN, there might be other ways to get a similar level of satisfaction from a different job. Don’t rule out other great international organizations and NGOs that are doing fantastic work for human rights. Their impact is just as significant.

About the author

Robert Fellner

Robert is founder of Human Rights Careers (HRC). A platform with the aim to support human rights students, alumni, graduates and professionals in pursuing and developing their career in human rights. Prior to launching HRC, Robert worked as Global Human Rights EdTech Manager at Amnesty International in London and as consultant for international human rights organizations globally. During 2011 and 2012, Robert worked as lecturer at Ain Shams university in Egypt. Robert has a masters in literature and human rights.