This post is written by Claire Bowey, a Careers Consultant within King’s Careers & Employability providing careers education and support for students and graduates.
International Development continues to be a fascinating, rewarding and, increasingly competitive destination for graduates. I recently spoke to Julian Egan who, prior to undertaking his MA in National Security here at Kings, has spent 17 years working in International Development, to gain his valuable, and personalised insights into the sector and tips on what students and graduates can do to improve their employability and stand out in a competitive sector.
Julian’s career started with an undergraduate degree in International Law in his native Australia. Whilst studying for his undergraduate degree Julian undertook work experience in chambers but, he told me, soon established that law was not the route he wished to take. It was volunteering for a refugee organisation that really sealed what Julian wanted to do; the role, said Julian, ‘gave me a very real insight into the sector and the challenges faced by individuals who come from conflict zones.’ In addition to volunteering with a refugee organisation, Julian participated in the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) which, he highlighted, you can do here in the UK and is valuable experience for anyone looking to work in a policy related role.
Getting experience in a developing country is another distinguishing experience says Julian, ‘even if it is just six months. Seeing this on a CV automatically marks you out from the pack. If you’re starting your career, volunteering is one of the few ways to do this’.
Acknowledging the challenges of funding an unpaid volunteering position, Julian suggested targeting ‘core foundations with a continuing education/youth focus which may have funding for students to support them to undertake overseas volunteering projects… teaching abroad is also helpful (in the global south) for developing cross-cultural skills… speak to the Commonwealth Secretariat and The British Council about any possible funding’.
Languages too, explained Julian, are crucial for advancement in the sector and long-term flexibility; ‘possessing one of the five UN languages also separates you from the pack, particularly, in smaller organisations’, says Julian, ‘Having engaged with the UN over many years, unless you have a UN language, you can almost rule out a job unless you happen to speak the language of one of the countries they are working in, or there is a special exception for that particular post’. Julian advises engaging with languages early to develop an advanced, business level proficiency.
A familiarity with the practical work of development and peacebuilding, including an understanding of programming, policy, monitoring and evaluation, is another criteria that will set individuals apart during the application and interview process says Julian, ‘In an interview this would really mark you out and it’s not that complex… it’s easy to search out online and there are some online short courses for that sort of thing too. Bond also offers regular events, and I think there is a student membership. Knowledge of monitoring and evaluation is particularly prized, whilst a junior staff member with some knowledge of programming will be seen as a valuable commodity’.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Julian secured a place on a graduate programme with the Australian Government akin, he says, to the UK’s Civil Service Fast Stream. Julian credits this role with providing an invaluable overview of the sector including working with multilateral banks and policy development but, he told me, it was not without its challenges. Adapting to a change in culture whilst learning to write like a public servant were areas that Julian initially found the most challenging; here at Kings, policy activities embedded into International Development programmes will, Julian advised, provide useful and relevant experience that will benefit students looking to work within a policy related role.
Though many individuals working in the development field do so in capital cities, many aspire to, and do, work extensively within the field. Owing to the Australian Government’s contributions to NATO-led efforts in Afghanistan, Julian experienced his first in-field position in Afghanistan providing humanitarian services on the ground. Whilst exploring his experiences in a conflict zone Julian highlighted that individuals looking to enter the field should do so with an awareness of the possible impact not only to their physical, but also mental health; ‘peacebuilding work in particular, places people at risk in ways that many jobs don’t, particularly when it comes to mental health. For many peacebuilders the risk profile is more akin to that of the military, police, or frontline welfare workers when it comes to physical and mental wellbeing’.
Exposure to mass casualty contexts such as the Asian Tsunami, terrorist attacks, life threatening exotic illnesses, trauma from losing colleagues and/ or partner organisation staff and working with trauma effected individuals has resulted in several Julian’s past colleagues suffering from PTSD. ‘The industry has not been great at securing staff welfare in this respect’, says Julian, ‘so it’s a good idea for people new to the sector to ask about staff support mechanisms and how risk is managed, is hostile environment training provided to those going to conflict contexts etc… This applies to work in conflict contexts with the Government e.g., FCDO, as well, governments have been equally bad in the past with supporting their staff’.
There are also domestic challenges to consider such as, ‘How does being in emergency response or travelling constantly impact your personal relationships? Would your partner consider living overseas for three years? Etc’ asks Julian. It is a transient lifestyle and Julian recommends long-term planning. It is a challenge Julian himself faced when relocating to the UK to undertake an opportunity with International Alert, one of the world’s leading peacebuilding organisations. Julian knew many people, including himself, for whom the relocation was successful but expectations, he urges, should be ‘realistic’. Government organisations often provide relocation packages that include housing, medical insurance, and schooling, though you would need to check this before accepting an offer. Within the not-for-profit sector, such packages are much less likely, though it is still worth asking about this at interview. Julian further noted that it is common in both the government and not-for-profit sectors for employees to work additional, unpaid hours, outside of the specified 9 to 5 regime, whilst 16-hour days in conflict zones are common with in-field work.
Despite its challenges, Julian has found his career to be both meaningful and rewarding and encourages those with passion to pursue the sector, specifically those who may rule themselves out owing to disability, ‘disability does not rule someone out’, says Julian, ‘look at policies and adjustments, know what you need and push for it but don’t sell yourself short’.
In his final reflections Julian noted that recruiters are less concerned with degree choice than applicants may think, ‘we had development and foreign policy studies people, but also an anthropologist, a teacher, an economist, and someone who had worked in public health. Diverse but still connected to the issues that development deals with’. If your degree is not relatable to development Julian notes that you will need to be able to evidence a lot of relatable, extra-curricular activities, ‘It’s not the main factor and I wouldn’t rule someone out from an interview but if you’ve done accounting or computer science, or even communications (if they are applying for a programming or policy role), you would as an interviewer be asking why they want to move into development and how fast they can get up to speed without understanding at least some of the core issues’. Owing to the competition for roles Julian also noted that further study may also be of benefit.
The final thing, Julian notes, is ‘to remember smaller organisations, which most peacebuilders are, with limited staff capacity, still get massive volumes of applications… We don’t have the time to read every application in depth, so the first cut is often based on CVs’. Drawing the reader in is therefore crucial to progressing further through the application process for which Julian recommends being able to demonstrate any of the experiences or knowledge above, and to ensure you note relevant subjects from your degree both on your CV and application.