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How to get a job in [international development]

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

Image: Lake Malawi

It was 2007, I was in Manchester studying for a Master’s and had just discovered my dream job in a presentation from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) re. their overseas economist scheme. It was only an entry-level role but perfect for me and I was determined to get onto it. I did tonnes of research, spent weeks on the application but didn’t even get an interview. Gutted. No other job out there was good enough – so I stayed in academia to teach and research while I figured out the next step.

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A year later I was getting dusty in academia and in a desperate attempt to escape, I applied and got the first job I saw looking for economists. I honestly can’t remember why I didn’t apply for the ODI scheme again – but can only imagine my confidence was shot.

I spent four years at the National Audit Office (NAO) as an Economic Analyst and Consultant. “Are you mad?” “Have you given up on development?” “you must be a spy undercover!” was my favourite confused comment – “why else would you work there?”.

At times I did question where my career was going. But I spent four years building invaluable professional skills and in-the-field experience – managing teams, budgets and research projects. Writing and publishing reports on government departments, training audit offices in less developed countries, challenging HM Treasury on UK budget assumptions and reviewing food aid systems on secondment to the World Food Programme.

I’d progressed quickly through the ranks at the NAO and in 2012 got my mojo back to apply for ODI once again. I breezed the interview with the conviction of experience and got posted to the Malawi Treasury a few months later. From that point I never looked back, and after two fantastic years in Malawi, I joined the (former) Department for International Development (DFID).

I told this story yesterday while mentoring a young professional, one year out of her Development Masters, who confided in me, embarrassed, that although she wanted a job at DFID, she had applied for a role at the Home Office. I hoped my crooked career path gave her the confidence to stand tall at her good initiative to go and get relevant experience from outside the sector, to secure her dream job thereafter.

I hope by sharing this here, others are able to stand more confidently in their decision to get invaluable experience left of centre – and who knows what ideas and opportunities will come up in the meanwhile.

What irrelevant experience has proven invaluable in your career? Let me know.

Want my undivided attention on your career? I have two spots available for 1-2-1 coaching clients starting mid-November - let’s talk.

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