Following on from sound advice from Dochas a few weeks ago, I d like to share a few of my tips for building a career in development. I’m by no means an expert but having worked in the sector, I’ve picked up a few bits of knowledge that I’d like to share with you.
Do you really want to work in development?
Really? It may sound like a glamorous gig, but it’s not. You may have visions of travelling the world, changing children’s lives, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? Newsflash: you won’t. You’ll be in an office with dodgy air con, in the middle of a dessert or on a swamp. Or, you’ll be stuck in a bureaucracy frustrated by nonsense regulations and endless delays. You’ll be away for Christmas. What if you want kids? Or, to be able to go to Tesco’s at 2am for a tin of beans? Working in development is a huge commitment.
It’s great that you’re passionate about development, fantastic. But temper that with crappy salaries, few chances for promotion and uncertain work commitments. Funding is erratic and when the funding goes, your job may go with it.
Will knowing you are changing peoples lives offset those negatives? Maybe. But you’ll likely be a few steps back from the life-changing action. If you’re doing it because you think it looks noble, don’t do it.
Development is changing.
The old model of hiring white westerns to fix problems in the developing world hasn’t worked and is slowly changing. Development workers are becoming more specialized and localised. This has co-incided with a time when more and more people are interested in a career in development. It’s an increasingly competitive sector.
Work from home
If you’re interested in social change, empowering people and making a difference, could you do that in your home community? We have a lifetime’s worth of social problems to solve in Ireland, if you’re interested.
Development hasn’t worked.
Development is a frustrating sector. Your hard work may not be met by a substantial and measureable difference to the lives of people in the developing world. No-one can save the world alone, but being a part of the sector characterised by wastage, failure and bureaucracy can be disheartening.
Typically, development workers are upper middle class do gooders with big hearts, great ideas and plump CVs. It would certainly benefit from a more diverse class base, strategic, political minds, able public communicators and business people.
If you’re still determined to work in development, this would be my advice:
- Be clear about your motivations. As I’ve outlined above, it’s a challenging sector to work in and it helps to be clear on what you’re trying to achieve. Be honest with yourself, conscious of your strengths and weaknesses and willing to work hard, take direction and commit to endless learning.
- A masters degree is a pre-requisite for most roles. Everyone has an MA in Development so that’s not enough, but a masters of some kind is a necessary first step. Following your passions and interests is always a wise move, but a focus on practical field-based learning would also be advantageous if you want to work overseas.
- Find a niche within the sector and build a portfolio of experience there. Don’t sell yourself as an all rounder, be an expert in something. (If you’re very young and just starting out in your career, I’d be cautious of this step. It’s hard to know your area of expertise when you’ve limited experience and specifying too early can limit your employability.) If you’re very young (under 25), focus on exploration. Try out lots of new things in the for-proft and non-profit sectors. See what you like and what you’re good at.
- I’m a big fan of starting a blog as a means to build career success. Penelope Trunk has some great advice on this too. Luckily, the Irish development sector has not yet engaged in online media to any great extent (although kudos to Dochas) so it’s an open market. (More on blogging for career success here.)
- Learn a language, and be wise about which one you pick. If you want to work in South America, Spanish or Portuguese are essential. There are Swahili classes in Dublin now, and most colleges offer the opportunity to learn a wide range of languages including Arabic.
- Network. The Irish development sector is small and becoming well-known within it is an easy and important strategy in increasing your employability.
- Make sure your CV is up to scratch. Mould it to suit the job that you’re aiming for. I’m planning to write in more detail on this step soon and will link to it here.
- Prepare for the interview. Be sure to temper your passion for the area with a sense of realism of your skills and the job. Development tends to attract all kinds of woolly-jumpered, sandal wearing crusties convinced they can save the world if someone gives them the chance. Make sure you’ve a sound, logical reason for wanting the job, an understanding of the challenges you’re going to face and a plan to manage them.
- Internships are typically the door into the development sector, but they’re tricky too. Be careful that you’re not being used as free labour. Make sure to pick a role where you’ll learn a lot of tangible, measurable skills that you can use on your CV. Ask about their ability to hire you in the medium term. They may be willing to pay for you to attend courses or language classes. They may take you to networking events giving you access to top industry people. They may canvas for a job on your behalf on completion of your internship. Be sure to find a way to make it work for both parties.
- D Talk run a fantastic program of short-term practical courses which you can add to your tookit. Equally, keep an eye on Dochas Wednesday News, Comhlamh and Activelink for events, training opportunities and job opportunities.
- Volunteer. I’m reticent to advise this given my misgivings with short-term volunteering. But,it’s true that I’ve never met a Development worker who didn’t start out as a volunteer. See here for advice on how to volunteer.
They are my tips for building a career in development. As I said, I’m no expert. If you’ve anything to add, please utilise the comments below. I’m happy to answer any questions too, either here or by email. I’d prefer to answer them public so that others can benefit from them too.