"Jayne, how did you get to work for the UN?!"
An answer to a frequently asked question  
I'm an international consultant, researcher and trainer. My work is focused on communications, volunteer involvement / community engagement, and management for nonprofits, NGOs, and government initiatives. Among my many years of professional experience is work for the United Nations, specifically UNDP.

When people find out that I have worked for the UN, the question I get asked most is, "How did you get a job with the UN?!" It's most frequently asked by people that want to work internationally and dream of a job with the United Nations. I'm exhausted from trying to answer the question whenever it comes up, so I've answered the question here, in detail.

My first job with the UN was a very special case, one that I don't think will ever be duplicated: UNDP had gotten involved with NetAid, a virtual volunteering effort that was meant to create an avenue for people in the developed world to volunteer online, from their home or workplace, to support people and organizations in the developing world. A lot of effort was put into promoting NetAid and recruit online volunteers - but very little effort was made to teach UN agencies and NGOs how to create assignments for online volunteers and how to support those online volunteers in assignments. NetAid floundered. UN Volunteers, an initiative of UNDP, was in charge of the virtual volunteering part of NetAid, and someone at UNV found some of my messages on an online discussion group for managers of volunteers. At the time, I was directing the Virtual Volunteering Project at the University of Texas, and I just happened to be the only expert on the subject of virtual volunteering (thankfully, I'm not all alone anymore!). That UN employee shared my information with others at UNV HQ, and I was recruited, specifically, to work at UNV/UNDP on both NetAid and the UNITeS initiative. And that's how I started at the UN.

The likelihood of this happening to anyone else - being the only person with the exact skills needed by a UN initiative - is rather tiny. So don't count on being so unique and having so specific a critically-needed skill set that the UN will create a position for you. I really cannot emphasize enough how unique my situation was. I have to note that, when I got my first job at the UN, I didn't have a Master's Degree. I did not speak a language other than English. I knew the word development in association with nonprofits only as it is used in the USA, regarding fundraising. For any other position at the UN at that time, I would have been grossly unqualified and never considered. But in addition to having that very specific and unique skill set that was needed on NetAid, I also had a great deal of experience communicating messages to diverse audiences that were initially hostile to the message, working with people in marginalized communities, working in low-infrastructure environments, and working at a variety of nonprofit organizations. I also had a BA in Journalism from Western Kentucky University. Even with my very specific, unique skill set that was exactly what the UN needed for that one unique position, had I not had that additional professional and volunteering experience, I don't think I would have been hired.

When I got into my UN job and realized just how unqualified I was for any other UN position, even a UN Volunteer position, and realized how much I loved international development work, I decided to get the qualifications I needed so that I could continue to work for the UN or other international agencies when this role was finished. I did not want my first UN position to be my last. I began pursuing my MSc in Development Management from Open University (U.K.)  while working full time for UNV and finished most of it while still at UNV. I worked hard to integrate my work into the work of other staff members at UNV, so that my projects were not in a silo, rather, they were a part of the development activities of a variety of initiatives within UNV. I did my best to learn at least a bit about what other staff members did. I also threw myself into Spanish studies (probably should have chosen French instead, but that's another conversation). 

I left UNV when my ALD four-year contract ended. I spent a year completing my Master's, primarily working on my final project for my degree. Then I started applying for UN jobs again. I got my job leads via the UNDP job web site and via ReliefWeb. This is the part where so many people told me, "You will never work for the UN again unless you know someone in the office that is hiring." I heard it over and over. And that's not what happened at all. My next UN job was again with UNDP, in Kabul, Afghanistan. I knew no one in the UN office where I ended up working. I was chosen to be interviewed purely because of my application and credentials. So were the other three candidates who were interviewed. Was I given the job out of those other candidates because I was the only person who had worked for UNDP before, and therefore, was already "in the system", as we say? Maybe. But I saw the applications of those other candidates, and while they weren't "in the system", they were outstanding. And they didn't have any insider helping them either. This particular UN initiative interviewed people based on exact matches of skills, not because someone knew someone. And I've found that over and over in the UN system, contrary to the rumors.

Eight years later, I was chosen for another UNDP position, again short-term, this time in Ukraine. And I got asked by a few people, "Wow, who did you know to get such a job?" And the answer is: no one. There was no one at that mission who knew me (though I did run into someone I knew AFTER I was hired - he was hired a few days after me). I learned of how I was hired at the going away party for the interim head of the UN mission, the man who hired me. I was the THIRD choice for the job. The first and second choices weren't able to take the position. At that point, there were no third choices, at least as far as the selection committee was concerned. But the head of the UN mission took the CVs into his office and said he would find someone. And later, he emerged and said, "Look, she's got a lot of social media skills that we need! And she rides a motorcycle!" Riding a motorcycle was not a job requirement, and I never road a motorcycle in Ukraine. But it got his attention. I had a robust communications background, the exact skills being asked for in the job description, and experiencing living and working in a post-conflict zone where feelings were particularly sensitive. Again, my point is that I was hired because I had the exact match of skills, not because someone knew someone.

I've also served on hiring committees for UN positions at UNV in Germany and in Afghanistan. I've been the person who decides who gets considered for interviews for some jobs and I've done the interviews for some jobs. Has a colleague, even a senior staffer, ever said to me when I'm in that role, "This candidate is a friend/former colleague of so-and-so's."? Yes. I've ignored it. I refuse to consider that when looking at a candidate. Have I known cases where people got jobs specifically because they knew someone and, even though they weren't the best candidate, they got the job? Yes - but not just at the UN. That happens everywhere. But I refute the idea that it happens regularly throughout the UN system. In my experience, it doesn't.

And also for the record, I’ve applied for far, far, far more international development jobs that I didn’t get an interview for. I know what job rejection feels like. I know what it's like to wonder why I didn't get an interview, particularly when I believe I am a perfect match in skills and experience. I mourn, I get over it and I move on. Sometimes, I ask a trusted colleague to have a look at my CV, just to make sure I haven't changed something so that it's not giving the impression I want. But rejection is just part of the experience.  

If you want to work for the UN, or in international development in general, then here is my advice for you:

(1) The UN and other international agencies prefer to hire local people whenever possible for work in a developing country. Even in donor countries that host UN offices, such as Germany or Switzerland or the USA, the UN often prefers to hire people from developing countries whenever possible for office roles. The UN and other international agencies see hiring people from developing countries as investment in those countries. So if you are from a developing country, you will have an advantage over others IF you also have the skills and experience needed for a role.

(2) People do not get to be stock brokers, doctors, architects or lawyers just because they want to; for most professions, you have to work over many years to acquire the skills and expertise needed. Getting to work for the UN or any other international development agency is no different. A candidate that has an area of specialization is more valued by the United Nations and other agencies than someone who is a generalist. The UN doesn't want to hear that you are fresh out of university, that you have a great heart, that you have always wanted to be a humanitarian, that you have a degree in international relations, etc.; they want to hear how you are an exact match for the job you are applying for, through studies and experience.  

(3) If you do not have the exact match of skills and experience asked for in a job, you aren't going to be interviewed. If the job requires you to work in Russian, and you can't do that, you aren't going to be interviewed. If they job says you must know how to communicate in religiously conservative communities, and your CV doesn't say explicitly that you have done that somewhere, you aren't going to be interviewed. If the job requires you to prepare contracts with vendors, and your CV doesn't say explicitly that you have done that somewhere, you aren't going to be interviewed.

I have a great deal more advice on how to get a job in international work, including with the UN, here. Please read it. I really can't give any other advice than what is there.

Good luck.

Also see:

Is it really *impossible* to break into humanitarian work?

In defense of skills over passion

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps
 
 

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