Many people are attracted to the idea of working in international development because they want to make a positive contribution to the wider world, but it's essential to think carefully about the nature of the contribution you wish to make and the field in which you would prefer to work. Most organisations send people to work internationally in response to requests for specific skills/experience from their local partners – recruitment is led by the demands of these local partners, and not by those who want to go.
Specialist skills and qualifications are important as employers in the sector will be hiring you for the expertise/experience that you can bring to their organisation. It's typical for people working in the sector to have a postgraduate degree eg: a Masters degree or PhD related to the technical expertise they wish to focus on. Before choosing a course, ensure that it provides you with the relevant skills for the type of development work you are interested in, via its module options, teaching practices and dissertation topic choices.
It's beneficial to gain relevant international experience before undertaking postgraduate study. This will not only help you to identify/clarify which direction you wish to pursue, but will also help you to choose the most appropriate course and to get the most out of your studies. If you're not able to travel, think about similar opportunities available in your home country. For example, if you're interested in refugee and migration work, work/volunteer with organisations working with refugees. Think carefully about your planned career route before embarking on a PhD – this is a sector that values practical experience highly, make sure you have the right balance of theoretical and practical knowledge for your preferred role.
In addition to the professional qualifications and experience required, you will need to consider what qualities you can offer. Organisations typically look for staff who:
- are adaptable and flexible
- demonstrate cultural sensitivity
- have very good communication skills (written and verbal)
- are willing and able to listen
- can adapt their skills to very different and often very challenging work environments
- ability to work to tight deadlines (and sometimes with limited budgets)
- show sensitivity to the views of others
- are self-sufficient and can cope with often limited resources
- can work as part of a team often made up of diverse nationalities
- have a second language or can learn a new language, if necessary
There aren't many roles available in international development for people who have no professional qualifications and/or work experience. The sector is highly competitive and although there are few defined career paths, you will need to acquire both relevant experience and qualifications to progress. It's often a good idea to try to build up some local or international short-term volunteering experience either prior to or during your first degree. It is also important to note that a number of work experience opportunities in this sector can be unpaid including short and medium-term opportunities in larger international organisations.
Once you have completed your first degree you can either decide to take some time out to gain some significant international experience prior to undertaking a specialised Masters course or you may decide to go straight into a Masters programme before gaining your international experience. Another option is to apply for internship positions, or take a further, short, specialised course, enabling you to apply for entry-level development jobs or specialist development jobs respectively.
Volunteering is quite likely to be an integral part of your career in its early stages. You could try to get involved whilst at Oxford at a local level – many organisations have networks of volunteers who are active in campaigning and raising funds and public awareness about the work of the organisation; in Oxfam, paid staff represent only 2.5% of the workforce. Join one of the local student-run community groups, for example Jacari. Check out Oxford Hub for more information about opportunities whilst you are in Oxford. The Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action (OCVA) is the Volunteer Bureau for Oxford; it holds many volunteer opportunities on its website.
Outside of Oxford, research organisations in your local area that you can volunteer/work with. Community Service Volunteers (Volunteering Matters) offers a range of voluntary opportunities nationwide and the National Volunteering Database provide details of your local volunteer opportunities as well as information about volunteering internationally.
Some organisations advertise internship programmes, however many people in the sector find work experience / internships by making speculative applications i.e. contacting organisations they are interested in to find if they have the need/capacity for an intern. The length of these can vary greatly eg: from a few weeks to 1 year. Some are paid, others are unpaid, but may offer a financial stipend contributing to living/travel/visa costs - check carefully before you apply.
Here are some examples of some internships/work experience programmes at larger organisations:
The databases on Charity Choice are very useful resources for identifying agencies operating in your field(s) of interest to which you can apply directly.
You may have to raise some or all of your own expenses before you go on a short-term unpaid placement, so it's important to think about how you will raise these funds and how much you will need.
When you are organising an international placement be careful to check out your financial visa and insurance responsibilities to ensure that your welfare will be taken care of and that there are arrangements for repatriation, should this be necessary. Check the website of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for advice before you go.
Will I get paid?
Internships and summer jobs in the UK are governed by the UK National Minimum Wage law, which means that if you are carrying out activities that class you as a “worker” by the employer, then you should be paid. Full details of Employment Rights and Pay for Interns are published by the government.
If you are undertaking a learning and development opportunity such as a micro-internship, or volunteering for a charity or statutory body, or shadowing or observing, then you may not be eligible for the National Minimum Wage. The organisation may reimburse you for your travel and/or lunch expenses, but they aren’t obliged to do so.
If you are working internationally, check the relevant employment law provisions for the country you are working in.