How to land a job in international development

Posted on Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tracey Evans speaking at Aga Khan Foundation Canada's Smart Global Development Conference.

By Brandon Gillet

The world of international development is ever-changing and global, so it’s no surprise that students might wonder how to begin looking for work in this field.

The Gazette asked Robert David, a professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies, and Tracey Evans (BSocSci ’12), a graduate of the School, for tips on how to get a good start on this career path.

David has produced a four-page document, How to Land a Job in International Development (PDF), packed full of links to organizations where students could gain experience. Beyond where to go and who to work for, he raises other things to consider, including what kind of experience you want, how to stay safe and how to get your name out there.

Get to know the field

David suggests becoming familiar with the pros and cons of working for a government organization and an NGO.

“Government organizations have their advantages in that the positions are more secure and they have salaries and benefits. But, they operate bureaucratically,” he says. “An NGO is usually more flexible and has more control over their projects — unless they’re funded by the government.”

Gaining international experience obviously helps when applying for jobs, but such experience also has benefits here at home. Many development organizations in Canada want applicants who’ve had experience working abroad.

Evans says that her volunteer stints in Ghana and South Africa with youth-led initiatives such as LetsStopAIDS helped lead to her current position as a program officer with Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC).

“After graduating, I did an eight-month fellowship with Aga Khan, which sent me to Bangladesh to work with CARE,” Evans says. “Getting that fellowship was probably largely due to those earlier overseas experiences.”

Choosing to volunteer with youth-led programs also gave her opportunities she might otherwise not have had. By the age of 20, she had already been able to demonstrate her skills by managing a project and speaking at two conferences as a representative of LetsStopAIDS.

“Those experiences really added to my resumé and made me stand out,” she says. “There’s something to be said for being a big fish in a little pond, rather than a little fish in a big pond.”

Put safety first

It’s crucial to familiarize yourself with safety issues, including the socio-political state of the destination country — and any no-go zones.

“For work organizations, safety is paramount,” David says. “And governments sometimes don’t even let you in. I once had to take part in [safety] training just to enter Jordan and Beirut. And when I went to East Jerusalem, we had to be in and out in a day.”

Places like Iraq and Mali are completely off limits these days, he says, and with good reason. Evans was in Mali last November when 19 people were killed in the terrorist attack on Bamako’s Radisson Hotel.

“My hotel was nearby, so my organization decided to have me evacuated,” she says.

It’s important also to be aware of any government health advisories and to get the recommended immunizations.

“I’ve had basically every conceivable shot you can imagine,” Evans says.


As with any work sector, who you know and who knows you can be critical.

“Using the services offered by the University and taking opportunities to talk with professors can go a long way in getting yourself noticed,” David says.

Making connections during your time on campus can increase your options when looking for opportunities abroad, as many contacts can be made through professors.

Evans took a different path to getting noticed, by attending international conferences as a youth delegate.

“The youth card is a very powerful one, as many international conferences are looking for youth representation. But astonishingly, many are not attended by youth at all,” Evans says. “Use that youth card while you can!”

Another key to getting noticed is commitment. Be willing to do what it takes to set yourself apart from the rest, and even change jobs frequently in the early stages of your career to show how flexible you can be.

“Work nights and weekends and find chances to see how different groups operate,” David says. “Don’t overdo it, though. Be sure to take care of yourself.”

A map of the world.

Photo: University of Ottawa School of International Development and Global Studies.

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