International development careers during COVID-19

From project management to evaluation and research, there are plenty of opportunities in the international development sector for graduates and young professionals. The competition, however, is often fierce, and the economic uncertainty over the coronavirus crisis makes it even more challenging for them to land their first job in the sector.

Cécile Abraham-Pasquier and Olivia Zeltner are Business Development Recruiters at our London office. Earlier this year, they recorded a podcast with The LSE RE: Project – a career-advice and peer-mentoring community for young people looking to build careers in international development – to provide insights and tips on starting out in this field.

We were delighted to be asked to take part in The RE: Project’s podcast and to share some of the knowledge we have gathered as recruiters in international development. In the episode – created in collaboration with LSE Department of International Development – we discussed what entry-level graduates should keep in mind when searching for a job in the sector. The current climate is of course far from ideal for career-building as no one can tell how COVID-19 is going to shape our future – but not everything is going to change. International institutions, non-profits and private implementers – like us – still need qualified employees who not only bring relevant skills and experience, but also the mindset to work in an environment that is already defined by constant change – even, or especially, post-COVID.

At the beginning of this year, we also worked with participants of the International Relations Career Challenge (IRCC) to offer advice on breaking into the world of international development. Looking back now, we find that most of our recommendations for graduates and young professionals still apply. While not all criteria are as relevant as they were before the pandemic started dominating our everyday lives – field experience abroad, for example, is naturally much more difficult to gain at the moment – others, like online networking, have gained even more importance.

Here is what we advise aspiring international development practitioners who are looking to build a career in the field during and post COVID-19:

  • Start where you are. At a time when we find ourselves spending most of our days online and thinking about the future, it is all the more important create some space for self-reflection: what relevant skills, knowledge and experience do you already have, right now? This does not just apply to your academic and practical expertise. Also consider the personal values, strengths and individual achievements that you can bring to a role. By taking stock, you will increase your self-awareness and confidence at once.
  • Continue building your skills and experience. Yes, you are at an advantage if you already have previous field experience, especially now that travelling to the field is limited and we have to rely on those who are able to assess certain situations and contexts. But do not worry if you have not worked abroad – think about relevant experience you have gained closer to home through past training or volunteering. What counts is a candidate’s attitude and willingness to travel. Likewise, you might want to enhance your language, IT or quantitative skills which are all crucial to becoming successful in the sector.
  • Network, network, network. Remember to check if your peers, university professors and networks know of opportunities and consider reaching out to interesting individuals or organisations via LinkedIn or other virtual networking opportunities. Just keep in mind that most people are busy and unable to immediately help you find a job, so be considerate of their time and aware of the limits of your online connections. The purpose of networking, after all, is to introduce yourself to professionals even in the absence of opportunities while learning about possible career paths.
  • Be a magnet for opportunities. Just like recruiters find candidates through active headhunting and advertising, try to not only apply for jobs but also make yourself visible in order to attract recruiters and opportunities. Develop your online profile, create interesting content and use digital marketing avenues to draw attention to your profile and expertise. You want to show the full breadth of your experience – this will help you attract a wide spectrum of opportunities.
  • Evolve with the times. To live with COVID means to adapt to changing circumstances. This applies to the International Development sector as well as your career. Read about the latest news on International Development to sense where the market is going, and keep checking in with yourself to see if your professional and personal needs continue to align with what the changing working environment demands from you.

Listen to Cécile and Olivia’s interactive Q&A on The RE: Project’s podcast for more insights and practical tips.