BASIC “RULES” FOR STARTING A CAREER IN THE UNITED NATIONS
By Natasha Leite
After working for almost ten years in the United Nations and other international organisations, I have come to realise that it is much easier to start a development career than is generally understood, but only if you follow some basic “rules” which my story tries to uncover.
MY FIRST UN JOB
At the age 23, I got my first full-time job in the United Nations. At that time I had a Bachelor’s degree in Law and International Relations with five years of professional experience in the areas of youth at risk and arms control in Brazil, Angola and Mozambique.
With this background, I got a position as a Citizen Security Researcher Assistant with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Now, looking back, I understand that this was an exceptional case and very much different from the typical UN process. In my career at that time, I was not targeting the United Nations specifically; a friend had circulated the job details, for which I applied and in less than a month I was in a different country to start the job. I worked in the UNDP for two and a half years before deciding to take a break to do my Masters.
FURTHER WAY: UN CONSULTANCIES
Once you start working in the UN system, it is easy to stay there and get new contracts. After graduating in Conflict, Security and Development area, I took several consultancy contracts in the UN agencies: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Maldives, United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC) in Peru, UNDP in Bolivia and UNDP in Brazil.
UN consultancies have pros and cons. There is something very gratifying about consultancies, giving you a tremendous sense of accomplishment when delivering your outputs. In addition, consultancies are easier to get than a permanent job.
At the same time, the rotation of consultants is high, and you often miss your colleagues and the team environment. There is also some degree of uncertainty in the consultants’ world, which was not a big issue for me. If you are not afraid of a chaotic lifestyle, an absence of long-term planning and erratic payments, you will be able to cope and thrive with consultancies. However, if you are stability driven then perhaps it is not the choice for you.
When being a consultant, I missed the team spirit environment. Thus, I had been looking for a more stable job and the opportunity came up. I am currently working as a Programme Specialist on Prevention of Violence against Women and Human Trafficking in the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
For the last couple of years, I have also been working on some extracurricular projects. I am a campaigner for Beyond Violence, started ‘Doing What You Love!’, assisted candidates to prepare for UN Young Professionals Programme (YPP) at YPUN and wrote for World Pulse… My interests in development goes much beyond my job, and I feel energized when making an impact. Remember that we are in control of our own happiness and it´s not the wisest thing to put all your hopes in one ‘basket’.
MY ADVICE TO YOUNG PROFESSIONALS
#1 Continuously improve your skills
With our current highly competitive labour market, you have to understand and develop valuable skills that enable you to perform your job well. It is a hard balance because you need to be always growing and learning, but it is also essential to stay focused.
#2 Be aware of UN HQ competition
From my experience of working and recruiting in international development, the environment is very competitive. There are thousands of applicants for an entry-level job in the United Nations Headquarters, especially internships. Moreover, typical applicants to UN HQ internships tend to be doing their PhDs and need to have enough money to finance six months in New York and Geneva – two of the most expensive cities in the world which can be quite a challenge.
With this high offer of talented applicants, there is no need for the continuous improvement of consultants or interns engaged on a short-term basis. Thus, it is very unlikely that you will learn new skills that would be valuable in your further career. Furthermore, those internships hardly ever translate into immediate job opportunities.
#3 Diversify your options
For many people, working in the United Nations Headquarters is the ultimate career goal. Focusing on where instead of what is not a smart career move. We may end up with such high expectations about where we should work and which position is good enough for us that we do not even consider some easier and smarter options that may be available.
So what are better ways to do it? If you are willing to have the UN as your starting place, why not try an internship at a specific country office or regional office? One that it is closer to you? There, your skills and willingness to learn will be put to better use, plus, you will be more likely to be hired after the internship or consultancy is over.
First published at YPUN.