How do you make a career in international organizations? During the summer term, me and my team at the department of political science at the University of Jena organized a speaker series on “Starting Your Career – International Organizations as Employers”. The series aimed at giving students at the University of Jena the opportunity to get to know the variety of possible tasks in international organizations and to familiarize them with the requirements of working in such organizations – especially since many do not want to pursue a PhD. We deliberately decided to invite young professionals who recently made their way into these organizations and started their career as we agreed that they would better relate to the lives of students, their questions, and their concerns. A pragmatic and informal exchange with young professionals would allow for a (more) realistic assessment of the requirements and the actual daily work in this career path, we reckoned.
We hosted six young professionals as speakers during the summer term. They work in large governmental international organizations, such as UNHCR and OCHA, as well as NGOs and think tanks, including the Aspen Institute, Democratic Society, and Polis 180. Each speaker kick-started the evening with a short presentation – including information about the organization, their personal backgrounds, their career trajectories, and anything else they deemed insightful and important. Afterwards, we opened up for a Q&A which usually lasted about an hour due to the many questions and feedback from the audience.
Here’s what we have learned.
Languages, intercultural competence, and soft skills are key
The various speakers addressed a number of key qualifications that are necessary and useful for starting a career. In particular, they highlighted the need for language skills that form the basis for daily interaction and all work processes. In addition to English, students should acquire at least one other foreign language. Along with this, the speakers emphasized that intercultural competences play an important role to be able to work with people from different social, political and cultural backgrounds on the job. In order to develop these skills, all speakers recommended that students should gain experience abroad at an early stage, for example through study abroad programs or internships.
Soft skills such as the ability to work in teams, result-oriented work and appropriate handling of stressful situations are also very important. The six guests agreed that working for international organizations means project-based work and a lot of writing – regardless of the size of the organization and the nature of the job. The ability to write reports in a short time and adapt them to different audiences and presentation formats has been described as essential. In addition, they recommended to get a very good or good university degree. However, they acknowledged at the same time that the final grade was not the most important factor when selecting candidates.
Get a realistic idea of what it means to work in international organizations – and its challenges
Daily work routines of international organizations differ significantly. Working in large organizations means to navigate a hierarchically organized institution and offers comparatively little room for own initiatives. By contrast, young professionals have ample opportunities to develop their ideas and initiatives and to implement their own projects in smaller or non-governmental organizations. Work routines “in the field” bring about different challenges compared to the tasks and processes in the headquarters of organizations. This starts with the very environment and circumstances under which one will have to perform but also includes the diverse activities as well as interactions with other sets of stakeholders and (local) partners. Therefore, the speakers advised students to gain comprehensive insights into the different fields of work of international organizations through multiple internships so that they find out which job they want to – and can – undertake.
However, working in international organizations is a personal challenge and comes with strings attached. Choosing a career in international organizations requires high levels of flexibility and mobility under conditions of uncertainty and low predictability. Contracts are fixed-term and job offers are made on short notice. The next posting may bring you to unfamiliar terrain and requires a completely different skill set. Developing and maintaining a reliable professional network is crucial for staying up-to-date on current developments within the organization and for receiving information about new job openings. Additionally, juggling demands from work, on the one hand, and family and private relationships, on the other, poses a challenge. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance often is difficult. Large geographic distances likely put a strain on private relationships. The next job may only be available at a place several thousand kilometers from your current home and your family.
Make use of support programs that help you find your way into international organizations
There are ample support opportunities which pave the way for a career in international organizations. The six young professionals mentioned various funding programs that facilitate the entry into the profession after graduation and from which they themselves had benefited. It is important to find out about such opportunities in your country or at your university early on and to make use of such opportunities. Since the speaker series was catered to a German audience and brought German young professionals to Jena, they focused on programs for Germans (and sometimes Swiss) students. Some of the young professionals completed the Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs of the Stiftung Mercator or the Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Program, which is run by the Office Executives to International Organizations of the Federal Labor Office on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Others succeeded in starting their career after completing an internship abroad, for example as part of the Carlo Schmid program of the German Academic Exchange Service and the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, or after having completed an internship in Germany with an international organization.