My suggestion to young graduates looking for jobs in development is to ensure you are able to demonstrate some critical skills such as flexibility, adaptability to ever-changing and complex environments, as well as research and communications experience in multicultural settings.
|Name: Debora Di Dio||Current Position: Monitoring & Evaluation Specialist, Education|
|Nationality: Australian and Italian||Organisation: UNICEF – The United Nations Children’s Fund|
|Qualifications (and university): Master of Arts in Development Studies and Culture Change (Macquarie University, Australia); Certificate IV Project Management (TAFE NSW, Australia); Diploma in Chinese Language, Culture and Economics (Capital University of Economics and Business, Beijing, China); Honours Degree in International Relations and Asian Studies (Oriental University Institute, Italy)|
|Years of experience: 6 in development and overall|
|LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=62489753|
|Languages: Italian and English (native), French and Spanish (fluent), Chinese Mandarin (intermediate), Arabic (just started learning!)|
Tell us a bit about your career before moving into development/not-for-profit.
I started to work in development over 6 years ago while I was doing my postgraduate degree in Development Studies in Sydney. Before I realised that this was my career field, I had always had jobs in international environments, research and advocacy. When I was an undergraduate student, I completed an internship for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, a short stint as a freelance researcher and writer in China, work experience in project management in France (with an NGO involved in European initiatives to promote employment opportunities for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds), and volunteered for years with Amnesty International supporting human rights campaigns and organising events.
How did you make the transition into development and to what extent were your previous skills transferable?
I think the key is to start early and have a wide range of interests. Since I was a teenager I knew that I wanted to have an international career, so I tried to build critical skills (communication, research, project management) while understanding what I really wanted to do. The transition into a paid development role was not straightforward, but I was able to adapt my skills and experience that I had gained in previous roles. My suggestion to young graduates looking for jobs in development is to ensure you are able to demonstrate some critical skills such as flexibility, adaptability to ever-changing and complex environments, as well as research and communications experience in multicultural settings.
When did you first start working in development and what was your first role in the sector?
My first significant experience in development was with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Bangladesh, which I joined through the AYAD – Australian Youth Ambassador for Development Programme funded by the Australian Government. WFP is the largest humanitarian organisation with the mandate to provide food assistance and eradicate hunger. The AYAD Programme does not exist anymore and it is now called AVID,but it still maintains the same objectives, and it is a great opportunity for young Australians who want to work in development.
After spending two years in Bangladesh, which many development practitioners consider the test country for development, I was offered the opportunity to work in Mali where I spent nearly two years, and now I work for UNICEF Jordan supporting the emergency response to the Syria crisis. My professional experience so far has been mostly with United Nations agencies, but I strongly recommend young graduates to seek roles in NGOs, big or small, national and international, particularly during the first 4-5 years of your experience. Working for NGOs can give exposure to different roles; and working closely to beneficiaries and often in very challenging environments can be really helpful to understand whether working in development is the right career path.
How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get in? Was the role paid or unpaid?
My first role in international development was while I was doing my postgraduate studies at Macquarie University in Australia. I was quite lucky to have the opportunity to work with AFAP – the Australian Foundation for the Peoples of Asia and the Pacific, an Australian NGO that has projects all over the Pacific, South-East Asia and Africa. I initially joined the organisation as a full-time Office Manager, but given my interest in development, my postgraduate studies and contribution to the organisation, I was quickly given an in-programme role as Programme Support Officer, focusing on Cambodia and Vietnam and helping with field monitoring, reporting and proposal writing. It was a great experience that provided me with first-hand exposure to the world of aid and development. After that, I became an AYAD – Australian Youth Ambassador for Development with the United Nations World Food Programme in Bangladesh and since then my work has taken me to South Asia, West Africa and now the Middle East.
Do you consider field experience important for working in development?
Absolutely. I strongly believe that you cannot manage a programme, understand the context and overcome the challenges unless you are based in the country where the programmes are, working side by side with your national colleagues and in direct contact with the people you are trying to assist. Field experience is the best: it helps learning and is highly motivating. All development and humanitarian professionals have extensive overseas field experience, sometimes in the most challenging environments. My suggestion to young graduates or people starting in development is to gain as much field experience as possible and also spend some time in remote communities. It can be extremely challenging, but most times highly rewarding.
Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role? If yes, do you think your field experience was essential to your job application?
My first field experience was in China in 2005, at a time when the country was not as developed as it is today, and hardly anybody could speak English! My work experiences in China were not exactly in the field of international development but rather in research on urban-rural migration, but I was later able to transfer the skills I had acquired there.
Field work and research are definitely essential aspects on development work; and experience in conducting field research is a great asset in many roles. For young graduates with no international experience yet, I think you should consider having a field work component as part of your thesis. It doesn’t have to be international; you can do it in your community, as long as you are able to show you can master skills such as quantitative and qualitative research methods. Field experience doesn’t only show analytical skills and an understanding of development issues – it also demonstrates personal skills such as adaptability, flexibility, tolerance and being able to live and work in multicultural settings. These attributes are essential for anyone seeking a role in international development.
How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?
We hear people everywhere talking about the benefits of networking to get a job in international development. And it is true, networking can help expand your contacts and opportunities, but it is not the key to get you a job. I strongly believe that if you don’t have skills and experience first, networking is worthless.
I look at networking as access to information: it is important to stay engaged, knowing where opportunities are, getting to know as many people as possible. There is nothing wrong with following up after meeting someone for the first time, and letting them know you would be interested in working with them if the right opportunity comes up. But I have also met many schmoozers since my first paid development role, and also people who played up their skills and experience, particularly to get paid roles with the United Nations. In my experience they have not been more successful than other colleagues who get great jobs because they’re good at what they do.
In the end, networking should really be about enjoying the opportunity to meet new people and learn about them and their goals. It should never feel like work, and the people with the most success are the ones that are truly interested and sincere.
What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?
Advantages: I have a fulfilling job; I get to travel the world, access cultures and places, and learn about others. Disadvantages: I wish I had more quality time with friends and family. We can’t change the world but maybe we can leave it as a better place.
Living and working in a developing nation is not always easy; your daily life is an adventure, but the work can also be extremely fulfilling and motivating. It is a life choice but it makes days and years full of experiences. I have been to places most people will never visit in a lifetime! Staying away from family and friends is tough, but these days it’s really easy to be connected. I try to maintain regular communication.
What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?
Start early, either by volunteering or by getting a paid job in fields that will be helpful for a career in international development, for example communications, research or human resources. Another key factor is to learn at least one foreign language, as this will increase work opportunities.
It is also important to understand your niche and passion: development or humanitarian work; emergency response or long-term development programmes; health, water and sanitation or child protection (just to name a few). The world is full of generalists but to really break through, young graduates have more chances if they start focusing on specific fields, then expand knowledge and experience with time.
Do not think that the best jobs are at the United Nations; international NGOs are great places to work for, and all UN jobs are quite competitive and there are very few opportunities for young graduates with little experience. I would also suggest complementing work experience with training; there are a number of qualified providers that offer training on topics related to development and emergency response. Many are also free and available through online learning. A great website is ReliefWeb which offers resources, country updates, and job opportunities.
Finally, don’t lose hope and keep applying. The right opportunity will come through!
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