Brendan Rigby, Managing Director, WhyDev

Stephan Rigby v2

Stop and ask yourself Why? It takes more than passion and wanting to make a different to truly make a difference. The sector needs creativity, innovation and a bucking; it needs those who are not satisfied with the status quo and just continuing how things are currently done. Are you that person?

Name: Brendan Rigby Current Position: Managing Director
Nationality: Australian Organisation: WhyDev
Qualifications (and university): BA (Honours), BTeach University of Sydney; MA (Development Studies) UNSW; PhD University of Melbourne (current)
Years of experience: 8 years
LinkedIn Profile: Website:
Languages: English (native), Chinese (Mandarin) (beginner), Greek (Ancient)


Tell us a bit about your career before moving into development/not-for-profit.

Ever since I first watched and re-watched ‘Indiana Jones’ on VHS, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I focused on humanities throughout high school, and went onto study ancient history and Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Sydney. I also worked as a bona fide archaeologist in southern NSW and Uzbekistan. I then trained as a secondary school teacher, working in China and Australia before moving into higher education learning and teaching research at Macquarie University.

How did you make the transition in development and to what extent were your previous skills transferable?

I made the transition by enrolling in a Masters program that focused on development studies, and gaining ‘relevant’ experience through internships and volunteering. Although I believe I had the necessary transferable skills – writing, research, project management, interpersonal skills, inter-cultural communication – the Masters gave me three important things: 1) a strong network; 2) broad content knowledge; 3) a qualification, which is a minimum for job applications.

When did you first start working in development and what was your first role in the sector?

I worked as a graduate intern for the Centre for Refugee Research (CRR) at the UNSW. It is a role that was available to us as graduate students. CRR is an advocacy organisation that works in collaboration with refugee communities around the world, conducting human rights consultations, trainings and research. I travelled to eastern India as part of a team to work with refugees from Burma/Myanmar, collecting data of human rights violations, conducting assessments and facilitating trainings.

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?

The internship with CRR was my first role, and it was unpaid. (Largely user-pays).

Do you consider field experience important for working in development?

It depends on the type of position you are applying. For example, a communications role at a large INGO in Australia doesn’t necessarily require any field experience. However, in my experience, field experience is looked upon favourably.

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?

Yes, I had lived and worked overseas in a number of countries – India, Uzbekistan, China – in both development and non-development roles. I believe these experiences, and the skills that were developed during such as intercultural communication, contributed positively to my job applications. And, continue to do so.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

There are three necessary ingredients to being successful: 1) experience; 2) education; and 3) networking. You can rank these three, but I prefer to see them as interchangeable and complementary. The foundation of all three, however, is technical expertise.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

Currently, in addition to overseeing WhyDev, I’m engaged as a consultant, teaching and completing my PhD on the literacy practices of out-of-school children in Ghana and Myanmar. You need to be able to spread yourself out, engage in side projects, pick up consulting work through networks and generally hustle. This makes it very difficult to focus on any one thing. The industry is becoming more competitive, with the number of graduates in development being produced and the lack of permanent jobs. It is an unsettled life, and strains relationships, both family, friends and intimates. The dream job, it appears for many practitioners in Australia, is to get into program management. These roles, although removed, are permanent, well-paid and include travel. They provide security and settlement. Yet, they are disappearing, as management of programs (quite rightly) moves to country offices.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

Get a technical background before jumping on a Masters. Whether it be education, economics, law, engineering, etc. Then, shop around. Pick the Masters that best suits you in terms of content focus, that it well-regarded, will provide a good network and has work-based learning. You can arrange meetings with academic course convenors and ask the tough questions. In addition, reach out to those who are publicly engaged, like us at WhyDev, to talk about work and study. Lastly, just stop and ask yourself ‘why’. It takes more than passion and wanting to make a different to truly make a difference. The sector needs creativity, innovation and a bucking; it needs those who are not satisfied with the status quo and just continuing how things are currently done. Are you that person?

The photo above is of Brendan on a recent field research trip in northern Ghana. Read more about Brendan’s work in international development on his blog

Image credit here

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