Julian Doczi, Senior Research Officer – Water Policy Programme, ODI

 Fewer people probably dream about doing accounting or IT for the UN than about being a humanitarian field worker, but either type of career is equally valid and important in development.

Name:  Julian DocziNationality: Canadian / Hungarian Current Position: Senior Research Officer – Water PolicyOrganisation: Water Policy Programme, Overseas Development Institute (ODI) 
Qualifications (and University): M.Sc. Climate Change and International Development (with distinction), University of East Anglia, UK, 2012; B.Sc. Environmental Sciences (with distinction), Royal Roads University, CA, 2009
Years of experience (development/overall): Over 5 at this point (total), over 4 of which are in development  
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address: http://www.linkedin.com/in/juliandoczi
Languages (and level of fluency): English (fluent); Tagalog (Filipino) (high intermediate); French (low intermediate/basic)  

 

Tell us a bit about your career before moving into development/not-for-profit – what did you do, where did you work and for how long?

Prior to my start in development in 2010, I worked on issues related to environmental science in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. I had little knowledge of, or ambitions toward, international development at this stage of my life. I was mainly interested in environmental issues. I studied a B.Sc. in Environmental Sciences, during which time I worked a few summer jobs – in a hardware store, helping my dad with his small business, as an assistant in a pulp and paper laboratory and as a researcher on stormwater pollution for a small intergovernmental organisation that focused on water quality in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet.

How did you make the transition to international development and dud you find that your existing skills were transferrable?

My transition to development came suddenly and without any real preparation. Emerging from my B.Sc. in late 2009, I had hoped to find a job with an environment department of a government agency in Canada, or with an environmental NGO or consulting firm. It was the height of the recession though, and these types of organisations were not hiring much. I spent the period from Sept. to Feb. without relevant employment, applying to jobs of this nature and growing increasingly frustrated as time passed.

Although I had not considered development as a career, I did know about a particular programme of the Canadian government that involved working abroad and interested me. This was the International Youth Internship Programme (IYIP) of the (now defunct) Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The programme was similar in some ways to the US Peace Corps, albeit shorter and sub-contracted out through partner NGOs. Partner NGOs offered six-month, paid internships on particular topics in in low-income countries around the world. I had kept my eye on the opportunities that emerged with this programme, though most had not interested me or were in non-environmental sectors. These positions were also very competitive and I felt that I did not have the right skills.

In early Feb. 2010, growing increasingly anxious for a job, an email arrived into my inbox from one of the mailing lists I subscribed to, advertising an urgent need to fill one of these IYIP roles. The partner NGO was called Sustainable Cities International (now defunct) and they were advertising for an IYIP position to be based in a local government’s environment department of a small town in the Philippines – San Fernando, La Union – and to support them on issues of water, sanitation and solid waste management. At the time, I knew nothing about the Philippines.

Nonetheless, I sent off a typical CV and cover letter. To my amazement, the recruiter called me the next day, we had a formal interview the day after, and I was offered the position the day after that – with a week-long training course scheduled later that month (Feb.) and my deployment beginning at the start of March. This was an exceptional case and, to date, I have not heard of or experienced any other recruitment that was processed this quickly.

This all came as a shock, mixing intense feelings of excitement with dread and uncertainty of what I was getting myself into. In the short time I had to prepare, I did my best to get up to speed with the Philippines and the technical knowledge needed for my role. Luckily, the week long training course provided to us was helpful, instilling us with our mission and working through potential issues like culture shock.

I was lucky in this process to be paired with a more experienced colleague (the NGO sent us in pairs to the different cities it was working with). A Harvard-educated superstar who had lived all over the world, my colleague provided me with the support I needed to manage such a sudden transition effectively, inspired within me his passion for development and world affairs, and helped me to excel in the role and get as much out of my time in the Philippines as possible. Without him by my side throughout our six-month internship, I surely would have burned out, failed at the role, and/or enjoyed myself less.

The role itself threw us into many of the ongoing activities of San Fernando’s environment office. On any particular day, we might have been responding to a dead turtle on the beach; undertaking a ‘garbage audit’ of a local neighbourhood to support its waste segregation initiative; having dinner with the City Mayor; hosting the US Ambassador on a ribbon-cutting visit; drafting new laws for the City on sanitation; and so on! We were learning as we went – my formal environmental training during my B.Sc. helped a bit, but everything I knew had to be readapted to this different context.

These six months were the most formative of my life so far, changing my worldviews, career ambitions and interests, and setting me on the path to where I am today. I am proud of my accomplishments in the role. Principally, we helped to set up a new waste segregation system for a local neighbourhood and drafted an amendment to the City’s Sanitation Code, which was passed by City Council with only minor amendments.

After travelling around Asia for a few months, I used my networks from the first job to find a second one on a similar topic with an NGO in Manila. This led to my formal training in development thereafter, heading to the UK to complete my M.Sc. in Climate Change and International Development at UEA. I headed back to the Philippines thereafter to complete my M.Sc. thesis and to undertake some consulting work on water and sanitation topics, again in Manila.

This collective experience was enough for me to be competitive for a position at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. This is the first full-time, permanent job in development that I have held. I had a typical application, but won out over the 200+ other applicants because of an energetic and passionate interview that I gave, my field experience in the Philippines, and the strong links between my programme at ODI and my former professors at UEA, who gave me a good recommendation. ODI offered me a job as a Research Officer in Water Policy in early 2013 and I continue to work with them today.

At ODI, I support and lead policy research projects on water management issues in low-income countries. In the last two years, I have been involved in 11 projects around the world, rapidly advancing my skill as a development professional. Highlights of my job to date include serving on the global management team for a £25 million WASH project in DRC, Liberia, and Kenya, publishing two high-profile research reports on water management in China that are helping to change the discourse on environmental management in the country, and working with some of the most talented people I’ve ever met. Hoping to continue onwards and upwards in my development career!

Do you consider field experience important for working in development?

Yes, absolutely. I think it is impossible to provide useful research or advice on development issues without deep insights on the countries of focus. There are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions – every country has its own stories and particular strengths and challenges. Ideally, field experience should be gained in as many contexts as possible, including across sectors. For example, I think that a development practitioner should aim to have experience with the extremely poor and marginalised, with the middle classes, and with the extremely rich and powerful, across both urban and rural contexts and across as many countries as possible. Being able to take both ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ views of things (not just in economic terms), as needed, is important for enabling sensible project designs and policy recommendations.

There is no one set path to a development career, but I think that field experience is a fundamental building block. In addition to this, I think a multi-disciplinary education is important, to be able to understand the complex issues facing the sector(s) and country(ies) you will work in as a development professional.

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?

No, but I was lucky in this regard. I had travelled around North America and Europe as a child, but my IYIP job in the Philippines was my first time in a lower-income country. I was lucky that it was a paid role too. This experience and my subsequent contracts in the Philippines were key factors that helped to secure me a role with ODI. I would definitely recommend this path for others keen to break into the development sector.

Unfortunately, I think the trend is increasingly toward unpaid internships as the starting block for most people. If you can afford to do one (or two, or three – I see more people becoming serial interns these days…), they can often be a worthy long-term investment. However, do your homework beforehand and make sure that the position will actually offer opportunities to grow – not just photocopying and preparing coffee!

I am not a fan of unpaid internships in this sector or any other, as they exclude those who may have great talent but are unable to bear the short-term costs of free labour in exchange for the potential reward of a long-term career boost. Instead, I encourage young graduates to sell themselves as ‘consultants’ instead of interns whenever possible. This can set you apart from the crowd and can give your application more confidence and professionalism.

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

Yes, networking is very important – even for jobs subject to formal principles of meritocracy, like the UN. It does not take a statistician to observe that many professionals in formally meritocratic roles got their start as consultants, interns or project partners with staff in these agencies. In my case, a strong reference from my professor at the University of East Anglia was a key factor in securing my role at ODI, since he and my managers had collaborated on several research projects in the past. Of course, I still had to prove myself worthy with a strong CV, cover letter, and interview, but the added factor of a personal connection or a recommendation from a trustworthy source helps you to stand out from the crowd.

Just like development itself, there are ‘no one size fits all’ solutions to effective networking. A direct personal connection is not always necessary – the ‘name brand’ of your previous experience or education can help too. For example, my water policy team knows most of the development actors in the water sector and knows which ones do the type of work that we like. A CV from someone who has worked with one of these particular water organisations can be just as good as a personal recommendation, since we generally know and trust their quality of staff.

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

Development is one of the most diverse sectors out there, if it can even call itself a sector, since many of its stakeholders refuse that title in favour of their technical / national specialty, while others embrace it. As a young person from a high-income country, you can have a development career that is rooted within a technical or national discipline that does not differ much from the kind of career you could have at home. By contrast, you can also have a development career that does not resemble anything you might find at home.

As such, it is difficult to generalise on the advantages and disadvantages of development work from the perspective of your personal life. Fewer people probably dream about doing accounting or IT for the UN than about being a humanitarian field worker, but either type of career, in this example, is equally valid and important in development, and will have different lifestyles. We need all kinds of people with all kinds of interests.

That said, I can offer some personal perspectives from my own vantage point – as a Canadian doing policy research in a development think tank while living in London and having previously lived in the Philippines. London is a fine place to live and socialise – albeit very expensive! Many development actors have offices in or near the city, allowing good networking opportunities – e.g. DFID, WaterAid, Christian Aid, WWF, EBRD, IMO, Chatham House, LSE, etc. Here at ODI, we host many public events that you can attend and meet staff from these types of organisations.

Working in a think tank is a different experience from working in other types of development organisation. At ODI, we undertake policy research projects on development around the world. Unlike an NGO, we do not undertake development programming (e.g. building toilets or managing refugee camps). Unlike a donor or UN agency, we do not fund development projects or engage directly in most intergovernmental policy negotiations. Our niche is in policy research, which is usually less rigorous than ‘pure’ research in universities but aims to have a greater policy impact, through our strong external communication efforts and snappier writing styles. We are a non-profit organisation but compete for research projects alongside universities and private sector firms. Our competitive value is that we can bring expertise from across the development sector to bear on our projects and that we are well trained in producing briefs and reports that policymakers actually read.

 

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

There is no one set path to a development career, though I believe that serious applicants will make their best efforts to attain a high-quality education and extensive field experience. In recent years, we have seen that development assistance by high-income countries has stabilised or even declined in some cases. At the same time, there are many more graduates emerging from top schools with development degrees – competing for fewer jobs. This is particularly the case for so-called ‘international’ jobs. For example, a USAID-funded project in a lower-middle income country may have accepted several international staff onto their payroll five or ten years ago. Now, though, bidders need to make a strong argument to include even one international staff member, who would usually be the Chief of Party or the equivalent rank. This leaves fewer opportunities for junior, ‘international’ staff to find paid roles on these types of projects.

In this competitive market, where people with PhDs and ten years of experience are applying for internships, you need to make smart choices about the education and career experience you attain. Although you do not always need a degree from Harvard, a high-quality education will help. Depending on your sectoral ambitions, an Ivy League school might not always be best. For example, some of the best schools for people wanting a career on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are Cranfield, Loughborough and UNESCO-IHE. A Master’s degree is standard these days. A PhD can also help, more so in some contexts than others – e.g. academia. In many cases, you may be better off spending those four years gaining work experience.

Applicants should give similar thought to the places where they gain field experience and how it can match with their sectoral interests. For example, I worked on WASH issues in the Philippines. However, the country receives little WASH funding compared to those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. If I wanted to apply for a WASH job in sub-Saharan Africa tomorrow, my previous WASH experience would help, but it would still be a challenge for me to secure a role, since I did not gain this experience in the countries to which I would be applying.

More generally, seeking a job in development can be a full-time job in itself. Applicants will need to continually hone and tailor their CVs and cover letters for each job they apply to. They will also need to stay up to date with latest sector trends and ensure that they have a professional online presence on sites like LinkedIn and Devex. Devex also publishes many great career advice articles that are worth reading. Applicants would do well to take language courses for their countries of interest too, focusing in particular on the UN languages if they intend to seek work there (the majority of UN staff have knowledge of at least two UN languages).

I also recommend that applicants engage as much as they can on social media (Twitter) in a professional basis, and try pitching ideas for blogs to popular development websites. Most web editors are happy to receive good blogs from anyone – no need for a formal company title behind your name – and these can help get you noticed and develop your online profile. Be sure to seize opportunities that present themselves as well. I did not follow most of this advice when I started out, yet still managed to get lucky in the opportunities I secured. That said, you will have a higher chance of succeeding with a strong effort to develop your profile, to network, and to target yourself at specific development organisations. Good luck!

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