Can graduate school help you land a job in international development?

Photo credit: Kotomiti Okuma, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Kotomiti Okuma, Shutterstock

Graduate school can offer the space and time to explore issues you’re interested in, gain new skills, and reflect on how you want to put these skills to use once you graduate. But are you using your time to prepare for the career you want?

When I lecture students or chat with my own friends who are pursing graduate degrees, they constantly mention their fears of being prepared only for the academic world. If that is your concern too, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Have a sense of what kind of work you want to do

While you don’t have to have everything set in stone, it’s helpful to have an idea of the type of professional you want to become and the steps you will need to get there. It will help you have your goals in mind and to prioritize the steps you need to take to get “your dream job.” It will also serve as a powerful reminder of what you are striving for in particularly difficult days.

Related: Don’t know what you want to do? Try the NYU Career Tracks Exercise for clarity

Aim to gain practical experience

Volunteer and intern as much as you can. The earlier the better. You need to define yourself as a professional and in most cases that is a trial and error process. After university check out fellowships and service programs. Check for options and/or pay a visit to your career  center, as they usually have a list of programs already in place. You can also check Stanford’s fellowship database, which has over 500 opportunities listed and many of them offer compensation.

Related: How to find a volunteer opportunity that will enhance your career

Focus on activities that will help you develop the “transferable skills” you will need for your dream job

If you are not interested in work in editorial or communications, being a peer reviewer of your university journal may not be as great addition to your CV as managing a fundraiser for your local animal shelter or helping with the logistics of an event in your university. Always keep in mind that if you are not interested in the project or activity and it does not contribute directly to the development of skills you will need, it will be added stress and a waste of time. There are many ways to be involved with your university that are helpful to your future career.

Related: Just graduated? Focus on transferable skills to land a job

Use your university’s connections

The alumni network of your university is a great way to connect with practitioners in the field and learn about potential opportunities. If your university doesn’t have an established database, look for former alumni on LinkedIn or ask for your professors to help you with an introduction. Any awkward feeling can soon be compensated with an offer to buy them a coffee or a tea.

Related: How to connect with alumni and find potential opportunities

Don’t go into graduate school thinking is a “safe path” to future employment

I know the job market is difficult out there, especially for international development. Heck, I even wrote a book about it. However, there is this myth that you will find your path in graduate school or afterwards it will be so much easier to get a job. This is not always true.

For practitioners, graduate schools provide a great space to discuss new methodologies, discuss issues from the field, improve their discourse and update their perspectives. It is a great opportunity to make a career change or become more of an expert in your chosen field. And often, when those people come out of graduate school having a few years of experience, their pay grade raises significantly.

That being said, there are other factors that affect job opportunities; for example, entry-level professionals, especially if studied the social sciences, might have a harder time finding a job. For international development jobs, employers often look for a) previous related experience, b) international experience and c) cultural adaption. Therefore, dedicating a year in a fellowship, Peace Corps or any other year-long volunteering program could be a much better investment. Or if you feel like you are missing out some practical skills, start with project management courses. Most importantly, don’t get into huge debt thinking graduate school will change completely your employment status…this simply isn’t always the case.

Related: Three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school

Have questions about grad school and your career in international development? Ask them below.




Natasha Leite has nine years of experience working as a governance expert in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. She has recently launched a book on development work called “Doing what you love! A straightforward guide to a career in International Development” that can be found here. You can also subscribe to her newsletter on development here.


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    • Natalie Shepherd
    • September 3, 2014

    Natasha, I would love your advice please!!! I am a Registered Nurse in New Zealand who is seriously thinking about quitting my job, packing myself and my husband up and moving to Australia to study either a Masters of International Public Health or Master of International Development (there are no Int. Health degrees in NZ). As you can appreciate, this is a major deal for me and an extremely expensive decision to make! My problem is that I don’t know which avenue to take. If I study Development (majoring in health) I will get a broader education in terms of development issues. But with my nursing background, I would like to stay in the health field. My husband thinks that getting a broader skill base would be better, but I think specialising specifically in health would be better. I don’t want to be a jack of all trades and master of none, if you know what I mean. I read blogs saying that Development degrees don’t mean that much because you need more technical skills to actually get jobs in the field. I am so confused!!! Any suggestions???

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