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How to teach yourself about international development

If you, like me, are planning to break your way into one of the most competitive and oversubscribed industries out there, you’ll need all the help you can get. Here’s the good news: if you have the will to learn all you can, the hardest part is probably over. The bad news? I have about as much idea what I’m doing as you do – but I’m writing this post to outline the strategies I’m going to use to teach myself about international development.

It may seem like an impossible task, but it goes without saying that you should learn what you love. So let your passion for development work drive you to teach yourself as much as you can about the field, and give yourself a fighting chance at the career you’ve always wanted!

1. Explore your options

Start by asking a few vital questions. What are the current priorities in international development? What goals are international organisations trying to achieve? What does the sector need now, and what will it need in the near future?

Use the answers to single out job types, specific roles and responsibilities, and even geographical areas of focus that interest you – then work out what qualifications and experience are needed for each one.

Now decide where you fit in. Do you have the relevant skills and experience to pursue your dream job? If not, how can you get them? Your career isn’t going anywhere unless you know exactly what you want from it, and more importantly, what you don’t want.

How does this work in action?

Here’s an example from my career aims: the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals place a huge emphasis on equal opportunities in education all over the world. NGOs are projected to be some of the biggest facilitators of basic education in the near future, spending huge amounts of time and money on education projects. One day, I want to use my teaching background to design and run one of those projects.

This probably means I need several years of project experience, some knowledge of the current research in education, top-level management skills, a knack for working with people, a Masters degree, and the list goes on … but you get the idea! Now we have something specific to focus on.

2. Get your hands dirty

Accept that you will have to work on a volunteer basis for a while. When it comes to development work, you’ll hear time and again that there is no substitute for good old-fashioned work experience, and there just aren’t enough well-paid entry-level jobs to go around. So learn how to trawl Idealist, sign up for Devex email alerts, and suck it up.

It doesn’t matter how much you’re earning, as long as you’re getting that priceless insight into the day-to-day of development, from the perspective that interests you. Maybe you’ll have to work another part-time (or even full-time) job to make ends meet; do what you have to do.

How does this work in action?

Here’s the issue: I have a full-time job. That’s 40 hours a week, non-negotiable, dedicated to fulfilling my contract of employment. However, the chance to stay involved part-time with a nearby educational outreach programme was too good to pass up. Yes, I do this on a volunteer basis. Yes, this means I’ll end up working a minimum of 50 hours per week. But it’ll be worth it in the long run – and when you’re having this much fun, it barely feels like work anyway!

3. Expand your mind

Read, read, read. Get the daily roundup of news stories delivered to your phone every morning, swipe subject-specific reading lists from related university courses, search the “development” tag in your WordPress Reader, scour the social sciences section of your local library, print out journal articles for bedtime reading. Remember: great minds discuss ideas!

The internet is your best friend. As if there weren’t enough books in the world, you also have YouTube, iTunes podcasts and distance-learning university courses at your disposal. Swap Buzzfeed for something that will measurably improve your career prospects, awareness of current events and pub quiz knowledge all at the same time!

4. Widen your circle

Get some contacts in the industry. I have a confession: I genuinely didn’t know a single person working in international development until I got my first bit of volunteer experience. Once I made my first friend, it was infinitely easer to meet more people who then helped me shape my mental picture of my future career. It never hurts to ask for help from people who know!

Follow people you admire on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Be honest about your intentions and career ambitions. Admit your inexperience and ask for mentorship. Don’t be annoying, but most of all, don’t be scared to ask – all leaders have to start somewhere.

5. Find your voice

Start a club. Know anyone else interested in international issues, development work or your specific area of interest? Get them involved! Whether it’s a casual chat by the water cooler on a Tuesday lunchtime or a scheduled dinner date to discuss the latest news stories in development, make sure all that new knowledge is getting actively used and dissected and applied.

Write a blog. Here’s one I made earlier! Jot down everything you’ve learned this week, give your opinion on current issues, raise awareness about your cause, formulate ideas and solutions, provoke thought and debate.

And last but not least, keep going. The learning cycle never ends!



Do you have any top tips for young professionals just starting out in international development? Share them in the comments below!


One thought on “How to teach yourself about international development

  1. Recognizing that this is a year later – what resources did you use to learn more about development history and theory? How did you learn about the history of ID and concepts that prevail the industry? (Modernization theory, dependency theory, neoliberalism, Sen capabilities, participatory, post-development)



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