Africa 2012 Nicaragua 2013 Work

Getting a job with the United Nations

About twice a month, I receive an email from a stranger who dreams about a job with the UN. They usually find my blog through the article where I explained how to sign the P11 form electronically, which apparently was an information gap and which has gotten huge response.

The emails usually follow more or less the same structure:

Dear Caroline,

You don’t know me and I am sorry to bother you. I would like to thank and congratulate you on your important work and engagement for the human society/children/future of the world/the poor and vulnerable/etc. Myself, a highly educated, skilled and experienced Medical Doctor/Lawyer/Social Scientist/Humanitarian Worker/Human Rights advocate/etc. from a developing country in Africa/Asia/Latin America, have been applying for UN jobs for many years with no luck.

It is my goal and dream to be a part of the United Nations, and I would be very thankful if you please could give me some advice or let me know if you have any opportunities with your office or networks.

With best regards,
X

Always courteous, hopeful and a sometimes sad, these emails break my heart a little as I see the potential or at least good efforts of these individuals – but can’t do much about their situation.

First of all, I need to clear out that I am not the right person to ask for advice as I don’t have a permanent UN contract myself. I’m aspiring for one, of course, but until then I’m a consultant, meaning that I travel to where I am needed and work within the area where I best can contribute. Basically, if there is a gap of some sorts/a problem/a need for expertise within my area/etc. in an office, I get a temporary contract to do my thing for the time needed, which usually is a couple of months. This is great as it gives me a multifaceted experience, valuable insights into different conditions and countries, and I love the fact that it is exciting, flexible, fruitful and inspiring. However, being a consultant also implies a huge amount of uncertainty and the always relevant risk of falling between contracts, which is the gap where I’m forced to live off my savings, and where I am just as unemployed and job hunting as the individuals who send me those emails.

I’m aware of how hard it is to continue applying for jobs and write to people when you mostly don’t even get one of those automated “Dear Madam: Thanks, but no thanks.” emails. However, knowing how important it is to initiate personal contact, I always try to answer and contribute the best I can to the emails I receive, if only to inspire and give suggestions – which also is why I decided to write this post as it will save me a huge amount of time, reach out to more people and allow me to be more elaborate.

Having that said, I do acknowledge that I have managed to find my way into the system and that I have obtained a certain amount of understanding of the procedures, requirements and dynamics of the recruitment processes. Not saying that I have the answer to how to score a job with the UN, nor that I have any concrete solutions for the individuals who are emailing me, but that it does actually get easier once you get a foot in the door, which should be the main goal of any outside applicant, and that I believe that a combination of relevant skills, persistent and strategic efforts, good timing and a strong network is what one mainly needs.

Here is my take on a couple of suggestions. They are of course personal and based on my considerably short experience of reading applications, recruiting interns and of being recruited myself, so if somebody with better insights has anything to add, your contribution is more than welcome.

Skills:
You need a CV that is strong and relevant.

An academic degree is a must for most positions and internships. A bachelor is usually enough when applying for internships and administrative (G) positions, but a master within a relevant area is mostly necessary when applying for consultancies and international professional staff (P) positions. There are all sorts of areas within the UN system, so you can study something that you’re actually interested in, just make sure that it is an internationally recognized degree and not something completely irrelevant.

Languages are of very high importance and the requirements differ depending on the country you are applying to. Apart from the local language (not always), you will need to know English and/or French fluently, and then preferably at least one of the official UN languages. (Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Russian.)

International work experience is very valuable. Engagement with non-profit organisations as well as international NGO’s shows that you have an interest in development and that you are driven by the cause and not necessarily by the image/status/money that you might believe a UN job can provide. If applying for positions in the field, previous experience shows that you have the psychological resilience to endure hardships. Specific skills and long experience in a certain area is of course of great value, and if you somehow have managed to combine it with activities that show your engagement for the values and focus of the agency you’re applying to – you should be a great asset.

Finally – none of this has any value if you can’t present it properly. Work on your CV and adjust it for each position you apply for, same goes for applications – I’ve read applications so generic that it was impossible to find a connection to the organization. Take your time, read through the vacancy announcement five more times to make sure that you covered all the requested requirements, run the spell checker again, and check that every single thing you mention is relevant for the position.

Strategy and Network:
Be proactive! I am convinced that contacting people and following up on applications is the way to go, especially when it comes to the most important part of job hunting – getting your foot in and spreading little seeds of interest. If you are asked for something, act immediately. If you can make up relevant questions to ask and initiate personal contact – call and show your interest. It doesn’t necessarily have to give you the job you have applied for, and usually doesn’t, but if you manage to introduce yourself properly, make a lasting impression, or in some other way convince the right person that you have skills that are of value, they might pass you on to another agency, keep you in mind for the next time, or even contact you when they hear of something relevant. True story.

Any person can choose to help you if they see that you have a skill that might be relevant for somebody else. Your network is your most valuable asset. A friend once told me: “Your network is not just about who you know, it’s about who you know knows.” Your main job is to let them know that you are on the market. Connecting people is the core of the development world as there is always a need for skilled professionals, there will usually still be a recruitment process, but it is often hard to find the right capacity and obviously safer to hire somebody based on a good recommendation.

As to getting your foot in. Internships are the easiest entry point. Unpaid and not always with the best conditions, they give you the opportunity to explore the system from the inside, do that valuable networking and learn as much as possible about the processes. Other interns and staff colleagues are great inspiration as they share your ambitions and have been in the same place as you once. Exchanging ideas is extremely valuable, and if you’re very lucky you might find a fantastic person with great experience who is willing to mentor you, inspire, and give their assurance to your future employers.

Timing:
Yes, you need a fair amount good timing which is a part you can’t really control. Or, more precisely, you need to be in the right place at the right time. In Mozambique last year, I was applying for a position at WFP and while visiting the office I had an informal chat with the communication officer in charge, mentioning my aspiration to go to the field to photograph and write an article for the Swedish UN Magazine, Världshorisont. A couple of days later I got a phone call from the UNICEF office, they were looking for somebody to document their projects in the field with stories and photography for a booklet. “I have been told by several people that you are a good candidate for this consultancy.” I was as surprised as I was happy – and sent my application an hour later.

To clarify, I don’t really believe in luck as such. It might look like a clear example in this case, but was in fact a result of many weeks of letting people know that I would be looking for a job and what kind of ideas I had. Of course, I was lucky that there was an opening at that exact moment, and that it was followed by another opening that was very relevant for my experience, but I am convinced that scoring a job depends on your ability to do a good job, get good recommendations, and persistently and optimistically strive for your goals, rather than luck and prayers.

Making sure to be at the right place at the right time – instead of just waiting, that is.

And to actually find the jobs and getting an idea of what kind of areas there is a need in at the moment, my favourite resource is that of an acquaintance of mine, Sebastian Rottmair, who runs the fantastic and very useful web portal UN Job List. On the website, Sebastian shares all internationally advertised UN vacancies and often also internships and temporary assignments. There is an option to define agency/duty station/grade, or even write keywords, for a weekly email alert containing the jobs that fit your search criteria. I’ve been subscribing to this since forever.

From my part, this is the best I can do in terms of giving some general advice. There is a detailed wiki on the topic that explains the whole process and gives some very good tips and entry points: “How to get a job with the United Nations

Also, I am convinced that many of you have thoughts and ideas to add – please feel free to contribute and discuss in the comment section below.

And best of luck with your applications!

Update:
Dear all, thank you very much for your emails and positive feedback, I am happy that you enjoyed reading this post – unfortunately, as much as I would love to be able to help you out, find you a job, hire you, or connect you with a relevant colleague or UN Agency – I can’t do any of that. If you wish to ask a general question about this topic, feel free to do so under this post to share with other people who might be wondering the same, but please don’t email me your personal questions, curriculums and job applications, or add me on Facebook, as I have no authority to hire people. By writing this post, I wanted to inform about options but also illustrate that I didn’t have time to answer all emails and that I wasn’t the right person to ask. I recommend you to contact your local NGO’s and civil society organizations who work within many different areas and always appreciate and need support, or explore the option of a UNV or Online UN Volunteering.

You are of course still welcome to contact me about other matters. Just no more job applications, please! :)

53 comments

  1. Hi, Caroline You know me and I am not sorry to bother you. I would like to thank and congratulate you on your important work and engagement for the human society/children/future of the world/the poor and vulnerable/etc cause I am pretty much a sycophant person. Myself, a highly educated, skilled and experienced Humanitarian Worker from a developing country called Italy. I am going to apply for UN jobs and I wish myself luck.

    It is my goal and dream to be a part of the UN, and I would be very thankful if you please could give me some advice or let me know if you have any opportunities with your office or networks.

    With best regards,
    I am on the market

    1. Thank you for your great post
      I have recently been very inspired and motivated to work at the United nations, however I get many different opinions on this, many people would argue about how useless is the un and it is not really a wonderful job, you are not changing the world, your world savings humanitarian jib doesn’t exist ect.
      In your opinion, do you think that this is true? The answer on this topic would mean alot to me as I haven’t decided yet if I should study political science or just go into the business world, what would possibly happen if you cannot land a job in the United nation for one reason or another? Can you use the skills learned in a different way?do you think where are you from makes a difference in hiring? How would you gain experience after University assuming that I have around one year of experience in conflict field office and living in germ ( i wouldn’t be able to travel as I must live in Germany to gain the German citizenship and what kind of degree do you think that would be great asset to work with the United nations? I’m currently looking into international communications ( communications in Arabic, English German and French) or economics and political science double major?

  2. Awesome blog and really liked the way u started….with the mail. It had been so nice that you are still responding all the mails that you get.

  3. This is my first time in this page (which I discovered by a random post on facebook) and I gotta say that it is quite inspiring to me, as a humanitarian dreamer,to see the testimony of someone who does the things you do with such passion and joy, which are reflected in your posts and photos.

    I’m in a professional crisis by now, trying to define what I want and how to do it… I’m in a position in which is kind of hard to aspire to a good humanitarian work due to the lack of opportunities in my country, my few job experience and the necessity of money to survive. This might sound weird, but I found you as a very successful woman, what advice could you give me in order to achieve success as you did?

    Thanks! Keep with the good work all over the world!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Mauricio.

      I have no direct advice for you other than what I wrote above, try with local NGOs.. and if you feel that there is nothing in your country, see if there are any scholarships or the likes that you could apply for from your university or city – and try abroad! Some places are so cheap to live in that if you can just go there and offer your support and survive with very little money, that is if you are not bound to your home city by family or other responsibilities.

      Wish you the best of luck.

      Caroline

  4. Dear MS. Caroline,

    Thank you for this helpful post. I believe this is for people who want to make things happen.
    Please keep it up.

    Best Regards,

  5. Hello,

    I work since a decade with international organizations in many war torn countries. the UN is by far the most useless organization I ever saw. every UN staff is concerned only about how they would find a job, contract, assignment, cashing their per diems. the worst is that they produce reports without even going to the field, using local ngos as “implementing partners”.

    I don’t understand how young people would dream about working with the UN, its a place for humanitarian mercenaries only or older ones waiting to finish their houses to be built.

    I could go on and on about the failure of the UN agencies in the field., but there will not be too much to read.

    1. Hi Teddy,

      Thank you for your comment, I see where you’re going and I have witnessed a lot of it myself, not only within the UN, but very much within small NGO’s, big international organizations, governments and.. there is no end to this list.

      However, I’ve also met fantastic, knowledgeable and extremely commited people at the UN who represent the core values, work 24/7 and have implemented innovative ideas that have led to measurable and tangible results. Also, I believe that all the difficulties and the inefficiency the UN so often is accused of is something that is eing acknowledged and worked on with a very urgent goal of improvement.

      International development + thousands of individuals with varying priorities + corruption probably isn’t the easiest puzzle to solve though.

      I think it’s very important to include the local NGOs in the reporting process but do of course see that there is a gap if information isn’t monitorerd and as I said, I’ve witnessed it as well and been hit by dissapointment on more than one occasion. I still think your critique is very harsh and generalizing though – first of all I don’t see any wrong in expecting a salary for one’s efforts or making sure to have a job the next month, also – I think working for the UN for many people is a huge sacrifice of a social security safety net, family life, lasting social life, a proper home, and the possibility to commit to anything long-term.

      On another note, you are more than welcome to take a look at my blog again tomorrow and next week – I should be on my way to go very far out into the field with very unpleasant conditions – documenting and implementing.

      Caroline

      1. This is a great collection of insights of working on an OS project. I had started putting down some of these exact same thoughts based on what I’ve seen while working on Degrafa. When I get something a little more tangible together I’ll be sure to share it.Posted by on ·

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  7. hey caroline

    Thanks a lot for the article. I have been trying to get in the UN for a year now, and reading that there are probably thousands others who have been trying the same for years now is a little intimidating. However, since i completed by bachelors just two years ago, I know I have quite a long way to go, including getting a relevant masters degree. I was thinking of MA in IR, the degree has a broad scope and is more or less relevant to all departments n the UN. What do you suggest?

    1. Hi Shayan!

      Don’t be intimidated – you do have a long way to go but that’s just great.

      IR is what I have, and many others. It’s generally applicable to many of the vacancies, but I think it’s important to have something else as well that makes you stand out. I have my Social Psychology and Intercultural Communication which sounds weird in the beginning but makes sense after giving it a thought. All depends on what you want to do, as I said – there is a a whole world of departments for all kinds of professions, from graphic designers to medical doctors. Study what you think is interesting and.. a suggestion: start doing voluntary work or other things on the side right away to learn, decide on what your area is, and gain those valuable years of work experience.

      Check out the online UN volunteering page – so many exciting things there that I would jump on immediately if only I had more time.

      Good luck!
      C

      1. Thanks for the swift response. I have done my bachelors in marketing and have been working in a globally renowned media agency for the past two years. I dont find the work very meaningful because at the end of the day, marketing is about profiting from the insecurities of your consumers (at least thats the conclusion i have reached). And since i was very active in the Model UN circuit during my undergrad days, I know quite a bit about the UN and have always been fascinated by its work. So i am quite sure that i want this, its a just a little daunting to switch careers though.

  8. I really like your blog. I just want to share something here. Getting a job in UN is mostly about references or I should say favouritism. If you know someone at higher level you can get an internship even before finishing high school. I know someone who just made a phone call and her high school daughter got the internship at UN. I know someone who got the internship at the age of thirteen because his father is a well known businessman and they have given some big amount of donation. During my own internship I met someone who was hired at P2 position and she had only bachelors but she had a good experience. That lady told me she got this position only because of her friend who referred her. For me it’s very demotivating that someone with less education is getting into the UN just because they know someone. What about the people who have a education and still can’t get an entry level position because they don’t have anyone to refer them.

    1. Hi Ayesha.

      Thanks for your kind words and for your comment.

      I agree about the system being closed and complex, and what you are saying is partly true, I’ve heard about it myself even though I would say that most people on normal contracts that I have been working with got their jobs battling their way rightfully through the system, getting P2 positions after years of consultancies or vast experience in another sector and then a JPO, I’ve never seen anybody on an entry level without considerable work experience, I actually don’t consider them “entry level” at all. What a lucky girl that got the P2 – she must be really happy and I hope she’s doing a good job!

      I had absolutely no affiliation with the UN or even references when getting my first internship. After that, it has probably helped that my former director told my coming one that I was a safe bet when she received the phonecall for reference, but still, I have always had to send an application and compete with other candidates.

      From what I know there is no longer the option of hiring somebody without a competetive process where at least three people are selected and interviewed for the assignment. I think the only exception is in emergencies, but they usually have a roster for that as well where people have been selected before. This is both good and bad. It makes the system more “fair”, but definitely also more “beaurocratic” and a hiring process takes MONTHS.

      What I think is that if you are qualified and well connected – somebody can recommend you for the exam or interview, but then there will be competition. Sure, if the people know beforehand that they want you – you probably have a greater chance, and that’s not always fair – but I’m still sure you can get in without “special treatment”. It’s just really, really hard.

  9. That is a nice article and discussion, with some true and some not really. Just my little 5 cents.

    From one side, I personally (UN permanent P staff at late 20s) believe that most of those people who “dream” about this job actually hardly understand what it is all about. I had started as an intern some time ago where I got the very first experience and was partially disappointed and partially I really felt to be the part of something big and important. When you get inside of that it is totally different from what it looks from outside. After internship I had worked in an intercontinental corporation when I got an offer absolutely unexpectedly and took me 4 weeks to make a decision whether yes or not, and mainly it was driven by the financial crisis in the private sector.

    I would strongly advise to spend a couple of thousands of bucks (if can effort, my university scholarship paid for it) for the experience in the internship, but not more than 3 months in order to understand what it is all about and if lucky enough a couple of years as a UNV, would not do it for longer than that (I have not been a UNV, but I see in my office how much they struggle). It is a valuable experience that will help you to make the final decision, whether you fit or not.

    Also, it is important on what kind of job you are interested in, I am working in administration and very far from humanitarian (probably for humanitarian ones UN is the greatest place, but you will be amazed how complicated and politicized it is) so I basically can work anywhere NGO, private and public.

    If at the end you still feel like you fit into it, then all the possible advice has been already described very clear above (probably cant be better, compliments!).

    p.s. networking or connection does not really work well for externals, unless the connection is really good – there are plenty of tools to prevent it.
    p.p.s. search the forums and groups related to the UN Staff and UN Careers on LinkedIn, can be also useful for some tips of the insiders.
    p.p.p.s. only thing is missing from the advice above is the experience. It is really important to have some relevant experience in order to have the least chance to shortlisted for the test at least, and do not lie in your PHP, they are going to catch you!

  10. Dear Ms Caroline,

    It is a wonderful post. Deeply appreciated. I’ll like to get updates,please? Thanks.

    Kind Regards,
    Stay Lifted and Inspired.
    Michael.

  11. Dear Ms Caroline
    This is an educative website, I have benefited a lot from it. I am a South Sudanese who posses Master of Science in the filed of Population, Development and Reproductive Health and I wish to work with UN please advice me.

    1. Hi Ben,

      First of all – I’m no longer in Africa. :)
      And no, as a consultant I was not entitled to RnR.

      Best,
      Caroline

  12. Hi, Caroline,

    I like your website – you are definitely “ting tong” as my Thai GF would say ;-).

    You might go to India again (double entry visa) – but when you’re next time in Bangkok,
    let me know (email me a few days ahead) and I/we’d invite you somewhere :-). I work
    for an NGO, too, CRS – otherwise, look me up on LinkedIn.

    With a lifestyle like yours, you should base yourself in Thailand, too – not in Sweden.

    p.f. 2014,

    Saint Dale

    1. Thanks for the invite! I always seem to miss to stop in Thailand whenever I “pass by” Asia.
      I’ll think about changing base as I still don’t really have one. :)

  13. Hi Caroline,
    Thank you so much for your post, truly inspiring and useful. I have a business background and after having spent 9 years developing a successful career in marketing at an international level I have decided to switch towards something more meaningful. I have given it lots of thought and research and after considering many options I believe that the UN could truly be my dream job.
    In my previous experience I have developed strong entrepreneurial, analytical, creative and managerial skills. The “only” problem is that I see no relevant connection between marketing and what the UN is looking for (at least on the surface).

    Is the UN interested in this kind of profiles at all? Which steps would you suggest me to make it to the UN?
    Thank you very much in advance!
    Pau

    1. Hi Paul,

      Of course we need marketing minds! Especially in innovation and communication initiatives.

      The issue would be that services like that usually get outsourced to companies that work in the area during a “campaign” or times when they are necessary, rather than hiring an in-house expert.

      I’m not sure what kind of advice to give you, if you have ways to adapt your skills and experience to the proposed needs in an advertised position – go for it! I think the UN is increasingly curious to hire people with an “outside the box” mindset and expertise from other areas. So that’s positive for you.

      Best of luck,
      C

  14. Hi Caroline,

    I have only a few questions for you that I am sure you will have the answers too. I am a married man at the age of 26 and I am looking into building my credentials furthermore to be able to get a field assignment with the UN. I am curious, would my wife be able to go with me? Or would there be issues with that? Also, are field positions easier to come by than P positions?

    Thank you in advance for your time and answers,

    Nate

    1. Hi Nate,

      It depends. Some people say it’s easier to get field positions as less people apply for them, but many field positions are reserved for local staff and the trend is that less and less internationals are being hired. The distinction between “field position” and “P” can’t really be made as you have P positions in the field as well. If you’re referring to administrative GS posts, then they are usually for nationals, while Ps will be for internationals.

      It’s definitely easier to get in on a UN Volunteer contract or a consultancy, as the regulations are less strict. (and the contracts less safe)

      Regarding your wife, it would depend on the type of contract you get and whether the place is considered a “family duty station” or not. International professional (P) positions in a family duty station usually give your spouse a visa and allowance to join you in the country.

      C

  15. Hello Caroline,

    Thank you for the information. I have been applying to the UN for nearly 7 years. Reading your post has given me ideas on how I can increase my chances of getting into the UN.

    Thanks once again!

  16. Hi Caroline,

    I was reading through your article and looking in the comments sections and I find that a lot of the people for the most part definitely have a lot more experience under their belt. I am barely graduating with my associates in International studies and psychology but I want to make sure I am on the right track to get into this career path. I found your article so useful, that it helped me get an idea of what are some things that I need to accomplish before I even begin the hiring process. I was hoping you could tell me a little more about what you did as an undergrad that got your towards this career path because as you said it yourself, timing is everything.

    Thank you in advance. I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Diana

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  18. Thanks Ms Caroline. Your advice is so helpful. I have been trying to get a GS job with UNEP for the last two years. The problem is that lately it seems to take much much longer before getting a response from HR. Its been 6 months and nothing yet. How long do you wait before moving on?

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  21. Great article! A quick question, in regards to following up on applications. Have you generally found that UN HR staff are receptive to people sending follow-up emails to applications (i.e. applying for a position that isn’t via inspira)? If you aren’t sure, don’t worry! Thanks :)

  22. Hi Carol, writing from Kenya-E/Africa. Have sent 350 applications via Inspira alone, done 12 online tests latest in May, no luck yet. Am I jinxed? Why doesnt the UN send back results of tests? Just a regret, after 3-4months of anxious waiting!

  23. Good read. One thing is becoming certain is that it’s an enormously competitive, and in many ways closed (to outsiders) system. Easier to land on the moon. P1-P2s go to interns and those who passed competitive exam, respectively. P-4 upwards are either political or career UN movers. P3 is then the entry point then, with average of 1k applications per position (of which most are from the system). You will see through LinkedIn profiles that once an UN employee, always an UN employee. For those aspiring to get in, you must either know someone very high up or climb the ladder for years starting as an intern…you chose. Hanging on to a job or staying in the system becomes in a way more imporant than the job itself. The attractiveness of the package is tremendous, let’s face it. Pinnacle of a career of international civil servant.
    Also think of what you can achieve in the time devoted to the getting into the UN system, which may/will take years. Good idea to keep plucking away with whatever you are doing now.

  24. Inspiring writings and I greatly admired what you have to say , I hope you continue to provide new ideas for us all and greetings success always for you..Keep update more information..

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