Archive for July, 2009

The purpose of the Peace Corps

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Alanna examines the Peace Corps from a global health perspective:

You have to remember that it’s not an international development organization. It’s a US public diplomacy agency, and a powerful opportunity for personal growth and development. But you don’t join Peace Corps to do international development work, and the organization will tell you that itself.

The opportunity to experience life as though you were poor can give you powerful insight into development and its obstacles. It’s probably the equivalent of a graduate degree in development and what it may or may not mean. But Peace Corps volunteers don’t have the resources, support, or often knowledge to have a long-term impact on the problems they are experiencing. Once again, that’s not a criticism of the volunteers, or of the Peace Corps – it’s just not what the program is designed to do.

UPDATE: One of Alanna’s readers makes the point that the benefits of the Peace Corps are not necessarily found in tangible development results, but rather something much deeper:

I would argue [the Peace Corps] can help people do what the Twitterati, bloggers, and others in business and life have discovered helps them get the job done – form relationships with people that create goodwill over time – which consequently can inspire and support development.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, I admit that only one person in my family and a few close friends had even heard of the country before I lived there.  Now, they all speak about Mali as if it were their own backyard, and the concentric circles of people that they are friends with all know about my experience.  By making the world seem a little bit smaller, there may not have been direct lives saved because I lived in a village for 2 years, but the ripple effect continues because those people want to participate in causes that they know something about.

Interview at International Affairs Forum

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

The good folks at the International Affairs Forum just posted their interview of Sherry and me in which we discuss careers in international affairs. Check it out, but more importantly check out the broad array of content all over the IA Forum site: more interviews with fascinating professionals, opinion pieces, essays, articles, etc.—all of this is great content that’ll broaden your knowledge of the international affairs field writ large. The Forum is an incredibly worthwhile place to spend some time, whether you’re in a job search or not.

Also, check out the Center for International Relations, the IA Forum’s parent organization. CIR’s goal, using the IA Forum as its primary tool, is to increase dialogue surrounding international affairs issues and to groom young leaders in the field. 

Many thanks to Dimitri Neos, CIR’s Executive Director, for taking the time to interview us and learn more about Working World.

Getting a job at the UN

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

A reader recently asked:

Will you write an entry on how to get a job at the United Nations? I understand that getting into the UN is incredibly difficult, especially if the applicant is American.

I’m by no means an expert on the employment system at the UN, so I turned to an old high school friend who spends all of his (professional) life traipsing the halls of the UN headquarters and in the field working on UN peacekeeping issues. Based on conversations with him, here’s what I know:

First, employment at the UN varies a lot based on the nationality of the applicant. The reader is right: it can be quite challenging as an American citizen to get regular work at the UN. It also varies greatly, of course, depending on what part of the UN system one is applying to (i.e. Secretariat vs. the Funds and Programmes; HQ vs. the Field). [My friend's experience is mostly with the Peace and Security components of the UN system--the departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping/Field Service.]  

Even with a good graduate degree, an applicant (especially an American) will find it extremely challenging to get into the UN system without relevant field work experience. To get this experience, one can try simply applying for jobs in UN peace operations—but for P3 jobs (the lowest professional position for which they recruit), you need five years of work experience.

If you don’t have this relevant field work experience, a better route is perhaps starting out in the UN Volunteers program. This is field-based and pays a stipend. Many UNVs can transition after a couple years into field-based P (professional) positions. Experience in the field greatly helps anyone applying for work at HQ (if that is where you ultimately want to be).

My friend also advocates trying to form relationships with people at the UN currently, perhaps starting with alums from your grad school or undergrad school. Those on the inside get vacancy announcements first and, depending on the contact, can move resumes to the top of the stack.

For Americans, a great web resource is the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs. They have updated lists of international organization vacancies. For non-Americans, checking with your governments to see if they sponsor JPOs (junior professional officers). These are typically two-year positions within the UN that are sponsored by their home governments. The US doesn’t do this, but many European governments do.

Also (and this is my recommendation, not my friend’s), as you’re looking to get your “in” with the UN, make sure you are well-read and informed on the goings-on of the UN system (just as you should be well-read and informed on any field/organizations in which you want to work). I’d recommend the UN Dispatch and Inner City Press as two solid sources for your UN watching.

Use your language skills—be a spy

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

While yesterday’s thought that language study is not just a means to an end (i.e., a job) still stands, if you’re good at Pashto, Dari, Urdu, or other less-commonly taught languages and want to do intelligence work, your study of a foreign language might well get you a job. The CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies could certainly use you.

Falling into your career

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

As I look back, I think that sometimes you can’t have the five-year plan for yourself. If you’re doing something well, you tend to keep doing it. That’s how you fall into careers.

So says Carol Smith, senior vice president and chief brand officer for the Elle Group. Every time you start to worry about where you’ll be in the next few years or whether you’re on the “right track,” remember that even the most successful professionals didn’t have it all planned out.

How to convince your parents that studying/living abroad can actually help you get a job

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Smart Study Abroad says what I’ve long tried to convince my father of: that study abroad is not just about messing around in a foreign country but is also useful career prep (and not just for international careers but any career). Annie Everett from the University of Washington identifies three key skills she learned abroad that have helped her in her career progression: resourcefulness, exposure to cultural diversity, and redefining her idea of networking.

On a related note, Mauro Guillén at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. argues that languages aren’t just tools to achieve an end (as in, you study Chinese for the sole purpose of learning to speak, read, and research in Chinese) but rather something much more. Language study is, according to Guillén, a “fundamentally humbling process by which students learn that their culture and way of expressing it are relative, not absolute:”

Acquiring another language makes students better problem solvers, unleashing their ability to identify problems, enriching the ways in which they search and process information, and making them aware of issues and perspectives that they would otherwise ignore…

Learners of languages, by exposing themselves to other cultures and institutional arrangements, are more likely to see differences of opinion and conflicts by approaching a problem from perspectives that incorporate the values and norms of others as well as their own. Knowledge of other languages also fosters tolerance and mutual understanding. Language learning is thus much more than becoming operational in an environment different than one’s own. It is a powerful way of appreciating and respecting the diversity of the world.

These are all skills that employers (especially international exmployers) greatly value. Guillén also tackles the argument that an increasingly globalized world has cut out the need for language study.  Since “major multinational companies use English at their most important meetings,” why bother with anything but English? Because you severly limit your chances for success and promotion, says Guillén, if you don’t become proficient in the language of the country in which you’re working. “English proficiency may have become a necessary qualification for employment at most multinational organizations, but it is certainly not sufficient to pursue a successful professional career in an international context.”

By undermining the importance of learning other languages, we are losing an opportunity to educate our students to be better citizens of the world, and failing to provide them with the tools and mind-set they need to understand and solve complex problems.

All of these sound like arguments that might have worked pretty well on my dad back in the day.

Idealist isn’t always enough, ctd.

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Last week I highlighted an international job seeker (a recent college graduate) who I felt was making some great moves when it came to her job search (moves, it turns out, that got her a job about a week after we met). What impressed me was the fact that she was getting out there and meeting people rather than relying solely on the Internet. She was contacting people directly and doing informational interviews rather than simply hoping that an application submitted blindly would be enough. (And I should note that I singled out Idealist in that post not as a slight but rather because I highly recommend it as an online job resource).

Anyway, following that post, a few readers inquired about the specifics of said job seeker’s tactics (apologies, by the way, for the mysteriousness created by calling this person “job seeker” rather than by name—nothing deep intended there, only caution). The gist of the readers’ questions were: How did this job seeker get these face-to-face meetings and informational interviews? Did she have a contact in the organizations? Did she simply call/email and ask for the meetings? Did she make a phone call and ask to see the person in charge?

Rather than speculate, I decided to ask our job seeker how she did it:

Before my move, I narrowed down where geographically I wanted to be (Washington, DC) and in what area I wanted to work (international exchange and global education). From there, I made a list of interesting organizations and located as many contacts of those organizations as possible. I emailed these contacts my resume and an explanation of my professional background and my future goals (working for an international exchange organization).

I received a reply less than 1/3 of the time. I kept in contact with these repliers and eventually met with them in person when I was in Washington, DC. These contacts also referred me to other employees of interesting organizations. I also kept in contact with individuals from organizations where I had been granted an internship/ job interview but was eventually turned down. It was a bit hard to keep in contact with an organization I felt did not want my skills, but I had to remember that they had an overabundance of applications and it was nothing to take personally. [My emphasis.]

From keeping contact with one of these individuals, I was granted admittance to an exclusive meeting with the president of the international exchange organization. I feel it was imperative to be organized in knowing what sort of job I wanted, as well as be perseverant in contacting individuals of interesting organizations.

And how exactly did she find those organizations that comprised her list at the beginning? Certainly searching via Google and Idealist is a good way to get started. Our job seeker also had other strategies for focusing her search:

One way was looking at an [interesting] organization’s partners, affiliates, etc. listed on that organization’s website. I then researched them and weeded out what I thought was interesting. I also consulted career books specializing in international affairs and jotted down the most relevant to international exchange. Rarely, I was given recommendations of organizations.

I was even more impressed by her moves after hearing these specifics. She set herself up in just the right way to hit the ground running once she moved to DC. And her tactic of first generating email contact with people and then, only after introducing herself and perhaps engaging in some email back and forth, asking for an in-person meeting was very well done. When job seekers ask me how they can generate informational interviews at organizations where they have no contacts, I’ll often tell them to do some research, find a contact at the organization doing a job that looks interesting, and then email that person asking for a meeting. And while I still think this can be an effective tactic, I’ll also admit that it can be odd to receive an email from someone you’ve never met asking if she can come in for a meeting and, by the way, can you advise me on my career? (And no, that’s not a veiled reference to not email me—by all means, keep them coming!).

But our job seeker’s method is much better. It still involves sending a random email to someone you don’t know, but it’s a way to start off slow. Instead of barging right in and saying, “Hi, you don’t know me but can I come meet with you so you can help me get a job?!”, our job seeker’s method allows you to ease in. Do what she did and start by emailing an introduction of yourself—your resume and your professional interests—and then perhaps asking one easy question to which that person can respond quickly and easily (such as, “Can you recommend a partner organization that I should also look into?”**). If the person responds and seems interested in helping you, follow up and when it feels comfortable, ask if you might meet with him or her in person.

This whole process might seem much more time intensive and like much harder work than simply Googling for jobs, finding them, and then applying online—and that’s because it is. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always done it right or that I’m good at it, but ask any professional who’s been in the field for a few years and I’m sure they’ll tell you that our job seeker’s tactics are far more effective than exclusively relying on the Internets.

**The initial question that sprung to my head here was, “Do you know of any jobs becoming available in your organization or related organizations in the future?” And while this may be the more direct route, the question you really want to ask, it seems like a better tactic to start slower, to not be pushy, to show you are not just contacting this person randomly because you want them to get you a job (and if they can’t, then they’re no use). Rather, you are only seeking information and genuine in your quest to seek out and learn from those already in the fields. This takes much more time than asking the blunt question, but in the end it’s much more effective, I think.

Even Hillary didn’t know where she’d end up

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

At a townhall discussion yesterday at Delhi University, Hillary Clinton gives away the fact that even she couldn’t possibly have planned it all out:

As for myself, well, I feel very grateful that I had the experiences I had. When I was your age and I was the president of my college government, I could have never predicted that I would be standing on this stage as the Secretary of State for the United States, or that I would have run for president, or anything else that has happened in my rather unpredictable life.

Yet another reason job seekers will flock to DC

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Because the economy inside the Beltway is better than most:

At 6.2 percent, the unemployment rate in the D.C. metro region is lower than in any other major metropolitan area in the country — and far below the 9.5 percent national average.

Which is great and all, though I was struck by a sobering fact buried amidst the happy talk of DC as a recession-resistant city:

A 2007 study found that more than one-third of the District’s residents are functionally illiterate, and a large portion of District residents are among the most vulnerable to recession, holding retail and consumer service-type jobs that suffer most.

You often hear DC residents talk about how “no one is actually from DC.” While this does speak to the undeniably transient nature of the city—you can run into people from everywhere in DC—such a statement would only ever be made by those well-to-do professionals who themselves came to DC from somewhere else. It’s easy to forget, when inside the Capitol Hill-K Street-NW professional bubble, that there is a large population of DC residents who in fact were born and raised in DC. It’s even easier to forget (or maybe ignore is the better word?) that too many of those residents haven’t had even close to the same advantages as the highly-educated and well-to-do professionals who migrate to the city.

UPDATE: The Atlantic confirms: DC is the place to be for jobs.



Thursday, July 16th, 2009

A good friend recently quit a stable position at a well-known and reputable organization because his heart just wasn’t in it. He described it to me this way:

I resigned because it doesn’t fulfill me, but I realize, despite my insistence on courage and faith and confidence, this may be the dumbest coherent decision I’ve ever made.

It’s impossible to say whether this was the “right” thing to do. In a similar vein, it’s impossible to say whether passing on a job that won’t completely fulfill you to wait for one that will is a wise move, in a practical sense. But regardless, and despite his own doubts about the decision, I greatly admire his courage to pursue that which will fulfill him the most and thus allow him to make the greatest impact—to go balls out in a way that I don’t know I ever could.

Idealist isn’t always enough

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

I recently met with a recent college graduate seeking a job in the international world. I was struck by this young woman’s approach to her job search—namely her insistence on pursuing face-to-face contact. While she relied heavily on web resources and email contact while still in school, once she moved to DC, she set about contacting people directly and doing informational interviews rather than relying solely on Idealist and other sites. This seemed to be an incredibly effective strategy since, by the time she met with me, she’d already interviewed for two jobs and had two more on the horizon.

Her strategy reinforced for me the notion that simply searching for jobs online, and then applying for them, probably isn’t going to cut it (especially in a down economy). Getting in front of people and making yourself a “known quantity” will prove to be much more effective.

UPDATE: I just got an email from this job seeker and she got a job! Persistence, and face-to-face contact, does indeed pay off.

Please bid on the right to hire me

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

A senior at Penn State put himself, and “the right to interview and potentially hire” him, up for auction on eBay, says the Chronicle of Higher Education today:

As a finance major, [John] Pereca had taken a course in marketing and knew that if he wanted to stand out to a potential employer, he would need to differentiate himself from the crowd. So he took out a $60 ad on eBay, starting at a 99-cent bid for “the right to interview and potentially hire” him.

“Things like this get noticed all the time,” he said. “I thought, ‘Hey, this could work.’”

He posted pictures of himself and of his résumé on the Web site and included a link on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Realizing that celebrities often have hundreds, if not thousands, of fans checking their Twitter pages, Mr. Pereca started to post on the walls of Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Fallon, and Shaquille O’Neal, among dozens of others.

“I graduate in 3 days from PENN STATE! My Auction ends on Friday!,” he wrote on several celebrities’ home pages, with a link to the eBay listing. “Help me out!” Kevin Spacey’s account responded, encouraging Mr. Pereca and his unique idea.

The experiment yielded a few offers—photographer in Ocean City, Md., a sales job in Atlanta, and an offer to be in a porn film—though he accepted none of them. eBay eventually pulled his auction from the site, as it violated their terms of service.

Pereca’s experiment reminds me of this guy job hunting outside the DC metro with a sign around his neck. Doesn’t look like these outside the box methods have netted either one a job, but you’ve got to give them credit for pulling out all the stops.

How do you want to spend your days?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

This is a question that Sherry continually challenges those around her to consider in their career discernment. What she means is that you’ve got to think not only about what organization you want to work for and the kind of cause you want to serve, but the more specific, mundane stuff too: What sort of daily tasks do you want to do? Do you want to work in the U.S., or abroad, or be based in one place but regularly travel to many others? Also important is: What sort of environment do you want to work in? Are you more comfortable with a small nonprofit that has few employees and no bureaucratic structure? Or would you prefer a more “corporate” environment, in which things are much more structured? Perhaps somewhere in between?

Case and point of Sherry’s mantra: a friend and former grad school classmate has been with the same major international consulting firm for four, going on five, years. He has already received several promotions, but has now reached the level of needing to land the “big” promotion, or else his time there is short. Basically, there are 10 employees, including him, at his level. Only three of those 10 will receive the next promotion. The other seven are then expected to move on. He called it a “rank-and-yank” model. I’ll let Wikipedia explain more:

Rank-and-yank-like models are common amongst management consulting firms, often referred to as an ‘up or out‘ approach to evaluations. Specifically, Accenture [the huge international consulting firm---you see ads featuring Tiger Woods in every airport ever] uses an ‘up-or-out’ model with its staff: if employees do not get promoted after a certain length of time at their existing career level (usually no more than 4-5 years), they are ‘counselled out’ of the firm (shorthand for being fired – but on generous terms)…

This system promotes vitality in the firm, theoretically allowing only the strongest performers to reach leadership positions. In practice, however, this system has a tendency to dilute leadership, as individuals who may be better oriented toward upper management and executive positions leave the firm before promotion to those levels is possible. Additionally, due to extraordinarily high levels of employee attrition, Accenture is built on the need for enormous recruitment, particularly at the entry level. If, for some reason, the firm was no longer able to recruit the enormous number of graduates it requires each year – or was unable to attract a high quality of graduate – this model would falter.

My friend was frantically busy for several weeks pulling together the necessary documentation and support for his rank-and-yank evaluation. Soon after turning in his supporting documentation, he was called before a panel to do an oral evaluation of his performance (sort of like defending your thesis, it seemed).

This all stressed me out more than it did him. As much as I’ve bitched about the lack of clear advancement structure and salary hierarchies in nonprofits, I realized that at least nonprofits are the devil that I can deal with. Hearing these intimate details about the stresses of what a “corporate advancement structure” actually comes to mean made me want nothing more than to never, ever be involved with a rank-and-yank promotion situation. While my friend reveled in that kind of competition and pressure, just hearing about it made me break out in a cold sweat.

All of which reinforced to me the point that an ongoing consideration of how (and where) you want to spend your days is a vitally important part of your career.

An unpaid internship during the job search

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

I felt guilty and depressed just sitting at home looking for jobs that didn’t exist.

So says Becki Gibney, a 28 year old who was laid off three months ago. Instead of sulking, she went out and got an unpaid internship.

The Wall Street Journal profiles young professionals looking for work while simultaneously gaining experience and keeping busy in an internship. An important point to keep in mind if you pursue an internship as a more experienced candidate:

To land an internship after working elsewhere, you’ll need to explain why you’re willing to take a step back, says Constance Dierickx, a management psychologist at RHR International Co., an organizational-development firm in Wood Dale, Ill. “You need to talk early about the benefits of hiring you,” she says. “It works well to say that you’re looking to make a career change or to learn something new. It doesn’t work well to say I lost my job and don’t have anything else to do.”

“Beyond good intentions” — more on international volunteering

Monday, July 13th, 2009

By way of background: perhaps the most vehement and passionate of the discussions we’ve had here at Working World has centered on the merits of international volunteering, namely here and here. I return to the topic not to stir the pot, but because of two recently-discovered sources (one comment and one website) that I think add to the discussion in meaningful ways.

First, Mariam at Global Health highlights a commenter who believes good intentions aren’t good enough:

I couldn’t agree more, and you articulated many of the frustrations I had as a recent college student watching so many well-intentioned organizations ship well-intentioned, yet unskilled and inexperienced, volunteers across the country and around the world to do jobs that locals could have benefitted (sic) from doing.  A recent experience I had volunteering in Honduras epitomizes this point.  I went there, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, as part of a team to help rural villages improve their access to clean water.  To make a long and sad story short, the sponsoring organization’s method of “empowering” villages to create “sustainable” water systems (their language), was to send in a bunch of rich, non-Spanish speaking white kids to do what the Honduran villagers could have done 10 times better and faster.  I told my project leader at the end of the week that I would have rather given the money I paid to get to Honduras directly to the villagers as wages for doing the work themselves.

Then, an intriguing short film series, Beyond Good Intentions,* which “follows the round-the-world journey of first-time filmmaker, Tori Hogan, as she investigates how international aid can be more effective.” While the videos cover a variety of topics, including micro lending, disaster relief, and for-profit approaches, it was the one examining the “growing trend of international volunteerism” that I focused on. A few money quotes from the volunteers interviewed:

One of the hardest things is doing something you feel is making a difference.

Maybe it’s selfish on my part, but I want to feel needed, want to feel like I’m filling some sort of gap…but it wouldn’t really make a difference if I wasn’t here.

[The experience] cost me 4,000 pounds. It’s expensive but it’s worth it.

But worth it for whom? The obvious theme here is that the experience seems to be invariably worth it for the volunteer (making him feel good about himself, altruistic, etc.), but that doesn’t always produce an actual good or the intended benefit for the community that the volunteer has gone to serve. This again begs the question: when does volunteering cease to be self-serving and actually benefit the community you are serving? Is it the length of time (one year being better than one month than one week)? Is it the efficacy of the program? Is is the volunteer’s individual mindset? Probably dependent on the situation and probably a combination of all of these things, and more. Regardless, these are all things to consider and consider carefully when you’re pursuing the idea of doing volunteer work abroad (especially if your initial motivation is to gain experience for yourself and your international career…).

*Thanks to Meaghan Calcari at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation [an international environmental conservation organization] for the tip.