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.