Three steps from internship to consultancy at the UN

By and

October 27, 2020


To be a university graduate in 2020 is undeniably daunting. Those reading this however should take heart.

We started our entry-level career (namely an internship, traineeship and volunteer service) at the UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), where we have been working with our teams to help policymakers solve real-world problems.

After around 4 to 6 months, we were offered our first professional contracts. The aim of this article is to take a behind-the-scenes look at how, in these challenging times, young interns can plan for landing a job at the UN.

Based on our experience, as well as that of colleagues we interviewed, we came up with three of the most common characteristics of “gratis personnel” who achieve the next level of their careers under the UN umbrella. They are as follows:

Multilingual skills

The ability to speak more than one of the 6 UN official languages (English, French, Spanish, Arab, Chinese and Russian) is a real asset for working at the UN.

Fluency in either English or French is especially useful. While English is more commonly used, a basic knowledge of French is deemed advantageous, particularly if the work stations are located in francophone countries (France, Switzerland and several African countries, for example).

Some of us speak Chinese (Mandarin) or Thai in our mother tongues, while another volunteer we interviewed speaks Japanese as an additional language. These plural linguistic skills have proven to be essential during the Covid crisis. When schools were closed worldwide to contain the spread of the virus, we were asked to glean local official announcements from the Ministries of Educations of the UNESCO’s member states for rapid assessment review assignments.

Hard and soft skills

Based on the responses of the young professionals we interviewed, their hard skills include quantitative and/or qualitative research competences, while their soft skills are based more on interpersonal and organisational skills that help teams respond quickly to changing situations and work well under pressure.

It is essential as part of a team to show understanding, tolerance and diplomacy, as that is the nature of the UN multicultural and international environment. By mid-term of our first contracts (by which time we had formed good relationships with our supervisors), we began to ask directly for the opportunity to continue working with the team.

Digital media competency

Our society is increasingly organised around data, so knowing how to collect and analyse large troves of raw information using Excel spreadsheets, Python, R or JavaScript helps to conduct quantitative research. This process is vital to informing policymakers, especially when it comes to creating simulations and models, and where COVID-19 in particularly has been shown to make empirical firsthand data hard to obtain.

The impact of promoting our teams on social media sites and blogs cannot be underestimated either. We’ve seen how blogging can snowball into output such as policy briefs, a 32-page working paper, or even an article such as the one you’re reading now.

All this allows us to dive deep into new research areas that help boost our CVs as consultants in international development.

The above three competencies are all part of how UNESCO’s functions in the education sector, especially with regards to strengthening international and regional cooperation, partnerships for building peace, ending poverty and driving sustainable development.

We hope this provides useful insight into the approach we used to secure a paid contract after our internship, traineeship and volunteer service ended. Young entry-level career seekers in the international development sector should feel encouraged that despite the shape things have taken this year, the shape of things to come may yet inspire and surprise new recruits.

Disclaimer: This article is the sole idea of the authors, and it does not represent the view of UN bodies on the entry-level career. We only present our first-hand experience based on our ongoing entry-level career at a UN special agency and the direct experience drawn from our three colleagues, Danni Xu, Julia Janicki and Mateo Merchan, to whom we are grateful for sharing their knowledge. 

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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