Me with the WFM staff in 2001
A friend invited me to speak last week to a group of students interested in careers in International Relations at St Johns University in Queens. I have done these sorts of talks a number of times and it’s always both invigorating running into young people interested in social change and depressing because I know that there are so few jobs out there.
There was one dapper young man who was finishing his masters in International Relations who asked the panel what he could to find work in New York. He said that he had applied at a number of the major foreign policy thinktanks and non-profits in the area but had gotten no response. He wanted to know what to do next. I’ve run into so many fresh graduates like him that I tried not to sugarcoat it for him in my reply.
I told him that working in international relations and foreign policy is a hard field to break into. There are very few entry level jobs out there and there is enormous competition for the few slots that do open up. So if you want to work in this field, you have to decide how much.
I said that I’ve known high-level UN and NGO officials who when they started out were just barely squeaking by, holding second jobs at coffee shops, sleeping in quasi-legal sublets, putting in their time as volunteers and interns before something opened up for them. There are very few people I know who went straight from graduate school to a real decently-paying job working on some international public policy issue.
Much of the work available to new graduates is of the administrative, clerical-type. Everyone has to decide for themselves if that is something they are willing to do. I have been there at a few non-profits, and I think it’s a worthwhile experience, if only to learn how a real NGO functions from the administrative level. Whatever you end up doing later in your career, that’s a valuable experience, even if you are just filing and answering the phone. (Of course, it helps if your filing technique is unstoppable.)
Whether you are able to move up the ladder is another question. In many of the NGOs I have been involved with, there is no clear advancement track from clerical work to program work to running your own program. Most of the time, there is a large population of younger, poorly paid assistant staff and interns who are managed by a small group of senior staff, many of whom came from other sectors before working at the NGO. Many younger staffers just end up leaving for the private sector or law school rather than wait for an opportunity to rise up through the ranks which may never come.
I think I am the exception in that I stuck with one NGO, the World Federalist Movement, for a number of years, watching my colleagues move on to other jobs and careers. I moved up the ranks from volunteer to admin assistant to program coordinator and finally membership director. Along the way, I had to develop a whole range of skills from grant-writing to web development to public speaking. Luckily, I had found an organization that was willing to promote me and let me explore different kinds of work while I was there. But I think my experience was far from the norm.
I don’t have a lot of sage advice for people trying to enter into the UN NGO field, most of which I have already laid out in a previous post. My general feeling is that in this area there are always many more things that need to get done than there are people to do them. If you put yourself out there as a go-getter, someone who will take charge and get essential tasks accomplished, then people will notice and want to keep you around. All of the jobs that I have been hired for were to some degree created because people wanted to keep me around, to the point of inventing positions that didn’t exist before.
I have certainly had more than my share of lean years, where less than sanitary housing, no health care, and thift store clothes were the norm. But then again, I wake up every day and thank Jesus I get to do the work that I do. That’s worth a couple of cockroaches along the way.