This page has been written by Paul Brown
, the relevant Careers Adviser for this occupational area. To see how you can meet Paul, or any of our advisers, visit our website
International organisations exist for specific public purposes which require international engagement, such as the monitoring and development of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, or the exploration of ways of feeding the world's population. They are usually made up of experts in relevant fields supported by administrative and other personnel, all of whom are drawn from the countries making up the membership of the organisation. Some organisations have membership from over 160 states - others have as few as 15.
There has also been a great growth in the numbers and influence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on international issues – essentially private sector organisations, charities, pressure groups or political activists. Remember that international careers, in a non public purpose sense, are also available in the private and commercial sectors.
Most jobs in this sector are in one of the following areas: policy making, project management, professional support roles eg finance, technical expertise, education, infrastructure and health.
For other related areas, refer to the Careers A-Z pages on:
Nature of sector or roles
There is a vast range of challenging issues to be tackled working for an international organisation. Different types of organisations address various aspects of these issues and work together in highly interconnected webs to achieve their aims. Often having a career working for an international organisation will span across several of these categories:
- Governmental Organisations: For the UK this means the Department for International Development (DFID) and for the U.S. it’s the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Sometimes governments will get involved directly in on the ground development but often they contract out to NGOs and other organisations.
- Intergovernmental/multi-lateral Organisations: eg the UN, EU, World Bank, International Monetary Fund etc. these organisations are huge and are involved in many different facets of international development.
- Non-Governmental Organisations: NGOs (eg. Oxfam, VSO and Water Aid). Currently the largest group of agencies working overseas, NGOs are involved in development, aid and relief work. NGOs receive their funding from many different sources including the government and private corporations, as well as public donations. They are often then in charge of using this money to administer development projects. Other NGOs act as middlemen between the original source of funding and on-the-ground organisations, while smaller NGOs are often sub-contracted as implementing partners to the UN agencies or larger NGOs.
- Academic Organisations/Research Institutes: The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex University, for example, often acts as a consultant to NGOs and overseas governments, whilst 'think tank' organisations, such as the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), organise conferences.
- Private Sector Consultants:The specific project management and technical skills of private sector consultants are often contracted to deliver complex projects or elements of them.
Think about the role you would like to work in as well as the kind of organisation. Would you like to be involved in policy and advisory work? To be involved in an executive capacity eg as a project manager, administrator or planner? Or do you aspire to a technical role as eg a water engineer or surveyor? Different types of organisations will have different skill needs, and it’s up to you to find a match. First figure out what type of development you’re most interested in, and the role you want to fill, then seek out the organization that will suit you.
Networks - why and how to use them
Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to assist you with your application. Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (the Fast Stream has its own page) to connect with organisations. Recent St Andrews graduates have been accepted on the European and Generalist Fast Stream. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.
- Saint Connect - The Careers Alumni Network for St Andrews where you can make contact with alumni, get industry news, participate in discussions, and search jobs. Find out how to use Saint Connect by viewing the 'Video Tour' (bottom right-hand side of Saint Connect screen).
- LinkedIn – Alumni Tool - this feature shows the career paths of 30,000+ St Andrews Alumni. By using the search field, you can find alumni working in a particular organisation eg Junior Professional Officer - Associate Expert at International Labour Organization, Trainee at the European Commission, Media Monitor and Analyst at NATO, and Director and Head-International Organisations and Government Affairs at World Economic Forum. Watch the YouTube video on how to use this resource.
- Graduate recruiters - ask if they can put you in touch with any alumni now working for their company.
- Friends and family - ask around your immediate social network for any contacts in the organisations which interest you.
- This networking video produced by Cass Business School gives excellent tips on effective networking.
How to gain experience/internships
There are many international organisations which offer work experience, but often to graduates only (see details below).
The European Union
The Stagiaire Programme
The best way for recent graduates to get experience in an EU institution is through this programme, which has a regular intake of stagiaires (trainees) for paid or unpaid work experience placements of 5 months. You cannot apply for a stage until after you have graduated, as you need to send a copy of your degree certificate with your application (if you are currently studying for a postgraduate degree, you can apply before you have completed this degree and send the certificate from your undergraduate degree). Stages are available at a number of EU institutions, principally at those listed below:
There are, however, many other opportunities in Brussels beyond the EU. Read the wiki page entitled Brussels related careers.
The European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) sample tests can give you an idea of the type of questions and level of difficulty you will face in a competition.
- United Nations (UN) – short internships for postgraduate students
- Other UN offices, funds and programmes (including UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF and the ILO) also offer internship schemes – generally (but not always) for those with/studying for postgraduate qualifications. Check the websites of individual member organisations in which you are interested, using the UN website.
- The United Nations Volunteers programme offers a variety of ways in which people can volunteer either at home or overseas, but does not offer short term overseas practical assignments for students. The UN also offers online volunteering opportunities. For all of these opportunities, you need to be over 25 years old.
- UN Junior Professional Officers JPO assignments are normally fully-funded by governments of the successful applicants, and usually require a Masters degree.
Defence and Security
Financial International Organisations
How to get a (graduate) job
Although it is possible to get experience in an international organisation, either as a graduate, or while studying as a postgraduate, the typical profile of an employee of an international organisation includes a few years' experience in other organisations as well as a postgraduate qualification.
The ambition to work 'in the UN' or the World Bank will only be realised through accumulating a sufficiently experienced and well qualified profile.
If some of these opportunities seem intimidating and unattainable at present (perhaps you are an early years student) then think about ways of gaining the skills to to build up to one of these positions. Any work experience which gives you project management and problem solving skills will be valuable, including volunteering, charity work or serious involvement in University societies.
Many individuals interested in international organisations see the need to focus on a particular angle that will create a pathway to their career. If you are interested in international aid, consider taking the time to be involved in a project abroad. If you would like to work for the World Bank, think about gaining experience in private sector banks. If you know that your languages are rusty then think about experience that will help you brush up. You will probably need to be proactive and make speculative applications to organisations that you are interested in and networking in order to get your foot in the door.
Finally, there are occasionally opportunities placed on our website. In the past we have received vacancies from organisations such as NATO, SNP Europe and The Capitol Hill Programme, as well as many others that could give you relevant skills and the next step on the ladder.
Don't underestimate the value of making speculative applications or the importance of networking.
Whatever you choose, you are likely to have to create the building blocks of your career through a careful mix of postgraduate training, experience, skills and networking. Research the area in which you want to work, work out what kind of work you want to undertake - and work backwards to plan milestones and your immediate next steps.
- Investigate acquiring specialist qualifications in a field appropriate to the direction in which you would your career to develop. It is often better to gain relevant overseas experience before undertaking postgraduate study, such as a PhD. This will not only help you to identify/clarify which direction you wish to pursue, but will also help you to choose the most appropriate course and to get the most out of your studies. Non-EC nationals might like to try for Commonwealth scholarships and the DfID Shared Scholarship Scheme (DFIDSSS). Also search the Careers Centre online funding database for postgraduate funding sources.
- Develop additional language skills. English and French are the working languages of the UN Secretariat and its official languages are English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. The EU languages are English, French, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish - but English and French are the most widely used.
Young Professional Programmes
Several organisations, including the UN and World Bank, recruit graduates to take part in their Young Professional Programmes (YPP). Entry requirements vary by organisation, but applicants must usually be aged 34 years or younger. Some organisations also require a masters degree or equivalent in a relevant discipline.
The IMF runs The Economist Program (EP) - the "point of entry" for talented young macroeconomist graduates seeking an exciting career soon after completion of their graduate studies.
Also refer to the linked organisations listed under the How to get experience section.
Key Links and Resources
Careers Centre Resources
- Getting into International Development
- Opportunities for Bright Scots in Europe (booklet) is available online. You can also collect a copy of the booklet from the Careers Centre.
- The Careers Centre subscribes to 'Going Global', a specialist website with information and job vacancies worldwide. To access Going Global login to 'Access MyCareer' on the Careers Centre website and click on Going Global Database.
- Policy Jobs: the Careers Centre subscribes to Policy Jobs - Public Policy jobs and Internships. Allows member access to its sister sites: Political Jobs, Ethical Jobs and Human Rights Jobs [subscriber's username and password]
- Careers Centre - Brussels related careers
Useful background information
- Internships in International Affairs - published by Internships, USA, this online resource provides information on over 130 organizations offering experience in the international arena. Included are government agencies, non-profit organizations, NGO's and international organizations. Access via MyCareer (password required).