Skip to content

Careers Centre

International development

Sector Overview

The International Development sector can be very difficult to break into, but can also be extremely rewarding. International Development work seeks to improve the economic, health, or social development of disadvantaged states and underdeveloped areas. Development work emerges from different sectors and can concern a variety of issues. You might pursue improving public health, or developing microenterprise and microfinance groups, or improving manufacturing value chains. Other relevant issues include agriculture, biodiversity, conflict resolution, HIV/AIDS, gender, education, debt reduction, impact of climate change, human rights and forced migration to name but a few. Opportunities for travel will vary greatly depending on who you work for. Many entry-level positions will require a period in head office.

Use the following resources to start learning about careers in the international development sector:


International development attributes profile

 Key attributes/skills needed for the role
Where you could develop these skills or attributes
Project management skills

Organising roles within societies eg for events. CAPOD offers courses on Project Management within its Professional Skills Curriculum. Also master the use of EXCEL.

Language skills Improve your fluency in a second or third language. French. Spanish or Arabic may be particularly useful. Evening courses are available.
The analytical skills to solve complex problems These are most likely to be developed and evidenced from your academic studies, especially any dissertation or research projects.

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • Empathy: a capacity to understand different perspectives than your own
  • Resilience: the work is often emotionally and physically gruelling
  • Flexibility: success will come from adaptations to local circumstances


Nature of sector or roles

There is a vast range of challenging issues to be tackled in development. Different types of organisations address various aspects of these issues and work together in highly interconnected webs to achieve their aims. Often an international development worker’s career will span across several of these categories:

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.

Here are a few more resources to learn about launching your international development career:

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 as well as jobs within the Scottish Government. Alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

What to study

Any undergraduate degree can be applicable to a career in international development. Degrees in International Relations, area studies, languages, social anthropology, and modern history might be particularly useful, but many degrees can be adapted to serve a purpose. Graduate degrees are becoming increasingly useful and arguably even required for developing a career in the field. Postgraduate qualifications in public health, international relations, international development, or other related fields would be especially pertinent. English is a must, but developing other language skills is highly encouraged. Think about which geographical area you’re interested in and then study a language(s) applicable to that area.

The following resources are well worth a read when considering a graduate school:

How to gain experience/internships

The development sector is not one where you volunteer just to 'get experience' prior to obtaining a paid and/or full-time job; volunteering is quite likely to be an integral part of your career in its early stages. For the purposes of this page, we will define 'getting experience' as what you can do on a short-term or voluntary basis whilst you are completing, or just after completing, your degree. If you’re serious about breaking into international development you should consider a long-term volunteering project abroad. The more experience you have actually on the ground, particularly in developing countries, the more appealing as an applicant you will be. Spending two years working on a microfinance project in Uganda with an undergraduate degree might even look better to a potential employer than someone with a graduate degree but no actual experience.

Consider the following programmes:

If you are unwilling or unable to make a long-term volunteering commitment then you should search for internships or shorter term volunteering opportunities. Most international development internships are unpaid but you will find some paid ones if you look hard enough eg ReliefWeb has a very useful ‘filter’ which identifies positions advertised on its website according to experience required. This often shows paid internships and traineeships.

Acquiring experience while at St Andrews

Get involved whilst at St Andrews, if you can, at a local level. Many organisations have networks of volunteers who are active in campaigning, and raising funds and public awareness about the work of the organisation; in Oxfam, paid staff represent only 2.5% of the workforce. People and Planet organises a student campaign network taking action on world poverty, human rights and the environment. Look into St Andrews University based organisations, e.g. Amnesty International and OneWorld and other student societies. Remember, too, that working with marginalized communities in the UK may well have relevance for work in developing countries.


Here is a list of internship and volunteer opportunities to get you started:

Global Service Corps Headquarters in Portland, OR Offers international volunteer opportunities
InterAction Washington D.C. Offers volunteer internship opportunities three times a year, corresponding with the academic calendar and summer term.
Platform2 Locations Worldwide Fully funded programme by the Department for International Development (DFID)
UNICEF Headquarters in NYC Limited number of unpaid internship opportunities available.
UN Volunteers Locations Worldwide UN organization that promotes volunteerism to support peace and development worldwide
Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance Washington D.C. Offers part-time, PAID internships.
WWV – Inspiring Volunteers Headquarters in Somerset Specialises in the use of volunteering to enable young people and people at risk
Raleigh International Programs abroad Sustainability projects for volunteers. Read a case study of a St Andrews graduate who was an ICS Volunteer with Raleigh International
USAID Washington D.C. Paid and unpaid internships for qualified students during the academic year.
Society for International Development Washington D.C. Internships available
The World Bank Washington D.C. Offers a number of unique programs, including internships, for junior and mid-career professionals
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Multiple locations Dedicated to addressing the needs and rights of refugees and immigrants.
Human Rights Watch Locations worldwide Offers internship opportunities in many of our global offices
Clinton Foundation Location in the U.S. and worldwide Intern and volunteer opportunities in all four US-based offices as well as overseas
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace International locations One year fellowships in various areas of the foundation. Open to finalists and recent graduates.
Amnesty International International locations Unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities available.
Gram Vikas India and Africa Gram Vikas which literally means 'village development' is an NGO that works with rural and tribal communities in India & Africa. It works to promote sustainable and equitable processes which help the rural poor and marginalised achieve a dignified quality of life. Interns required to support their work across different sectors.

How to get a (graduate) job

If you want to work and make a contribution in this area, then you will need to build up evidence of relevant knowledge, experience and commitment. You are unlikely to get immediate paid employment directly in this field on graduation with a first degree. At this stage you need to work out what kind of work contribution you want to make in the future and how you will gain the necessary experience, skills and knowledge to become a convincing applicant. Whatever roles you investigate following the leads below, you will find that you need to create the building blocks of your career through a careful mix of postgraduate training, experience and networking. Evidence of commitment is vital, so if you are not already actively involved in impacting on this agenda, you need to start to do so.

You are likely to have to create the building blocks of your career through a careful mix of postgraduate training, experience, skills and networking. It would probably be helpful to have an up-to-date profile on LinkedIn. Make contact with alumni via Saint Connect - The Careers Alumni Network for St Andrews. 
Sculpt your CV and cover letter to highlight skills and characteristics necessary for humanitarian aid work. The Careers Centre provides advice and CV examples. Some of the organisations listed accept speculative applications, but for many you will need to keep an eye out for specific entry job opportunities that match your interests.


Where to start your job search

There is no single job search strategy in this area and you should think about what you can offer, what you want to do, where you want to do it – and what steps you'll have to take to get there. Gaining work experience will almost certainly be the first step of your career path. Have a look at the links below for more opportunities. When you have gained skills and/or training you will then be able to think about longer term paid opportunities.

Here are a few resources and databases for you to start your search:

Also consider reading the following books:

For those with professional experience

There are a number of organisations recruiting experienced people to work overseas in paid jobs, ranging from 'voluntary' posts where your airfare is paid, you receive free accommodation, a small allowance (perhaps equivalent to the local living wage), and your NI contributions, to jobs where you receive a salary overseas and tax-free benefits in the UK. If you are skilled, possess a relevant qualification and have a few years' relevant experience, you could apply directly for an overseas job with a development agency. Contact the development agencies (or register with the recruitment agencies) listed in the World Service Enquiry Guide. See General information about employment with DFID. The Graduate Development Scheme is now closed for applications for September 2015 - however for anyone looking for opportunities to join DFID then they may be interested in the Civil Service Fast Stream site which also provides information on job opportunities in international organisations and how to apply, as well as information on their support to the UN Junior Professional Officer programme (see below).

As well as the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) programme,and the UN Junior Professional Officer (JPO) programme there are some well-known UK-based sending agencies, co-ordinated by the British Volunteer Agencies Liaison Group (BVALG) and funded by DfID, who recruit volunteers with skills and qualifications for, on average, two year, paid, contracts:


Sample Employers


US Employers

OrganisationLocationFocus Areas
ACDI/VOCA Headquarters in Washington D.C. Improving local capacities, enhancing opportunities, sustainable communities, cooperatives and enterprises.
Creative Learning Washington D.C. Poverty alleviation and broad-based economic growth.
CNFA Washington D.C. Stimulate economic growth and improving rural livelihoods
Coffee Quality Institute Aliso Viejo, CA. Improving the quality of coffee and the lives of the people who produce it
CRDF Global Arlington, VA Promoting international scientific and technical collaboration
Cuso International Ottawa, Ontario Reducing poverty and inequality
The Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas (FAVACA) Tallahassee, Florida Private not for profit organization formed in 1982
Global Business School Network Washington, D.C. Building local management education capacity with programs, networking and events
Institute of International Education Offices Worldwide Education and training
Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance Washington D.C. 23 member organisations implementing economic growth projects overseas
Read Global San Francisco, CA. Establishing community library and resource centres
Women’s World Banking New York Giving more low-income women access to the financial tools and resources
OPIC Washington D.C. Mobilizing private capital to help solve critical development challenges
USAID Headquarters in Washington D.C. The lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.

International Employers

OrganisationLocationFocus Areas
Council on Health Research for Development Multiple international locations Maximizing the potential of research and innovation to deliver sustainable solutions
Heifer International Multiple International Locations Works to end hunger and poverty while caring for the earth
AKDN in Afghanistan Multiple International Locations large-scale rural development; health, education and civil society programmes; microfinance services; the rehabilitation of historic neighbourhoods
Financial Services Volunteer Corps New York Build the sound financial systems needed to support robust market economies


UK Employers

OrganisationLocationFocus Areas
ActionAid London, Somerset and multiple international offices Fighting poverty, without imposing solutions, but working with communities
British Council Manchester The UK’s international organisation for educational opportunities
Cafod London Official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales.”
Care International London Fighting poverty and injustice in more than 80 countries around the world
Christian Aid London Providing urgent, practical and effective assistance where need is great
Department for International Development Projects worldwide The British government's international development department
INASP Oxford, UK Improving access, production and use of research information and knowledge
International Planned Parenthood Federation London Delivery of sexual and reproductive health services and education programmes
Islamic Relief UK London Responding to disasters and emergencies, promoting sustainable economic and social development
Marie Stopes International London International family planning organisation


USA resources

The USA job market and recruitment timetables, for both internships and graduate jobs, for sectors of employment often differ from the UK.

The Careers Centre subscribes to the reputable independent USA careers information and vacancy provider Vault. The link below will take you directly to Vault subscription resources which cover this sector. You may find further useful and relevant resources linked from there as well.