This is a quite common question, and in this article we will try to give you an answer. It is neither easy nor straight forward, but we have some do's and don't's for you who aim at securing a mid-level career job.
Mid-career in a UN career context refers to vacancies requiring 5-10 year’s professional work experience (P3, P4 and for some roles also P5 level). If you’re not currently holding a staff contract (Permanent, Continuing or FTA) with the UN, you are considered as external in a UN context. This means that also individuals currently working for the UN with other types of contracts (IC’s, SC’s, IICA’s, LICA’s, SSA’s, UNV and in some organization even JPO’s) and has done so for several years, are considered external when they apply. In some organizations (i.e. UNDP) even temporary appointments (TA) are considered external, even though they follow a similar benefit/entitlements package as a staff member of the UN (but for a limited period). This blog post is mainly targeting those of you at mid-career level who have no previous UN experience.
What types of external profiles do we see most often being recruited to professional staff contracts with the UN?
The most common profiles recruited externally are administrative staff (finance, human resources, procurement and auditors). These profiles are often recruited from the private sector, governmental organizations, public organizations or NGOs. Other common external profiles are different thematic experts from credible NGO’s, governmental organizations or public organizations. These profiles often have an in-depth knowledge of a specific subject matter and lacks only the UN experience. In general, it is quite rare for an external mid-career applicant to be recruited to a headquarters location. The chances are much higher for external candidates if applying to field office locations.
Do's and don’t’s for external applicants:
Don’t use UN as your shortcut for an individual thematic career change!
UN always look for the most suitable talent and would never hire someone just to fulfill someones dream. One common mistake that surprisingly many UN applicants in their mid-career do when applying to the UN is to apply for a ‘thematic’ career change. With a thematic career change we mean when someone who works as an ‘accountant’ today wants to change and work as a ‘child protection officer’ for UNICEF in a development country. Maybe many of these applicants now have realized that they rather want to do something meaningful (work for peace, human rights, refugees or serve the poor) and sees the UN as the shortcut to fulfill this dream. These applicants have no relevant skills, nor a relevant background, nor the right education. It might sound brutal, but using the UN as your shortcut to a ‘thematic’ career change is a completely impossible strategy. The UN is strictly specialized like most other organizations, but in addition they work under rigorous audit and under constant pressure to deliver results that are cost efficient.
Don’t apply to headquarters (HQ) vacancies only! It is rare that an external applicant serves its first assignment in a HQ location. The only group where this happens frequently is among JPOs (Junior Professional Officer), but outside JPOs it is rare to start in HQ. Mid-career jobs in New York receives about five to ten times more applications than similar jobs in other locations. In many organizations HQ jobs is also given with preference to UN staff members that have served in a challenging environment or to UN colleagues with a family situations that requires some more security. For a complete external, these jobs are very competitive.
Don’t disregard any requirements in the advertisement! We have written about this in previous blog posts (read more), but it doesn’t hurt to repeat. Many applicants apply to jobs to which they don’t meet the minimum requirements (years of experience, language and education), make sure that you read what is needed and that you meet all requirements, otherwise you better look for another job.
To get a job as a complete external to the UN is extremely competitive and might be a long journey including many more applications than you ever could imagine. On the other hand most of the staff members of the UN have of course at some point in their career been a complete external to the UN so nothing is impossible.
Do assess yourself against jobs that you are interested in! We recommended that you read several vacancy postings for jobs and for organizations that you are interested in. Read what they are looking for and assess what you have; how close are you? What is missing in your profile? What can you do to fill the gap? When trying to secure a job with an attractive employer it always helps if you have a clear career objective and a strong background (obtained both relevant university degree, relevant skills and experience). Given the number of applicants competing for the same job, of course you can’t make it without a portion of luck too, but the more you have built up your own profile the less luck is needed.
Do ask yourself what are the risks you can take! Are you in a position in your life where you can take risks? Can you apply to crisis countries (often a duty station where you can’t bring family) or can you take on a volunteer assignment? In fact, crisis countries always offer the best chances for external applicants, fewer applicants to compete with and more opportunities (as funding often is focused on crisis countries). If you also consider the number of applications UN organizations receives, the majority is targeting local jobs and junior international jobs. Mid-career jobs receive often a lower number of applications.
Do ask what is it you want? Is it just to work for the UN or to work for the UN with something special? This might sound like a strange question, but in fact it is not. It helps you to determine your actual chances. If you just want to work for the UN, you should select a focus that is broad and available in each organization (e.g administrative personal, finance, human resources, procurement) as these profiles are present in every agency (many jobs in many locations and good opportunities to move around to different locations and between organizations). But if your answer is that you want to work for the UN with a specific thematic area (e.g HIV/aids) you may have a limited number of jobs and a limited number of agencies (UNAids/WHO). You may also have difficulties to move around and your career opportunities outside the UN might be fewer after completed assignment. If you ask yourself this question at an early stage (when you formulate your objective), you may be able to take a successful direction at an early stage.
Do study the organizations structure, size and objective! When applying for a job with an international organization it is always an advantage to know about how the organization is structured and what the organizations objectives are. As a mid-career professional it is wise to first make sure that the organization is offering mid-career jobs. If you study some of the Specialized Agencies (i.e WHO) you might find that the number of junior and mid-career opportunities are much fewer than in the Funds and Programmes (i.e. UNDP, Unicef, UNHCR, WFP). WHO has more senior opportunities (P-5 and above), which make sence, given the global health advocate role of WHO. It is a fact that mid-career opportunities are more common in field-based organization, and this comes back to why you should not only focus on applying to headquarters jobs.
Do study whether your profile is standing out! Again we might be a bit too brutal, but being a white male from a high income country is not a profile that stands out in an international developement career context, and in some organizations (i.e. Unicef) a hiring manager must seek a management waiver to recruit a person with that profile. This does not mean that a white male can’t get a job. What it rather means is that a white male is unlikely to be selected for a job because he stands out of the norm. One profile that is much more interesting for a UN organization is when they find a highly skilled and educated mid-career woman with management experience from a crisis country. Over a number of years many UN organizations have been looking for multilingual and highly eduacated women from Afghanistan or Sudan, so if that’s you, your chances of being recruited are much higher. UNjobfinder is of course also interested in this profile, please sign up for our newslist and soon to come job alerts so that we can reach out to you.
Do explore whether there are any mid-career programmes that you could apply for? For some nationalities the governments are on a regular basis sponsoring positions for their nationalities at mid-career level, read more about the UNDP Special Assistant to the Resident Coordinator Programe (SARC) to find out if you are eligible. Another donor funded mid-career programme is the (DFSP) in the World Bank. Also, UN organizations are sponsoring mid-career programs, one example is the Capacity Building Initiative (CBI) offered by UNHCR. In our most recent newsletter we listerd upcoming career programmes, see list here.
We hope that you’ll find these tips worth wile. We can ensure you, consider them and you will have better chances to succeed!