Discover International Development is our programme of events to learn more about careers in development, and included many interesting talks and practical information about this interesting sector! In this blog we take a look at the key entry points into international NGOs and think tanks and provide essential tips for a career in these organisations. The path into INGOs and think tanks can be a lot less rigid than for other industries, which makes it more flexible and independent but can also be confusing and complex to navigate. Using case studies from LSE alumni, career consultant Livie gave several tips and tricks to students hoping to break into international development and, more specifically, International NGOs or think tanks:
Think beyond the brand. Although it might seem attractive to work for big name INGOs or think tanks, you should also consider whether that organisation would fit your needs and interests in terms of team size, areas of focus, or feeling close to those impacted by your work. This point was illustrated by the example of an LSE alum who had worked at Amnesty International, which they considered their dream job, but eventually moved on to smaller charities where they could feel closer to the people their work was geared towards. Consider whether an organisation is right for you beyond their name or notoriety!
Don’t trust the sceptics. On the other side of the spectrum, INGOs, charities and think tanks often attract criticism from a variety of sources about their methods, their relevance or their mission. Another alumna shared that many people tried to discourage them from working for certain organisations – but ultimately, the only thing that matters is your beliefs in the choices you’re making!
Consider alternative entry points – but don’t get stuck. It is often possible to get into the organisation that interests you by working in support roles like fundraising or communications before being able to become a Program Officer or move to an Advocacy or Policy position. This strategy might be more beneficial in smaller organisations, however, where you would be more likely to be exposed to a breadth of subjects and roles, as opposed to big organisations that tend to work more in silos. If a position is not your end goal role, you should avoid staying in it too long, however, lest you get stuck in a transitional role.
Demonstrate engagement in the field you’re applying in. INGOs particularly value soft skills as well as openness to different cultures, and speaking other languages can be essential, so make sure to emphasise them in your application! A certain amount of expertise is also expected, especially in think tanks, so consider tying your dissertation, Master’s or PhD thesis to a policy challenge you are passionate about or would like to investigate in your professional career.
Have a thread to tie your interests and experiences together. Make sure you demonstrate a certain coherence and continuity between your different roles. Even if you might not know exactly what the end goal is, starting volunteering and advocacy as a student can be a very useful building block to moving on to professional roles in the same areas. One LSE alum experienced this first hand, as she moved from volunteering on youth issues in a local charity during her undergrad to working exactly on this issue in a big INGO. During her career journey she wrote a blog sharing her reflection and experiences, which allowed her to critically engage with the sector.
Volunteer! Volunteering can be a very good way of gaining experience, building a network, and demonstrating interest, expertise and commitment to the area and issues that interest you. The LSE Volunteer Centre has many opportunities for students to get involved in the cause of their choice.
Build a network. Join social media groups and mailing lists, attend events put on or attended by the organisations you are interested in or by LSE Careers, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the sector to ask them for advice!
Stay open-minded and flexible! The worlds of think tanks, government organisations and INGOs are very porous, and most people don’t stay in one type of organisation for their whole career. They also easily overlap with academia and the private sectors, so there could be many opportunities you might not necessarily have considered at first. If this is the sector you want to work in, expect to move around from one organisation to the other, and make sure to build contacts, establish yourself as a trusted partner, and stay open to unexpected opportunities!
To learn more about working in INGOs and Think Tanks, have a look at our International Development sector guide!