One of the most common questions I get from applicants is what type of UN job is the most suitable for me?
One of the most important factors in being successful in general is to know what type of job you want. No matter what it is; if you have a goal it will be easier to aim for it as opposed to just winging it. Needless to say, this applies to international organisation careers as well. Knowing what kind of career you want makes finding and applying for jobs a lot easier. Additionally, it allows you to focus on a niche and build experience in that area. That’s why in this post we discuss some of the different job types you can have in the United Nations. Read on to find which UN job type is best for you, and which one resonates most with your work experience and future plans.
Additionally, it allows you to focus on a niche and build experience in that area. That’s why in this post we discuss some of the different job types you can have in the United Nations. Read on to find which UN job type is best for you, and which one resonates most with your work experience and future plans.
Think About The Job Role You Want
Let’s use an example to best illustrate this; I have quite a few friends who tell me that they would love to get into environmental work. However, they have no idea what type of job role they will like to assume and where to start to get the desired environmental job role. I always tell them that it is important to think about what kind of role they would like to take in environmental work. Some questions I could ask in this case would be:
As you can see there are many possibilities. Now a lot of people starting their careers may not know what is right for them. Inevitably, a lot of people end up doing entirely different things from what they initially set out to do – that’s completely fine. However, the important thing is to know exactly what you want to try. Once you have a set job role in mind, it will be much easier to complete the whole job application process.
Moreover, you will have a higher chance of job success. Although the UN is not so homogenous (it is made up of a range of different organisations with differing working styles) the job application process is highly similar for most of them. Job applicants have to sift through standardized role ‘titles’ and pay grades which are matched according to the applicant’s experience and location.
General Job Roles at the UN
In almost all job roles of this type across different organisations at the UN, the main focus is on administration and support tasks. In such positions at the UN, you can rise in ranks all the way up to G6/G7 staff with salaries comparable to mid-level professionals. Additionally, you will also be eligible for those great staff perks that full-time UN staff get.
General job roles at the UN can provide great work experience in areas of your interest. For example, you can start your career in environmental work by supporting the work of an environmental project. Getting into an administrative and supportive job role helps you acquire learning crucial for growth and success.
Plus, you will start to hone the skills that you did not initially pay much attention to. It is because the key job role behind the scenes for all these organisations is to function correctly. You can get a job role as the assistant to the biodiversity officer and learn the nitty-gritty of more complex job roles at the UN.
How to Apply for UN General Staff Roles?
The entry route to these roles generally requires increasing amounts of work experience from G1-G7. You do not need a university or higher-level education (generally).
However, such a qualification may in fact help in securing a position if you have less than the required work experience. University and Higher-level qualifications lower the barrier to entry as compared to some of the other positions. It means that it is technically ‘easier’ to get one of these positions with lesser experience but higher qualifications.
However, the tricky part is that candidates must meet some other requirements such as proof of residence in the country where you are applying for a position. Due to these requirements, a lot of the general staff positions across the UN are filled by local staff of that particular duty station.
Can You Change From General to Professional Staff at the UN?
The issue with general staff positions, as compared to professional positions, is that there are limited opportunities for mobility. Particularly in the UN, it is incredibly difficult to go from a general staff position to a professional staff position. There is a test (aptly named the G to P exam) which takes place once a year and passes a limited number of general staff members to professional positions. So, it is important to keep these restrictions in mind when applying for general positions in the UN with plans to obtain a professional position further down the line.
Professional Positions at the UN
Professional positions are usually coveted by aspiring UN employees everywhere; whether they know it or not. These positions can be highly varied. However, they are linked together by their amazing career progression opportunities, great staff benefits and, of course, an equally great salary.
Professional Positions at the UN generally range from P2-P5. Depending on the organisation, these positions can be in almost any role in any field (that would normally require a university-level qualification). For instance; some of the popular UN Professional Job positions are for translators, project managers, accountants, media officers, doctors and even lawyers.
If you are interested in a Professional environmental role at the UN, you can explore different positions which range from environmental policy officer to environmental scientist.
Keep in mind that these positions require higher-level education (the vast majority of roles now ask for a Master’s degree as a minimum). Usually, for such a role, you need to have a relevant qualification and the requisite amount of experience as a bare minimum.
In my personal experience, and to the dismay of many potential applicants, the reality is that the competition for these roles is generally so fierce that the minimum requirements are raised to PhD qualifications with a decade of experience of most candidates applying for P2 positions (advertised as 2 years minimum required experience + a Master’s). So you can probably start to understand why it is so difficult to get professional positions at the UN.
Can you Apply for Technical Roles at the UN?
It is important to note that technical roles require more experience in a particular niche than some more general roles. For instance, a plant geneticist at FAO may require more experience with plant sciences than a general ecologist. On the other hand, such niche positions get narrower as you go further in your career. Therefore, the same plant geneticist may struggle in finding a higher-level position within the UN. Whereas an employee with a broader range of work, such as an Environmental Affairs officer, may be able to get a higher job role as a Project Manager with another UN organisation.
So, before you apply for all the available positions at the UN, consider whether you would like a technical position based on some present or future expertise or a policy position which may offer more flexibility. It all comes down to what kind of impact you want to have and in which arena you would like to work. For instance, someone who enjoys networking and developing key relationships will do great in a policy role but may not enjoy a role where they are sent on missions to remote locations for project evaluations.
The step-up from professional positions are the director-level positions; and beyond those are the appointed positions – whose entry routes are incredibly political and complex. These will be discussed in a future post. In yet another post, we will discuss the bureaucracy and politics involved with such roles and professional roles in general as well as the quest to obtain one, the best entry points and routes to such positions.
Field Positions at the UN
Field roles are some of the most interesting and varied roles the UN has to offer. These roles are often the ones people think of when they plan to join frontline international worker scenarios. These roles are often hybrid positions requiring skills from both the general and professional positions. Although I have not had any direct experience in a field position with the UN, some of the types of roles that field positions call for can be IT support, personal protection officers etc. Project positions often have field staff, and in particular, the emergency response staff of many UN organisations are comprised of field staff.
Experience in the field is highly valued and regarded for good reason. In fact I have heard some UN staff referring to their field colleagues as ‘superheroes’, without the capes. The experience you gain in the field is almost always highly varied and of high quality. Owing to the nature of such roles field staff are given a lot more responsibility as compared to their respective peers in HQ professional/general roles. The learning curve is incredibly steep and rewarding in such positions. Of course, a field position in your career will also look great for future applications.
Let’s not forget to mention one of the most common ways in which most people enter the UN (from entry-level) positions these days. Internships are a great way to do three things. (hint: getting a job at the end is not one of them) The three things are as follows:
An internship provides invaluable insight into the type of work done at the UN and gives you a taste of what it would be like to work in a UN organisation. Internships offer you hands-on understanding which is better than any explanation from an article, video or friend who worked there. Based on the experience you gain from UN internships, you can either tell yourself that ‘The next few years of pain, sweat and tears will be worth it.” or you can find solace in finally knowing that ‘Nah, this UN world isn’t for me’.
Secondly, the internship provides you with the opportunity to network with the very people with whom you want to work. It also lets you know what your peers – in the form of your fellow intern – are like; in terms of their motivations and experiences. Networking is incredibly important at this stage, I cannot stress this point enough. So if your LinkedIn isn’t up to scratch yet – get it done. Again, this will be discussed in more detail in another post.
Last but definitely not least, internships give you direct work experience to use for your CV. You also gain confidence to apply for future jobs and acquire knowledge for dissertations etc. Of course, the amount of effort you put in to the internship is almost entirely up to you – but the more you put in the more you will get out of it, and of course it never hurts to make a great impression (remember to work smart and not overwork though).
Read the tips about how to maximise the experience you gain from your internship in our post about UN internships. Also, for help with your CV, you can use our services so be sure to check those out.
What are UN Consultancies?
A quick note on consultancies. First, let me tell you what UN consultancies are supposed to be – and some are definitely like the following explanation. However, the vast majority of consultancies are different from what is discussed next. UN consultancies, contracts, personal services agreements or whatever they may be called in the particular UN organisation are supposed to be positions reserved for subject matter experts on short term projects. It means the WHO may pay one of the world’s foremost virologists a per diem of $5,000 for a 20 day contract to support them in an emergency situation.
Even now, this is how the vast majority of the higher-level contracts are assigned involving hiring a single person who may be from former UN senior staff, a political figure, or subject matter expert etc. These people are hired on short term or on a part-time basis at exorbitant rates for a few hours work a week etc. This often comes out of the budget for the team requesting the expert. Moreover, it follows a highly scrutinised and complicated hiring process. Sometimes, candidates need to come from prefiltered highly competitive consultant rosters that the UN has, but of course, this ends up being incredibly lucrative for the successful candidates.
A similarly complex and arduous process takes place when companies compete for contracts from the UN by attempting to outbid each other. This is often a procurement issue and is not really relevant here but mentioned for completeness. (Secondments or in-kind contributions by UN member states are yet another way people can work for the UN on a temporary/loan basis).
Now for the way the vast majority of UN consultancies actually work. This is, of course, based on my personal experience but I have seen this practice take place across various organisations in various contexts; from local, regional and even headquarters locations. Due to certain restrictions on hiring staff directly from internships – a loophole has formed whereby a lot of interns are hired as consultants soon after their internship contracts end. They end up doing exactly the same work as they did when they were interns but this time for actual pay.
Dodgy Loophole or Great Opportunity? You Decide…
Of course, the disadvantages of these positions are clear. As a consultant, you do not get the staff benefits of general/professional positions and also your job security is a lot lower since you have to get by on short-term contracts which your supervisor may or may not renew by the end of your current contract. These types of consultancies will be discussed in a lot more detail in another post.