One of the most important factors in being successful in general is to know what type of job it is that you want. Needless to say, this applies to UN careers as well. Knowing what kind of roles it is that you want makes finding and applying for jobs a lot easier and allows you to focus on a niche and build experience in that area. That’s why in this chapter some of the different job types in the UN are discussed. This will hopefully help you find which type is best for you, which one resonates most with the kind of work you have done before or would like to do in the future.
Let’s use an example to best illustrate this; I have quite a few friends for who have said to me ‘I would love to get into environmental work’ but they have no idea what they want or where to start. I always tell them; firstly, congratulations for specifying at the very least an area of interest. Next though, it is important to think about what kind of role they would like to take; are they interested in environmental advocacy? Environmental science? Project management? As you can see there are many possibilities.
Most of my personal experience of environmental roles stems from time with the UN Environment Programme and related conventions. So, for the purposes of this chapter, we will focus on the types of jobs they have in these organisations and the kinds of environmental roles that you may find in these organisations. Of course, the types of roles are generally the same across other UN organisations for other fields that are within the remit of UN organisations.
In the UN across all the organisations and at all levels there are General Staff roles; these roles tend to focus on administrative and support tasks. In such positions with the UN you can rise in ranks all the way up to G6/G7 staff with salaries comparable to midlevel professionals and those great staff perks that full time UN staff can get.
Even if your goal is to work in the professional category, these types of roles can provide great work experience in areas you may be interested in; i.e. by supporting the work of an environmental project through administrative support you will inevitably learn a lot on the environmental work of your team. As well as the skills that you may not initially think are important but play a key role behind the scenes for all these organisations to function correctly – i.e. the assistant to the biodiversity officer.
The entry route to these roles generally requires increasing amounts of work experience from G1-G7, however no university or higher-level education is required (generally) and such a qualification may in fact help in securing a position with less than the required work experience. This lower barrier to entry when compared with some of the other positions means it is technically ‘easier’ to get one of these positions. What makes it trickier however is that there are usually other eligibility requirements that limit you, as for some you must be a resident of the country where you are applying for a position etc. This is why a lot of the general staff positions across the UN are filled by local staff of that particular duty station.
The issue with general staff positions when compared to professional positions however is that there are limited opportunities for mobility and in the UN in particular it is incredibly difficult to go from a general staff position to a professional staff position. There is actually a test (aptly named the G to P exam) which takes place once a year and lets a limited number of general staff cross the general to professional barrier. So please bear this in mind when applying for general positions with plans to obtain a professional position further down the line.
Professional positions are those which are usually coveted by aspiring UN employees everywhere; whether they know it or not. These positions can also be highly varied but are linked together by their amazing career progression opportunities, great staff benefits and of course an equally great salary. Looking more closely at these positions, which generally range from P2-P5. These positions depending on the organisation can be in almost any role in any field you can think of (that would normally require a university level qualification). For instance; translators, project managers; accountants; media officers; doctors and even lawyers – all come into this category.
If you were interested in an environmental role in this job type – they can range from environmental policy officer to environmental scientist etc. As you may know, these positions require higher level education (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 reality however – and to the dismay of many potential applicants – in my personal experience the competition for these roles is generally so fierce that the minimum requirements are often just that when you have PhD candidates with a decade of experience applying for P2 positions (advertised as 2 years minimum required experience and a Master’s degree) it can easily be seen why it is so difficult to get these positions.
It is only important to note that technical roles might 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 and narrower as you go further in your career, therefore the same plant geneticist may struggle with finding a higher-level position within the UN to apply for – whereas a more general employee such as an Environmental Affairs officer may be able to get a job as a Project Manager with another UN organisation.
So, before you apply for all the available positions out there consider whether you would like a technical position based on some expertise you have or would like to develop; or a policy position which may offer more flexibility etc. This all has to do with 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 would do great in a policy role but may not enjoy a role where they are sent on mission to remote locations for project evaluations for instance.
The next step up from professional positions are the director level positions; and beyond those the appointed positions – whose entry routes are incredibly political and complex.