“UN internships are not the only (or best) way to get your foot in the door at the UN”
Internships at the UN are something that many people wish they could put on their resume. What you should know though is that getting an internship at the UN is a lot more achievable than you may have initially thought.
For those of you who don’t know, UN internships are short term professional work experience opportunities aimed at students and recent graduates (you can only start a UN internship within one year of graduation for most of the UN organisations). They offer the chance to work as part of a team in a UN organisation doing meaningful work for up to 6 months. All applications are completed online, for UN secretariat organisations the opportunities are available through Inspira. The others can be found on the respective sites of the organisations you may be interested in. For instance, FAO, IFAD and UNDP all have their own job portals through which you can search for internships, you can also find all these positions and more listed on our site for your convenience (internationalcareerfinder.com).
Generally, the process involves applying for a position that is posted online, followed by an interview (or a short test and then an interview) for those who passed the initial online screening of applications. It is very important that you meet the application eligibility criteria before applying otherwise you risk being automatically filtered out after having invested the time into preparing the application. In my personal experience the UN organisations tend to be quite strict with the criteria as they have a lot of applicants per position and it simply allows for a much easier filtering process.
The process can often take months from the point of application to the point of acceptance and usually unsuccessful candidates are not informed of their rejection. This means that to stand the best possible chance for getting an internship you need to apply for a lot of positions. For me personally, I found that for every 10 or so targeted and relevant applications I completed, I received 1 call to interview, and that for every 3 interviews I was offered a position (I used to not prepare for interviews thoroughly enough so I am sure you could do better!). Now you may find that your numbers differ completely but mine are there just to provide a rough guideline. For more in-depth information about the application process, application tips and interview advice please see chapter 10.
There are a wide variety of UN organisations and an even wider range or roles within them, meaning that you can find internships across the globe that would benefit you and suit your needs. It is also important to note that different agencies and duty stations have different pros and cons. For instance, for most people the biggest downside of UN internships is that they are unpaid. This may leave you struggling to afford an internship and more details on how you can fund your internship are discussed in this chapter. For me though I found ways to minimise the impacts of this, for example I had two offers for similar internships with the same organisation, namely the UN Environment Programme. One was for an internship position in their Geneva office and the other at their headquarters in Nairobi. You don’t have to be a genius to work out which would be the more cost-effective choice. Knowing that I could spend less money for a 6-month internship in Nairobi than I would spend for 3 months in Geneva, my choice was obvious. Another example is that the UN’s specialised agencies have different rules regarding internships and are as restricted by the Secretariat’s rules. This means that as an intern for WFP, UNICEF or FAO you can receive a monthly stipend – now this may not be substantial in some cases but it is much better than receiving nothing at all. These are all things to consider when deciding which internships to apply for.
My advice when applying for internships is, don’t be too picky. If you are interested in wildlife conservation, by all means apply for biodiversity internships but also apply for more general environmental related positions – such as a climate change support intern. This way you will improve your chances of obtaining an internship whilst also having the opportunity to explore related fields and broaden your experience.
Fast-forward a few months and couple of dozen applications later, assuming you have accepted your internship offer and are ready to head off to your duty station. You now need to know how to best take advantage of the position, and know what to expect from the internship. I think it is important firstly to clarify and specifically mention what you should not expect going in to the internship. That is, you shouldn’t expect to get a job out of it after your internship is over. In fact, the UN specifically specifies that you cannot be hired as a staff member by the team you worked with or any other UN organisation for six months after your internship contract ends. This is purposely done in order to prevent interns applying for internships as entry points for a UN career. Therefore, to avoid disappointment it is best to know that going in rather than a few months into the internship. Of course, some people find ways around this by getting hired as consultants, independent contractors, UN volunteers or under a personal services agreement as these are all technically non-staff positions – but this is also not guaranteed and highly dependent on the budget of your hiring team and their discretion.
What you should expect, is that you will have the opportunity to do real, meaningful work – not just fetching coffees. What you put into the internship is up to you, my advice is to work hard and smart at all times. Whilst you are unpaid and may feel that gives you a reason to slack off, it is key to work hard as it makes a good impression on colleagues and also allows you to gain as much experience as possible for your resume. A lot of people blame their teams or supervisors for the kind of grunt work or limited work that they tend to do. In reality though, it is up to you to do as much work as you want, there is always something to do. For instance, I had several experiences with UN internships both as an intern myself and in a supervisory role, and I found that the best interns were those who were pro-active in their work. They took advantage of opportunities that arose, completed tasks they were expected to and asked if there was anything else they could help with etc. Whereas some interns did the bare minimum – which is fine but they were noticeably less invested in their internship than the stand out interns.
So, when I say take advantage of your opportunities as an intern, let’s take the example from earlier and imagine you are interested in wildlife conservation, but you have taken a role as a climate change support intern. If you are still more interested in the wildlife conservation work than your own, then my advice is work hard. By working hard and showing your supervisor that you are more than able to complete the assigned work consistently at a high-quality level, then I suggest you first seek out the relevant team in the organisation you want to work with – ask them if there is anything you can support them with and if they say there is, then ask your supervisor if you can spend two days a week working for them. More often than not, you will find that your supervisor is more than happy for you to do so – as long as you can maintain your standard of work.