Global Development Institute Blog

By Jessica Hope, PhD student at IDPM, and a Postgraduate careers workshop.

If you are working on research in a University and are thinking of joining the NGO sector this blog will help you to prepare.

With the end of her PhD on the horizon, Jessica Hope co-organised a postgraduate careers workshop, held at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London and delivered by their Developing Areas Research Group (DARG). The day provided information and practical advice about building a career in the NGO sector, as well as raising key questions about the roles that both academia and NGOs assume in international development. Here are Jess’ observations on the day, an outline of opportunities presented and her unanswered questions about how academia and the NGO sector relate to one another in the development world.

If like me you are in your final year of a PhD, you’ll be in a funny place. Chapter structures or referencing systems still haunt my dreams but in the day I now find myself looking towards a life after my PhD. Part of this has involved scoping possible careers and finding out about the multiple uses and applications of research. So I co-organised a postgraduate careers workshop in my role as the postgraduate representative for the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the RGS. The event was held in London on May 9th 2014, attended by postgraduate students from across England and focused on how to bridge an academic career with work in the NGO sector; the research roles within the NGO sector; the experiences that recent graduates had in finding employment; and the practicalities of applying for and securing a job- CV writing, cover letters and interview skills.

As a co-organiser I may be perceived as biased but the day was a huge success! It was extremely informative and suitably diverse, in terms of the organisations that came and spoke. I managed to move seamlessly between both my roles, by holding a coffee and clipboard when organising something and holding a well-chewed pen when asking a question about application processes. The day gave me practical insights into the available jobs in the NGO sector and how to get them, as well as raising questions that have been harder to answer, namely those about the inherent tensions between academic research and the applied work of NGO practice.

Professor Caroline Moser kicked off the day, providing insights and advice about how to bridge an academic career with work in the NGO sector. Her own career has spanned universities, and NGOs large and small. Her talk highlighted firstly the worth of staying true to your convictions, which in her case meant focusing her research on policy and impact at a time when academic anthropology frowned on such approaches. She also stressed the importance of being conscious and aware of where influence and power lie and where you will be best place to influence and contribute to an issue or situation. What I took from this was the importance of remembering what you care about, what you want to change and how you could be best placed to contribute to those changes.

Professor Deborah Sporton drew on her considerable experience of helping students to negotiate the NGO sector to give practical advice about the additional skills and experiences that you can gain whilst at university. She stressed the importance of developing a wide range of skills and experiences, for example from internships, in order to make the jump from academic study to project work far easier.

After the coffee break, we listened to Ben Dempsey from Save the Children, Deborah Harddon from OXFAM and Madhu Malhotra from Amnesty International. These were followed by recent graduates who had secured jobs at in the NGO sector, namely Dr Susannah Fischer from IIED, Dr Katy Scholfield from Synchronicity Earth and Dr Gemma McKenna from the UK Parliament. What became apparent was that if you want to work in an NGO, your PhD is only part of it. Time and time again, speakers mentioned having a good attitude, demonstrating interpersonal skills and seeing your PhD as one part of what you have to offer. You need to know the sector and you need to know what they do, how they do it and how you can fit into that. Their talks drew out the differences between NGOs and stressed the importance of being clear about what where you want to work and why. Is it humanitarian work you care about or advocacy?

Once you’re clear where you want to work, you need to remember to tell them why. As you amass more skills, more degrees and more experiences, it’s easy to forget to mention why you got involved in the first place. What do you care about? Don’t forget to mention, alongside your work experiences, your research skills and your ability to use Word and Excel, what motivated you to get involved in development in the first place.

But the day also made it clear to me that we need to think long and hard about the role and scope of research and researchers and how they relate to the NGO sector. I don’t want to be in a much-mentioned ‘ivory tower’, commenting on policies and practice whilst far removed from the day-to-day realities of NGOs, yet I value the role that academia plays when it questions the work of NGOs and links their practice to the wider ideologies, political processes and power relations – equally needed to bring about real and meaningful political change.

To listen to the recordings from the day, view speaker presentations or join the research group, visit DARG.