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Step 2. Analyse Your Background

When you have selected professional targets for your career development in terms of the desired development area, region, and professional role, the next step is to understand what credentials are required and how to build them.

Understanding Required Credentials

1. Academic qualifications and training

All professional vacancies in the United Nations vacancies will require you to have a degree in a specific area that is “relevant” for the job. Normally all jobs request candidates to have at least a completed first-level university degree, which is a Bachelor’s degree (or equivalent).

However, to progress throughout your career at the United Nations, you will also need to get an advanced university degree. We strongly encourage young professionals to pursue such a degree in a particular area which is in line with your professional targets, instead of a general international relations degree to help you to get the specific knowledge and skills to be successful at the job you are willing to do, and stand out from other candidates during the selection process making it easier to land that job.

Apart from university degrees, you may also consider enrolling to professional certification programs which are, again, in line with your career targets. For example, candidates willing to pursue a professional role of Practitioner at the United Nations and be in charge of planning and implementing development projects will find it useful to get PRINCE2 certification. Those candidates who would like to build a career as Finance Officers at the UN may take Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Chartered Accountant (CA) certifications. If you are willing to engage in more creative roles, it would be beneficial to advancing your knowledge of graphic design software such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, through corresponding training and certifications. Having the technical skills and professional qualifications relevant to the job will give you an advantage at the beginning and throughout your career.

2. Languages

The United Nations has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic. An unspoken rule is that to build a successful career at the UN on a professional level, you need to be fluent in both English and French, which are the working languages of the UN. Additional language requirements depend on the location you have selected as your target region to contribute to the development of.

3. Professional expertise

Having “relevant” work experience is required for most jobs at the United Nations. These are some exceptions, including UN Internships and Young Professionals Program which do not require applicants to have any professional experience, however, in most cases it is still outlined as desirable.

But what does “relevant” experience mean? According to the UN recruitment guidelines, your prior experience is considered as “relevant” if your responsibilities are closely linked to the duties outlined in the job opening. There are two main conclusions for you to make from this. First of all, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to secure a placement at the United Nations without prior experience fo working with similar issues in another organisation. Exceptions exist, but they are very, very few. Secondly, you need to know how to describe your past engagements in line with the vacancy you are applying for. Adjusting the description of your duties and achievements to the job opening and making them sound similar to what a successful candidate will be responsible for is the key to passing the job screening.

4. Network

In a modern world, networking is the key to build a successful career in any organisation, and the United Nations is not an exception. Knowing the right people often improves your chances of getting a job. First of all, there is a hidden job market of unpublished vacancies at the United Nations which are filled through networking. The hiring process takes a long time at the UN, and the hiring department may be looking for someone urgently to start a job (e.g. to replace a person on a long-term leave) and does not always have the resources to go through the whole hiring process. The hidden job market is mostly applicable to internships and consultancy positions at the UN, but in some destinations that is also the case for staff positions.

It is therefore essential to meet people and build connections to find out about opportunities within different entities or offices. Even when you are already at the UN, if you are looking to advance, you have to make sure you’re regularly making an effort to meet new people.

If you are looking for a way to expand your professional connections and meet senior professionals working at the United Nations and like-minded peers passionate about the same issues as you do, have a look at the International Relations Career Challenge, which is a unique 5-days career training program. It offers a combination of practical development assignments, workshops, and networking opportunities to facilitate your progress towards a United Nations career.

Learn more about the IRCC


Building Required Credentials

If your background is not the best match for your selected development area, region, and professional role, we encourage you to take the time to develop the necessary credentials required for the UN job you see yourself at. It is always recommended to take the necessary steps to become an expert in a specific field instead of building a generalist profile.

For example, if you are from the UK, have generalist BA and MA degrees in International Relations and a few internships completed during your studies, it is highly likely that you struggle to find a job. However, when reading this article, you have determined that you are willing to work on 1) environment affairs with a focus on water sanitation issues; 2) your preferred region is Latin America; 3) your ideal role is Policy & Advisory. In that case, a logical path will be to pursue a Ph.D. degree in a recognised university (located in any part of the world) and do research focusing on the analysis of water sanitation issues in Latin America and how national and/or regional environmental policies affect them. During your research, plan a few field visits to the region to talk to the people in the local communities to gather data for your research – that would actually be counted as ‘field experience’ and help you in your future job applications. Simultaneously, you will need to advance your Spanish (and Portuguese, if applicable) skills to have full professional proficiency. In addition, take part in professional conferences and events relevant to your areas of interests, to build a strong network and connections with like-minded professionals.

Thus, after you complete your Ph.D., your background will be specifically targeted towards your goals. Selecting a specific Ph.D. topic demonstrates your motivation to work in this particular development area, as well as your possession of the knowledge required to work on water sanitation projects. Focusing on Latin America region and making a few visits to the field shows that you possess region-specific knowledge of and have the experience of working in the field with the local communities. Lastly, having a completed Ph.D. degree demonstrates that you are strong in performing Policy & Advisory responsibilities.

These credentials make it very easy to land a job – simply because it is highly likely that no other candidate applying for a similar position will not have such a targeted background.