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Advice for how to transition mid-career to the humanitarian sector

As someone who has worked in the humanitarian or development sector for many years, I often get asked how someone might transition into the humanitarian sector mid-career. Below is a curated set of tips, reads, and ideas that I’ve collected over the years that might be helpful as people think about how they might make a career change.



PIH clinicians care for a 3-year-old boy who arrived at the Ebola Treatment Unit in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, January 2015. Photograph: Rebecca E. Rollins / Partners In Health

Before you apply to any jobs…

Narrow your focus: Humanitarian work and the development sector is big -- narrow your focus by picking a functional area you want to work (HR, finance), a topical area you’ll focus on (gender, food security, health), a geography or place you’d like to live/work in (North Africa, Middle East, SE Asia), or a type of response work (i.e. natural disaster relief, humanitarian response in war zones, post-conflict transformation, development, social enterprise, etc.). And ideally, you narrow across multiple of these dimensions. For example, "I am looking for jobs in the social enterprise/start-up sector, in East Africa, ideally working with women or on gender equity issues".

  • Learn more about the definitions of different types of organizations in the humanitarian/development sector here or here.

Disregard the idea that you need a degree in ‘international development’ or ‘humanitarian response’: This is bad advice and rarely do I ever elevate someone’s CV because they have a degree in this field – academia teaches you very little about how to succeed in this field and doing a degree after a decade or more of professional experience won’t gain you much. So don’t jump immediately to the idea of going back to school as your first stop in transitioning careers – it may prove useful eventually but never make it your first-stop.

Learn the industry before you apply by connecting with those already working in it: Folks working in the field of humanitarian response or development can offer targeted, insightful advice that will be invaluable and also allow you to network when do you eventually submit an application. Some advice on reaching out;

  • Start with your immediate circle – ask friends if they know anyone working in the field and ask to be connected. I suggest starting with your ‘inner circle’ first because you will make missteps and your inexperience in the field will be obvious in your first few conversations. If you can frame yourself as ‘green’ and seek their advice on a) where your skills could be valuable, b) what spaces in this field you might fit in and c) any advice they have to make you more competitive when you reach out to others.

  • Reach out on LinkedIn or through networking – Find out who the people are in the areas you want to work in, and request that they share their experience in the field. Frame the conversation as you seeking their expertise and come prepared with questions to learn, not with a sales pitch to show why you’re a great candidate. People are generally quite responsive--even cold turkey--on LinkedIn so give it a shot. Have a clear “ask” (i.e. to learn how you got into the field and get your perspective on how a mid-career professional might transition), ask for a limited time (less than 30 minutes) and come prepared by knowing about them and their work.

  • Use common courtesies – If you do chat with people to get advice, remember to reply to their emails quickly (people often have short windows where they can connect and then things get busy and they get unresponsive), keep your emails very brief (and without a lot of language about yourself, until asked), and send a thank you follow-up email always within 24-48 hours.

Get experience before you transition fully into the field by volunteering in your home community: Generally as people think to make big switches, they forget that they can also be engaged in international development or humanitarian work in their home communities and this counts, a lot! People can volunteer by working with refugee communities, under-resourced communities, international advocacy, or local poverty alleviation work -- even volunteering in the COVID response. This can be done on the weekends or while people are still working in their previous roles – it both helps build important experience and allows you to better understand where your strengths may lie.

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Jourdan McGinn works for Partners in Health, and is Director of Policy and Partnerships at their Sierra Leone office. You can keep up with her on her socials.

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