UN Office Matters

  • Go to a country office!

    I took a long break from writing this blog. I blame my silence entirely on my kid, who now refuses to draw cartoons for my posts. Plus, now that he's older, bribes have become too expensive.

    So, where was I? Oh, yes: networking.

    While uncomfortable, networking can be an excellent learning tool. But instead of telling people how great my work was (nobody cares), I spent my time asking how people got to where they were. Two things became immediately clear during these chats. People love talking about themselves (no surprise here). And they would always come alive when reflecting about their experiences in country offices (or the 'field,' in UN speak). Not only the work seemed much more interesting, but it was also viewed by many as the optimal career track.

    "Say what?! Working in the field is good for a career in international development?" 

    That may sound obvious for many, but when you're in the beginning of your career, you just don't know better (at least I didn't). Especially when you're working in HQ. As far as I was concerned, I could easily work in New York for ever (isn't the UN there, after all?). But having a resume sprinkled with work stints in different developing countries is your passport to success (I'm trying hard to refain from rolling my eyes, but this is actually true, so I'll let the image below speak for itself). 

    Unfortunately, to get a job in the field, you need field experience (a-ha). In a previous post, I discussed how being born and raised in a poor country doesn't make you any more experienced for aid work than say, someone who spent a semester painting houses in Costa Rica. So what to do?

    If you're new to UNICEF, I recommend reaching out to Country Offices with cold emails (they are good in responding). Do your research about the country program and your interested area of work. Write a sort of 'cover letter' email, saying that you're looking for short- or long-term employment opportunities and ask them to put you in touch with  xx department. Attach your CV and hope for the best (the more you do this, the less anxious you'll be). Adjust your expectations: most likely this will lead to internships or consultancy opportunities. I know. It's hard. 

    In my case, this meant turning my job hunt from HQ to the field. Before talking about what I did to get my first staff post, let me emphasize how important it is to think about these decisions carefully. Fully embracing a career in international development, especially in organizations such as UNICEF, also means adopting a certain lifestyle. It affects not only you, but your entire family. And they may not be super happy about this transition. 

  • The art of networking

    Tired and frustrated with the elusive pursuit of a UNICEF staff position, I resorted to bold measures: I wrote an email to a top senior UNICEF staff asking for advice. 

    This was a big deal for me. While I consider myself quite extrovert and friendly; at the workplace, I was very naive about the networking game. The thought of shmoozing people I didn't know felt wrong and I often caught myself saying that I simply couldn't play 'that game.' And that was that.

    Encouraged by my newly founded 'boldness,' I sat with this senior staff member and asked him for career advice. Mr. Mentor calmly paused for a few seconds and said, "Do you know what your biggest problem is?" With my heart racing and my mind flashing different possible answers, I took a deep breath and waited for the verdict to hit me in the face. "You work too much," he said.  


    "You work too much... and don't network enough," Mr. Mentor explained. "You're always behind your computer and don't spend enough time attending brown bag lunches, asking questions, making yourself known," he added. "If people don't know you, they won't offer you a job," he concluded.

    While part of me wanted to hide myself behind the outrage of being 'punished' for 'working too much,' I knew he was right. Since then I've bestowed the same piece of advice to numerous people looking for a job at the UN. In return, I also heard many people declare, "I'm not good at networking!"  

    I understand this too well, as I used to say the very same thing. But the truth is actually quite simple: you either play by the tune of the organization, or you choose to dance elsewhere. 

    While I hesitated at first, I learned a few things about networking (a lot through trial and error). But one thing stands out: rely on the good work you're doing when reaching out to people. I think that makes a big difference.

    I've also learned that some people are 'natural' networkers. But there's a lot of them who just sell hot air. Sometimes their amazing networking skills will get them ahead in spite of lack of content of their work. But I still like to believe the truth will catch up with them. I want to believe that, sooner or later, good work wins. 

  • "I just want to get my foot in the door!"

    The stars had aligned: a Temporary Assistant (TA) position was advertised in a unit where I had previously worked at as a consultant. I knew I was a strong candidate, who filled pretty much all the requirements for that 9-month staff contract. I had done excellent work for them in the past, and knew everybody in the team, except the new boss.

    I was excited with the prospect of making the transition from sporadic consultancy gigs to glorious full-time UN staff member. In fact, I had already began fantasizing about my new office and how I would decorate it...

    I was so sure I would get the job, that I didn't even bother preparing for the interview, which I thought was going to be only an informal chat anyway. Little did I expect to be sitting in an interview from hell, being bombarded left and right with tough questions. I  was especially surprised when asked, "What kind of job do you see yourself doing in 5 or 10 years?" 

    I looked at my interviewer for a few seconds in utter disbelief. How could he ask me something so ridiculous when I was obviously desperate trying to get my foot in the door of the UN system? I must have translated this thought into a more diplomatic response, which pretty much meant that I saw myself working at UNICEF in the long run, no matter what kind of job I had. Not satisfied, he continued fishing out for specifics of the posts I wanted to have, when, where, why... 

    Not surprisingly, I didn't get the job in the end (although I was soon vindicated because the person who eventually got hired sucked big time). But this was an increadible eye-opener for me. Yes, preparing for job interviews was a clear lesson learned. But most importantly I came to see that I was so busy trying to get a job that I never gave it too much thought about building a career. 

    Of course you never really know where you will be in 5 or 10 years... but you need to be aware of your professional profile - your likes, dislikes, your abilities, your weaknesses. Being aware of these things will help you be more selective in your job hunting. At the same time, it'll help ensure a good match between work and doing what you love (and are good at).

    This brings me to an important career advice I've learned from this experience: even when you (think you) have limited options, be picky, follow a common thread, and close a few doors.

  • 3 years, a consultant

    Once you're "in the system," and you do good work, it's not surprising to be on a 'rolling consultant status' for quite some time. People learn about your work, and you get an edge
     in the recruitment processes for short-time jobs. It also helps to be 'around and available.'  

    I was around and available for three years at UNICEF HQ, with a small stint at a consultancy at UNDP in-between jobs. I worked in different sections, but mostly in policy. It was a bitter-sweet time, with lots of highs and lows. 

    I was very happy and proud to work as a consultant, particularly in relation to the high-level jobs I was doing. Plus, as a consultant I often didn't have to deal with the daily management crap that comes along with being a full time staff member. I was bound by deliverables and could manage my time and work load according to them.

    But it was also a frustrating time. The uncertainty of not having an steady pay check was horrible. I was lucky to count on my husband's salary during those jobless months, so I was able to 'wait' until the next gig came along. On the other hand, I met many capable individuals who served as consultants at UNICEF but couldn't afford to play the 'waiting game' and ended up leaving the organization.

    I always had my eyes on a staff position and I remembered applying to several posts, particularly during my third year as a consultant. My job hunt during those years yielded three important lessons, which I'll expand in the next posts:

    1. Know where you want to be in 5 to 10 years;

    2. The art of networking; and

    3. Go to a Country Office!



  • "So, how good are you with Excel?"

    My second networking meeting at UNICEF during my volunteer days was with the Data and Analytics Section. The person interviewing me was from Colombia, with a sympathetic heart for fellow Latin Americans - a rare sighting at that time at headquarters. 

    The chat went very well: we mostly talked about Rio de Janeiro and soccer, which greatly helped establish the tone for a promising work relationship. But the meeting wasn't for career advice only, as I had previously anticipated. He was actually looking for a consultant (serendipity calling!).

    He explained the terms of reference for the consultancy, which would be soon advertised through a competitive process. It was a four-month gig to develop a comprehensive mapping of data in education from multiple sources for all countries in the world, and write an accompanying policy report. "Are you good with Excel?," he asked me. "Absolutely," I said with a slight tinge of remorse... 

    I was eventually offered the job and went on to spend four excrutiating months managing complex data sets side-by-side with an enourmous Excel bible I had got from my local library. Granted, I wasn't necessiraly 'good' with Excel at first. But I never thought it was hard to learn it, especially if you have the discipline, the determination and an Engineer father-in-law willing to help. And, boy, did I want that job?...

    Turns out the report was quite well received, particularly by the Global Chief of Education. I was subsequently invited for a longer consultancy to expand on this work and develop a more complex mapping, support costing exercises and write a comprehensive policy position paper for UNICEF in relation to secondary education. I was over-the-moon happy, until a staff from a UNICEF Country Office told me, "you know nobody reads these things in the field, right?" 

    Way to kill my vibe, lady...

  • "You lack third world experience"

    After a semester interning at UNICEF HQ, I returned as a volunteer for a couple of months after graduation.

    I was a bit hesitant at first. Being a non-paid volunteer with two Ivy League degrees wasn’t my dream graduation present. But this was an opportunity to do what I hadn’t really done during my internship days: network. 

    Networking is at the heart of the UN system. But I wasn’t good at it. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t cut out to ‘play that game.’ I’m not an introvert by nature, but the thought of shmoozing people I didn’t know or trying to impress big wigs at meetings with ‘smart’ questions that I already knew the answers for was discomforting and tiring, to say the least. Later I learned that networking doesn't have to be about the people you know - that can only carry you so far. It's about having the right people know the great work that you do (more on that later).

    During those months as a volunteer, I wrote to about 30 people at UNICEF with the classic “I would like your advice” approach. Of all those cold emails, I managed to secure two meetings. 

    The first was with a young Child Protection Specialist, who no longer works for the organization. I was determined to make a good impression. After a relatively short conversation, she told me she was ready to diagnose ‘my main problem,’ as she saw it (drum roll, please): “You lack third world experience.” 

    She went on to enlighten me with her own ‘third world’ experience. Having lived all her life in Minnesota, she explained that she interned for a year in South Africa after graduating from Law School in the US.

    After a long pause, where I expected her to continue with more ‘third world’ stories, I realized that she was done. That one year in South Africa was her triumphant moment living amongst the poor. A tall feat that somehow opened her the gates for a job with UNICEF. I humbly asked her if my 20 years of living in a working-class, single-family household in the countryside of Brazil, with no exit strategy, also counted as third world experience. She flat out said no. 

    For as tempting as it may be, I won't get into a north-south debate here. I had many years to dwell on this episode. When I think about it now, I want to believe it was simply a bad choice of words... But the truth is that having a long 'list' of different 'field' experiences under your belt is a great advantage when it comes to working in development (and, yes, the 'field' almost always refers to developing countries...).

    It was also my impression that a long list was perhaps more important than the actual substance of the work, but maybe I’m being cheeky. Again, that ‘list’ is a guaranteed gateway to impress employers. Sad for me, 'my own list' was almost inexistent. I had a young family and couldn’t afford venturing from place to place to build up my resume.

    Lucky for me, my other meeting was a bit more promising…

  • What do I remember from my intern days?...

    First I remember how little I knew about UNICEF, as an organization, and how everyone took this lack of knowledge for granted. Later I found out that some Country Offices have orientation programs, which allow you to have meetings with the heads of programs to learn what they are doing.

    This is very helpful. But I remembered, as an intern, I had more basic questions about the organization as a whole that I felt were too dumb to ask... (how does UNICEF operate? what is that that we actually did? how did the fundraising work? who was the executive board?). These questions went unwanswered until I took the PPP (program, policy and practice?) induction program many years later, as a staff member. Needless to say, I had lots of a-ha moments during that workshop...

     I also remembered being surprised at the many high-level       things I was responsible for. This was not the kind of 'bring- coffee-to-your-boss' situation. I had my hands on very important stuff, like writing facilitator's guides on gender mainstreaming, speeches for meetings at the General Assembly, draft human rights reports, etc.

    It took me a while  to shake off the 'wow' effect at the thought that I had a tiny,  microscopic influence on what I saw as major policies that  could affect the lives of many. I felt proud entering the UNICEF  and the UN building. I felt important.

    Later on, I learned that  few people actually read these reports, anyway.. 

    Finally, I remember quite vividly thinking about my next move, especially about the kind of job I would like to apply for when I graduated. Naively I thought that if I slaved away as an intern for 6 months, there would be a shiny job happily waiting for me in the end of the tunnel. 

    But the reality was different, of course. Back then, I remember seeing an ad for two entry-level (P2) temporary assistance (TA) positions. They seemed like cool jobs, something related to doing research for one of organization's flagship publications, The State of the World's Children. Let me reiteraite: these were P2 and TAs. In other words, very entry level positions.

    I didn't apply for them. But I thought these were exactly the kinds of jobs that I would eventually get once I graduated from school and put in my time at UNICEF as an intern. Great was my surprise, however, when I eventually met the successful candidates for these posts: not only did they have PhDs from top universities, but they also had tons of work experience working in Africa and Asia (nicely done, Katie!).

    And then I knew that my trajectory from intern to staff member would take a while... and it did... 

  • The life of an intern

    A colleague from my master's program at Columbia was doing her internship at UNICEF HQ in NYC. She told me that her unit was looking for someone else to help out with the work load. So, on top of my studies, a long commute to the city, and the guilty of not being a stay-at-home parent, I began a twice-a-week non-paid internship on the 4th floor of UNICEF House. 

    There are many requirements to become an intern at UNICEF, but the most basic one is that you have to be enrolled in a master's program. I think exceptions can be made, but I'm not sure... While you can apply directly via the website, it helps to do some research beforehand. 

    This is where the six degrees of separation comes in handy. It's quite certain that you know somebody who knows somebody who works at UNICEF. Find out in which Country Office and focus area you want to be interning at. This should not be an internship for the sake of internship: you need to find a match for your professional and personal interests. You're working for free, so make sure you get the most out of it!

    Once you find what you're looking for, begin a conversation with your potential supervisor to agree on the terms of reference for your contract. It's much better to have this dialogue early to save any disappointments down the line and make sure both parties can gain from this experience.

    Not long ago, I did exactly that when a student wrote to me expressing her desire to intern at UNICEF Mozambique. We had long skype calls and eventually narrowed down her deliverables and areas of work. She went on to do an amazing job and even published a case study based on this experience (way to go, Alejandra!).

    I should add, however, that this kind of approach to internships is the exception rather than the norm. So it's up to the intern to try to get the most out of this experience, so don't settle for just an office experience - try to do something substantive (true story: I've met an intern once whose job was to come up with ideas for tweets for her boss... *sigh...).

    Below is my son's take on the life of an intern...:-)

    I also think it's better to have an internship at a Country Office as opposed to Headquarters or a Regional Office. You gain more 'hands-on' experience, it's a smaller work environment and you get to learn a lot more. I didn't have that luxury, so I started my UN career through the maze of a headquarters environment... More about that later!

  • The Office

    When I first joined UNICEF, I would come home and talk about my day during dinner with my husband and son. He was about 8 at the time and I wasn't sure he was actually listening to my rambling about office issues: stories about crazy bosses, inefficiencies at the workplace, unfair attitudes, petty behavior, etc...

    But he did. And he started drawing cartoons about what he understood from this world. He named them "UN Office Matters." They always made me laugh. And laughing helps you keep your sanity. Perhaps that's why the TV show, The Office, was so popular. Below you can see his rendition when I learned I got my recent promotion.

    I've had many people asking me about how to get a job at UNICEF or what's like working there, so I decided to write a blog about these snipts of my worklife, from frustration to amazing moments of pride. Hopefully, these blogs will be like these early dinners conversations, but a little more edited, of course!