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Want a job at the United Nations?

What a former UN staffer wants graduates to know

Embarking on a career path with the United Nations (UN) can often seem like a lofty dream, shrouded in questions like, “What qualifications do I need to work in the UN?” or “Is a UN job hard to get?” For many young professionals, especially those based in Australia, the UN can feel like a distant entity. 

Navigating the UN’s hiring process, which can be lengthy, raises its own set of queries and let’s not forget the question of work culture: “Is the UN a good place to work?” or “Does the UN have an age limit for jobs?”

This blog post aims to demystify the process of building a meaningful career with the United Nations, offering insights into qualifications, the hiring process, and what you can expect in terms of compensation and work environment. Whether you’re a young adult just starting out or someone looking to make a career switch, this guide will provide you with the essential information you need to make your UN career aspirations a reality.

Judith has worked for various agencies (FAO, UNHCR and UNICEF) of the UN in the last 7 years. Originally based in Budapest, she was in touch with 20+ countries across a whirlwind career. She’s now on a mission to break down the barriers for graduates and emerging professionals in Australia that want to get a job at the United Nations. 

UN teams are made up of great people, from all around the world. Consider your unique skills, or the core competencies you need to develop in order to apply for a role.

Don't just dream it.

Applying for the United Nations might feel terrifying at first – but once you’re in, you’ll realise that getting there was the hardest part! In my experience, it’s a place of endless great opportunities both socially and professionally. It is uniquely diverse, and this alone makes it a very special place to work for. With 193 member states, 6 principal organs, and 17 specialised agencies – the sheer size alone is unparalleled. It employs roughly 44,000 people all around the world. You could be one of them!

Let me tell you my story.

I worked for a private international company for 10 years (from the age of 19 till I was 29). I felt I needed a change, but I didn’t want to give up working in an international environment. Not knowing much about the UN, I applied for a travel assistant position. A few weeks later I was invited for an interview. I was TERRIFIED because I didn’t really have experience in job interviews. I went anyway, as I always lived by the only rule: if you don’t try, the chance of failing is 100%…

The interview went TERRIBLE. I was nervous and the whole concept of interviewing for the UN started to take a toll. It was a 30-minute interview that felt like 2 hours. When I was leaving, the Human Resources person escorted me out and said: “It wasn’t as bad as you think…”

When I was leaving, the Human Resources person escorted me out and said: “It wasn’t as bad as you think. But I agree, this might not be the right position for you. I think you would be great doing HR, let’s stay in touch – I’ll let you know if something comes up”. But I agree, this might not be the right position for you. I think you would be great doing HR, let’s stay in touch – I’ll let you know if something comes up”.

Two weeks went by when my phone rang again. It was the HR person, asking me for another interview for the role he had mentioned earlier. As I did the official interview already, this time it was just a casual 15-minute chat with the HR manager, and I got the job on the spot.

The reason I like to tell this story is that sometimes it is truly enough to just show up and be yourself!

The role you think you are going for might change, and that’s okay! You also may be a better culture fit in a team that you wouldn’t have thought to apply for.

What to consider before you look for jobs at the United Nations:

Buckle up. These are the top level things I wish I had known when starting out!

1. Focus on the possibility, not on the giant presence of the UN in your mind.

Don’t stress – Easier said than done, I know. But in reality, the UN is one of the greatest places to work for. It is famously diverse and against the general belief, it’s a fun place to be. People from all over the world try to join forces to make the world a better place, so there is a lot to learn and there are a lot of opportunities to choose from. If your first application is not successful, just keep going, it will happen!

2. Be open to finding a way in – and go from there.

Apply to as many vacancies as possible, even if it’s not your “dream job”. If you are in, you’ll have a lot more room and opportunities to choose what fits you more/best.

Find ways to show up – people will pay attention to this. Just like with almost anything in life, showing up is the most important thing. Whether it is for an interview or a phone call or simply attending some kind of event or training. Make sure you are on top of your game.

3. Learn a second (or third) UN language

In most cases the working language of the UN is English, however, there are regions (such as Latin America or West Africa) where a second UN language is not only an advantage but very much needed. The UN has five official languages (English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chinese). The more you speak, the easier it will be to stand out.

4. Know the purpose of the individual organisation

Always, always, always make sure you know the purpose of the organisation you apply to. They will ask you about it, so take your time to read through their website, there will be plenty of information.

“The biggest mistake I saw repeatedly (that you must avoid) is where candidates wouldn’t do the necessary research in advance. “Do you know what our organisation does?” will be the first question you are going to be asked. If you are not prepared, you won’t be able to answer that question. Although there are some overlaps in some cases, each agency is very unique in what they stand for. So do the reading before you go for the interview and impress them with your knowledge!”

The Lowdown : Specialised Agencies, Funds and Programmes

There are Specialised Agencies that are autonomous but work with the UN and each other to coordinate UNESCO. Each agency has a specific purpose, and you need to demonstrate your comprehension of this. 

Some agencies include:

  • Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
  • International Monetary Fund (IMF)
  • World Bank (WB)
  • International Labour Organization (ILO)

There are also Funds and Programmes that are resourced voluntarily such as:

  • United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
  • United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF)
  • United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)
  • World Food Program (WFP)

Four pathways to the UN you can consider:

Although the core hiring policies are very similar, requirements can vary from agency to agency. Below I am going to give you some insights that might be useful before you start researching further

1. Internships

Three important things you need to know about the UN internship:

  1. You must be enrolled in a Bachelor’s, Masters, or Ph.D. program. For specifics, please visit the website below. 
  2. You must have an excellent command of English and/or French. This however may vary. The UN has five official languages, so the more you speak, the better. 
  3. UN interns are not paid. All costs related to travel, insurance, accommodation etc. will have to be paid by the intern. You will also have to research the necessary VISA for your travels.  

The UN offers various internship programs all around the world. These are mostly subject-specific. Before you apply make sure you research the area the organisation works in. (e.g. FAO is more likely to offer you an opportunity in the field of agriculture, whereas UNHCR and UNICEF will offer a position closer to the “humanitarian area” as they work closely with refugees.)

2. National Staff

You can only be hired as a national staff in Australia if you are Australian. There are a few agencies that have offices in Australia (UNHCR, UN Women, UNICEF). Each has its own website with vacancies and Ripple regularly shares their roles.

3. International Professionals

Outside of Australia, you will be considered something we call an “international professional”. For these positions, you must have a few years of experience but don’t get deterred! Your years spent in the university count as experience if it is specific to the position. Also, if you spent some years volunteering or were an intern, that counts too! You can also apply from the private sector.

Remember: Your years spent in university count as experience if it is specific to the position. Also, if you spent some years volunteering or were an intern, that counts too!

4. Consultancies

There are some things to keep in mind if you are thinking about being a consultant for the UN. 

  1. First, consultant work is project-based work, generally for a set period such as a few months with a possibility of extension. This would mean that you would get a higher daily rate but not the benefits that come with a national staff or an international professional position. 
  2. Depending on the agency there are several levels of consultancy work, that determine the length of the work, the experience and languages needed for the work, and the payment, so it’s definitely worth looking into this before applying.

United Nations HQ vs Country Offices

There is a significant difference between the headquarters and the country offices. You can find “typical” office jobs in the headquarters, such as HR, finance, and administration. 

Many of the specialised agencies (e.g. UNHCR, UNICEF, FAO) have established Shared Service Centers  (SSCs) or Global Shared Service Centers (GSSCs) all around the world. These are office specific 9 to 5 positions without any “field” related activities. If you want to experience what the UN is really all about, you might want to apply for one of the country offices. 

You can also consider...

If you are passionate about humanitarian work, you can also consider other multilateral organisations/NGOs:

There are thousands of multilateral organisations and non-government organisations (NGOs) apart from the UN who are doing great humanitarian work all over the world. 

They have internship programs as well, so if you feel the UN would feel a bit overwhelming to start with, or you’d simply like to broaden your options, take a look into smaller organisations including:

Where to search for opportunities at the UN and beyond:

Ripple Opportunities regularly curates opportunities that open to Australian residents and are relevant to our community (including entry and mid-career roles) on our Opportunities Board and in our newsletter.

If you don’t have any preference when it comes to agencies, I suggest you take a look at Organisations | UNjobs. Here, you can filter based on duty stations, organisations, and even based on positions.

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