Are you reevaluating your career and looking for a job with more purpose? You’re not alone. Researchers have noticed big changes in the way people see themselves and their work after years of life under COVID-19. Many people now want to find a job that helps them contribute more and adds greater value to the world – something more aligned with their values.
If this sounds like you, you may have thought about working for the United Nations. But you’re probably wondering whether you have the right background or education, exactly why types of jobs are available, how much do UN jobs pay and where on earth you’d start looking.
Read below to have all those questions answered.
Is it hard to get a job at the United Nations?
Well, yes. But it should be. People working for the United Nations should be smart, hard-working and passionate about giving people a fair chance to change their lives for the better. And the work often involves some level of risk for you and your colleagues. If people are only half committed to the job or don’t have the right match of skills and attitude, it undermines the UN’s mission, means vulnerable people may miss out on the help they need, and can put staff safety at risk. It should take some effort to get these jobs.
But it’s possible. I’ve been on the outside, wondering whether I could find my way into a UN job. Eventually, I did (along with 37,000 other people around the world) and you can too.
One of the really interesting parts of the UN workforce is the diversity of roles. There’s a good chance that someone at the UN is working in a role that uses skills or experience you already have. Check out this Q&A with three humanitarians talking about how they found their way into UN or nonprofit roles.
These are just some of the roles or broad job functions needed by different UN agencies:
- Budget assistant
- Chief of Staff
- Executive assistant
- External affairs
- Human resources
- IT officer or analyst
- Knowledge management
- Medical officer
- Partnership specialist
- Political affairs
- Program management
- Project manager
- Public administration
And for those with niche specialities, there are also roles in areas such as nuclear issues; tropical diseases; videography; geospatial data and emergency preparedness.
Workers load bags of fertilizer onto a farmer’s vehicle at an FAO warehouse in Sheikan District, Iraq, in 2016. Photo: FAO/Karina Coates.
What education do I need to work with the United Nations?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this, but most UN jobs require at least a Bachelor’s Degree and many ask for a Master’s degree. In some cases, the degree will help you in your job. In others, it’s just part of the criteria for culling possible candidates.
There’s a good chance you already have a relevant qualification. Here are some degrees commonly listed on UN job advertisements:
- Development economics/studies
- Emergency/disaster response
- International development
- International relations
- Political science
- Public administration
- Public health
- Social services
Some roles ask for a minimum high school diploma or equivalent; this can include roles such as training assistant, human resources assistant or online course facilitator.
If I know I want to work at the UN, what should I major in?
For most UN jobs, as long as you meet the minimum level of education required, your major has no bearing on whether you get the role or not. I’ve never been asked about my majors in any UN job interview (or an NGO job interview, for that matter). To be fair, I’ve only applied for UN roles as a mid-career professional that all fell under a broad general career category (communications).
But even if you’re applying for these jobs fresh out of university, the most important question to ask is: what relevant experience do you have? Have you volunteered at a nonprofit in your holidays? Have you learnt one or more additional languages? Have you joined a professional organization that gave you networking opportunities or a chance to listen to panel discussions or roundtables with interesting perspectives? Maybe you started a blog looking at volunteer opportunities in your city? All of these could give you an edge and help you stand out in what will be a crowded field of candidates.
In other words, as long as your degree is broadly relevant to the type of UN roles that interest you, just choose a major that turns you on and makes you hungry to learn more.
A UNICEF officer interacts with children in a local school in Sullu, West Darfur, where new families arrived recently from a camp for internally displaced people. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID
What background should I have to be considered for a position at the UN?
Plenty of people find their way to the United Nations after one or more careers elsewhere. I worked as a newspaper journalist; then a political advisor to government ministers before I ever worked for a nonprofit or the United Nations.
If you’re applying for a UN job as a mid-career professional, you may need to have a minimum number of years of experience in certain technical areas to make the longlist of candidates. For example, a public information assistant role in Pretoria, South Africa, might need at least seven years of experience in public information, communications, public relations or other related areas.
Once you meet that minimum benchmark, the UN also wants candidates that can show ‘competencies’ – examples of your behaviour, attributes and soft skills. There are core competencies that everyone working for the UN is expected to demonstrate, including teamwork and communication.
But different UN agencies will also look for specific sets of competencies, for example:
- UN Women wants candidates to show their awareness and sensitivity regarding gender issues, inclusive collaboration and creative problem solving, among other competencies
- UNICEF often wants candidates to show they have a drive to achieve results for impact and they innovate and embrace change, among other competencies
- The International Atomic Energy Agency wants candidates to show analytical thinking, knowledge sharing and learning and technical/scientific credibility, among other competencies
Look at the competencies described in a UN job advertisement, or research the agency’s list of competencies, and make sure you’re ready to address them in your application and – if you make it through – your interview.
How much do UN jobs pay? Do they pay well?
Look, the UN is not the private sector. You won’t find salaries at the same level as a major company, or annual bonuses, sign-on bonuses, stock market shares or similar benefits. Even the Secretary-General’s salary is locked at USD 227,253. But there’s no doubt UN salaries and benefits are good for expats living in developing countries (and still pretty good in expensive cities like New York and Geneva) and of course they’re in another stratosphere when compared to the average salary for non-UN workers in those countries.
Salaries are set on a sliding scale. There are broad global categories for roles, from P1 or P2 which are considered relatively entry-level, through the mid-level bands around P4 or P5 and up to director level, D1 and D2. Within those bands, there are ‘steps’ with set increments of salaries; human resources will determine which step each successful candidate will be paid against, based on their experience.
The UN pays a base salary then a loading, or ‘post adjustment’, to help cover living costs in the city where the job is based. P2 expat roles, which generally require at least two years of experience, offer a base salary of between USD 47,000 and USD 63,000. P4 expat roles, which generally require at least eight years of experience, offer a base salary of between USD 72,000 and USD 91,000. For New York, the post adjustment is an additional payment or nearly 70% of the base salary. For Bangkok it’s an additional payment of nearly 50% of the base salary, for Pakistan and Guinea-Bissau it’s just over one-third and Zambia just under one-third.
You can see the full list of post-adjustment rankings here.
Which is the best UN agency to work for?
This entirely depends on your interests and other preferences. There are more than 30 organizations in the United Nations ‘family’ working on everything from health emergencies, refugees, the environment and children’s rights to labor rights, intellectual property and helping countries fight drugs.
They’re headquartered in different locations, from New York, Nairobi, Geneva and Rome to Vienna and Washington D.C, with country offices spreading around the world.
Some people prefer an organisation because of its mandate or the location of its offices. Others will consider factors such as the budget and resources available at different agencies.
Children at a UNHCR camp for displaced people in Hasansham, northern Iraq, in 2017. Photo: UN/Sarmad Al-Safy
How can I get a job with the UN?
From the outside, it can seem impossible to get a job working for the United Nations. But there are tried-and-tested ways to get your foot in the door. So don’t give up! Read on and see if one of these makes sense for you.
1. Work for an NGO in a developing country
Every UN job application I’ve ever completed has asked if I have experience working ‘in the field’. It gives you credibility as an applicant and expands your perspective. Most importantly, you’ll meet and work with people actually affected by natural disasters, poverty or human rights abuses. You’ll learn from them what they need to improve their daily lives and what they think is the solution to their situation.
When I was researching my own career change into aid or development work, plenty of people advised me to move overseas and start by working for an NGO. It’s why I packed up and moved to Jerusalem (where I actually found work with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.)
This Q&A shows how one humanitarian found his way from working an NGO in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, to eventually working for the UN.
2. Work for an NGO at home
This is another good way to gain invaluable skills and show you’re serious about humanitarian or development work. NGOs are often not as well resourced as the UN and their staff are not as well paid. So if someone’s worked for an NGO, there’s a good chance they’re a hard worker, have held a role with a relatively high level of responsibility, and they’re in it for the love, not the money. They may have experience working on poverty reduction, crisis response, human rights, water and sanitation or sustainable development.
And these organizations are built around similar categories of staff to the UN – specialists in programme delivery, communications, advocacy, fundraising, reporting, partnerships and more. I know people who’ve moved from NGOs in the UK or Australia to work for the UN in countries like Bangladesh or at headquarters in New York. You could start with some of the globally-recognised NGOs such as:
Volunteers working for the Canadian Red Cross during floods in 2019. Photo: Stephanie Murphy/Canadian Red Cross
3. Become a United Nations JPO (Junior Professional Officer)
Junior Professional Officers generally come from countries that donate to the UN (rather than developing countries where the UN is working.) Not every donor country participates in the JPO programme, so if you’re interested, check the list here. The roles are half funded by the UN, half by your own country. The age limit can vary by country, but applicants generally have to be under the age of 32 when they apply.
Don’t let the word ‘junior’ deceive you – JPOs often end up in great roles and use these positions to launch successful UN careers. A French friend of mine just spent his two years as a JPO working for the United Nations Development Programme in New York, helping to coordinate emergency responses in countries hit by crises including natural disasters or conflict.
4. Work as a consultant for the UN
This can also be a great way to get your foot in the door with the UN, but go in with your eyes open because these contracts can bring some challenges. The UN frequently advertises consultancies for short-term projects such as evaluating how well a program worked, producing a report, or giving expert advice on a specific topic, such as managing migration. As the central UN website states, a consultant should be a ‘recognised authority’ or ‘specialist’ in a field, engaged in an ‘advisory’ or ‘consultative’ capacity.
However, as it also states, the assignment ‘may involve full-time or part-time functions similar to those of staff members.’ This is where the lines can get a bit blurred. Consultants can find themselves working for up to four years in roles that are the same as those held by people on more permanent contracts. But as a consultant, you won’t get the same benefits (no health insurance; paid annual holiday leave; language training; rental subsidy; relocation assistance, and more.)
5. Join an emergency roster, to respond to crises at short notice
It can be tough to fly out to another country with only a day or two’s notice, to help respond to an emergency. Not everyone can leave their lives behind so suddenly. But the UN needs to send teams of experts immediately when there’s an urgent humanitarian need.
This is why most UN agencies keep a ‘roster’ of people who are available to be sent on short notice to high-profile emergencies. From the roster, they can quickly identify people with the right expertise, whether it’s in logistics, public health, human rights, communications, advocacy and more. To join an emergency roster, you’ll need to look at the websites of individual agencies such as:
Me meeting with a community decimated by the 2015 Nepal earthquake. I was deployed there to work with FAO, after joining an emergency roster with RedR Australia.
6. Register as a UN Volunteer
The UN has a large, well-managed system of recruiting and mobilizing volunteers to help with emergency responses, peacekeeping and longer-term development work. I know people who started as UN Volunteers and continued on to have long and successful UN careers.
You can either become a UNV to work in your own country (if you’re from a developing nation), be sent overseas, or volunteer online. There are minimum requirements, but there’s no upper age limit and these opportunities are hugely valuable for younger and older candidates.
You will need to register in the UNV Global Talent Pool and if you meet the requirements, you’ll be emailed suitable assignments to consider. There’s around 2,000 UNV roles per year so you have a good chance of finding a great opportunity. I registered for UNV when I was making my own career change and was emailed lots of really interesting volunteer roles. UNVs receive a living allowance to cover their basic needs, medical insurance and other support.
7. Work for your foreign service
I don’t know as many people who’ve stepped into a role with the UN this way, but it’s not uncommon. If you’ve worked for your government’s foreign service, for example USAID in the US or FCDO in the UK, you would understand diplomacy, international relations, multilateral organizations and other areas – all of which are useful in UN roles. You also may have had more direct exposure to the UN, for example, you may have worked on joint launches, roundtables or other events with UN agencies; or you may oversee joint funding programmes between your government and the UN.
8. Apply for specific jobs advertised on global UN jobs sites
This can be the hardest route of all. My advice: don’t rely on this option, particularly if you don’t yet have any directly relevant experience (including one of the other options above). You may be an amazing candidate, but so are many of the hundreds, or even thousands, of other applicants from around the world. Many of them will have UN or NGO experience or speak more languages than you.
I applied for job after job this way while I was still living in Sydney – even jobs based in some pretty tough locations which probably had fewer applications – but I never heard back on a single one. It doesn’t hurt to get practice applying for UN jobs which are very different to any other type of job application. Whether you apply this way or not, at the very least it’s excellent research to at least see what’s out there on sites such as UNOCHA, WFP or FAO.
You can get a job at the UN if you put your mind to it
Getting a job at the United Nations is like exercising. You won’t notice results in the first week. You need to be consistent and adjust your actions as you go along. But if you persist, you will be successful and see results. Believe in yourself, build relevant skills and experience over time and stay focused on your purpose. And you, too, will join the tens of thousands of people around the world who have the privilege of working for the United Nations.
Main header photo caption: UN Women staff and partners hold a community meeting for women at the Gado-Badzere refugee camp in Cameroon, in 2016. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown