How to Get a Job at the UN
An overview of the job opportunities for young professionals hoping to get their foot in the door at the UN.
“If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it.”
The UN resembles the infamous club Berghain. Everyone wants to get in, but hardly anyone knows how.
One thing is for sure, it’s not all about how you're dressed. There are (at least) three common factors that hinder young professionals from getting a job at the UN.
The biggest problem remains that many young professionals have great respect for the name and underestimate their likelihood of getting hired. Secondly, unlike consulting firms or investment banks, the UN does not target students or young professionals on campus or through recruiting events. Hence, many young graduates don’t get in touch with representatives of the UN system and thus don’t get exposure to the full breadth of opportunities that are out there.
Last but not least, the UN’s information policy definitely has room for improvement, especially in terms of homogeneity and clarity. There is not one exhaustive central portal, but several for different programs and a dispersed range of information.
For these reasons, the following article aims to give you a clear overview and better orientation of opportunities for working at the UN, so that ultimately, you can find the UN job that is right for you.
What does it take to get a UN job?
I am not going to start talking about values and moral vocation here. If you have decided to read this article, I assume that you have a vivid interest in international development work and share the values that the UN stands for. Hence, I will focus on the hard facts.
Staff members of the UN system are normally internationally recruited and are expected to serve at different duty stations throughout their career with the organization. Normally, it is required that you have an advanced university degree for a career with the UN. Moreover, you need to have excellent command of either English or French, since they are the common working languages. Knowledge of an additional language is an asset but is not required for most jobs.
The most important component is, without a doubt, previous work experience. Applicants, according to their previous professional experience, can apply for different job categories. P-1 positions don’t require any work experience; however, they basically don’t exist. P-2 positions require a minimum 2 years of work experience, P-3 a minimum 5 years, P-4 a minimum 7 years, and P-5 a minimum 10 years. An exhaustive overview of formal criteria and staff characteristics can be found here. After these rather general requirements that roughly apply for all jobs and positions, I will now have a look at the specific programs geared toward young professionals.
1. The UN Internship Programme
Out of all UN programs, the UN Internship Programme is the option that demands the lowest entry requirements for aspiring candidates. With over 4,000 interns in the New York headquarters alone, the number of UN interns has skyrocketed in the last few years. Basic requirements are enrollment in a Master's or a Ph.D. program, or being in the final year of a Bachelor program. The internship normally lasts between two and six months.
The biggest drawback is the remuneration; as there is none. Not even travel expenses are covered.
Fortunately, there are a number of initiatives attempting to change the status quo, foremost the Fair Internship Initiative New York and the Pay Your Interns initiative in Geneva. However, there are some United Nations funds and programs which are autonomous enough to have their own remuneration policy and do indeed pay their interns. For example, the International Labor Organization (ILO) states, "Where an intern is not supported by an institution (university, government or other institution), a stipend to cover basic subsistence costs will be paid by the ILO."
In addition, there are certain national internship programs backed by national governments. In Germany, prime examples are the Carlo-Schmid-Programm supervised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes.
One last point to mention here is that a considerable number of interns receive the offer to work as a consultant subsequent to their internship, provided that the budget of the organization allows offering such a position. Having said that, be aware that these contracts are normally rather short-term (on average 3-12 months) and don’t always provide the same benefits that permanent staff enjoy.
2. UN Volunteers
A second entry opportunity that comes close to an internship is the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme. It is currently active in 86 countries. More than 7,700 UN Volunteers are mobilized every year nationally and internationally to work in development assistance projects and in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, with 80 percent coming from developing countries.
The idea behind the program is the transfer of your knowledge in exchange for gaining greater understanding of development work in the field. UNV stresses, “Although UN Volunteers from diverse professional and technical backgrounds are always in demand, there are particular areas of expertise where potential volunteers with relevant backgrounds and skills are more frequently requested.” Needless to say, applicants must be prepared to be deployed to difficult regions and they need to be able to adjust to fast-changing living and working circumstances.
Whereas common assignments last twelve months or longer, short-term assignments normally cover a period of three months or less. Volunteers have to be older than 25 and receive (financial) support through a settling-in-grant, a monthly volunteer living allowance, annual leave and basic insurance.
3. The Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme
The Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme offers another opportunity for entering the UN system, however it is far more competitive than the two options described above. JPO posts are only offered by certain UN organizations and participants serve primarily in one of the country offices of the participating organizations in the developing countries.
JPO positions are sponsored by your respective national government, meaning that you can only apply if your government currently offers a certain JPO position. Successful applicants are offered one year fixed term contracts which are normally renewed for a second year subject to satisfactory performance. Certain partner governments sponsor assignments of up to four years. Salaries correspond with those of entry-level UN professional staff (P1 - P2).
JPOs must be younger that 32. Requirements normally stipulate a Master's degree (or equivalent) in a development-related discipline, a minimum of two years of paid working experience in a relevant field, preferably in a developing country, written and spoken proficiency in at least two of the three official UN languages (English, French and Spanish), as well as some more fuzzy criteria like excellent information technology skills, evidence of the ability to think strategically and a strong commitment to development.
4. The Young Professionals Programme
The last program I would like to mention here is the Young Professionals Programme, a recruitment initiative for young professionals to start a career as an international civil servant with the United Nations Secretariat. The normal procedure requires an entrance examination that is held once a year, as well as professional development programs once successful candidates start their careers with the UN.
The first step is to check if your country is currently one of the participating countries, since this varies annually. The second step is to carefully review the job openings for the exam area you are interested in. Make sure you fulfill the subject-specific requirements. The list of current job openings can be found on the YPP homepage.
Last but not least, you can apply to the selected job opening through the online portal Inspira. Your application will be screened to determine if you are eligible for the examination in the exam area you applied for. If your application was successful, you will be informed that you have been invited to the examination.
Similar to the JPO programme, applicants have to be under 32. Moreover, they must hold at least a first-level university degree relevant to one of the exam areas (Administration, Finance, Legal Affairs, Public Information, Social Affairs, Statistics) and be fluent in either English or French. Requirements are thus a bit less rigorous than for the JPO programme. Although work experience is not directly mentioned as hard criteria, be aware of YPP’s policy, “Where more than 40 candidates of the same nationality apply for the YPP, relevant work experience will be used to rank candidates.”
As is usually the case with dream jobs, persistence and dedication are key
In conclusion, though rarely communicated in a clear or homogenous way, there are in fact several entry opportunities for young professionals looking to get a UN job. Though it’s needless to say that entering the UN requires a significant amount of effort, persistence and dedication.
It’s perhaps useful to think of it this way: the first two options described above are most appropriate if you are not yet completely certain if working for the UN is right for you. The last two are very specific and top notch programs and are therefore better suited for those who have their heart set on working at the UN.
One final bit of advice. Be aware that the majority of job opportunities, particularly for newcomers, are in program countries and not in the offices in New York, Geneva and Nairobi. If you are serious about serving in global development work for the UN, applying for a UN job in the field might be the more promising option.