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What’s Next? A Guide for International Development Students (part 2)

  • By Colton Brydges
  • Published on November 15

The Value of Overseas Experience 

With more and more students graduating each year with undergraduate degrees, it is increasingly important to set oneself apart from the pack. International experience, either through study abroad, an internship or co-op, is one such “value-added” element that aspiring young professionals can pursue. Statistics from Universities Canada state that only 3.1% of students study or work abroad during their degree; however, more than 80% of employers saw a career benefit from the added inter-cultural competency of international experience. Working abroad is a chance to demonstrate your adaptability and cross-cultural communication skills, and may offer you program delivery experience that is not possible to gain here in Canada.

Of course, studying or working abroad is a huge financial commitment, as many of these opportunities are unpaid. Universities are increasingly subsidizing international placements or exchanges, but the fact remains that spending 4 to 6 months abroad is expensive, both in terms of out of pocket expenses and the opportunity cost of not working during that time. Some organizations, like the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada or CUSO, offer subsidies to interns that cover most of the direct costs of an international placement. While there is great value in pursuing an international placement, it is important to be very honest with oneself about whether it is financially feasible.

While international experience is valuable, volunteering domestically is also incredibly worthwhile from a personal and professional standpoint. Indeed, volunteering or any form of practical experience is how you define yourself as a candidate, and explore areas of work that you are passionate about. Your university will have a directory of volunteer opportunities that you can sign up for, or you can consult Volunteer Canada’s website, find your local volunteer centre, and choose the opportunity that is best for you.

The Bottom Line

As with any career path, finding work in international development is rarely a linear process. You may need to make sacrifices, especially financially, to gain experience to set yourself apart. That said, there are many options available to young people seeking a career in international development. Beyond the “traditional” pathways mentioned here, there are other related fields that are gaining prominence.

Program evaluation is a field that is increasingly important, as donors prioritize value for money. Program evaluation has become standard practice in major UN organizations like UNDP, and in the Government of Canada as well. Evaluation professionals are in high demand, and social science students with strong research skills can consider pursuing a career in this important field.

Social enterprise is also a growing trend, combining entrepreneurship and business skills with a desire to create social impact. The government of Canada maintains a directory of some social enterprises, though local networks may be better informed. Some, like Ottawa’s Operation Come Home, seek to create a local impact, while others may look internationally. Working with an existing social enterprise, or even looking towards developing one’s own, is an increasingly attractive option for development students.

Part of the challenge of breaking into any field is knowing where to look. Having an understanding of what options are available will help you to decide what skills and experience you need in order to get where you want to be. Ultimately, some flexibility is necessary, but with an open mind and a desire to learn and affect positive change, students of international development can make an impact and find a rewarding career.

Other resources

If you found this article helpful, check out an even more comprehensive resource from uOttawa’s Prof. Robert David here. While it references certain uOttawa-specific resources and programs, it still contains a ton of valuable information for any Canadian student of international development.

Another fantastic resource is a recent study completed by the Canadian Consortium for Colleges and University Programs in International Development Studies (CCCUPIDS) and the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID). It tracks the employment outcomes of students from more than 20 international development programs across Canada. Visit their website to access the full report and watch an informative video with some of the highlights.

For international development jobs in Canada, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation has an excellent job board. While many of the jobs posted here are for more established professionals, they can give a good sense of what jobs are out there in the NGO sector and what credentials you may need. For international opportunities, Devex’s job board features thousands of postings from NGO’s and international organizations.