5 Lessons I Learned from My UN Job

Former UN employees share their experiences and advice for working at the UN Headquarters in New York.

von Neema Amadala and Florian Neubauer, January 5, 2018

Neema Amadala, a former UN consultant and Florian Neubauer, a former UN intern, share some lessons they learned from their time at the UN and give their advice for those considering a UN career.

A short summary of the key points:

  1. Network, Network, Network
  2. Idealism is not enough
  3. Get outside the bubble
  4. The system is complicated
  5. Not being paid sucks

1. Networking is Key

In North America, the concept of networking is drilled into students throughout our time at university. In other countries, the importance of networking seems to be less emphasized. You learn very quickly in life outside of school, that knowing the right people often improves your chances of getting a job. At the United Nations (UN), it is essential to network to find out about opportunities within different entities or offices. Even if you are looking to advance within your own organization, you have to make sure you’re regularly making an effort to meet new people.

There are many events and opportunities to meet fellow interns and professionals at the UN. As an intern, it is even more important that you interact with a variety of people, not just fellow interns. If there is an office or entity you are interested in learning more about, see if your supervisor has connections there and is willing to make an introduction for you. This way you can begin to build your own network and gain a fuller picture of the diverse work that the UN does.

2. It's (Not) All About the Idealism

We both have similar views when it comes to our intentions in working for the UN. We see the UN as an organization that is meant to make a global change and help all people. This is a very idealistic view but for an organization that was founded after the disastrous events of World War II, lofty goals are crucial. With the state of our world, the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals provides a fantastic roadmap to drive towards action. The UN offers a great brand for your resume, generous pay and incredible benefits which can make it easy for some to lose sight of the organization’s purpose. There is a risk of getting too comfortable and not showing the initiative and effort that working in such a globally minded organization requires.



3. Burst Your Bubble

When we were in New York we both found that the UN tends to form and perpetuate its own world. From the people you associate with to the types of issues you focus on, the bubble can make it easy to disconnect from the issues and people both in the city you live in and those you want to serve with your work. You can get stuck in details and concepts that take your focus from the goals and incentives we mentioned before. Even though this is the case, the bubble also provides a built in network of people who understand you, your dreams, goals and desires. The bubble gives you the opportunity to make friends for life across a variety of disciplines and cultures. At the level of the interns and new hires, everyone is quite driven and motivated to make an impact and that will be inherently clear as you integrate yourself into life at the UN.

4. It's Complicated

Internships provide an insight into the UN, usually without pay (more on that below). There is no central platform where you can apply for all internships at the UN. The secretariat has its own process, and so do the various programmes and specialised agencies. Once you are an intern and are considering full time employment, there are several barriers. It is uncommon to find a full time role once your internship is over. There is a rule that prohibits interns from working for the UN for six months after the end of the internship. However, this is only true for professional and some field service positions. Technically, you can work for the UN as a consultant, independent contractor, or in a general level (G) position right after your internship, although this is the exception rather than the rule.

One of the (somewhat) easier ways to start at the UN is with a G level position. From there you can work your way up the ranks, although it can be quite difficult to move from a G to a P position. It is possible and we know people who achieved this, but it takes a lot of effort, time and networking. For university graduates, there is the Young Professionals Program (YPP),  which is only open to a number of countries that are currently underrepresented in the given year. You have to check whether your country is on the list of eligible countries and after applying online, you might get invited to an examination and finally be placed onto a roster from which you can be contacted by a UN office that would like to hire you. The JPO program is another possibility for young professionals, who already have at least two years of working experience. The JPO program is mainly conducted by developed nations in order to place their citizens in different UN agencies and thus increase their representation and influence. The application process works through the national governments, who also pay the salary. The Changer covered in great detail the various ways you can try and get a job at the UN so check out that article for more details!


5. Unpaid Internships Suck

For both of us, this is one of the most difficult aspects of the UN for us to understand. It is hard to believe that an organization that fights against unfair labour conditions somehow still does not remunerate their interns for the labour they provide. This creates a barrier between those who can and cannot afford to take on a 3-6 month internship without any financial support. As a consequence, this tends to fill the internship posts at the UN with interns from primarily Western nations. For an organization like the UN, this is problematic on several levels. Most importantly, it doesn’t foster the intercultural communication, empathy and understanding that you will need when sitting around a negotiating table later in your diplomatic career. It also bars people from global south nations from working in the biggest development organization, which was created to assist the development of said nations.

Although unpaid internships are the norm, depending on where you are from, there are scholarships and bursaries to assist with the burden of accepting an unpaid internship. To read more on interns who are fighting this policy you can visit the Fair Internship Initiative.

Final Words

It is difficult to fully describe the experience we had at the UN. The organization is a very interesting, complex, and challenging workplace in which we grew immensely both professionally and personally. We firmly believe that the UN is one of the most important organizations in the world working towards peace and development. However, it is a special place that operates a little differently than other organizations in many processes. These are the five lessons that struck us the most and we hope they help you gain a better understanding of the United Nations.

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