Ever wondered what it’s really like to do an internship at the UN? So did we!

The UN is a massive organization and the opportunities for working at the UN are incredibly diverse. In order to make the opportunities for entering the UN system a little more transparent, we’ve reached out to professionals working in different UN programmes. The goal is to help you better understand what program is right for you and what background and skills are required. 

In this edition, we spoke with Berith Karasch. Berith recently completed an internship in the UN Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) at the UN Headquarters in New York. She now works as a consultant for the PBSO. In this interview, she sheds a little light on what it’s like to be an intern at the UN and how she managed to get funding for one of their unpaid internships. 

For those of you looking for a general overview of the UN programmes for young professionals, have a look at our UN Career Guide. Or check out our Day in the Life with a UN Volunteer.

Tell us about yourself. What led you to pursue an internship at the UN?

During my semester abroad in Haifa, Israel, which was part of my B.A. in Social Sciences and Intercultural Relations, I was directly confronted with a very visible political conflict for the first time. This experience strengthened my interest in the field of peacebuilding and international conflict resolution since I somehow felt that individuals could have a social impact and be drivers for change of perceptions in such situations. Several internships in this field further reinforced this direction.

During my Masters Programme in Peace Studies and International Relations at the University of Tuebingen, I worked with an Indian NGO in Kolkata, where I analyzed their mediation efforts between tribal communities in Assam, as well as their human rights work and capacity-building measures for stone quarry workers in Jharkhand.

Experiencing the work of an NGO on a local level made me want to find out about the impact and scope of international organizations on the intergovernmental level. Having worked as one of the project managers of the National Model United Nations workshop at my university, I decided to apply for a position at UN Headquarters with the Carlo-Schmid Programme (CSP).

The UN is a massive organization and the Internship Programme is one opportunity within the UN system- can you break down your department/its mission, as well as your specific role as an intern? 

The UN Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) supports the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) with strategic advice and policy guidance. It consists of the Policy, Planning and Applications Branch (PPAB) and the PBC Support Branch (PBC SB).

My position was with the Peace Building Commission Support Branch. I supported the work of the PBC Organizational Committee, which convened thematic meetings to address peacebuilding challenges. Moreover, I supported all four peacebuilding officers in their work with the six country configurations in doing research and drafting background analyses, talking points and summaries of the meetings. One of my favorite projects was the support for the drafting of the PBC Gender Strategy. 

 

What does a “normal” day at the office look like for you? 

It's actually pretty standard. A normal day at the office is usually a combination of time spent at the desk and attending diverse meetings.

I do research on specific aspects regarding the countries on the PBC agenda or crosscutting issues such as gender responsive peacebuilding, write short analyses or assist the peacebuilding officers with the preparations or follow-ups of the PBC meetings. 

There is typically not more than one official PBC meeting per country a month, but often there are several unofficial meetings that lead up to the official meeting, in which the thematic priorities are set. I very much enjoyed learning about the relationship between the UN Secretariat and the Member States’ missions and the specific workings of different processes. The possibility of being creative and thinking outside of the box in order to adapt to the changing situations on the ground was one of my favorite things of working with PBSO. 

UN internships are unpaid - how did you manage to secure funding for yourself?

I was working with the PBSO as part of the Carlo-Schmid Fellowship Programme (CSP), and thus got funding through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German National Academic Foundation and the Mercator Foundation. I am extremely thankful for this support and can hardly imagine doing a six-month internship without funding in a city like New York. 

You and your colleagues all have very diverse backgrounds - are there any common traits that unite you? 

I would describe my colleagues at the UN as global citizens; they have travelled extensively, and are experienced and open-minded. There is a sense of the job not only being a profession, but rather a vocation or calling. 

What three pieces of advice would you give to people considering a similar career path? 

  1. Only follow something that you are passionate about.
  2. Ask yourself if you are willing and capable of being flexible for the job, and will be able to make sacrifices.
  3. Try to gain experience is diverse settings and with various actors before considering applying to work with the UN.

Some more practical suggestions would be to make use of the various offers regarding scholarships and programmes that exist, such as the CSP, the Mercator Programme, etc. 

Where do you see your career taking you in 5 years time? 

I am looking into short-term consultancies with the UN at the moment, and will most likely head to the field as a UN Volunteer or with an NGO after. In 5 years, I would like to be back in New York working in the area of peacebuilding at UN Headquarters. 

This article was updated in March 2017.