This is part of a series of posts from the International Development Club.

On a recent Friday morning, we made our way with 25 fellow MBA students to the United Nations World Headquarters for a special visit. We all had one question on our minds: how does one actually get a job at the UN?

We learned that while it’s a difficult place to get one’s foot in the door, networking, perseverance and a willingness to live in relatively less-desirable locations can help you find a job with the prestigious organization.

After a lunch in the Delegates Dining Room, we met with Brett House, from the Office of the UN Deputy Secretary-General. He demystified the organizational structure and gave our group some insight as to where the skills of an MBA might be most valuable. He pointed to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), International Monetary Fund (IMF-Capital Markets), World Bank, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) as organizations within the UN that hire MBAs.

Next we met with representatives from the human resources department. They gave us an understanding of the hiring process (long and complicated) and its Galaxy Web site (jobs.un.org). Perseverance, it seems, is critical when applying for these jobs — as is recognizomg that resumés are not just going into a black box.

The human resource representatives stressed the importance of meeting all (or almost all) of the minimum requirements, particularly in regard to work experience. The typical applicants for positions requiring “minimum five years experience” have seven or eight years of experience. Furthermore, they said approximately 300 people apply to each position — with 5,000 applying for 200 internship positions — so make sure the CV you submit is your best effort!

The day’s highlight was a panel featuring four speakers from various organizations within the UN. Lucas Black ’00 SIPA, who works in the MDG Carbon Facility, opened the panel and discussed his work trading carbon credits and supporting emission reduction projects with significant benefits to the Millennium Development Goals.

Dr. Manuel Escudero, from United Nations Global Compact, spoke about his experience and how much one has to believe in the mission of the organization to succeed. He noted that smarts and hard work are great, but that it is the ability to deliver results and creativity that separates the best employees from the mediocre ones at the UN.

Elizabeth Leff ’99 SIPA, who works in Human Resources (Planning), discussed her transition from consulting to development work in Thailand to finding a job at the UN. She stressed that it is critical to have experience in a developing country under one’s belt.

Matthew Hochbrueckner ’06, who works at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) underscored that point, saying that he would not have gotten the job at the UN had he not taken the time to work in Eastern Europe and the Balkans after business school.

The bottom line for MBAs who want to work at the UN?

  1. Manage your expectations. It is very difficult to get a job and the recruitment process is very long and extremely competitive.
  2. Leverage any contacts inside the organization and try to obtain a short-term contract. This way you can get your foot in the door and have the opportunity to demonstrate your value to the organization. Once you prove you are “UN material,” it will be easier to find other UN jobs and ask for a position in a country in which you are interested.
  3. Take big risks. Apply for positions in danger zones like Sudan, Iraq or Afghanistan, for which there is a very short supply of candidates. A couple of years stationed in one of these countries could lead to a lifelong career at the UN.

Photo credit: Ashitaka San