Starting or building a career in international development can be a daunting task. Here, one of our mentors, Silla Ristimaki, shares her own experiences with four shining stars of advice for getting on in the development world.
When I was asked to share some thoughts about getting on in the development world, I thought ‘oh dear, I’ve mostly stumbled along rather than scored home runs in this field; what have I got to say?!’
But reflecting on my journey, here are four shining stars that have guided me:
1. If you ask, people are generally willing to be supportive.
I had heard this many times; I assumed it was linked to networking. But recently I’ve come to realise that two are not the same. So when someone offers their support, what does it mean? Maybe a willingness to review and provide comments to your CV; a discussion of potential questions in preparation for an interview; sharing of key background documents; even supporting with a mock interview. It can also be an offer to be your referee, sometimes even a willingness to be in touch with the recruitment agent to ensure that your application is not overlooked.
‘Why?’ you may ask. Good question. It can be for many reasons. On a personal level it is often about offering the same support to the younger generation as we’ve been given, support that has helped us get where we are today. It is always worth taking support offered – you feel more confident and prepared, and this will reflect on your application process. When asking for support though, be respectful of the expected time commitment!
2. Networking is also useful – though sometimes painful.
But people need to know you are out there. Sometimes when I send out CVs and applications I feel it’s like sending messages into space in the hope that at some point somebody will respond. Yet even E.T. managed to phone home in the end, right!?
Once at the beginning of my career, I got advice from my father that I should email a senior official with my CV and ask for a meeting. I still remember how dismissive I was of this idea: that’s the great advice? Why on earth would a busy person read my email, let alone meet with me for a random chat? But I did it. We met and had a great chat. I asked her about her tips and recommendations for how to enter into the development world. One month later I got a phone call to ask if I was still seeking employment, and whether I would like a job working for the same woman. And so opened an amazing opportunity with an amazing mentor. I have always considered advice that I didn’t like a bit more carefully after that…
3. Build self-confidence and be gentle on yourself.
Nobody was born an expert. Recognise your strengths, but don’t make decisions too early about what you can do and don’t self-impose limitation of your skills-sets too early. Many skills can be learned. This is particularly important for women to reflect on. I have been told that men approach interviews with much more confidence and therefore also end up negotiating more senior positions and higher salaries (where the system allows this). I have also heard that men are more likely to apply for jobs where they feel they match about 50% of the job description; women tend to apply only if they feel they have a 75% match. This indicates that men are often more confident, they put themselves out there more, and therefore are more likely than women, even if just by the number of lottery tickets they buy, to get that new job or promotion.
Everyone requires the development of new skills upon taking up a new challenge – it’s more about the confidence of knowing the capacity to develop is there.
4. Know what you want and keep re-evaluating it.
Use whatever means you have available to do so – yoga, a shrink or life coach, your spouse, friends, colleagues, online tests, astrologists, whatever works for you. Don’t assume that what you want cannot change over time. There will be difficult choices you may have to make during your career. You may need to choose how much time you want to take out due to family reasons. You may have to choose between two different jobs, weighing up issues such as job security, wages, location, duration and other benefits. You may be intimidated by the consequences of deciding to take time out, leaving a permanent position, going on extended maternity leave, etc. But you have to weigh those choices against what is most important to you. As the saying goes, in the end it is your life.
Since as far as I know, few people can really tell the future, you have to make the best choice based on what you know now. So make it knowing as much as you can, in terms of contractual details, in terms of its likely outcomes on your career – but also your social life. After you’ve made your choice, don’t dwell on it. If it wasn’t the right choice, reflect on why and use that knowledge to make the next choice accordingly.
My final thought is something I’ve had several women express to me: it’s a wish that women would be more supportive of other women. Don’t feel threatened by female colleagues, feel awesome together! Give them credit. Remember not to organise all-male panels – and risk Knight Rider calling you out! 😉
Silla is a Finnish woman working in development, peace-building and gender, constantly wondering what she wants to do when she grows up. She will soon be leaving her role as a Programme Specialist for the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Nepal and moving onto pastures new.
If you’d like to share any experiences and wisdom with us, we’d love to hear from you. Please email us a blog at thewomidteam [at] gmail.com.