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5 Takeaways for Your Career in International Aid

The Changing Aid Conference on April 20th provided a space for students, aid actors, scholars, and aid practitioners to come together and learn, communicate, and problem-solve through three panels: Aid and Conflict, Aid and Migration, and Careers in Aid.

The Careers in Aid panel offered attendees the unique opportunity to engage in an open conversation with AU alumni in high-level positions who have dedicated their careers to international aid. The panel brought together a diverse group of experts with experience working for international NGOs, private companies, the United Nations, philanthropic organizations, and government agencies. Insights and perspectives from the panelists provided valuable guidance to anyone interested in pursuing careers in aid or looking to expand their knowledge of the field.

If you're reading this, you likely don't need to be convinced to pursue a career in international aid. But if you're still on the fence, or if you're looking to improve your chances of success, here are a few key takeaways from the Careers in Aid panel:

Generosity always comes back to you

Whether you’re reading this as an undergraduate with an interest in international aid, a graduate student in the throes of a dissertation, or someone already in the industry, it’s important to remember that what effort you put into something is what you’ll receive in return.

A career in international aid requires compassion, dedication, and a willingness to give back to communities. While the work can be challenging, the rewards are immense, as serving others often leads to personal growth and fulfillment. Still, generosity should be utilized both in and outside of aid work. As one panelist noted in the Careers in Aid panel: D.C. is a small town–remember names and build relationships. Making generosity a priority in your personal life and your career with other aid actors, practitioners, and scholars can only benefit you in the future.

Take a leap of faith

It’s wise to take calculated risks, especially when armed with the confidence that stems from frequently stepping outside of your comfort zone and embracing new experiences and perspectives. When you discover an exciting opportunity, take a leap and apply, even if you don’t meet all the requirements listed. Remember that your perspective, even without every LinkedIn qualification checked, can be an asset to employers. By exhibiting what one panelist called quiet confidence in your abilities during an interview, they may just take a leap of faith on you.
And what about after you get the job? Risks can be frightening but also incredibly rewarding. In the field of international aid, people have the opportunity to work with diverse communities, gain new skills, and engage with different cultures. Often, this requires creative thinking, comfort with challenging contexts, and a willingness to take risks. Maintain a leap of faith mentality in your career to face opportunities and challenges as they come.

Advocate for yourself

If you’re interested in a career in international aid, you’re probably motivated by the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. While a career in aid is a great way to do that, it can also be a challenging field that requires that you advocate for yourself. This means taking responsibility for your own career development, seeking out opportunities for growth, and advocating for yourself in the workplace. The panelists encouraged attendees to approach their careers with tenacity by seeking new opportunities for learning and development, taking on new responsibilities, and advocating for themselves regarding compensation, benefits, and work-life balance. It may also mean developing strong relationships with colleagues and mentors, seeking feedback, and building a strong professional network.

Take ownership of your career and make the most of the available opportunities. For those willing to take on the challenge, it requires confidence, resilience, and a commitment to continuous learning and growth.

Chase interesting problems

While you should advocate for yourself to achieve your career goals, there may be a time when you have to take a job primarily to get your foot in the door–especially in international aid. Even in these internships and in-between jobs, you should seek out challenges that inspire and motivate you, and approach them with creativity and determination. As one panelist noted, it’s not just the biggest problems that need to be addressed, it’s those that may be still developing and are most interesting to you.

In international aid, interesting problems can take many forms. They may be complex social issues that require innovative solutions, such as poverty, healthcare, education, or climate change. They may also be technical challenges related to logistics, data management, or program implementation. Whatever the problem, those passionate about international aid should be driven to explore problems and find interesting solutions that spark their interest and make a real difference in people's lives.

Chasing interesting problems requires a willingness to think creatively and collaborate with others to find solutions. It also requires a commitment to continuous learning and growth, as international aid is constantly evolving, and new challenges arise every day. Pursuing solutions to problems that interest you will be deeply rewarding, allowing you to use your unique skills and talents while providing opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Utilize AU’s skill-based courses

With the above points in mind, utilizing methods and skill-based courses at American University can give you an opportunity to practice in preparation for your career. Several panelists commended American University for their hands-on approach to methods courses offered across schools at AU. These courses prepare students for their careers by providing the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in various sectors and institutions. In addition to semester-long methods courses, Skills Institutes at AU offer students the opportunity to gain valuable career skills, a certificate to add to their resume, and one credit toward their degree.

You can register now for Changing Aid’s upcoming 1-credit, SIS-790 Skills Institute entitled "Field Preparation for Work in Humanitarian Emergencies and Conflicts." co-led by Dr. Annie Sparrow and Professor Lauren Carruth. This Skills Institute features physician and human rights advocate Dr. Annie Sparrow, and will provide practical, hands-on skills training for students interested in aid work and field research in humanitarian emergencies, disasters, and conflict-affected places.

Going Forward

In addition to the insights outlined above, attending events such as the Changing Aid Conference can be incredibly valuable for your career in international aid. The Careers in Aid panel provided insights and guidance on navigating the challenges and opportunities of working in the field by people who have been in your shoes–whether you’re curious about a career in international aid or have decided it’s certainly your future.

Ultimately, a career in international aid requires a strong commitment to personal and professional growth, a willingness to take risks and face challenges, and a passion for making a positive impact on the world. By following these key takeaways, you can better prepare yourself for a fulfilling career in international aid, with the opportunity to use your skills and talents to make a real difference.

To stay updated on upcoming events and research, keep an eye on our website and Twitter @ChangingAid_AU.

Written by Madison Shomaker

The Changing Aid Conference was supported in part by the American University Signature Research Initiative program out of the Office of Research. For inquiries on the Changing Aid Signature Research Initiative, email us at