Building a Humanitarian Career: How to Find a Job You Love

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

From a foreign aid worker helping refugees in Syria to a security analyst directing first-class intelligence services to help the U.S. military in Afghanistan, humanitarians strive to serve others.

Humanitarian careers provide a rich global experience, and offer you the opportunity to become a leader and deliver relief to societies worldwide. Each day, humanitarians make a difference within their communities as they contribute to a global society. From impacting the safety, security, and prosperity of the world through human rights, energy conservation, public health, or food security, humanitarians have unique and diverse careers.

“You do it because you love it, and you believe in it,” says Ted Murphy, senior lecturer in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program. “You need to be very dedicated to the cause of social justice. You have a passion for it as something you want to pursue in your career, and you want to make the world a better place.”

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Established organizations that employ humanitarians include the American Red Cross, Peace Corps, World Bank, and United Nations. If you’re looking for a meaningful career helping others, here is an overview of what is takes to become a humanitarian, along with several career paths to consider:

What is a Humanitarian?

A humanitarian is a person who promotes human welfare through social reforms. He or she is focused on protecting human lives and preserving human dignity. Humanitarians may also focus on providing relief from gender oppression, sexual orientation discrimination, and religious or national divides.

Humanitarians provide care for those in need. Ultimately, a humanitarian’s main goal is to help others around the world, whether by providing proper nutrition to malnourished children or medical care to the sick and disadvantaged.

“More than anything, you become a humanitarian because giving and being part of something larger than yourself is meaningful, particularly when it is explicitly designed to help the weak and vulnerable,” Murphy says.

What Does a Humanitarian Do?

Humanitarians focus on fighting disease, hunger, violence, and poverty from all over the world. They can help in many ways, from saving and protecting refugees to providing shelter for the homeless and helping citizens cope with natural disasters or civil war. They often work in difficult, or even dangerous, situations, areas, and climates. Humanitarians foster change within a society by providing money and resources for those in need, including shelter, water, food, clothing, medical supplies, and healthcare.

Humanitarians do not work in one particular place. They work globally, in many different regions and communities. Whether they are working in an office fighting gender discrimination or building a hospital in East Asia, a humanitarian’s career symbolizes the importance of forming strong bonds with a community. People from around the world, from all backgrounds, can make a difference through the help they provide.

Career areas include:

  • Administration
  • Research
  • Fundraising
  • Consulting
  • Advocacy
  • Relief work
  • Medicine

What Education Do You Need to Become a Humanitarian?

While there is no one particular degree required to enter a humanitarian career, a graduate degree can provide you with the communication and analytical skills you need to make an impact. In particular, a Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations can help you gain a strong understanding of the global concepts, contemporary social issues, and cross-cultural knowledge needed to be successful in the industry.

Some graduate programs, such as those at Northeastern, can give you the hands-on experience you need to help others through internships or fieldwork study.  “Many people in our program are interested in traveling to different countries, experiencing different cultures, and learning about the world,” Murphy says. “You can meet a lot of different people from unique backgrounds out in the fields.”

Certain graduate programs even let you complete your studies online, helping you combine school with work, family, or other obligations.

“I love the freedom in being able to complete my degree online while I work full-time,” says Sarah Kenkel, a 2018 graduate student in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program and family development specialist at Mid-Iowa Community Action Inc., a nonprofit serving children and families in central Iowa affected by the conditions of poverty.

“My professors also have a lot of flexibility in terms of projects we complete,” Kenkel says. “It’s valuable working with people that I know, taking the background knowledge from my classes, and applying it to my everyday work. Recently, I was able to do a project on the Burmese people, where there is a huge population in the city I work in. It helped me take a deeper dive in both my studies and my work.”

What Background is Necessary for a Humanitarian Career?

Volunteering, networking, and work experience all go a long way toward finding your ideal career as a humanitarian.

Small actions, such as volunteering, can help you decide if a humanitarian career is the right choice for you. This could include researching and signing petitions, working at a soup kitchen, teaching adult literacy, or sponsoring a child. Even volunteering just a few hours of your time every week or month can make a difference.

Volunteering at a nonprofit or charity is not only a great way to get you acquainted with service work, but can also help you expand your network. Unsure of where to begin? Look into Volunteer Match, Idealist, and Create The Good to get started.

In addition, networking can open doors to career opportunities you might not have otherwise heard of, and meet industry leaders who can help you better understand the field. Earning a graduate degree can help you meet students from different backgrounds and professors with relevant industry expertise. They can introduce you to other relevant connections and help you find internships, mentors, or job opportunities.

If you have limited work experience, then look into internships or schools that provide study abroad experience to help boost your resumé. Also, keep in mind that your work experience doesn’t have to be from a large organization. Working for smaller, local organizations can also help you provide relief to those in need and give you the experience to move into a larger organization.

“Humanitarians have to be persistent and keep their eyes on the prize,” Murphy says. “Realize that contributions to improving social justice are relatively small and incremental as opposed to transforming the world.  You’re playing a longer game to get to where you want to be and whom you want to help.”

Common Humanitarian Careers 

With international humanitarian aid rising to over $24.5 billion, there are an abundance of humanitarian careers available, from foreign aid workers to physicians. Below are four types of humanitarian jobs:

1. Foreign Aid Worker

Foreign aid workers travel abroad to provide assistance to underprivileged and displaced individuals. They frequently travel, which lets them meet and assist a wide range of people and communities. Depending on where they are placed, they may deal with the perils of disease or violence. Working in this position requires global experience, a strong education in international relations, and persistence, along with knowledge of a foreign language.

Foreign aid workers also focus on:

  • Providing hands-on relief work, fundraising, project management, and project planning
  • Acting as a liaison with local agencies and authorities
  • Training volunteers and preparing recommendations for the communities they serve
  • Providing reports and other evaluations to help serve communities

2. Medical Officer

Medical officers are physicians and nurses who work abroad to serve those in need. Some may have received graduate degrees in international relations to better prepare them for globally focused positions. They provide primary medical care and help those with significant health risks. Duties may also include:

  • Providing preventative healthcare for a range of medical issues, such as pediatric and adult care, and emergency services
  • Administering physical examinations and ordering diagnostic tests
  • Overseeing routine vaccinations, mental health care, and immunization programs alongside other doctors
  • Working with local healthcare officials, and local and international experts
  • Managing health department resources and staff

3. Program Director

Program directors work with local and global communities to help set up long-term, sustainable solutions to issues they are facing. They work within education, sanitation, health, and other fields, serving both urban and rural areas. Directors provide structure and leadership to an organization, whether it is a small local nonprofit or a more established NGO.

From providing assistance with immigration, AIDS awareness, or adult literacy, there are a myriad of issues to specialize in. Program directors need to perform a variety of tasks and not be afraid to take initiative, focusing on what needs to be completed to run a program successfully. This could entail meeting with foreign diplomats or planning an outreach strategy. Responsibilities also include:

  • Recruiting, training, and overseeing staff and volunteers
  • Organizing and directing fundraising
  • Researching, writing, and submitting project proposals, reports, and grants
  • Planning disaster management programs
  • Managing budgets and allocating resources

4. Security Officer

Security officers can range from protection officers to military analysts. Officers protect civilians from harm by investigating and preventing security problems. They identify security patterns, assess local conditions, and ensure crisis preparations. Sometimes they act as a liaison with other security divisions or organizations.

Officers can mitigate terrorist and insurgency groups, assess the performance of foreign weapons divisions, and evaluate political and military issues. This includes military relations, arms control, and peacekeeping operations. Officers typically have an interest in strategy and operations, defense industries, or information technology. Their duties may include:

  • Supervising security units
  • Monitoring emergency evacuation capabilities
  • Coordinating guard force supervision and conducting security surveys of facilities
  • Reviewing and analyzing information on global and domestic security threats
  • Writing detailed reports on military training, departmental spending, and financial patterns
  • Analyzing foreign intelligence to assist policymakers in making decisions regarding national security

A humanitarian career spans different industries, sectors, and countries. It brings individuals and communities together and, in today’s globalized world, benefits societies worldwide. If you’re interested in helping create a more unified world, then consider a humanitarian career.


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