Working for the UN: A Guide to Getting Started

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

Perhaps you’re eager to make a difference in today’s increasingly complex world. Or you thrive in an environment that is truly international and are eager to work with people from different backgrounds. Either way, you know you want to work for a global agency that empowers others.

With more than 39,700 people employed at the United Nations (UN) in 193 member nations around the globe, working for the UN could be the right career move for you.

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While the organization is best known for peacekeeping, conflict prevention, and humanitarian aid, there are numerous ways the UN contributes to a global society. From sustainable development and energy renewal to refugee protection, disaster relief, and counter terrorism, the UN focuses on a wide range of issues to help create a more unified world. Working for the UN can range from serving as a foreign aid worker that helps Syrian refugees to working as a program director in New York developing a global operations strategy.

If you’re looking to begin a career working for the UN, here’s a guide to everything you need to know, from the preferred education to the top skills needed to succeed at the organization.

What Education Do I Need?

Each position within the UN has various educational requirements. Some positions only require a bachelor’s degree or less, while others require a master’s degree, PhD, or professional degree. If you want to be a lawyer for the UN, you will need a Juris Doctor (JD), while medical workers will often hold medical degrees, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).

For many positions, though, a Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations qualifies. The degree can enhance your industry expertise by helping you focus on global issues, whether it’s through conflict resolution or studying what diplomats do.

With a master’s degree, you gain advanced knowledge combining global and intercultural theories, research methods, and unique approaches to investigating international issues. Your coursework can help you prepare for internationally focused positions within the UN, from analyzing investment portfolios of developing nations to staging mock debates and learning the art of speechwriting from ambassadors. You will assess multiple viewpoints on contemporary social issues and evaluate global challenges within international policy, economics, security, or diplomacy—all relevant fields that align with the UN.

You’ll also meet and network with professors and students with relevant expertise. For example, at Northeastern, professors are policymakers, diplomats, thought leaders, and ambassadors who have worked around the globe. This can help you broaden your network, giving you the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds and expand your career opportunities.

What Background Do I Need?

Depending on your chosen role, your background may vary. Across many positions, UN recruiters typically look for the following core skills:

  • Interpersonal Skills: Interpersonal skills include speaking and writing clearly. Effective communicators actively listen to others and respond in a professional manner. They clarify expectations by asking questions and gathering relevant information before making a decision. Employees working for the UN also adjust their language, tone, and content to match their intended audience. They demonstrate openness to sharing information and keep colleagues informed of current and upcoming plans.
  • Creativity: This core competency includes being flexible to new programs, services, or technological needs, such as implementing new ways of solving issues. Creative employees working for the UN look for innovative solutions to help improve the lives of those in need. They also actively seek to improve current programs, persuade their co-workers to consider new ideas, and take calculated risks when solving tasks.
  • Respect for Diversity: Employees at the UN treat people of all backgrounds with respect and dignity. They appreciate diverse viewpoints and continually demonstrate this understanding in daily tasks and decision-making. They frequently examine their own biases and behaviors to avoid stereotyping, and they don’t discriminate against any one individual or group.
  • Teamwork: This valuable skill consists of working collaboratively with others to meet or exceed organizational goals. Employees respect their teammates’ ideas and expertise, and they continue to learn from others. Employees also place team agendas before their own personal needs, and they support group decisions. This skill also includes sharing team credit and highlighting others’ achievements.
  • Planning and Organization: Employees working for the UN develop clear goals that align with organizational strategy. They identify appropriate tasks to achieve and adjust priorities as needed. Employees also allocate the necessary amount of resources for completing work, whether it’s cost, time, or staffing. They are able to anticipate risks and allow for uncertainties when planning. Whether it’s through budgeting or project management, employees can monitor and adjust plans accordingly.

What Jobs Are Available?

There are nine career paths available at the UN, from information technology to management and public information. Below are five tracks that may interest you:

1. Information and Telecommunication Technology

The information and telecommunication technology (IT) track plays an important role within implementing technology at the UN. IT roles plan and coordinate enterprise systems and infrastructure. Jobs include information and communication technology research, information policy creation and compliance, and IT development to support the UN’s information and communication technology systems. This track also consists of computing, telecommunications, office automation, and enterprise-wide applications. Additional responsibilities may include:

  • Designing, operating, and maintaining technology products while implementing new systems to enhance network efficiency
  • Providing services related to hardware, software, web management, and various databases
  • Providing network management and database administration
  • Employing technical support to departments and employees while training non-technical employees on information systems
  • Analyzing the UN’s technological needs and recommending network upgrades
  • Ensuring the security of the UN’s system network and electronic files

2. Management and Administration

Positions within the management and administration path focus on the direction of human and financial resources, ethics, audits, management and analysis, and administrative support. This track has an immediate impact on the strategic direction of UN management practices, policies, and related issues, such as key decision-making regarding program management. Employees in this path may advise UN regulations officers, ensure staff compliance, and support global efforts to sustain programs. Duties could also include:

  • Initiating, recruiting, and coordinating human resources activities, such as placement, promotion, training, hiring, and retention of staff
  • Managing and coordinating UN programs and budgets to ensure compatibility with program objectives
  • Analyzing reports, including financial and operational data
  • Exploring and promoting effective collaboration and partnerships within the UN and at outside firms, such as NGOs, academic institutions, and businesses
  • Leading, managing, and coordinating programs to ensure successful delivery of outcomes
  • Coordinating and overseeing the preparation of reports for internal and external parties

3. Political, Peace, and Humanitarian

Political, peace, and humanitarian careers at the UN provide critical support and guidance on a wide range of issues, from assisting underprivileged and displaced individuals to liaising with key partners in the field. Employees within this path cover political analysis and prepare reports for different departments and committees. Work may involve preparing studies on political, humanitarian, and emergency relief topics. Employees may also focus on:

  • Organizing and directing activities within various interagency programs that support policy development, electoral support, and governing laws
  • Providing hands-on relief work, fundraising, project management, and project planning
  • Acting as a liaison with local agencies and authorities
  • Training volunteers and additional staff members while preparing recommendations for the communities they serve
  • Providing access to medical care, water, shelter, food, clothing, and security in dire situations
  • Directing additional resources through mentorship, workshops, infrastructure development, and training to improve community health
  • Exchanging information between stakeholders regarding strategies, goals, and achievements to best serve needs of target population

4. Science

Employees within the science track at the UN focus on natural life sciences, anthropology, or medicine, whether they are a pharmacist, lab technician, doctor, nurse, or counselor. They provide support to the physical and mental health needs of both individuals and communities at large. Duties may also involve:

  • Providing preventative healthcare for a range of medical issues, from infant to adult care and emergency services
  • Administering physical examinations and ordering diagnostic tests
  • Overseeing routine vaccinations, mental health care, and immunization programs alongside other medical practitioners
  • Working with local healthcare officials, and local and international health experts
  • Managing health department resources and staff within their communities
  • Overseeing day-to-day clinical duties

5. Public Information and Conference Management

The public information and conference management track emphasizes greater understanding of the UN’s global mission by shaping its core messaging to the public. This includes using various communication tools, such as digital media, radio, television, print materials, and videoconferencing. Roles involve managing public relations campaigns and forming partnerships with outside agencies to create engaging communication strategies. Responsibilities may also consist of:

  • Writing press releases and responding to media inquiries about the UN
  • Arrange speaking arrangements and briefing leadership on communications strategies
  • Building and maintaining contacts with the media
  • Writing marketing materials and coordinating promotional events
  • Planning local and global public relations strategies
  • Establishing relationships with local and international governments, external agencies, public interest groups
  • Creating audio-visual communication strategies through radio, video production, and photography

If you’re passionate about helping others while finding global solutions to complex problems, then working for the UN could be the right choice for you. Whether you analyze trade-related information to shape economic policy or provide clean water to communities within developing nations, there are unlimited opportunities for you to make an impact at the UN.


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