16 February 2007

Work, Work, Work & the SOAS Development Society

During the last week I spent a lot of time at the Careers Service where I mowed through their folders upon folders of past and present vacancies, voluntary work, part-time work and graduate work, vacancy descriptions and charity directories to get an overview over opportunites in development and skills required.

If you apply for a job in the UK, you always need at least (!) two referees, usually one academic (such as your tutor or teacher) and one former employer with full contact details. In addition, transferable ("soft") skills (including those gained during your studies at university) are considered highly important and in the UK version you are expected to elaborate on the responsibilities and skills which you have gained, even if you just worked at McDonald's (it took me some time to reflect upon what I learned in that job...).

In Austria I believe it is more about work experience than about who you are as a person, at least in part-time work or the usual summer internships. And as everywhere in the world, nepotism or as it is called today, networking.

So transferable skills and enthusiasm (especially voluntary work which is more organised and wide-spread in the UK than in Austria) might even have prevalence over your work experience. So if you are applying for a job in fundraising but you have never worked for a charity or in marketing etc. before but can prove that you have the skills required for the job, it might balance it out.

Today I went to an event by the SOAS Development Society which is run by PG students. It started off with a careers talk by several professionals who had been in the field after they had graduated and are now pursuing their Masters. We had the following panel speakers:

_ A Norwegian who has a background in Anthropology, did fieldwork in Russia and then went to work as a Eastern Europe specialist on site during conflict situations and she also observed elections. She basically said that she got her first job by chance (being at the right place at the right time) but also because she spoke Russian (the Belgian said, "If you speak any weird languages you definitely get a job in development" which gives hope to SOAS students) and the perceptional context of the region during the 19990s (so obviously, political trends affect the job situation as well). She also mentioned that it can be mentally and emotionally quite strenuous to go to remote places basically on your own, sometimes you are in the middle of nowhere alone or maybe with two other people you might like or not for whatever reason and have to sleep in a tent outside for two weeks. Also your bosses back home exert pressure on you because they of course expect you to produce results. I talked to her later to ask her if and how the Anthropology background proved useful for her and she said that it sort of helps to overcome the stress of feeling displaced in a strange environment because you have a gist of the structures of society etc. and also the experience of fieldwork and listening to people was quite important in preparing her for her future work.

_ A Belgian who has a background in Politics and History, I believe, who worked for the ICRC for around 10 years or so and who has worked in Rwanda and Darfur (the first right after the genocide). I am quite interested in the ICRC so I hope to have an opportunity to ask her some questions at the next event. She mentioned that as opposed to jobs at the UN maybe, the Red Cross has a high rotation when it comes to employees - quite promising.

_ A Greek-American who comes from an entirely different direction than the other two ladies. She did a Fine/Performing Arts and Cultural Management kind of thing. Then she went to visit her brother who was doing monitoring of the legal situation or sth like that in Sierra Leone (I hope I don't get that entirely wrong now) who was there with a delegation of other colleagues. She met a lot of people there and they discussed policies and their work and she returned to New York City. Some time later she returned from the US to introduce different kinds of art as a way to express ideas about what they want the future to be like which is quite an interesting approach, in my opinion but also quite original since it also enables illiterate people to manifest their visions.

_ An energetic Italian who has worked for the WFP and had knocked out 900 other applicants. The application was announced and processed by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and she was sent to work as a Communications Officer in Madagascar. The way the post was described she thought she would be an assistant but the moment she got there she found out that she was the Officer proper and that it was her who had an assistant! Anyway, so on her first days she got calls from BBC, Reuters etc who asked her questions. And she didn't know any of this! She said for her, it was a learning-by-doing thing.

_ Another American who worked for Amnesty International in a regional division of AI US. He said, you cannot underestimate the importance of networks in this kind of work. Great. I have to work on that.

If you are interested, just check out the SOAS Development Society group at facebook. At the moment it is entirely run by PGs (all the few UGs evaporated after the event, I was the only UG at the social in the ULU bar which followed the career talk) and since they obviously won't hang around for too long, it is necessary for UG students to get involved in it. After all, I believe, talks like these are especially important if you consider gaining work experience before you do a Masters! So definitely worth going to the events!

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