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How can a science/tech graduate get work to help developing countries
December 9, 2013 8:20 PM   Subscribe

I’m an undergraduate chemical engineering student about graduate next semester, trying to figure out what to do next. I’ve always been interested in global development issues, and I wanted to get ideas on how I could get involved in this area, possibly using my background in science/technology in a useful way.

I’ve always wanted to get involved in work that helps improves health and welfare in developing countries. I’ve also always really loved science and technology. If possible, I would love to find some way of combining the two, but I’m not sure how I could personally get involved in that kind of work.

My current ideas are a bit sketchy unfortunately – e.g. if there was a good volunteer opportunity that could get me into the field that'd be really cool. Or maybe there are tech-based companies working in the development area I could join either now or after further study. Also, I remember reading somewhere about some academics working on sustainable technologies for the poor – if I could remember/get in touch with them perhaps I could join their efforts.Also, I think the concept of social entrepreneurship seems really awesome, but not exactly sure how to become a social entrepreneur! Alas, it seems like I know everything about the traditional career paths for my major but nothing about doing anything kind of different like this.

Most of the students in my program tend to either work traditional chemical engineering roles (e.g. oil and gas, mining, etc.) or go into chemical engineering research. I do think that work’s important, but would personally really love to get out there and do something that will help people in real need.

In terms of experience, I’ve had a few successful stints in biology and material science labs, but I guess I’ve got an open mind in terms of where I go next. Also, I suppose whatever I do strictly speaking doesn’t have to draw on my background -- everything is on the table at this point. Just feels like I’ve got these skills, and it’d be great to use it for good, you know.
posted by strekker to Work & Money (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A short term option: peace corp loves tech/science people.
posted by troytroy at 8:24 PM on December 9, 2013

You could make contact with your local chapter of Engineers without Borders, who might be able to help you with more information, projects you can volunteer on, or just useful contacts.

If any sort of grad school is an option for you, consider finding a post-grad supervisor who is doing research that might help in aid work. Some suggestions might be water purification technology, biogas utilisation, urban sanitation.
posted by girlgenius at 8:29 PM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Engineering World Health.
posted by Wet Spot at 8:46 PM on December 9, 2013

Two possibilities that come to my mind:

First, look for consulting firms that consider international development as a core part of their mission (such as IDEO or Arup Architecture).

Second, international technology transfer is super important in helping developing countries build and adapt technology developed here for local environments infrastructure. Breaking into this field will most likely require some internship time (usually unpaid, sadly) in DC to help build connections, and then grad work in international science & tech policy, but I’ve always thought we needed more engineers and scientists in policy.
posted by thebestsophist at 9:59 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've read utilitarian arguments that a lawyer shouldn't do menial charity labor for an hour if they could bill an extra hour for $400, donate it, and let the shelter hire someone on minimum wage for 50 hours who could do the same work.

One option is to enter the oil/gas/mining industry, be aggressive in pursuing raises, promotions and overtime, and donate the money you make to a charity.

Of course, if the charities can make productive use of your valuable specialist skills, it can make sense to work for them directly. Personally I had difficulty finding charities that needed my skills in robot and microprocessor design.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:57 AM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Peace Corps is not a great fit for you- it's more 'grass roots' and you'd probably gain and offer more by something tailored to chem engineering that really takes advantage of your specialized skills. I'd look into a Seattle-based non profit called PATH:
Not sure what sort of internship/entry level positions they have but they sound exactly what you are looking for- high level tech work with the goal of improving living conditions in low income countries. I am working on a vaccine project with them in Indonesia and there are a few chemical engineers involved.
Engineers Without Borders and similar other organizations are also good suggestions.
posted by emd3737 at 1:16 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

80000 Hours is an effective-altruism charity based on the principle raised by Mike1024 above, that you can often make the most difference to the world by entering a high-paying field and donating correspondingly more money. Lots more information on their website.
posted by katrielalex at 3:24 AM on December 10, 2013

Thanks for the very interesting ideas here. I find the 80,000 hours concept quite intriguing and will have to think about it a bit more. Likewise, good leads with the PATH, EWH and the consultancy/policy idea. This has actually helped a lot, thanks.
posted by strekker at 2:19 AM on December 12, 2013

Thanks for the very interesting ideas here. The 80,000 hours concept is quite intriguing and will have to think about it a bit more. Likewise, good leads with the PATH, EWH and the consultancy/policy idea. This has actually helped a lot, thanks.
posted by strekker at 2:19 AM on December 12, 2013

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