How to work for the United Nations ?
September 23, 2008 2:36 AM   Subscribe

Do you know anybody who is working/have worked for the United Nations, and what they did to get such jobs? I'm specifically referring to jobs that are mostly non-humanitarian in nature.

Being in the naive & idealistic phase of my life (I'm 27), I figured that being employed in any United Nations organizations would fulfill my the desire to contribute something to the world, plus it might actually looks good in the resume.

My citizenship is Indonesian, but I have been staying in Singapore for the past 10 years, so I speak fluent English. I hold a basic 3-years degree in Computing from Singapore, and have been working as a programmer for the past 2 years here. Currently I am completing my part-time graduate diploma in math.

The UN Vacancy page indicates that even for an associate position, an advanced degree is required, so I intend to pursue my advanced degree in applied math/statistics some time later outside Singapore. Proficiency in French also seems to be necessary, so I've added that to my to-do list.

Do you know anybody who worked / is working in similar technical jobs for any UN organizations, and what had to do to get such post?
posted by joewandy to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I figured that being employed in any United Nations organizations would fulfill my the desire to contribute something to the world

Do you know anyone who works for the UN?

My wife worked at the IAEA in Vienna for about six years. Although her division worked with nuclear safeguards - something very worthwhile - she complained that the atmosphere was stifling, the work was slow and incredibly bureaucratic, and the office was rife with sexual harassment. Apparently diplomats who are posted far from home and given immunity from local law enforcement think they can get away with anything. Something to think about.

How she got the job? As a temporary replacement for someone on maternity leave. That person did not return and she was offered a permanent position.
posted by three blind mice at 3:14 AM on September 23, 2008

Best answer: I know someone who used to work for the UN. He's since returned "home", but here are some pointers:

* He got into it via the diplomatic route (working for a consulate, making contacts, being offered a job etc.)

* Knowing French wasn't a requirement.

* The UN is - unfortunately - overly bureaucratic and political. Many of the national representatives are there solely for the extraordinary salaries and perks and misbehave knowing that they are untouchable for the duration of their post.

A suggestion: perhaps cast your net slightly wider to include the UN agencies like the WHO, OIE, FAO, UNESCO etc. I've worked with a number of them and while there are problems, the work is worthy and their starved for technical types.
posted by outlier at 3:26 AM on September 23, 2008

Entry-level administrative jobs at the U.N. and translation jobs are selected by examinations.
posted by Jahaza at 4:53 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: outlier, could you elaborate more on your experiences with the other UN agencies as mentioned in your post above ?
posted by joewandy at 7:11 AM on September 23, 2008

Seconding outlier. I know a lot of people who have got into UN agencies through the field. Get a job or internship with an NGO, get to know the guys, and it becomes a lot easier.
posted by YouRebelScum at 8:58 AM on September 23, 2008

I worked for UNDP in NYC for 7 years and it was THE most sexist, corrupt, backwards and bureaucratic places I have EVER worked. I also worked there to make a contribution to society, to do something meaningful with my life etc. which is very noble, and I would assume that something you do makes the world a better places but you might just be better off bringing your own bag to the grocery store.

Yes, sexual harrassment is rife and back then (about 10 years ago) not dealt with at all. When I filed a complaint, I was told that I just don't understand arab men! And then the person I filed my complaint with told everyone that I complained and I was teased endlessly by all the men in the office. It wasn't that scarring for me but if you want protection from stuff like that, I wouldn't expect it.

There was a lot of backstabbing, political maneuvering, who-you-know kind of stuff at all times. There are ethnic-based informal mafias that control certain areas of the UN; no-one gets shot in the knee-caps for transgressions, but you do really have to tread carefully.

That said, if you still want to work there, you really need to know someone inside to pull for you. Since that is the way things work there, don't feel shy about working all your contacts. Apply for openings, call people you know to put in a good word for you, find out who the person is who deals with applications, call them, work them over to find out what is going on with your case, etc. Be the squeaky wheel.

To end on a happy note, I met many people there who were devoted to the work of UNDP, worked hard, were very talented and cared about the mandate of the organization. I got a lot of great advice and help from them, and made some really good friends. That really outweighed all the crap that I saw and experienced.
posted by kenzi23 at 3:43 PM on September 23, 2008

outlier, could you elaborate more on your experiences with the other UN agencies as mentioned in your post above ?

Sure - although I wouldn't want to exaggerate my knowledge and my experiences may not be everyones etc. etc. You will also understand if there are some details that I am vague about, for professional reasons.

Through working in epidemiology, I've had to liase with the FAO (Food & Agriculture) and OIE (animal health), in terms of hashing out agreements, data-sharing and connecting information systems. The frontline (i.e. the actual technicians, doctors and scientists) work hard. My impression is that the salaries aren't as over the top as at the core UN, but there are perks. The headquarters are always well-placed and well-catered. The FAO is housed in a stalinist cube of a building, abut 500 meters south of the Colosseum in Rome. The staff take their espressos (from the coffee bars – staffed by professional baristas – that seem be on every floor in the building) up to the roof and sip on them while staring over the ruins. Conversely, the staff we saw were crammed into tiny offices, piled with papers. The UN is extravagant on the public face, but can skimp behind the scene.

The organsiations are large and bureaucratic - there's an emphasis on memorandum, minutes and positions statements. Conversely, to get anything done will often require personal contact. So rather just ring someone up to organise a (say) database connection, it'll take a meeting to which lots of strange people will show up, have their say, and then disappear back into the building, with even the UN insiders not recognising them. ("Uh, who was that?") This – knowing who is currently responsible for what – as well as the steady churn of staff as they quit, return home or promote out, seems to be a bit of a problem.

And – despite all this – they get work done. The wheels move slowly, but the FAO, OIE and WHO have been great forces for good. We might wish that they move faster, but the need for consensus means that they must deliberate and take slow, measured action.
posted by outlier at 11:17 PM on September 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I appreciate all the comments so far.
posted by joewandy at 12:09 AM on September 24, 2008

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