This post is based on a presentation I gave for high school students interested in working for the UN. As such I hope it is informative for that particular audience, but also more generally for those interested in the overlap between science, technology and international development.
I recently returned to my old high school to speak with some pupils about working for the UN. Despite giving a lot of presentations and career advice in the past, I found this audience quite challenging to prepare for. This was for a few different reasons; firstly I hardly do typical UN work and so felt somewhat like an imposter (I even found myself cramming in anticipation of questions I couldn’t answer). Secondly, I don’t spend much time with teenagers so I have no idea what would interest them or they could relate to other than my hazy memories of being the same age.
After some deliberating I decided on four ‘headlines’ that I wanted to leave behind; the things that I would like to be able to go back in time and tell myself or the things that were not clear a priori but are now.
The UN is not just the Security Council
There are many different things you can do to work at the UN, not only the high profile work of the Security Council: passing binding resolutions on member states related to conflict or war crimes. As is well noted in An Insiders Guide to the UN, if you have ever taken a flight or consulted an accurate weather report, you have benefited from the UN system. The UN has the Secretariat (the executive branch if you like Montesquieu-ian analogies) and the Security Council at its head in New York. The Security Council is by far the most familiar UN organ, since its decisions usually affect very visible events.
There are better known UN agencies, such as UNICEF (the agency protecting children), World Food Program (providing food assistance) and others. Beyond these there are some more niche agencies dealing with aviation (ICAO), shipping (IMO), even postal mail (UPU) and my personal favourite outer space (UNOOSA). Some of these organizations particularly look to recruit experts in a particular field, such as the IAEA (nuclear energy) or WHO (public health). Yet many also need the operational support you might expect from any large organisation; Human Resources, events, communications, programmers, designers etc.
While the work of these agencies might not have the cachet of appearing on the front page of the New York Times, they will nevertheless offer a stimulating career path, international travel and diverse and progressive colleagues.
Learning a language is a huge asset
My experience of interacting with people from many different parts of the world has taught me that Brits are generally well perceived; to be fair, hard working, honest and diplomatic. However, we are also notorious for being mono-lingual. The serendipity that handed us the global lingua franca as our mother tongue may well be a double edged sword.
There are plenty of reasons to push back against this privilege, other than the simple fact that the world is changing and this status quo may not always persist.
More generally, knowledge of a language invariably teaches us more than vocabulary and grammar. Speakers of second languages, have been shown to empathize better with others, being more skilled at reaching compromises, even embodying different personalities when speaking in different tongues. Lauren Collins beautifully describes the complexity that a bilingual layer added to her relationship.
Complete dominion is not necessary for most careers in the UN, the ability to greet people and reach for that perfect phrase in a colleagues own tongue goes very far. Beyond translation work, a deep working knowledge is necessarily required in some country offices if the UN has a particularly strong working relationship with host government counterparts. For some specific routes into the UN such as the Junior Professional Officer program, knowledge of two UN languages (English, Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian and Chinese) is a condition.
Voluntary work is important
Voluntary work is a great way to build up soft skills (see the points below) while also learning more about an area you are interested in. A common path through university is a student union (known as student government in US based systems) in which individuals are elected by students to represent their peers. This might include advocating for students needs to university departments on issues such as library opening hours, to debating the official position that the student union takes on political issues. Many British politicians and civil servants cut their teeth on student union positions. Universities will often have established channels for volunteering and in fact I was lucky enough to meet one of my personal heros, the broadcaster Jon Snow, at the University College London at our annual award ceremony (Jon Snow is a tireless advocate for voluntary work).
Gap years, in which a year is spent abroad volunteering between college and university, have acquired a bad name in recent years. It is important to choose these schemes carefully to ensure that whatever work you undertake, it is beneficial to the recipient community (see here for more in depth advice).
The truth is that there are lots of very bright people who, through superior intelligence or hard work and a good education, can understand very complicated topics. However, after a point, that knowledge can only be useful if it is able to leave the head of that person to be articulated to someone else; the same reason that the best academic minds are not necessarily the best teachers (something that many undergraduate students at strong research universities will lament).
Science suffers from a surfeit of communicators in particular since, in very broad strokes, scientists are often introverts in nature and are groomed to be more pensive and thorough in their thinking which doesn’t always make them well suited to public speaking. In their defense, rising to be a successful scientist involves long and lonely periods of deep immersion in often abstract and obscure concepts; not exactly an easy balance to strike.
My advice therefore is simply to practice relentlessly. Take every opportunity to stand up in front of people and to talk if only for a short period. Practice explaining things that you have read about and find interesting to your friends and family. Don’t neglect people from outside your usual social circle, they may be the most challenging to relate to but they are the most valuable in learning to communicate clearly and intuitively. It is true that a few lucky people are born to be naturally excellent communicators, but the vast majority need to try, fail, reflect and improve. A more passive way to improve is to attend talks and lectures and to ask yourself ‘what was good and bad about how this person talked?’.
Of course communication is not only oral, written communication is also terribly important in both science and civil service of any kind. Written communication has the advantage of being asynchronous (it can be delivered and consumed at the pace of the writer and audience), so the exact message may be more precise and more widely accessible. Many universities have student newspapers of extremely high calibre that have launched many journalistic careers. Across many different sectors, a large amount of reading and writing is expected and rewarded.
Prepare to do more than one thing
The issues and problems that are most pressing are complex and intertwined. This means that we need more people with deep domain expertise as well as the ability to communicate well to bridge to a broad spectrum of disciplines. For example, the fact that data scientists tend to have PhDs in neuroscience or astrophysics yet have to understand data warehousing, collection, product management and sales have led to the description of an ideal ‘T-shaped’ professional.
Quantitative scientists now frequently find themselves in an environment in which it is incumbent upon them to be able to engage on some level with serious societal issues. Those working on autonomous vehicles or media recommendation systems were previously left alone in their ivory tower back when these applications were less ubiquitous. However the rapid transition of these technologies into massive operational usage means that for the quantitative scientist, the ability to speak at least cursorily to the changing nature of blue collar work or filter bubbles is now obligatory.
Yet the converse also rings true. Issues such as climate change have strong diplomatic and political elements. But to a large extent, emerging clean technologies will play a large part in determining if, how and when a global strategy can be agreed upon. It is no longer acceptable that all those present at climate change negotiations rely wholly on special advisors to grasp the potential of new scientific advisors. A recent report on the future of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office argued that a new generation of diplomats should have a strong grasp of emerging technologies.