Interning at the UN

A couple of years ago, I found myself amidst a career pathway rut and I decided to apply for a UN Internship placement. Having recently completed another internship, I was on the lookout for my next stepping stone.

As a recent graduate, I was stuck in a job that merely paid the bills, a job that barely scratched the surface of my skills and educational qualifications. I had reluctantly applied for a few government graduate programs (as that’s the trend and following footsteps of every newly graduate in the nation’s capital of Canberra), and my chances had fallen through in the final rounds of the interview selection process – I was giving up hope. You could call it an early career existential crisis.

What Drove Me to Apply

I was living in a city that I had forever dreamed of escaping; and I only continued residence there, post-graduation due to the long-term boyfriend, family and friends. Although, even the family were finding themselves in a new temporary home in France. So really it was the boyfriend, who was not ready to cut the chord with family ties: the emotional inclination of the archetypal European son – sound familiar anyone?

Whilst this restless “escapism” saga was unrolling in the background of my life, one of my best friends (and housemates at the time), had returned from an internship placement with the UN in Bangkok. She couldn’t stop raving about the experience in all its facets: culturally, career-wise, socially, spiritually… she made it sound so damn good, that you would have thought she reached enlightenment and soared through the whole cosmos and back.

So, I began visualising myself amongst that scene, it was me to a tee: my family (myself included) had been refugees and immigrated to Australia when I was only a baby; I had moved back to my native land and lived with my grandparents for a small segment of primary school; I had lived abroad as an exchange student and lived amongst people I couldn’t communicate with until I learnt their mother tongue; I had grown up with diplomatic friends my whole life; I had studied international relations and had just wrapped up an internship with an international affairs think tank. I justified my reasons and convinced myself to take the leap of faith and – just do it. I barely spoke to my boyfriend or my family before submitting the application – this moment was sacred and I didn’t need the opinions of others to distract me in the process.

How I Applied

Start your application process on the UN Careers Website. There is an array of UN agencies listed there, which you can apply for.

The application process was fairly simple. It comprised of an online application form with all the general details: Name, Country of Residence, Educational Background etc. and then two questions that were pivotal to your shortlisting:

Question One asked you to sum up why you’re applying (this is the question that relates to character and psychological factors – showcase why and how you care about the cause).

Question Two focused on the what you can offer them and asked you to expand on your skillset, education and how you’ve put these skills into practice (e.g. the tangible outcomes – showcase how you’ve put your knowledge and skills into actionable deliverables).

I summarised the entirety of both these questions within 300 words give or take. Remember to be precise and succinct with your answers, people don’t have time for chronicles.

The Outcome

To summarise the sensation of submitting an application with the UN: it’s like throwing something into a big black hole, as you have absolutely no grasp or control of what happens to it. I don’t even recall receiving a confirmation email after submitting the application.

So life goes on. I heard zilch, nada from them for almost 5 months. I forgot I had even applied, and moved on with my aspirations. I had applied for post-graduate studies in linguistics and was well immersed in my first semester when they contacted me with an offer, and subsequently an interview.

I had moved cities with my boyfriend by then. This is the point when life turned topsy-turvy. I naturally accepted the Skype interview, which due to time zone differences was my midnight. I never over the span of my lifetime, ever imagined that I’d have an interview with UN officials… over a skype call, and in my pyjamas…

Given my attire, it was the most comfortable I had ever felt in a job interview, I genuinely believe it was an influencing factor to why I landed the interview.

How I Landed My UN Internship

So, Elmo PJs and stripy fluffy socks are my secret to getting into the UN…

Despite my attire, the Skype interview itself went splendidly. I had been given some prereading (a slide deck on the department and unit itself) and so I had studied the contents of this pack closely in the lead up to the interview.

If you ever happen to arrive in a similar position, these are my tips to smashing your UN interview:

  1. Explain why you have applied (this is your chance to show you care about the cause – make sure you list 3 overarching objectives to your application)
  2. Demonstrate your understanding of the department and how the unit of work fits into the scheme of things
  3. Discuss your educational qualifications (remember to highlight why you would benefit the unit’s purpose)
  4. Discuss your skills and experience (what makes you unique and how your experience in practice is exactly what they need – remember to really think and tailor your responses to them)
  5. Highlight any commendable projects you have been involved in (these can span from publications to events etc. link your name to anything that gives a ‘wow’ factor)
  6. Let your personality shine! Showcase what an incredible human being you are, not only are you a smart over-achiever, but you’re witty and fun (this makes a difference – trust me!)

My interview went for approx. 30—45mins and it was a breeze. I was prepared with examples and I had prepped hours beforehand with my bestie who had already been through the UN journey.

Be Authentic

The most important advice that I can give, is that you show who you really are, be authentic. My Colombian boss had a sense of humour on him and I made him laugh several times – I think injecting some wit and personality can make a difference. Although, take this advice like a grain of salt as you need to test the waters here – personality dynamics are at play here, and you need to adapt your style to them (not the other way around). So suss out their style first, before dropping-in any humour ques and be wary that humour can be cultural specific!

Life Admin (You’ll need to get yourself organised!)

Post interview, I received a letter of offer within 2 days. They initially expected me to start and be on the other side of the world within 2 weeks; I had to do some negotiating with them to extend this timeframe to a month. I had a ton of life admin to organise in the lead up to my 7-month placement, among this never-ending list was: quitting my job; getting my course convenor to let me do end of semester exams early; telling my boyfriend that I’m going at all and making sure that he’ll be able to find a housemate to move in, to help cover rent and utilities.

And important to note, most UN Internships don’t pay you a cent for living expenses. If this is a concern, you could apply for the World Food Programme (WFP), as to my knowledge, their HQ based in Rome covers a monthly expense of circa. 700 Euros per month. Or simply ensure that you have adequate savings on you, before embarking on your placement.

Insider Tips

I’d like to share some words of wisdom that I was only able to unearth once I had been working at UN HQ, as an insider. If working for the UN sounds like your calling in life (besides the interview tips I’ve just covered), I’d consider the following before applying for a UN Internship – to ensure smoother sailing all round:

  1. When you lodge your application (or even before), make sure you have started to save some cash flow – the more savings you can take with you the better *I ended up tutoring English for some extra cash whilst living abroad and that was an amazing cultural experience in itself, but I didn’t get to travel as much due to the fact that I was time poor and poor!
  2. If you know someone who knows someone in the UN you will have a better chance at getting a placement – most of the other interns in my rotation, had been linked in via acquaintances *The application portal is only referred to some of the time and word-of-mouth is a trusted route within networks

After a manic month of life admin, I had finally arrived and it was a(ah)mazing! See my article The UN: The Disneyland Workplace to experience it second-hand.

One thought on “Interning at the UN

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *