Wading Through the Mud: How to Make the Most Out of Your UN Internship
TMP Note: This author decided to submit this anonymously. The editorial board at TMP decided to publish it because we felt it was honest, genuine, and respectful.
Read a related article on UN internships, here.
Here’s a true story.
For several weeks, the head of a certain UN office stayed in the second biggest city of the country he was stationed in, preaching to NGOs the holy grail of cost-cutting and budget management. During that time he set up camp in one of the fanciest hotels in the city, an international five-star hotel. After the end of his stay, he received the hotel’s complementary iPad he had been using as a free gift (or reward?) for being such a loyal guest.
I’m telling this story because I know pretty well how distasteful the UN can be at times. I’ve seen it in person during my UN internships, I’ve heard stories from people who were at the highest levels of the UN Headquarters and of course, UN Watch never misses a beat in criticizing its partial-namesake organization. God bless UN Watch. What would we do without them?
So that being said, I am by no means glorifying the UN or the internships they offer. Some people have great experiences, some people don’t – and sometimes, there can be nothing done about that. I am actually one of the (few?) people who had two positive experiences in vastly different UN organizations – different in the programs, the position I was in, the makeup and scope of the office, the type of supervisor and many, many other ways. If it wasn’t for the big UN blue umbrella of which these organizations were situated under, there would have been hardly any similarities between the two offices. By the way, “UN blue” is an actual thing: pdf here.
I am writing because I wanted to share some of my tips and tricks to making the most out of your UN internships. They are by no means iron laws, but even if one single person would hear me out, I would derive satisfaction from that.
1) Pick UN agencies that pay.
Yes, there are UN internships that pay, so do your research. To give you some leads – some UNICEF internships pay depending on the position. ILO internships pay. Look for UN internships on the local office websites, because a lot of positions are unlisted on the global website. Also, apply for the SIPA Summer Internship Grants if the conditions apply to you. Plus, some government ministries will pay their nationals to do UN internships abroad.
2) Take up internships based on your strengths and interests, not for the sake of doing it.
Pretty self-explanatory I guess.
3) Just cold-e-mail people to get UN internships. Sometimes it works.
I got my second UN internship by just cold-emailing the head of office. I found his email after 3 minutes of googling. I guess this involves a bit of luck because I got a reply in an hour.
But in order to increase your chances of getting lucky via cold-emailing, I recommend that you make it both succinct and relevant. UN people tend to be very busy people and they don’t have time to read 4 paragraphs about your Messiah Complex. Tell them why you want to work for that office, what position you would be interested in and your relevant qualifications. Do your research on the office and its projects, programs and focuses and write your email in reference to these elements. I suggest sending in your CV as well with the first email, so they can just look at it immediately instead of there being another round of back and forth. Extra emails can be a very obnoxious obstacle, so you want to get to “Yes, you can intern with us” in as few emails as possible.
4) Set clear expectations from the very beginning.
Set and define your roles and responsibilities, also make sure you know who you are reporting to. If it’s not the person interviewing you, get in touch with that person as soon as possible. If you want to negotiate what your work will be like, this stage is the time to do it. It will get harder in the future. Treat your interview as a testing ground for finding out what is possible and not possible within the perimeters of your position. And for the third time, do your research!
5) Protect Ya Neck.
Shaolin style! Say no when you have to. I have a friend who was a UNV volunteer but basically did the work of a P4 employee (a position which is for people with 7 years plus experience) because she simply said ‘yes’ to every single job that was thrown at her. She completed her term last month and told me she never wants to go back to that UN agency. It’s not her fault that she had work above her pay grade force-fed to her, but I’m saying you have to learn the balance between accepting every request because you’re an intern and defending yourself. Sometimes a made-up excuse to prevent yourself from doing anything BEYOND your job description is the right thing to do. Especially if you’re not being paid nor is there any prospect of full-time employment.
6) Wriggle wriggle
Be proactive. Wriggle to find your own space and freedom. When I was interning, I constantly looked for things to do that were at the intersection of what I was interested in and what the organization needed. Maybe that didn’t leave me fully satisfied as I usually have to settle for something halfway, but it’s better than being stuck in some sh*tty editing job that you don’t want to do.
For instance, when I was writing for a UN publication, I pitched an article idea to my supervisor and she accepted it because it was both timely and relevant to the publication’s objectives. Pitching ideas was certainly not in my job description, but because I had been translating articles for the publication, I had a good idea of what would work (and had worked in the past) and what would not. And I wanted to make my job more interesting by writing about a topic I liked. I suggested my idea in a respectful manner, giving clear reasons why I thought my idea was worth printing, and my supervisor agreed to put it out.
7) Talk to strangers and make allies
I hate workplace politics and I stay away from it as much as possible. That being said, you will need to make allies. If they’re not going to be your supervisor, then you’ll need to make friends in the office. How?
First, take an interest in what others are doing. Read the emails that are NOT directly to your work. Ask what kind of work they are doing, see if you have any interesting opinions to contribute to their work. You’re at SIPA, you’re already smart. Your opinion should be worth something to them. You’d be surprised how much you can contribute if you just listen. One time, I stumbled in a conversation in another room where the Communications manager was wondering where he could see gender-related indicators in one look. Of course, I told him to look at UNDP’s Human Development Index, where he would be able to see the Gender Development Index and Gender Inequality Index.
Second, whenever I had time I offered to help other employees. I wrote policy briefs and offered to help organize UN-sponsored events although they were not my team’s work. Because I made the effort to get to know other employees and help them when I could, I got an intern position for another friend who eventually got offered a part-time consultancy.
Third, chat it up as long as you’re not disturbing them. One trick I used is I put a plate of chocolates, gums, candies for people to grab and when they did I would ask them to sit down for a bit, or if they didn’t have time I would ask them what they were working on or how their project was going.
8) Write down every single task and job you are asked to do
This applies to all internships and jobs, but I always wrote down every little job they asked me to do. Even if I was asked to proofread three paragraphs, I kept a separate Word document where I recorded everything. Recently, I had to go back to the document because I wanted to write a cover letter to a position I was applying for, and I was surprised at how many tasks I would not have remembered had I not typed them up.
9) Self-learning is self-help
Basically, your UN agency’s intranet is your bestie. There will be lots of documents that cannot be found through a Google search. Make use of this “privilege” and peruse as many documents as possible. During my internship, my supervisor was not an expert on the report I was devising so the documents I dug up and referred to became my secret second supervisor. Or just maybe, you’re a geek who likes reading random reports and studies. In that case, Christmas came early for you!
10) Pick up new tricks
It’s hard to learn new hard skills during your UN internship. If anything, they’ll want you to use your existing hard skills at work for *ahem slavery ahem*. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the opportunity to learn. Ask if you can attend UN events and meetings. One time, during my internship I stumbled into a random discussion about how they selected celebrities and other well-known figures as UN ambassadors and I got some insight into how they did that. Another time, my supervisor asked me if I wanted to take an online course on Results-Based Management at the UN, which I didn’t but now wish I had because it’s a useful extra line to have on my CV – especially if I want to go back to the UN.
Learning opportunities won’t be spoon-fed to you unfortunately. So read your emails, talk to your supervisor and other staff about what might be available.
11) Work for that detailed recommendation
Since I wasn’t getting paid for my UN internships, I thought about what I wanted to get out of it. The most concrete thing I could think of is a detailed recommendation that stressed my abilities. So to do that, I always kept my supervisor updated on what I was doing, and like I noted above, I was proactive in making suggestions. However, be mindful that this only works when a) you are doing the basic jobs you are required to do properly b) if you communicate it in a clear, succinct manner that doesn’t waste anyone’s time c) if it’s relevant to your work, your supervisor and the organization itself.
I'm fortunate that the head of my agency, although I didn’t work with him directly, knew my work well enough to write me a recommendation. If she/he doesn’t know you, go up to the person within the first weeks of your internship and introduce yourself as the new intern. And use the few seconds you meet the person or group meetings just to say what work you’re doing. If you think your work is important enough, ask your supervisor to set up a session where you present your work and receive feedback from the head (something which I did). Try to make up an excuse to go have lunch or coffee with her/him and discuss your work.
12) Keep in touch!
Which leads to my last point, try to keep in touch with the connections you make. I’m glad I came out with some people I can genuinely call my friends, not just colleagues and acquaintances. And I still have lunch with my supervisor at least once a year, and so it wasn’t awkward when I asked her to be my reference for a position I was applying to, although some time had passed.
Use holidays as an excuse to send greetings, and if you happen to see them in the media, send them a note saying you had read what they said. I did that when I saw my boss’ name in a prominent international daily two months ago. You don’t have to catch up on Facetime for 2 hours, but you will feel the difference if you suddenly need something from them a few years later and you haven’t even said hi to them since you handed back your fancy UN pass.
I realize that my tips and tricks are pretty generic and for some it will be common sense. Excuse moi, I am not Ban Ki-Moon or Kofi Annan! But they are based on my personal experience, so take the ones that work for you, disregard the ones that don’t. People have diverse experiences at the UN and it is hard (and even dangerous) to generalize. The title I chose for this piece was ‘Wading Through the Mud’, which I still like and hence decided to keep, but as I was writing I couldn’t help thinking of Christopher Walken as Frank Abagnale Sr. in the movie Catch Me If You Can, and the story he tells:
“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.”
In the cream that is the UN, may you always be the second mouse!