An increasing number of graduates are opting for an international development career. Find out more about this area of work and the qualifications you need to succeed

International development explained

International development, or global development as it's sometimes known, is about empowering people and improving the well being of the world's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. People working in the field engage with economically disadvantaged regions to address the causes of poverty.

'International development looks at the opportunities and obstacles to improving human well-being sustainably and equitably at global, national and local levels. It focuses on parts of the world such as Africa, Asia and Latin America where poverty remains highest,' explains Dr Oliver Walton, MSc International Development lecturer and director of studies at the University of Bath.

'This area of work is important because too many people in the world do not have the resources to cover their basic needs and lack the opportunity, rights and voice to make positive changes in their lives,' adds Professor Fiona Nunan, director of the international development department at the University of Birmingham. 'It draws on theories and concepts from many disciplines including political science, geography, anthropology and economics, to generate understanding about why poverty and inequality exist and how complex issues can be addressed.'

This area of work is increasingly popular as more and more socially-conscious graduates choose to do good in the field.

Undergraduate programmes

To increase your chances of employment in this competitive sector it's wise to choose a relevant first degree. Useful subjects include:

  • international development
  • economics
  • human rights
  • languages
  • social policy
  • health-related programmes.

It's difficult for those without university qualifications to break into international development. However, in some circumstances it is possible with significant work experience.

A variety of institutions offer undergraduate courses in the field - you can either study straight international development or combine the subject with another such as economics, politics, anthropology, geography or languages. The majority of programmes take three years to complete full time (four if your course incorporates a placement year).

For example, on the International Development BA at King's College London you can opt to undertake a year abroad in your third year, studying in Korea, Hong Kong, South Africa, Malaysia or America. The course offers a unique approach to the study of development by concentrating on the middle-income countries responsible for driving changes in the global economy. During your first year you'll study modules including an 'Introduction to Development Studies', 'History of the Global Economy' and 'Economic Analysis of Emerging Economies.' In your second year you'll cover 'Development Theory' and 'Approaches to Research Development', as well as choosing from a variety of optional units. In your final year you'll choose six optional modules and produce a dissertation.

For entry onto the International Development BA at the University of Leeds, you'll typically need to achieve ABB grades at A-level. Year one core modules include 'Comparative Politics', 'Global Development Challenges' and 'Making of the Modern World'. You'll choose to study either 'British Politics' or 'Contemporary Africas: Politics, Society and the Environment.' In year two, you'll cover 'Development Theory and Practice' and 'Approaches to Analysis' and choose from a list of ten optional units. Your final year will mostly be dedicated to producing a dissertation, but you'll also study three optional modules. Teaching methods include lectures, seminars and workshops and you'll be assessed through exams, essays, project and group work.

Applications to all undergraduate programmes are submitted through UCAS.

Masters in international development

'Having a Masters degree is crucial to advancing a career in international development. A postgraduate degree helps you to develop specialist skills and understanding about the complex challenges involved in international development. It can also provide opportunities to gain valuable work experience through placements, and build your networks in the field,' says Oliver.

Also, if your first degree was in an unrelated subject, a Masters in international development can bring your knowledge up to speed.

'People join the sector having studied many different areas at undergraduate level, but they need to gain sufficient understanding of the different approaches to development and skills in critically analysing evidence to inform appropriate responses. It is almost essential that anyone wanting to enter the field of international development has a Masters degree,' agrees Fiona.

For entry onto a postgraduate programme you'll typical need a 2:1 or above. On the one-year, full time International Development MSc at the University of Birmingham you'll study theories of development in a historical context in the programmes only compulsory module. You'll then choose five optional units to tailor the course to fit your own interests. You could select modules on rural and urban poverty reduction, conflict and development or disaster management.

'The International Development MSc at Birmingham offers students a strong foundation in understanding approaches to, and critiques of, international development and the flexibility to develop their own portfolio of modules from the range on offer,' explains Fiona. 'The programme offers students the opportunity to undertake their own fieldwork as part of their dissertation, with a contribution towards the cost of this taken from their tuition fees.'

If you opt for the International Development MSc at the University of Bath you'll be able to choose between four course pathways: the interdisciplinary International Development MSc, MSc International Development with Conflict and Humanitarian Action, MSc International Development with Economics or the MSc International Development, Social Justice and Sustainability. At the end of the year-long programme you can choose to either write a dissertation or undertake an eight-week work placement.

'All four programmes encourage students to develop in-depth knowledge of specific cases and issues. We use case studies to draw out connections and contradictions between different actors and analytical perspectives, across global, regional, national and local scales,' says Oliver.

'A key feature of our Masters programmes is the opportunity for students to do an eight-week work placement, leading to a work-based project, which will provide hands-on experience to complement classroom-based learning.'

Search for postgraduate courses in international development, and learn more about postgraduate funding.

Short courses

Whatever your reason for studying a short course, be it to expand or further your knowledge in a particular area, widen your networks or for continuing professional development, a variety of institutions run programmes in international development.

For example, the International Development Centre at the University of East Anglia (UEA) runs a range of courses including Climate Change and Development, Ecosystem Services in Sustainable Development, Organisational Change for Gender Equality and Water Security for Policy Makers and Practitioners. All these courses are studied on campus.

The Global Development Academy at the University of Edinburgh offers you the chance to gain postgraduate certificates in Africa and International Development and Global Development Challenges by studying online.

Open Learn, part of the Open University, also offers a free, online Understanding International Development course, which approximately takes up to 20 hours of study time.

International development jobs

The sector is highly competitive so you'll need some relevant work experience. It's a good idea to build up both local and international volunteering experience during and after your studies. You could give your time to organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), arrange your own voluntary position with a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) or organise an internship at the head office of a development organisation. Volunteering in this capacity will develop a range of skills essential for a career in international development. For example, you'll learn team working, communication skills, self-confidence, adaptability, self-sufficiency and a second language. Work experience is also a great way to build and expand your network of contacts.

Job opportunities in international development are diverse and open to those with the right qualifications, skills and experience. You could work in an advisory, policy, outreach or support capacity for governmental organisations, such as the Department for International Development (DFID), NGOs like Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision and WaterAid, academic institutions or for organisations such as the United Nations.

'Graduates must be willing to travel and work abroad, and often need to have some voluntary experience,' says Fiona. 'Jobs may include fundraising, project management and communications work, or cover more specialised areas - for example conflict specialists, gender advisors and environmental policy officers.'

To give you an idea of exact roles, Oliver adds, 'Graduates of the course at Bath now work as an economic development team leader for the UK Department for International Development Palestinian programme in Jerusalem, an outreach channel director at Marie Stopes International, humanitarian policy manager at Plan International and a regional projects manager at International Alert.'

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