do I need to do something creative to get a job?

A reader writes:

I finished my master’s degree about six months ago and have been searching for a job ever since. I’m currently working an unpaid internship in the field I want to work in, but it is unlikely to lead to a full-time, paid position. I have been continuing to apply to various positions I see posted online when they come up. While I graduated top of my class at a prestigious university, my graduate degree was in a niche subject and would require a PhD to get a job in. The field I am looking to work in (global health/international development) is fairly unrelated to my degree, so I understand that it will be harder for my resume to stand out compared to others who have master’s degrees in relevant subjects.

Do I need to do something creative to get a job? I have heard this type of advice a lot – start an interesting blog, create a website, etc. I’m told that it’s easier for potential employers to remember my name if I have published content somewhere and can refer them to that. It’s been suggested that I start a Twitter account, for instance, and use that as a medium to get in touch with others in the field. While I recognize that creativity tends to be rewarded, I wonder whether the amount of time and effort invested into coming up with an original idea and posting new content consistently is worth it.

I have plenty of experience through internships, volunteer work, and leadership positions during my undergraduate and graduate degrees (both of which were undertaken at universities outside of the U.S., it might be worth noting). I’m just not receiving any responses to applications I send in. Do you hear many success stories of people using a creative outlet as a way of standing out to potential employers?

This is bad advice, and I wish people would stop giving it!

The thing is, sometimes someone does create a website/start a blog/become active on Twitter and does it so well and the stars align in precisely the right way that it does lead to attention from employers.

But when that happens, it usually happens organically, not as a job search strategy. The person is so passionate about topic X that they’re driven to create a blog on it, and that interest and drive leads them to write regular, interesting content that’s organic and not forced (because it’s coming from a genuine desire to do it), and they happen to do it well, and eventually they’ve built something others take notice of. (Sometimes. Other times someone does all this, including doing it well, and for whatever reason it never gains traction.)

It’s very hard to recreate that as a deliberate job search strategy. It just doesn’t work the same. You generally won’t bring the same level of interest and drive to it, and that’ll show in your content. Or the attempt will be transparent and it’ll end up seeming self-promotional.

That doesn’t mean setting out to do this as a deliberate job search fails 100% of the time. But it fails so often that it doesn’t make sense to invest heavily in it, or to advise people to make it a cornerstone of their job search. And, as you note, the amount of time and effort it takes to do it well is really disproportionate to the likelihood of a payoff.

Twitter is a little different. There can be real benefit to building a network on Twitter and contributing to conversations about topics in your field. It’s far from a magic bullet, and you definitely don’t need to do it to find a job (in most fields; stuff like online marketing can be exceptions), but it’s a more natural way to connect to people than the other parts of the advice you’re getting.

The best way to get a job continues to be the boring way: write a compelling cover letter (something 98% of people don’t do; their cover letters just summarize their resumes, which is not the point) and have a resume focused on accomplishments that translate well to the job you’re applying for.

In your case, you’ve got two things working against you: (1) You have a fresh master’s degree in an area you’re not seeking work in (which worries employers for the reasons here), which means your best bet will probably be to lean heavily on your network, but … (2) We’re in a pandemic that has dramatically constricted hiring, which means your network may not be able to help right now.

In your shoes, I’d talk to people in the field you want to work in and ask for advice (not job leads, just advice, which will make people more willing to give it). Things you want to know from them: Are organizations hiring right now? Who is and isn’t? Does someone with your background have a realistic shot of a foot in the door right now, or would you be better off looking outside the field and trying again next year? If the former, how can you position yourself better to get a serious look from employers? If the latter, are there particular types of work you could do now that would make you a stronger candidate later?

But I don’t think creating a website specifically for this purpose will work any kind of magic here.

{ 162 comments… read them below }

  1. spacelady*

    I’d add that the field you’re trying to get into (global health/international development) is, even in the normal non-covid world, extremely competitive and usually results in years of unpaid work before a paying job. I’d suggest widening your search a little to include tangentially related non-profits/NGOs, as some experience in the non-profit sector will usually help in getting you in the right direction.

    Good luck OP!

    1. non-creative OP*

      Thank you for this advice! I tend to see non-profit sector experience as a preferred qualification in many job postings, so have been slowly expanding my search to include NGOs as well. I appreciate your comment!

      1. Legal Beagle*

        This is a good idea. Many non-profits will have programs that are at least tangentially related to your interest areas and those jobs will help you gain experience, make connections, and (crucial for the non-profit sector) show your commitment to the field.

      2. Genny*

        Can you elaborate on what types of jobs in the global health/international development field you’ve been targeting if you’re just now expanding your search to NGOs/non-profits? I ask because NGOs make up the vast majority of jobs in those fields. If you haven’t already been including them in your job search, than I wonder if you’ve been pretty exclusively looking at fed government jobs.

        If that’s the case, fed government jobs should never, ever be Plan A. The hiring process is too long, it’s too competitive, and the system is too arcane to make it an efficient/effective use of your job searching time. Fed government jobs should be something you pursue in tandem with other career paths so that if it works out, great, and if it doesn’t, you have other pans in the fire. Sorry if none of that is applicable to you, I’ve just seen too many grads not really understand the practicality of getting a fed government job right out of school.

        1. Clear Teary Eyes*

          And if OP is looking for a federal job, they may need to branch out to contractors who provide support to federal agencies. (I’m a current federal employee, and our office is half or a little less civilian, half or a little more contractor.) So names like Booz Allen, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, etc., *even* for non-weapons type jobs.

    2. Smithy*

      Agree. This is an incredibly competitive field and therefore a lot of recommendations around how to break in are going to focus on how to break into nonprofits/multilaterals. Temp agencies or systems that focus specifically on nonprofit/UN agency placements or looking at jobs more on the admin side can all present opportunities to get more practical experience.

      It’s already a tough field, and unfortunately I think that this can make the weight that one’s university degree carries to be less predictable. Some teams still have a high regard for certain high profile university names, and others really don’t. Therefore, as much as you can do to get professional experience – the stronger your applications will be.

    3. INGO employee*

      As someone who works in this field, I wholly agree with this. Also consider short term or temp assignments (paid internships, consultancies, temporary assignments) with orgs within the sector to build your experience / network and get in the door. I know plenty of people who cobbled together experiences like that for a year or two post grad before finally landing somewhere full time.

      1. INGO employee*

        Also, I’d almost certainly recommend that you broaden the orgs you’re looking at. Many, many, many people want to work for the UN / Gates Foundation / etc of the world so the reality is you’re competing against a larger pool of applicants who are probably more qualified/experienced than you are. Smaller or lesser known orgs are doing just as meaningful / interesting work, and may be receiving less applicants.

    4. Bright*

      I work in global health and I agree with this. It’s a pretty competitive field even for people who have a Master of Public Health and it sounds like OP’s graduate degree is not an MPH, so its going to be even more challenging. I would also recommend widening your search.

    5. Kate*

      I work in the field and agree with the advice in this thread. But I’m also wondering what field your master’s is in, because GH/international development is pretty multidisciplinary. Beyond the obvious mph, there are roles for economists, geographers, demographers, other social scientists, MBAs, education researchers, comms folks, biologists (for lab work), even linguists (lots of translation needs) to name just a few. I would talk to people in the field and think about how the skills from your degree would contribute to the field, make sure you’re looking for the right kind of job, and make the case in your cover letter.

      1. non-creative OP*

        I’ve got a MS in forensic anthropology and a BS in biomedical sciences, so much more focused on the biological side of science than the public health side. I’ve been trying to use my experience in data analysis, research, and writing/editing as evidence of transferable skills which can be applied to many roles in the GH/international development field. Thank you for your comment and advice!

        1. Kate*

          Ooh, interesting! Depending on your lab experience you could try academic labs (wet labs) at schools of public health and related research institutions. Microbio, molecular bio, biochem, etc., but addressing public health/global health questions. Although it’s a challenge at the moment since only covid related lab work is happening right now. At some point the labs will reopen to regular work.
          Also, regardless of the field, certain languages will give you a leg up, especially if you are open to working overseas. French, portuguese, Arabic, probably others.

          1. non-creative OP*

            I’m fluent in French so that’s definitely an advantage especially when working in various West African countries. Thank you for the suggestion about looking into academic labs that are addressing public/global health concerns too, I’ll definitely include those in my search once the labs reopen. I appreciate all the advice!

            1. Kate*

              I work in francophone West Africa and it is very difficult to find people with French and good technical skills. Definitely highlight that, and your international experience, in your cover letter.
              Since you’re in the DC area, don’t rule out Hopkins sph/son/som, as well as UMd

            2. Annony*

              I work in an academic lab and another advantage is that many universities offer tuition discounts for university employees. If you do decide you need the MPH to get your dream job it may make that easier.

          2. Kate*

            Seeing some of your posts further down…since you have experience with international fieldwork, also look for program coordinator or research assistant positions. And use your cover letter to really sell why your skills are transferable to this field.

        2. Mary*

          If that’s your background, have you tried speculatively applying to any of the smaller orgs and asking them about their data needs? In the NGO/NFP sector, it’s not uncommon for smaller organisations to be gathering a ton of data about what they are doing, feedback, engagement, dining etc, and then just … sitting on it, because there’s nobody with the time and skills to do something with it. If you are going to put your time into an unpaid (pe lowpaid) project, something like a small data project for a .org that’s just scraping by might be a better and more relevant use of your time than a blog or something.

          1. non-creative OP*

            This is a really good suggestion, I’ll absolutely look into that. Thank you Mary!

            1. NotVeryActiveHere*

              This is my field, too, though not in the US. We like people who PUBLISH stuff, so if you end up datacrunching for an NGO, make sure you’re allowed to write an academic article about it. Showing you can cite, reference, put knowledge together and write publishable prose about it would be a huge plus in my organisation.

        3. topscallop*

          I work in global public health and have a friend I met through work who also got her masters in forensic anthropology! She hasn’t used it for GH, but she now works on global health security. But she did have to start out at a lower level, like an assistant/associate position, than most people with a master’s degree would have.

          Data analysis, research, and writing are highly transferable skills. I agree with others that French skills are in high demand. Have you looked at Devex and Idealist? Also check out all the USAID contractors (I have worked for several throughout my career) to see if they have anything posted, if you haven’t already. In my case, having USAID experience has been a key factor in getting jobs in the field. Gates, CHAI, and other funders are great too, but have a smaller chunk of the pie.

          1. non-creative OP*

            That’s really encouraging to hear about your friend! I’m definitely happy to start at a lower level, as of course those with relevant degrees (MPHs etc) will be much more qualified than me.
            I’ve been using the job boards on Devex and Idealist as they tend to get updated daily. I’ll have a look at all the USAID contractors as well. Thank you for all the advice!

  2. LDN Layabout*

    Also as a new grad, you’re in the best possible position to benefit from graduate schemes. Not all industries have them, but if lack of experience is an issue, it’s somewhere to start.

  3. EPLawyer*

    Gimmicks rarely work.

    However, your resume needs to focus on your accomplishments, not just your degree and where you went to school. While earning your degree what did you DO???? I was president of the SCAD (students concerned about daffodils), we raised awareness about daffodils by planting a daffodil garden on campus and giving out bulbs. Or whatever. Show you can WORK, not just learn.

  4. Mazzy*

    Echoing the cover letter advice. I put out ads and say something about “resumes without cover letters will not be considered” and still mostly get resumes without cover letters or one sentence saying “please consider me for job.” Even here in the open threads, other commenters have said that they don’t see the point of a cover letter and that I’m wasting candidates’ time and need a better way to screen candidates. But you know what? 95% of the resumes look the same. On average, everyone is around 30 years old and had had three jobs and they describe them pretty generically. Usually I’m concerned about the number of jobs some people have had, and they don’t provide any explanation as to the job hopping. If the onus is purely on me to screen resumes alone, I’d be calling 300 people. In this day and age of job websites, I’m not even sure if candidates know they even applied. I get applications from thousands of miles away from people with zero pertinent education and experience, which leads me to believe that some job sites spam resumes to make the impact of your ads look better.

    A good cover letter explaining why you’re applying and why you want the job goes a very long way. And at least with me, the less generic, the better.

    1. LDN Layabout*

      I recently applied for a job where my CV showed me as a fairly decent candidate.

      It was the cover letter where I managed to convey HOW I met every single skill/experience they’d outlined in the requirements.

      I doubt my CV got me the interview I have next week. I do think the cover letter did.

    2. non-creative OP*

      This is super helpful advice, thank you for your comment! I try to hone my cover letter to each job I apply to, so as a result I probably haven’t applied to nearly as many jobs as others in my situation. It’s useful to know that you put a heavy focus on the cover letter though, I will continue to refine it and ensure that it conveys why I want the job and why I’m applying.

      1. Kate*

        My cover letter got me an interview for my first job out of school (the hiring manager told me afterwards how impressed they were by it). I think it’s especially important at entry level when your resume is pretty sparse

      2. Juneybug*

        For my state job, I was told that my cover letter got me the interview. My cover letter was the only one out of 23 that said I love grooming llamas. And it was for a job grooming llamas! No one else had mentioned that they love that type of work. In my case, the cover letter opened the door for a job that I love.

      3. hbc*

        It’s often a major factor in deciding who to interview, but I think it’s crucial if your resume isn’t an obvious match to the position. You’re better off applying to 5 places with a good cover letter than 25 places with a form letter (or nothing.) Because it sounds like your average hiring manager is going to read your resume and say, “Why did they get a degree in X? Did they apply to the wrong job?” and your cover letter should answer that question before they even read the resume. If you sell it right, then they’re reading the supposed drawbacks of your experience with the positive light you’ve shone on them.

      4. Annony*

        The advice I was given when writing cover letters for academic lab positions was to format the first three paragraphs as “you, me, us together”. So the first paragraph was me talking about my understanding of what the lab was studying and how interesting I found it, the second paragraph was me talking about my past research experience with particular emphasis on the parts that would be applicable to the job and the third paragraph I talked about how my skills and interests would help the lab. A similar strategy may work for the positions you are applying for if they are research based.

    3. Spearmint*

      I sympathize with the commenters who don’t see the point in cover letters and find them frustrating. I’ve had moments where I felt that way as well.

      I understand that, for some hiring managers like you, cover letters are very important. But it’s just a fact that most hiring managers don’t read cover letters (you can google it, there’s real data on it) and it’s not clear how important cover letters are for those that do read them. Combine that with the fact that writing tailored cover letters is by far the most time consuming part of job searching (at least in my experience), and the dismissive attitude toward cover letters from many job seekers makes sense.

      I know some hiring managers really value tailored cover letters, so I still wrote them during my job searches. But it was dispiriting to put in so much work on cover letters and only get a 5%-10% response rate from employers, and have most interviewers not even mention my cover letter when I did snag an interview (not even the places that hired me).

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        And see, I received my current job and my last one purely on the strength of my cover letters (both ultimate hiring managers told me my resume was either just okay or good enough – I don’t have the years of experience typically seen in people who hold my current title). I didn’t start getting interview requests until I started submitting cover letters.

      2. Courtney Kupets*

        I’m in insurance and as a hiring manager, we just do not GET cover letters. I don’t think I’ve seen one in years. I actually thought about that recently because we always hear of cover letters on here. But, to be honest, a lot of the resumes are not great either, but we have been so hard up for quality employees, it almost doesn’t matter. I only get maybe 7 or 8 applications in for a job opening and most are not great fits.

      3. LunaLena*

        I totally understand the frustration of not getting responses even with a well-crafted cover letter, but on the other hand… what do you have to lose by including one? Some of your time? I’ve never been chided for including a cover letter, but I’ve been complimented several times by potential employers for having a well-written one. You say you got only a 5-10% response rate with a cover letter, but how do you know that the cover letter made zero difference? Do you think you would have gotten more responses, the same, or less without one?

        Also, just because no one actively mentioned your cover letter doesn’t mean no one read it. I’ve served on several hiring committees at my current job, and not only is a cover letter required as part of the application, it gets scrutinized just as hard (or even more so) than the resume (and believe me, when we get a cover letter that refers to the wrong person/company because it is clearly copy/pasted and not proofread, we notice). If a cover letter isn’t included, the committee chair checks with HR and IT that it didn’t get accidentally lost in the system, and if that fails, they contact the candidate to ask if they can provide one. If they don’t, they are automatically dropped from consideration. That’s how important a cover letter can be. But that doesn’t mean the committee is going to be sure to mention it or quote from it during an interview, because… why would that be necessary? You’ve already moved to the next phase of the interview process, so it’s kind of implicit that your cover letter and resume were good, or at least good enough.

        1. Derjungerludendorff*

          You lose a lot of time and energy, that you could have invested in something else.

          Yeah, writing a tailored cover letter probably won’t reduce your chances, but you could also use that time to send out another twenty applications without letters. And it’s really demoralizing to spend a lot of work on something that gets thrown out without a look, which then makes it harder to job-search.

          1. LunaLena*

            “writing a tailored cover letter probably won’t reduce your chances”
            And writing a tailored cover letter – or at least a decently-written one – might increase your chances drastically. Which is the bigger risk to take, if you really want a job? It might not hurt you, or it might help you?

            Look, I get it. It sucks to put a ton of time and effort into applying for a job, only to hear nothing back. I had to job search for almost a year during the 2009 recession, and I think I got a total of five interviews even though I was sending out between 3-15 applications with tailored cover letters and portfolios (I work in an arts field) every day. But I would rather put a lot of work into one application and know that, if I don’t hear back, it’s not because I chose to put myself at a disadvantage. I would rather maximize my chances that one thing will stick, than throw everything at the wall and hope something will. Sometimes quality really does matter over quantity.

            On top of all that, I was unemployed. What else did I have to spend time and effort on? I’m not saying I never got tired of it. I did. I hated how depressed I felt all the time, how useless I felt, the constant and growing self-doubt, the constant pressure and criticism from my parents, and worrying about what would happen when my money ran out. But if I wanted all that to end, it meant I couldn’t afford to slack at sending out those applications. Each application was a new opportunity, which meant I couldn’t just say “screw it, no one’s reading these anyways” because what if I was wrong this time and squandered my chance? I had to give myself every edge over the competition that I could find, because how could I expect an employer to see me as the best choice if I didn’t make every effort to BE the best choice? Sure, not getting responses was demoralizing. But at least I never had to reproach myself with “maybe I could’ve done something more…” You may think a tailored cover letter is wasted effort, but you never know who it matters to and who it doesn’t. There is so much about the application process that is out of a candidate’s power, so I don’t understand why anyone would want to sell themselves short when they could do something that IS in their power, like writing a cover letter.

      4. Cascadia*

        I delete every applicant that comes in that doesn’t include a cover letter (it is explicitly stated that we require one in the job posting). IF, and only if, they look AMAZING in their resume, I might email them and tell them their cover letter is missing and ask them to submit one. But most of the time, there are many applicants who followed the instructions and look amazing and it’s not worth my time to email the person and give them a leg up. I read every resume and cover letter. For resumes where it’s not a clear match with the job, I really look to the cover letter to explain the mismatch and really sell me on why they want this specific job, and how their experience applies. For our most competitive jobs we had many candidates who met all of our criteria, and it was really the cover letter and the experience listed on the resume that got them interviews.

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    As a hiring manager myself, I wish these gimmicky people would spend a month or two on the other side of the interviewing table. Or maybe they just don’t care?

    I work in an intense field. I do not have the time or the inclination to review anything outside of a cover letter and resume. I really don’t because hiring isn’t what I do all day, every day. It never has been, and it never will be.

    Blogs, video resumes, Glamour Shots, etc.? I can’t do it. Even if I did have that much time during the day, I wouldn’t spend it on that.

    There’s a reason I only ask for those two items in the initial stages. It’s not a coded message for you to do more than that.

    1. Lynn*

      I think this is unduly harsh to “gimmicky” people. The job market can be competitive, and having a college education is no longer a guarantee of getting a job despite being much more expensive than it used to be — they are just trying to stand out and get a job to pay their bills.

      1. Fikly*

        I don’t think it’s harsh at all.

        Sure, they are “just” trying to stand out and get a job. But suggesting that it’s unreasonable for them to think about how their tactics would be received is suggesting that thinking about how your behavior affects other people is not something important. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to hire someone who doesn’t consider that, setting aside how annoying dealing with these tactics can be.

        1. Legal Beagle*

          I agree with Fikly’s point above and don’t think it’s fair to call out “gimmicky people” when it’s often young people / new grads who are getting bad advice. Also, it’s not really reasonable to criticize people for not thinking about how their behavior as a job applicant impacts the hiring manager. It’s not a social relationship; it’s a transaction. Applicants should follow the rules because it benefits them, not because they owe it to the hiring manager.

          But the hiring manager has way more options and power here. If someone doesn’t follow the application instructions, don’t consider them for the job. If you don’t like the video resume, delete it. Unless they’re pestering you with calls, showing at your office with flowers, or doing something intrusive, why not extend a little grace to someone in a stressful situation who is working hard and may be unknowingly following the wrong advice? This recession is only going to get worse, and there are going to be a lot of desperate job seekers out there.

        2. Lynn*

          Dismissing someone’s efforts as “gimmicky” because you don’t personally find value in it is harsh. If a candidate were insistent that you read their blog that would be one thing — but Snarkus doesn’t mention any instances of that type of behavior and it seems like Snarkus is dismissing all digital endeavors as “gimmicky”.

          Also, these “gimmicky” people can’t just “spend a month or two on the other side of the interviewing table.” That’s the point — they are trying to get hired. They would probably love to switch positions at the interviewing table. But they are struggling and grasping at straws to try to stand out and get a job.

          1. Fikly*

            But by not considering how their efforts annoy the people who have the power to hire them, not only are they demonstrating their lack of skills in understanding how their behavior affects other people, they are actively harming their ability to get hired.

            Many things at work are not social – in many jobs you need to work with clients, and they often have the power to choose whether or not to work with your employer. Thinking about whether or not your behavior is going to make them want to work with you is very important. I would want to know if a candidate is able to think about this.

            Since gimmicks working is the outlier, they do not shorten a job search, they actually extend it. So they will end up spending longer job searching, whether or not they “can” afford to.

            Also, the idea that because people want something means their behavior is ok or justified is a pretty terrible one.

            1. Liz*

              I don’t think it’s a question of not considering it – I think they have probably considered it pretty extensively, just drawn the wrong conclusion. Most job seekers at early stages simply don’t have the insight or information at their disposal to know what the impact will be. Hiring is a murky, mysterious world they are desperately trying to make sense of from the outside, often with their efforts obstructed by unhelpful “advice” that promotes gimmicks and gumption.

            2. Emilia Bedelia*

              But how are they going to consider that they are being annoying if they don’t have job experience and don’t understand how hiring works? As a new grad, I definitely had NO idea how the hiring process worked, even though I had years of job/internship experience.

              Sending flowers or making your resume into origami or whatever is pretty clearly nonsense and I’d definitely have reservations about a candidate doing something like that.
              Something like a blog or a portfolio isn’t as obvious, though. School sometimes rewards creativity and “thinking outside the box” in a way that the working world does not, and I think new grads look at the job process as a presentation where it’s beneficial to stand out and do something different from everyone else.

              Conventional job advice is to explain why you would be good at the job. Frankly, if you’re a new grad, you probably don’t have a great grasp on what the job is and why you’d be good at it. This is why newbies to the job market try to emphasize things like “gumption” and “taking initiative” because what else are you going to talk about? Obviously hiring managers shouldn’t waste their time with nonsense, but I think it’s not quite fair to hold it against new grads who are earnestly writing a blog about the field they want to enter.

        3. Aquawoman*

          You have said that you don’t consider any extraneous material, which means that someone referring to extraneous material is not affecting you at all, so why are you faulting them for not thinking about how this affects you…not at all?

      2. EPLawyer*

        But their tactics to stand out ARE NOT DOING that. Snarkus literally said they don’t look at that stuff. If you say in your resume — run a blog on X topic, the hiring manager who has limited time is not going over to read the blog. they aren’t going to read the article you submitted to a publisher. Hiring managers have things to do other than sit there and hire all day as Snarkus said. Respect their time as you want your time respected.

      3. Beth*

        “they are just trying to stand out”

        But what they are accomplishing is standing out as unhireable, or obnoxious, or stupid, or cringe-inducing, or fatuous. It’s what John Scalzi calls the Failure Mode of Clever — when you’re trying to be clever, and it fails, you’re not clever: you’re an assh*le.

      4. WellRed*

        Think of this as grads learning upfront not waste their time on gimmicks, then. As tiring as hiring managers find reviewing applications, it’s also draining from the job seekers point of view, and they are without power.

      5. The pest, Ramona*

        Not harsh… I spent a LOT of time receiving applications. Just give me the two things asked for (cover letter, cv), don’t bury me in 55 pages of your ‘accomplishments’ from 25 years ago. No one has time for that, especially when reviewing 250 applications. And, I have the rest of my job to do, as does the rest of the hiring committee.
        Please, write a good cover letter (make sure it is addressed to and references the correct hiring company!). Keep only pertinent info on your cv. Thank you.

      6. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Not harsh at all. 30+ years in corporate staffing tells me that people who use gimmicks rarely have the skills, talent, or expertise we’re looking for. That’s why they resort to such tactics.

        I agree with Snarkus: if people who use those tactics sat on the hiring side of the desk for one week, they’d understand why they don’t want to ‘stand out’ that way. Since they won’t likely get that chance, they need to pay attention to people who actually hire for a living. I’ve staffed my own team, and I partner with hiring managers to staff theirs. NO ONE is impressed by gimmicks or tactics to ‘stand out.’ I mean, they do stand out, but not in a good way.

      7. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        “Harsh” or not, it’s the truth. The fact these gimmicks are rarely paying off with job offers is proof of that Snarkus and the rest of us who disregard these attempts are in the majority.

        So what if they want to stand out? I’m not looking for a brand ambassador most of the time, I’m looking for someone who can do a job. We all need jobs, we don’t just hand them out to whomever is the most creative. I want someone with experience or at least who can demonstrate they understand the job at hand, which isn’t usually some random blog or crafting project.

    2. Bella*

      I feel like it’s part of the job to take that info in and discard candidates if following the rules is important… I remember when I was sending out resumes when unemployed, one HR guy’s email reply back had something about “a note for the future, please only apply to jobs you’re FULLY qualified for.”

      Not sure if it was sent to everyone or just me but I found it so incredibly annoying – just do your job, send out the rejection emails (if you do that to begin with) and move on. I don’t need some rando man’s advice on applying just for “what I’m qualified for” when it’s completely hit or miss as to whether that actually matters at a given org.

      It wasn’t like I had applied to a job wildly out of my field, it was one of those hitting 6/8 qualifications type deal. And if it was just something sent to everyone… that just seems unnecessarily reactionary considering how most people aren’t going to keep applying to the same org over and over.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I often get the feeling that people will perform any type of gimmick to get a job before they want to talk to people in the field (as Alison advised in her last paragraph) and heed their advice. It’s a lot more comfortable to execute a gimmicky job hunting strategy where you don’t have to speak to people.

      I do sometimes get people who approach me about working in my field, but then they don’t want my advice (i.e. the truth). They just want me to take their resume to the right person. A new business grad, who I know personally, recently contacted me about trying to get into project management at my company. That’s not an entry level role or one that a business-degree person can typically get without other industry experience. I tell them what roles they would be qualified for, they apply, but since their CL still refers to wanting to be a PM, their app goes nowhere. : /

    4. Eukomos*

      They care intensely, but they have no clue what it’s like to hire and don’t know how to get that information.

  6. Diahann Carroll*

    They’ve been giving this terrible advice to writers since at least 2009, and it rarely worked then either. Let that sink in, OP – actual writers who make this their bread and butter and presumably have some form of training/education rarely get jobs based on blogs they’ve created. Why? Because employers want to see published clips from third parties that have presumably vetted your work and deemed it good. Traditional job searching is tiresome enough without adding in all these extras that don’t really translate to success.

    1. Gazebo Slayer*

      Oh yeah, this crappy advice was *everywhere* during the recession. For a moment I thought Alison had reposted an old letter.

    2. Kaitlyn*

      This is both true and not true. I wrote a personal blog for many years (and still update it from time to time), and I got internships and paid jobs based on that. But once I started getting those jobs, the fact that I had been paid for my writing by other people became much more important. I still include links to the personal blog from time to time, like when I’m pitching on a subject that I’ve never been paid to write about before. It can be a great resource.

      OP, I would say play to your strengths. If you’re not a blogger, don’t worry about starting one.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Again, I said this stuff rarely works, not that it never does. Your experience is the exception, not the rule, so it’s best that job seekers not go into a job search thinking they too will be the exception when, in all probability, they will not.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        It’ll always depend on your circumstances and who you run into along the way.

        My partner also found their way into journalism via a personal blog. The right person saw it, the right person liked it, the right person paid them money to write for their publication. Then that was enough to launch them into being published in multiple other avenues! But it’s certainly not the norm.

        I think it really boils down to exactly what Alison says. If you do a blog because you’re a writer, you’re passionate and it’s your thing, it may pay off. But you can’t cook up a blog just to get noticed, it’s rare that a blog is good or gets attention, let alone a blog created simply as a vessel to get you on someone’s payroll!

    3. PollyQ*

      I do know someone who got a job writing for a prestigious outlet based on her blog, BUT the job was specifically for blog-style writing AND she didn’t start the blog with the intent of making herself more employable.

    4. k*

      This isn’t quite true. There’s a kernel of truth to it, but the entire first decade of my career stemmed from my creating a blog, and this was also the case for many of my colleagues. However, there are some caveats:

      – This is extremely field-specific. There are many fields where this won’t get you anywhere, and there are fields where it is the main entry point into the industry, and where blogs (or solo projects, etc.) essentially serve as feeders.

      – It is also very time-bound, both to the conditions of the industry (i.e. are people hiring?) and to the existence of communities. For instance, when Tumblr was more of a longform writing outlet, a lot of writers got jobs or freelance gigs because editors hung out there and read their writing. This isn’t so much the case anymore.

      – I think the “passion” explanation is close, but not quite right. It’s hard to encapsulate this in a single word, but when college graduates hear “write a blog,” they think this means write an earnest, cheerful running collection of aggregated news stories about happenings in their field, with very little personality, claims to expertise, swear words, etc. At least in my field, this will get you nowhere. What you want to demonstrate is a strong personal voice, and depending on the subject perhaps an irreverent personal voice.

  7. UndercoverBagel*

    I wonder if the LW’s degree has something to do with it? I know in some fields having a disconnect in that way can be hugely detrimental (like say, getting a masters degree in anthropology and then trying to become a mechanical engineer), so maybe that has something to do with it.

    Personally, I know of one person who has successfully made it into that field, and it was because the guy was just exceptional at what he did. Not only did he major in that field but he also spent his entire life working towards it (he had tons of international experience, PeaceCorps volunteer with focus on global health, spoke several languages, a really impressive network, etc etc). It seems like a really competitive market.

    1. non-creative OP*

      My master’s degree is in forensic anthropology so you may be on to something here. I have tried to use my international field experience from both post-grad and undergrad (biomedical science) as evidence of adaptability to different environments in my cover letters but I think you’re right that it’s highly competitive and there are people who just have way more experience in the field. Thank you for your comment!

      1. Smithy*

        If your Master’s degree included extensive writing or any grad/undergrad experience working on a research grant – all of that helps in the nonprofit world. Support in grants management can often be tied to graduate school work/achievements.

        Additionally, it may be worth looking at hospitals that post for ‘research assistants’. Research hospitals hire a lot of research assistants as they’re often grant tied (so roles open/close regularly) and it’s typically a role that people will take for a few years before Masters/PhD education. Some of these roles will require a very strong science background, but a lot don’t and offer opportunities in health and grants management. All which is attractive in the larger global health space.

        1. Annony*

          I would also recommend looking into whether you can publish something at your internship. Getting on an academic paper related to public health is actually something you can include on your resume, unlike a blog.

      2. Cascadia*

        I think part of Alison’s advice to try and make some connections with people in the field who are doing what you would like to be doing are key. I work in a completely different field, it’s very niche and I’m in a rare coveted job. I get people all the time asking me how I got my job and what they can do to get in the door. I talk to everyone who reaches out and am happy to give advice and share my own story. If you start forming connections, wherever you can, you may find out about smaller organizations you should be applying to, jobs that you didn’t know existed, or internships that will really help you get a leg up. Be patient, be humble, ask good questions. Good luck!

    2. MissDisplaced*

      One of my former managers left his well-paid field entirely to work for MSF. While not a doctor, he was exceptionally smart, spoke several sought-after languages and had an impressive network through his university. He’s moved all over the world and loves it. But yeah, difficult to get in.
      I’m not sure how some of these orgs ever find candidates, because sometimes it seems like the people have to be Rare Purple Unicorns. And if you are that exceptional, you could probably work anywhere, so who would want to do it for such small pay? IDK. Maybe finances are not a worry for some and they can afford to give that way.

  8. Timothy (TRiG)*

    One field where this can be good advice is software development. Doing your own projects is one thing, if you’re so inclined, but hiring managers may well not have the time or expertise to review them. Contributing to well known and respected projects, such as Firefox or the Linux kernel, may well get you noticed. But this is a long-term and time-intensive project, and it makes far more sense to do it for personal development and enjoyment than anything else. It might get you noticed, but I wouldn’t count on it. The same applies to blogging, I suppose.

    1. SusanIvanova*

      I ‘ve done that – during one layoff period, I learned a new language by porting an open-source project to another platform. It was a small project; nobody was going to stumble over it and say “oh, we must have her!”, but it gave me something to put on my resume to show that I was enhancing my skills and using that free time productively.

  9. Old Cynic*

    One company I worked for was searching to fill the HR Director position — the candidate that they hired was the one that sent a gift basket of 24 muffins from a local bakery the day after their interview.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Please do not do this. It will turn most people off and be a strike against you, not a positive. It comers across as obsequious and trying to get the job on something other than merit.

      1. Buttons*

        A candidate sent me a Tiff’s Treats of 2 dozen cookies and a balloon. It seemed so unprofessional and juvenile. It really highlighted her lack of professional experience.

        1. KoiFeeder*

          Gumption Dysfunction, it’s a compulsion~

          But more seriously, I once got advice from my undergrad career center (!!!) to send male interviewers alcohol after an interview. People really do just get terrible advice.

      2. CircleBack*

        God yes – I was on a hiring committee that had chocolate covered strawberries sent to us by an applicant we’d interviewed. It felt really odd and sealed our impression of the candidate as too out-of-touch with office norms.

    2. StlBlues*

      I’d be scared to work at that company. I hope the HR director was the most qualified and got the job DESPITE the obvious muffin bribe. If they got the job BECAUSE of the muffin bribe, that company sounds woefully mismanaged.

      1. Jedi Squirrel*

        Yeah, exactly this. If that’s all it takes to get a job there, how qualified are the people that currently work there?

        “Thanks for the interview. Here’s three dozen donuts. Should I plan on starting on Monday?”

        Makes me wonder.

        1. Beth*

          “Hmmm. We have three strong candidates: the three dozen doughnuts, the two dozen muffins, and the box of gourmet chocolate. We could do another round of interviews, but I’ve already gained five pounds.”

          1. Gazebo Slayer*

            Makes me wonder whether givers of this bad advice have the ulterior motive of wanting lots of tasty bribes! :-)

        2. Hiring Mgr*

          I hear you, but it’s no different than hiring friends, nepotism, alumni etc.. other than it’s more blatant

    3. Courtney Kupets*

      I would run for the hills if someone sent this to me as a hiring manager. I would not hire this person. I don’t want muffins, I want a quality employee.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          If they were gluten free, I’d eat them. They still wouldn’t get the job, though.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I mean, I’ve also hired people who showed gumption in the past. But for shitty jobs that had no real credentials required, so I would have hired them anyways without the antics. The fact they hired an HR director that’s so out of touch makes those “HR Sucks” stereotypes scream in my ears. Yikes!

      Stick with a thank-you email. It’s creepy to send random people treats unless it’s for vendor/client relations.

  10. Shortstuff*

    Creating a blog or website is more useful if you’re trying to get work as a freelancer, but still depends on the field and is much more likely to be useful if you work either in a creative field (loosely defined), or you do some version of ‘thought leadership’. Related to this, if you’re a programmer then I think I’ve heard that having open source project contributions can be a good thing.

    Having a professional social media profile is different, both in terms of effort involved, and usefulness. There’s a good network of people in my field on both Twitter and Facebook, but less so on LinkedIn. I read much more than I post, but I do genuinely feel some sense of connection with those people and would probably (in a non-quarantined world) grab a coffee with someone in my professional social media network. Reading what people in your field are saying, the problems they describe etc may help you in your career for example, in interviews. And you might find it’s a good place to pick up more job leads.

    1. Delta Delta*

      I am a contributor to a team blog. It’s a lot of extra work, but I’ve found that it has generated some quality backlinks for my work and has gotten me recognized among people in my field. That said, this particular blog is something I was asked to join, my postings are monthly (or so), and the subject of the blog is very focused on one particular area of the industry. If I tried to do this on my own I’m not sure I’d be able to make it do as well.

      I also have a work-focused twitter account and I really struggle with it. I lack focus and proper voice for that account. I realize I’m not using it to its potential (I have multiple other twitter accounts that I use pretty effectively, just not that one), and I realize it’s not going to generate a lot of professional leads for me.

  11. Nikara*

    I’ve got a professional Twitter account with which I am somewhat well known in my small field. It helped in my job search, but not necessarily in the way you’d think. It means I head about job openings, because I have a larger network of folks in my field who know me, and the kinds of things I’d be interested into. It lets me ask local folks about an organization I’m considering applying to, so I have a realistic understanding of the environment and my chances. And it gave be some local contacts for when I was having technical issues with my application, who were able to guide me in the right way.

    I’m 100% sure that none of the people who reviewed my resume or interviewed me for my current job knew anything about my social media presence. I had do to all of that on my own, by proving my abilities. But the social media networking can be very helpful on the side stuff that can lead towards finding the job that is right for you. And it has given me a network of people in my field that is super helpful for problem solving issues, and hanging out for occasional drinks when I’m in town :)

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      This is a really good example of how Twitter can help in a job search – the network you build through it helps you get a better sense of the “lay of the land” beyond your own organization.

  12. MissDisplaced*

    Yeah, no. At least not as a means to get a job.
    Not that you can’t join things like Twitter or LinkedIn in order to join groups and read what others in that industry are doing though. Learning and keeping abreast of what is going on in in your field of interest is a good thing… just don’t expect to get a job out of it. I think Alison’s advice about asking for advice is sound, at least for now. I’m sorry, I know this is a really tough time.

  13. KimmyBear*

    Have you thought about how to get a foot in the door first, then get your dream job? Companies in this field often hire from within or from other organizations in the field. For example, are you willing to work in operations, project management, or even IT on a non-health international dev project for a year before transitioning to a role in maternal health/malaria prevention/etc? Where you are based is also very relevant. You are going to have a much harder time outside of a few select cities unless you are looking to move overseas.

    1. non-creative OP*

      Thank you for your comment! I’m absolutely willing to work in operations/project management/ program coordination etc and have been including those types of jobs in my search. I’m just trying to get my foot in the door wherever I can at the moment. I’m also based in a major city with lots of NGOs and development organizations so that is at least somewhat positive! I studied abroad however so do not have a huge professional network in this city which may be why I am struggling slightly.

      1. Eirene*

        Hey, OP! I work in international development in DC. I did not have a huge professional network there before starting, but keep persevering! Many of my colleagues have a background in the field through working for the Peace Corps and so on, but not everyone. I certainly do not – I actually don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. (Working on it, though!) I think if you’re willing to work in operations or project management, you’ll find a company that would be thrilled to have you, especially because you have lived overseas.

        1. non-creative OP*

          Hi Eirene, I am also based in DC! Happy to hear that you managed to build up a network over time, and good luck working towards your bachelor’s. I really appreciate the positive advice and helpful comment, thank you!

          1. Shark Whisperer*

            I’m also in DC. There are tons of specialized networking groups here that are usually pretty friendly (at least before the pandemic when people could actually socialize). I have found that DC peeps generally are pretty passionate about their work and are excited to share. (This city attracts a lot of idealists). I am in one specifically for women working in oceanography and one for women working with environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. At lot of networking organizations are still having zoom happy hours. If you can find someone who has the type of job you want, ask them about local professional or networking organizations.

  14. Hiring Mgr*

    I would say that starting a blog or website (if you’re truly interested in doing so). can be good things in and of themselves for your professional profile, networking, etc.. But I wouldn’t count on that having a direct correlation to getting hired. Best of luck!

    1. Annony*

      Yep. Passion projects are great! They can keep you engaged in your field of interest and enhance your skills. And should be fun. It just most likely isn’t going to lead to a job.

  15. Anonnington*

    I would say that getting a job is about connecting with people. Making connections and communicating what you have to offer to the employer. As with all communication, different approaches work for different people. And, as with all communication, being genuine is what matters the most. People pick up on that.

    That is why a straight-forward resume works well for most people. It is often an authentic way to communicate what your skills are without asking for too much of the reader’s time and energy.

    But how do you feel about that? Have you been under-employed or didn’t accomplish as much as you could have due to something beyond your control? Do you have outstanding skills that can’t be captured on a conventional resume? This could be anything from hard skills like programming to soft skills like a warm personality and a great sense of humor.

    The extra stuff works well for people who can relate to that. And who can do a side project that will be driven by genuine interest and will not come across as a gimmick.

    But how will you use that project to communicate your skills to employers? The answer is that it will be on your resume and/or mentioned in your cover letter and/or used to network (say, connecting with people who read your blog). So it is kind of conventional and tied to the standard process.

    Really, the point behind the advice that you’re getting is that you have to go above and beyond to get a job in a competitive field, which often means doing more networking and/or doing some work-related projects that show potential employers what your skills are.

  16. CupcakeCounter*

    A friend of mine who currently works in that sector started out in the Peace Corps. She was offered a FT job as a direct result of that. I don’t have tons of details but I do know she was able to get assignments aligned with her desired area for the 6 years she was in.

  17. boop the first*

    I’d hate to use such a trendy term, but popular “content creators” (ugh) don’t get to where they are because they want to be popular. The people who do it solely because they want to be a Blogger or a Youtuber tend to give up after only a few posts because it takes years and years of consistent posting to even be noticed by more than a handful of people. If being noticed is your motivation, then you consistently get no reward for all of this work.

    (Unless you leech off of already popular creators who did all the marketing work, I guess.)

    That said, if you developed a taste for it, a niche subject like yours would be perfect.

  18. lazy intellectual*

    I graduated with an M.A. in a similar field (international policy) from a prestigious institution 5 years ago and had the worst time finding a job. I worked low-paid contracts for a year before finally landing a salaried job adjacent to my desired field. It’s only 6 months ago that I finally landed a job exactly in the field studied. So even pre-pandemic, this is a terrible field to find jobs in.

    For what it’s worth, if the jobs you are looking for will require research/writing, it doesn’t hurt to have a blog or something where you have ongoing posts discussing various issues that you’ve done research on. It’s not a magic bullet, but it will keep you well-oiled in terms of keeping current and educated in a field you aren’t working in. It also has a lot of intangible side effects: you will be likely to sound like you know what you’re talking about in job interviews, you will have current writing samples handy if a hiring manager asks you for some, and in the event that you publish them on LinkedIn or something, it will gradually attract the attention of people in your field more so than if you just had a static profile. I did this when I was job hunting and it paid off in the long run, I think.

    But also do all the other stuff you have to do re: job searching. Informational interviews, applying, practice interviewing, etc.

  19. IT Guy*

    People should be able to be their true selves. However, be cognizant that if you create or use an existing Twitter profile to build a personal brand in a field. Try to resist the urge to comment/like negative posts or comment/like negative posts outside of your intended topic area. I have had to unfollow a couple people because they would post, like, and retweet crude unrelated memes that did not service the brand they were trying to build in clean tech.

  20. TootsNYC*

    regarding this:

    In your shoes, I’d talk to people in the field you want to work in and ask for advice (not job leads, just advice, which will make people more willing to give it). Things you want to know from them: Are organizations hiring right now? Who is and isn’t? Does someone with your background have a realistic shot of a foot in the door right now, or would you be better off looking outside the field and trying again next year? If the former, how can you position yourself better to get a serious look from employers? If the latter, are there particular types of work you could do now that would make you a stronger candidate later?

    Also ask non-job-search questions.
    What’s the most common entry level task?
    What is the most valuable thing that entry-level folks in your organization provide to you and to the organization.
    What personality traits thrive in this field?
    What non-field work experience have you experiences as useful–either in your own career, or with people you’ve worked with or hired? And why?
    What’s the biggest challenge this field faces going forward?
    How does this field interact with other fields, our culture, government, etc.?
    What do you find most rewarding in your work?
    What’s the most important contribution your company/this field has made?

    Ask some questions that show you are trying to get to know this field intimately.

    We all know you need a job. We can’t give you one. Having only job-search-related questions ends up being a LOT of pressure that we can’t rise to.
    But if you ask questions that are more philosophical, we can answer those–and having that sort of thing in your brain when you go to interview can help you stand out. Or can help you write a good cover letter.

    And can help you forge a stronger relationship with these people, who will then remember you as an interesting and interested person in general, and they’ll think of you more quickly later on.

    1. Mary*

      This is a great list of questions, thank you! I’m a university careers adviser and I’m doing a lot of work at the moment to try and get students to develop curiosity— to think about what they don’t know about the sectors and roles they’re interested in, and how they can research them, and I will be stealing these!

      Some of my other ones:
      – how do you know if you’re doing this job well?
      – what’s the funding model for this role/organisation?
      – what kind of contracts do people have?
      – what sort of client group are you working with?
      – who do you interact with on a daily/ weekly / monthly basis?

  21. Brett*

    You might be searching too narrow and underselling your degree.

    I got a degree in what was considered a niche field (geography), so much so that tv shows occasionally made jokes about it (Buster Bluth anyone?). I once had someone tell me to leave a job fair because they considered my degree to reflect such poor judgement and lack of awareness of a career plan.

    Since that time, I have worked for an auditor, the DoE, local government, private industry, a a social media and internet advertising startup, and also in emergency management, education, civic technology, criminal justice, and agriculture. None of those scream geography. They were all geography jobs in reality. The auditor job was the only one that was strictly in a traditional geography industry. Emergency management was my first job out of grad school, something I would never have considered if someone had not recruited me for it!

    Although twitter and social media helped with networking at one point, I did far more networking at conferences.

    There are going to be a _lot_ of virtual conferences this year, and many of them will be free. They won’t be as well attended, but they will still provide networking opportunities that you should take advantage of. Talk to people outside your targeted industry!

    1. non-creative OP*

      Attending virtual conferences is a great idea, thank you! I have been looking for ways to expand my network and had not considered that. I appreciate the advice!

    2. Me*

      Emergency Management here : ) I always tell our interns not to be discouraged by the number of former first responders/military in the field. That’s one aspect that is important, but there’s SO many other fields that bring important input. On staff now for example we have a lawyer and myself with a sociology background.

      Often peoples education/experiences are relevant to more things than they think. And there’s so many jobs that people have no idea even are jobs they can do. Talk talk talk to people.

      1. Brett*

        My old office had a high percentage of ex-dispatchers. They have a real talent for communications and logistics that translates well. (They also know how to talk to police and firefighters, which helps.)

        As a geographer, I was basically a luxury. I could do disaster modeling and impact models as well as risk and hazard mapping. In the long run, I learned every bit of IT in the place, including how to hook up satellite dishes, helicopter feeds, and every AV system imaginable. (We were a UASI funded office in the largest county in a UASI region, so we had quite a bit of staff.)

  22. anon for this one*

    I can’t blame someone for thinking “well, if what I’m doing isn’t working, I should try something different.” My younger self went through a period of acting weirder and weirder on Internet first dates because of this logic.

  23. Heidi*

    It seems to me that turning a blog into a career would be like auditioning for a reality singing competition and becoming a famous recording artist. It happens, but not frequently enough to make it a sound career plan. Plus, most people who make it in the recording industry don’t do it this way. It’s just that their process is less visible than a televised singing competition.

  24. Buttons*

    In your cover letter you need to link your master’s degree to what your looking for. Tell the recruiters how your master’s degree will benefit the position and how your volunteer work and internship has given you the experience needed. Sadly, many recruiters and the online application systems don’t do a good job of making that connection, so do it for them.

  25. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    I hate those “creative” advice… I’m in Engineering, there’s little room for creativity here! The most creative thing I did was to write my résumé in LaTeX and export it to PDF, which angered lots of recruiters because all they wanted was a Word document they could edit.

    1. Amy Sly*

      I did my resume in Excel for a long time, just to make all the alignment easier. (Custom tabs and I haven’t always gotten along.)

  26. Sara*

    I’ve found having a Twitter account where I focus primarily on people and things related to my work really helpful for my professional development. I’m an academic librarian and it’s a great way to hear about what other people are doing and to connect with people I haven’t had a chance to meet in person. So yes, depending on how active one’s field is on social media, it can be valuable as a tool for getting a wider view of what’s happening, which I’ve also found useful for framing my experience in resumes, cover letters, and interviews.

  27. Current Int'l Dev Worker*

    I’ve worked in international development for 20 years. Assuming that you are in the US, my advice is as follows: Make sure you are applying for the right jobs. If you don’t have experience in the field, you’re going to need to look for jobs with titles like associate and coordinator. International development through the US Agency for Int’l Development has two sides – contracts and assistance. The players can and do move back and forth between the two but contracts are dominated by the for profit firms and assistance is dominated by the NGOs/non-profits. At the end of the day, they do most of the same stuff, it’s just different mechanisms. Broad generalization – contracting firms pay more than NGOs, but NGOs will usually have better benefits (for the ones that specialize in health, several of them coer 100% of health insurance premiums). Most of major players are centralized in the Washington DC region with some major players in Boston, Research Triangle area, and Atlanta, with 1 major NGO in the Pacific North West. Universities are also in the game but it’s often very specific centers within them. If your CV has an address in TX and you’re applying for a job in DC, they will skip right over you because there is an over abundance of qualified candidates in region (generally they will look at DC, MD, VA, possibly PA and WV).

    If you don’t have an academic background in international development/affairs/studies or public health, you’re next best bet is to be a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Otherwise you’re probably going to have to come into it from a different angle. Background in IT – look for an IT job at a firm that does int’l development and then try for an internal move at a later date (a lot of projects that are implemented in the field have IT components, so it’s not impossible to move from an office operations type role to actual technical implementation). Perhaps look at networking events through the Society for International Development (SID). The Presidential Management Fellows Program for people who recently got a graduate degree is a prestigious two-year training and leadership development program at a United States government agency such as HHS or USAID.

    1. non-creative OP*

      Thank you for your detailed comment and helpful advice! I am DC-based so have that to my advantage. I will look into networking events through the SID. I had actually just looked into the Presidential Management Fellows Program and plan on applying in the Fall when the application opens up, if I have not found work in the sector before then.


    I’ll never forget the first resume I got with the applicant’s height and weight listed, or the many with head shots. You could try that!
    (i’m kidding!!!)

  29. Tanya Myers*

    I guess this is more just general advise for people reading this blog and not the OP, but it’s REALLY important not to go to grad school in something you don’t want to do. Even if it’s grad school IN your field, it can be extremely difficult and pair that with all the loans….

    1. non-creative OP*

      Yeah as the OP I second this advice – I went to grad school because it was a subject I was passionate about learning more about and thought at the time that I wanted to work that field. Whilst there however I realized that the field a) is extremely small and the jobs limited, b) requires at least a PhD to work in properly, and c) even with a PhD most people essentially only work on a consultancy basis and have to subsidize their careers with work as professors, researchers, etc. While I don’t regret getting my master’s degree (I still thoroughly enjoyed the course and am appreciative of the skills I refined during the program) I regret not working for a few years first in order to get a feel for the field first.

      1. Steveo*

        This is a very good observation – and matches many friends I know that did grad school right after college. I worked for a few years first and did grad school on a different track (more towards business) about 5 years after undergrad. It was hard working and doing school and it took longer, but in the end I feel I got the right degree.

  30. Bella*

    I’m not so familiar with that particular field, but there’s a lot of reasons employers would be skeptical of your ability to do the job when your background doesn’t align.

    If you’re already doing unpaid work, anything paid is a step up – is there a position open in the organizations you’re interested in that’s a couple steps down from where you want to be? I think it’s WAY easier to get your desired job that way.

    You’ll also be more fluent in industry lingo after that, which can be important for cover letters – people want to be assured that you’re saying the right things and not just saying “I’ll try my best because I’m passionate” etc

  31. Steveo*

    How are unpaid post-graduate internships legal? Don’t they have to be tied to education in some way?

  32. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler*

    OP: Are you open to entry-level project management jobs in development? You’ll be overqualified in some ways, but more likely to get in. If you can get one of those that’s focused on your technical area (for example, working for a large implementer that has health-focused projects), you’ll be able to pivot more easily as well. Look at the so-called Beltway Bandits, though I think most of them have hiring freezes right now.

    Another option you could try, similar to the PCV-type stuff mentioned above, is something with UN Volunteers or TechnoServe or similar – you’ll only earn a stipend, but you’ll get invaluable field experience.

    Source: Have worked in this field for almost ten years for donors, implementers, and relevant private-sector companies.

    1. non-creative OP*

      I’m definitely open to entry-level project management jobs, operations jobs, anything to get a foot in the door. I was looking at the Beltway Bandits before the hiring freezes began but will continue to look through them and see if any are still hiring. I hadn’t thought about UN Volunteers or TechnoServe – I will have a look into those. I really appreciate the advice!

      1. M*

        You won’t get a product management job without management experience. I have worked in the field for over 15 years and worked my way up to Country Director/ Regional Director for NGOs and the World Bank and now work for the UN.

        If you look at Beltway bandits (personally not a fan) I would recommend applying for entry level positions unless you have experience in the sector. But many probably have hiring freezes currently. Good luck!

        1. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler*

          Chiming in to politely disagree based on my experience. I currently work at a Bandit, and while I have a technical role as opposed to a project management role, we definitely have entry-level project management staff for whom this is their first job. Management experience is helpful, but not required, and the same is true for ops jobs (at least at my current employer, and I think at some of our competitors as well).

        2. RR*

          As someone with 20+ years’ experience in International Development, largely in the global health sector, seconding this. As someone from the operations side of things, yes, this can be a foot in the door, but if your application is too much, I just want a foot in the door, don’t really want to do operations as a career, you are going to be passed over. I am a hiring manager myself, and I screen hard for this. I’m not expecting everyone to make a life time commitment, but I am looking for folks who will make a concerted effort and stay for more than a few months. As others have noted, play up your field experience and technical and language skills, network like crazy, look for adjacent NGO type work, and consider short-term gigs. If you can write grant applications, that is a significant plus. I know several folks who got their start that way. Good luck to you!

      2. Shiny*

        Please know what you’re not over qualified for entry level project management jobs based on having a master’s. In my org, for example, we have a new entry level member on my team who has a PhD and did an internship for 7 months with us before getting hired on entry level. That’s an extreme example, but depending on your level of experience, it’s a hard field to get into and people often have to start more junior than they expect based on their prior experience and education. I took a sideways route in, so had different experiences, but it can be hard without specific and rare skills.

  33. Jen*

    OP, my company has a contract with GHTP (Global Health Technical Professionals). We are always hiring and we would also get you a clearance. Not sure if that’s something you’re interested in. If you are, check out their website.

  34. M*

    Hey as someone who has worked in international development and humanitarian/ emergency response including with NGOs and then the UN I can say this is a hard field to get into. It was hard even before covid. You have got to take anything and apply to everything.

    You don’t say whether you have worked in the field at all but apply to entry level positions and consultancies— short term gigs with no benefits but will get your foot in the door. Reliefweb has a job section that has many options.

    Have you worked in any country in particular? When I worked in Afghanistan years ago many people wouldn’t hire you unless you had experience in Afghanistan (which is crazy) unless they were fewer late. Or are you fluent in another language that could help with you work in that country?

    Even with a masters degree it takes years to work your way up and unfortunately I had to volunteer for years without pay or very little pay to work my way up. So my best advice is to apply to consultancies while you’re at your internship and apply for entry level jobs. If you are a good writer many NGOs need help with grant writing and that is a good way to get your foot in the door. A good friend of mine did that and then moved over to programs. The trick is getting a job and now with covid and money limited it’s very difficult.

    Also do you have any network of people in international development? Sometimes if you know someone they can push your CV over to the Country Director or a hiring manager.

    Also if you don’t have an MPH/ MD or are a trained nurse you won’t get a job in global health. I don’t know your background as you don’t say but cast a wider net and look into not only international development but humanitarian and emergency response jobs. Again check reliefweb they are a good place to start!

    1. non-creative OP*

      I’ve worked in Senegal, Argentina, and Thailand, and am fluent in French (so that’s an advantage for many french-speaking African countries). I’ve just briefly looked at Reliefweb and will definitely start using it to expand my job search, thank you! I’ll have a look into grant writing for NGOs as well. I appreciate all the suggestions and advice!

      1. M*

        Great, good luck to you! And also apply early. If it comes up a lot of non profits will look at resumes as they come in. This isn’t the same for government and UN jobs when they have to wait for it to close go formally look at applications.

        So apply as soon as you can to non-government ones because lots of times they need people ASAP and will start the process quickly (or they used to when I worked outside of UN).

        1. M*

          I mean to say the HR process will take awhile but they look at resumes as they come in and if they like you they will usually interview you and you’ll stay at the top of the list. You may have an interview and then not hear for awhile or the process to go through HR may take a bit but it’s always better to apply a few days once the job comes up in my experience with non government or UN jobs. Again government and UN need to wait for it to close to formally look at the resumes not the case for NGOs

      2. Bright*

        Are you looking for a job in DC or in a developing country? The pandemic is changing the way a lot of NGOs hire staff right now. Instead of hiring Americans and sending them to developing countries, they are hiring locally a lot more. Local hires have always been preferred over expat hires, but that’s even more true now that long distance travel is so risky.

        I think you’ll have better luck looking for headquarters positions, either in DC or other cities. Almost all NGO headquarter staff are WFH right now and probably will continue doing so until there is a vaccine, so it doesn’t matter so much where you live.

        1. non-creative OP*

          I’m looking for a job in DC – I tend to agree that NGOs should be focussing on training and hiring locally rather than sending expats out for a year or two and then leaving. As such I’ve mainly been looking for headquarters positions in DC, as you suggested. Thank you for the comment!

  35. I'm just here for the cats*

    I would be interested to get Alison’s take on people creating websites who are writers or other creative professionals looking for work in that field. For example, I created a website to use as a sort of portfolio that included my undergrad research thesis, various journalism pieces, and creative writing pieces. Was this the wrong thing to do? I have to admit i haven’t done much with it since original creation, but it wasn’t meant to be a real ongoing thing. ( The work I’ve done since was strictly internal communication/documents for the company and I have no way of showcasing that).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For most writing jobs, just the journalism pieces would be fine! The thesis and creative writing pieces likely are too different from the type of writing hiring managers will want to look at.

  36. Bostonian*

    Stand out by writing a great cover letter! I recently reviewed a 90-page PDF of all the applications to an open position, and maybe 2-3 people also submitted a cover letter.

    This will also put employers at ease about your degree being a bit different from the positions you’re applying for. Whenever I see an applicant with an unrelated degree, I do wonder why they’re applying for the position and whether they’d be happy and fulfilled long-term. That’s why I LOVE getting cover letters that explain exactly why the applicant is looking to make this position their next career move. In fact, the most recent person I hired got put into the “interview” pile to begin with because she wrote a great cover letter that was genuine and convincing regarding why she was interested in this position despite the fact that her work background/education wasn’t a direct match.

  37. M*

    Also don’t just apply to the “name brands.” They get a lot more applications. There are plenty of smaller or medium sized development and non profit agencies that are doing great work. I worked at some and had the best experiences because a lot of them are more willing to do different style programming. Look on reliefweb or similar and if you see something from an org that looks interesting but not sure about the organization look them up and see. Most of the lesser known will take a chance on someone with less experience in the field. Again though unless you have a medical background or MPH it will be difficult to get a job in global health.

  38. Anon for this*

    “But when that happens, it usually happens organically, not as a job search strategy. The person is so passionate about topic X that they’re driven to create a blog on it, and that interest and drive leads them to write regular, interesting content that’s organic and not forced (because it’s coming from a genuine desire to do it), and they happen to do it well, and eventually they’ve built something others take notice of.”

    Sounds like someone we all know, yes? And how long did it take for AAM to become Alison’s full-time job, or lead to paying opportunities? Many years if I remember correctly.

  39. Loubelou*

    Fellow biology grad here who now works in international development. I can tell you my route in and what I have learned.
    Overseas field experience is critical, as there are multitudes of recent Masters grads looking for the same jobs you are. Very few have actual experience doing international programming, and the ones that do have a much better chance. I spent 5 years volunteering in Uganda and other African countries, and I still had to do an unpaid internship for a year when I got home. But while I was in that internship I networked like crazy, going along to as many sector events as I could and building up Linkedin contacts and become known in the sector.
    It worked well for me because when a job came up that I was particularly interested in, I wrote to someone I knew worked there and got coffee with him. He gave me a lot of advice and it was on the back of that that I got the job.
    The other thing that I think really helped me was addressing the hiring manager’s potential questions in my cover letter. Yes, my degree looks unrelated but it actually means I have a really good understanding of tropical diseases and HIV.
    I agree with other commenters about considering UN Volunteers or Peace Corps. It’s great that you have field experience but long term work experience (e.g. at least 1 year) will put you head and shoulders above other applicants and they won’t be looking at your educational background.
    Lastly, as others have said, figure out what skills are needed for the particular roles you’re interested in. Grant writing, project cycle management and results-based planning are important skills that would be applicable to most NGO roles and there are good online courses for these.

  40. Clementine*

    In my field, and related fields, having a portfolio that shows your work is a huge help in getting jobs or contracts. This is so clearly the case, but still many people don’t go to the effort to make one. (To be clear, depending on your role, the portfolio might showcase your writing, your design expertise, or your coding, or some combination thereof.) Many companies do not look at the cover letter, but it’s still a good exercise to write one, assuming you keep it free of errors and pitfalls.
    Networking is much harder nowadays, of course, but still a vital way to get a job. Showing that you have interest in your field and are looking to learn more goes a long way towards helping potential recommenders think better of you.
    Think in terms of how you can present yourself as a lifelong learner who cares about others and wants to improve yourself. That might or might not involve writing a blog. But you can’t go wrong with that guiding principle.

  41. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

    Dunno if anyone will ever see this comment as it’ll probably get trapped in moderation, but I want to add a bit more input on using Twitter to expand your professional network. I’m in a policy-related field where a good amount of people are as “very online” as their jobs will allow – the folks who work for governments shy away from Twitter, the people who work for thinktanks and consultancy firms less so.

    In my field, the early-career people I see getting jobs and being taken seriously as policy professionals are disproportionately those who are part of the broader dialogue of their field on Twitter. They usually start doing this as graduate students, where their following is mostly people at their career stage, then maybe some of their professors begin to take them seriously and signal-boost them, which leads to them getting exposure outside the grad school bubble and ultimately builds their network very efficiently.

    The network-building and demonstration of comfort around talking about the issues of the day doesn’t just help these people find job leads, but it very much influences how well they “talk the walk” at job interviews. It seems to separate them from people who are good at their jobs in an operational sense but don’t have the same kind of practice connecting their work to the bigger picture. Those differentiators aren’t always necessary for entry-level jobs, but they’re important for having people believe you’re capable of more sophisticated work in your field, especially if your degree isn’t the “credential of choice”.

    Perhaps global health is a bit different from the fields I’m closest to, but some of these observations might hold up there too. Best of luck OP.

  42. Bridget*

    I have had a website work twice early in my career but there were some pretty heavy caveats to it.

    1. I was in a creative field (marketing)
    2. I did not spend a lot of time on it. I treated it as a resume extension with just a bit of extra information about me on it.
    3. Both times were long distance job searches. In one case I had to fully move before the in person interview.
    4. I still sent a tailored cover letter and resume. The website was one line under contact info, if they wanted to view it.

    It’s honestly not something I would do again, and not something I would do outside of a creative field.

  43. button*

    This advice was all over when I was in library school, and the result is a million abandoned librarian blogs with 3 posts each. Not that there aren’t good library blogs out there, but they’re good and they’re still going because the writers have something to say and a desire to say it. It’s hard to stand out as one of many students sharing their thoughts on the same article or news story, especially if you don’t have personal experience in the field to draw on.

    Now, Twitter was also encouraged, and that has been helpful to me, although not explicitly in getting a job. More in that I can keep in touch with people I met once at a conference or workshop, and I can see what people in the field are talking about.

    Essentially, these things are a form of networking. But it’s a level of upfront work that doesn’t make a ton of sense unless you’re interested in it for its own sake.

  44. Shiny*

    This is my field, and it’s a tough one to break into for many, many people, even with graduate degrees in related fields. It’s also a tough time. My org is in a hiring freeze, and we are far from alone. It’s important to understand why types of roles in this field you want into–is it as a project manager? (There are generally clearly defined career tracks for junior people on up). Or a different subfield? Happy to answer questions if you have any.

  45. Where’s busy bee?*

    Yay this is my field! My advice is focus on research, there are international health programs at most major universities conducting research or health interventions that could use your skills. Also be willing to relocate, and look for positions in small NGOs, not just the big names. The smaller the org, the more you’ll get to do. I did two unpaid internships but then I got a break with a small NGO and worked my way up to Country Director, I’ve now been doing this for 12 years. Good luck!

    1. non-creative OP*

      Thank you for your advice! I’ve definitely been including small NGOs in my job search as well, though unfortunately many of those have hiring freezes on for the time being. I really appreciate your comment though, it’s helpful to hear from someone who worked their way up in the field!

  46. Sloan Kittering*

    I wish the publishing industry would read this blog. Almost all new authors are told to start a blog, a newsletter, and a social media platform. While it’s true that some authors have leveraged these things into great success, having a bunch of folks who don’t *want* to be doing this and are doing it for the sole purpose of promoting their books is going about it @ss-backwards, IMO.

  47. Blaise*

    Wow, I’m totally shocked to read that about websites!! Making a website years ago when I finished my student teaching was single-handed the BEST thing I’ve ever done job-search-wise. I recommend it to everyone! I’ve never NOT had interviewers absolutely fawn over it at an interview, lol. I guess I could be that 1% Allison is referring to, but what interviewer wouldn’t want to actually SEE evidence of great work by someone they’re interviewing?? There are lots of ways that teaching is totally different than other jobs, and I’m wondering if this is just one of those things.

    In case anyone is curious about what I’m talking about, my website is
    I don’t mind sharing publicly; it shows up in Google search results anyway :)

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      So I think that what Alison is saying is less about a website being attractive to interviewers as a portfolio and more about the website itself being a gateway to job opportunities. It sounds like your situation is more of the former rather than the latter? Creating a website in hopes of scoring the latter is going to be a really low-yield thing for the vast majority of job seekers.

      Again, I think it’s one of those “know-your-field” scenarios. Teaching is one of those jobs where demonstrating engagement in the field is a big deal and will probably be a plus for a hiring panel. OTOH, there are certain types of “back-office” or support/admin roles where, for the most part, being competent in the tools of the trade looks different. Some things don’t lend themselves well to demonstration through a portfolio. Some of it just comes down to differences in professional culture – teachers participate in communities of practice a fair bit; you don’t really hear the same of, say, accounts receivable reps.

      In some cases, a lot of investment in demonstrating that much subject matter expertise and engagement might send hiring managers the wrong message. It might make a candidate look like they are just trying to use an admin or support role as a stepping stone to something else, or that they’ll overstep the boundaries of their role.

      1. lazy intellectual*

        I think context somewhat matters. Having a website/blog by itself is not going to get you a job. You still have to do the traditional stuff like apply by resume and cover letter. You also shouldn’t shove them down a recruiter/hiring manager’s throat like “you have to look at this”. However, if it’s something that hiring managers come across when Googling you, it can be a plus. My posts helped me gain a bit more visibility within my industry than I would have had if I didn’t do anything. By the time I interviewed, I wasn’t a total unknown quantity. Of course, I don’t solely credit my blog for getting me a job, but I’m sure it contributed to it.

  48. Regression To The Nice*

    Wow, this seems incredibly field-dependent. I work in a STEM field full of people angling for their dream jobs. The way we figure out if a candidate has the requisite coding skills, domain knowledge, and passion is often through evaluating content such as personal blog posts. When someone can actually put proof of their ability to do a highly specialized task right in front of you, it seems downright silly to care too much about grades or whatever else is on their resume. But again, it all depends on the field. And I certainly agree that any content that feels forced or impersonal will not help at all.

  49. YoungTen*

    OP1: The Bay area is a big place with lots of interesting people you don’t have professional ties with.

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