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How to prepare for an international development job interview on short notice

That’s one of the timeless questions in leading a global development career. Having a good process to prepare can make the difference between your being stuck in roles you have long out grown—being ready to new opportunities whenever you want.

In mid-May I submitted a job application to a consultancy on women’s economic empowerment with the UN system in South Sudan.

I was excited last week to be called for an interview. But they gave me just about one day’s notice!

One day is not really a whole lot of time to prepare but it is really typical of a lot of the timelines you get for interviews especially with the UN system.

As many of you know, I still actively work in international development, and today focus on finding development consultancy roles. These usually range anywhere from 60 days to six months in duration, and can give you opportunity to focus on substantive issues in the work.

Unlike staff appointments, which will require you to do an interview just about 100% of the time, consultancies are hit or miss on whether they do an interview.

Let me break down my process for getting ready.

How I prepared for the interview on one day’s notice

The very first thing I did was celebrate a bit. It’s very exciting to get close to new work opportunities, and competition is stiff out there. So I always take a bit of time to celebrate wins, no matter their size. They don’t always come.

But then the real work started. And the main thing I then focused on was to read, and re-read, the Terms of Reference, or the ToR, for the role.

(I always keep a PDF version of all the job descriptions I apply to in a dedicated folder on my computer. Do you?)

The ToR is a treasure trove of information, hints and clues.

Pretty much everything you need to know about the organization, the mandate, the department, your potential future supervisor, and the issues you need to brush up on — are all captured in the ToR.

So the best thing you can do is to break the ToR down and learn it inside and out.

Ask yourself: What is the main purpose for the role? What problem will you be working to fix? What do you need to research to better prepare?

Know the people

From there, I started research into the people. Who is the resident representative? What are the issues he or she is dealing with? Who works on women’s economic empowerment, can I find their name and their background?

Once you get the job, you will be working day-to-day with these colleagues. So it’s a great starting point to have an idea who they are, what they have done before, and what kind of ideas are they interested.

Even doing this bit of research can help you see whether it’s a job you want or not.

Collect strategic docs

As you join a new work opportunity, a key question is: What is the operating environment for the Country Office? What is the nature of resources for WEE, what kind of programming is already in place, and how is it going? What are the challenges, and the new innovations on the horizon?

All of these are captured in strategy documents: the Country Office work plan, the strategic framework agreement of the UN Country Team and the government being supported, and so on.

To collect these, I researched back to the global UN Women website to catch up on the latest updates, reports and so on that can help me to understand the key issues.

But don’t stop there. What are the key people tweeting about? Do they have conference presentations on YouTube? What is on the Facebook page for the organization? Digging a bit deeper gives you the chance to find out what the key priorities are, what some of the biggest ideas being discussed are, and so on. Invaluable information for an interview.

Download hard data on the key issues

Since I would be focusing on providing a gender-based analysis of economic empowerment issues if I got the job, it would be essential for me to update myself on the latest data and information available on these issues.

So I marched on over to the largest database on development issues: the Sustainable Development Goals dataset on the UN Statistics website.

I downloaded all the available data for:

  • South Sudan
  • Sudan
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • North Africa

All across each of the relevant economic domain indicators.

I studied the data to get a firsthand sense of some of the main issues women and youth confront in economic development in South Sudan.

I also developed some insights into what is available, not available, and my preliminary analysis of data and policy gaps.

Get up to speed on the latest expert literature

The next point of order was to catch-up on any major studies, research or policy discussions on women’s economic empowerment.

Again, I used the UN Women website, but threw a few terms into Google to see what came up.

Ask someone who knows more

I happen to have a few colleagues who work in South Sudan or with UN Women, so I quickly turned to them to ask any questions I couldn’t find easy answers to online.

Use all the resources available to you!

Most of this is FREE and ONLINE

You will notice one major thing: ALL OF THE ABOVE INFO IS AVAILABLE FOR FREE ON THE INTERNET!

But I guarantee you, not even 1 in 10 people look these things up. And it shows in their interviews.

What I didn’t have time to do: the mindset part and practice 

With just a bit over a day to prepare, and some other commitments during the time, I just wasn’t able to go through my full interview preparation routine.

This includes going through and developing the types of questions I think I will get asked — and preparing my responses.

And a big part of being in the hot seat for an interview, is making sure you even the power dynamics. What do I mean by that?

You see, the interview panel (and there will ALWAYS be a panel, including your future supervisor, 1-2 issue experts, and an HR representative) is there to judge you.

Because nobody likes to get judged, that can put us in high alert, make us nervous and not put our best foot forward.

But always remember: it’s just people, and very likely future colleagues, with whom you will enjoy a beverage in a few weeks time and reminisce about that time they interviewed you.

I use humor to break the ice, or find a common point of interest with the interviewer, or otherwise make sure I connect at a human level with them. It helps to ease my discomfort – because no matter how many times you interview, the pressure is always on you.

Here’s what I was asked

  • Q1 Why are you interested in the role? Why do you think you are the best candidate? And what challenges do you see in doing the work?
  • Q2 Please explain a situation where you conducted a gender analysis of an economic framework, for a state or a country, and its related policies or strategies. Describe the process. What were the challenges encountered? And if you encounter the same challenges today, how would you address them differently?
  • Q3 South Sudan has a vision of establishing Women’s enterprise fund. How can gender analysis of existing policies and opportunities be useful in the process of establishing the women’s enterprise fund? What would you recommend to UN Women to ensure effective process to conduct analysis to support establishment of the fund?
  • Q4 Tell us about a time you managed the process for resource mobilization. Describe the process. What were the challenges encountered? And if you encounter the same challenges today, how would you address them differently?
  • Q5 Fundraising for gender equality and women’s empowerment is important but very challenging. Please identify and suggest four strategies to put in place to effectively contribute to resource mobilization for UN Women.

Overall, I found these questions to be more technical than I expected. How would you respond?

Are you interested in transforming your development career?

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Talk soon,
Chris

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