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What do you do, when you don’t know what to do? Careers advice for the confused.

July 27, 2017
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A colleague was recently waxing eloquent about George Monbiot’s advice to aspiring journalists (he gets so many enquiries that he’s this way that waywritten it up). It’s nicely written, as you’d expect, and basically urges young would-be Georges to follow their stars rather than money or security. Don’t go and do something you hate (eg write press releases for some pointless PR firm or fluff pieces for a local paper) in order to be able to one day do something you love – you’ll be sucked in, ground down and lose your way: ‘whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty’.

As for what you should do with that liberty, George suggests three approaches:

‘The first is to start how you mean to go on. This is unlikely, for a while, to be self-financing, so you may need to supplement it with work which raises sufficient money to keep you alive but doesn’t demand too much mental energy. If you want to write about the Zapatistas in Mexico, earn the money required to get you out there and start covering them. Be prepared to live and travel as cheaply as possible: In seven years working in the poor world, I managed to keep my expenses down to £3000 a year.

now whatWork hard, but don’t rush. Build up your reputation slowly and steadily. And specialisation, for all they tell you at journalism school, is, if you use it intelligently, not the trap but the key to escaping from the trap. You can become the person editors think of when they need someone to cover a particular issue from a particular angle (that is to say, your angle). They then respond to your worldview, rather than you having to respond to theirs.

The second possible approach is this: if the market for the kind of work you want to do looks, at first, impenetrable, then engage in the issue by different means. If you want to write about homelessness, for example (one of the great undercovered issues of developed societies), it might be easier to find work with a group trying to assist the homeless. Learn the trade by learning the issues, and gradually branch into journalism.

The third approach is tougher, but just as valid. It is followed by people who have recognised the limitations of any form of engagement with mainstream employers, and who have created their own outlets for their work. Most countries have a number of small alternative papers and broadcasters, run voluntarily by people making their living by other means: part time jobs, grants or social security. These are, on the whole, people of tremendous courage and determination, who have placed their beliefs ahead of their comforts.’

But there’s a group of people who George rather ignores, which includes the younger me. Sure, his advice is good, uplifting stuff, and

An alternative (and probably stupid) view - skip the passion, maybe it will come along later

An alternative (and probably stupid) view – skip the passion, maybe it will come along later

can easily be adapted for those young people who ask me about how to find a job in the aid business, or in activist NGOs. Even if some of them are faking it, they seem awesomely clear about their aims. ‘I want to be/do X, how do I achieve it?’ But I find their determination and self confidence rather intimidating, and feel a bit of a fraud at being consulted, because at their age, I had no idea what I wanted to do. What about those people?

I left college with a physics degree that (though it was fun to acquire) seemed entirely irrelevant to my life and floundered about for years. So what advice might be useful if, like the younger me, you are much clearer on what you want to avoid than what you really want to do with your life?

My approach (I now realize) was to respond to that lack of direction by putting myself in a series of difficult situations that forced me to learn and experience new worlds and ideas, in the hope of finding some path that made sense: two years wandering around Latin America; squatting in London; teaching English to refugees; fund-raising for Central American human rights and solidarity groups; career good friendsfreelance journalism. None of these were easy; I wasn’t particularly good at any of them and none of them were well paid, but out of this slightly masochistic path, some clarity gradually (and painfully) emerged: I loved writing; I was (broadly) on the left; I wanted to understand social and political change and if possible contribute to it.

I was lucky – the jobs arrived, and over time, became more consistent with my emerging identity. There were a couple of moments when I might have gone off the rails. At one point, I was offered a job writing for a deadly dull business newsletter on international trade finance. The money was good, I was feeling a bit lost at the time and so was tempted, and I could well have then found the salary bump irreversible (something George talks about a lot in his piece). But my then girlfriend (now wife) said she would dump me if I took the job, so I ignored the offer. Thanks Cathy.

Any other answers to the question ‘what do you do, when you don’t know what to do?’


  1. Internships.

    I’d massively recommend 3 month internships. I worked at many different organisations (the FT, ActionAid, ODI, & others) before realising I wanted to spend more time on a particular question, with more in-depth research and analytic rigour.

    Experimentation is key: PDIA! I advise my students to try new things, dabble, explore. You can only work out what’s right for you by trying it, testing, exploring.

    [And ofc these need to be properly paid, so they’re not just the purview of entitled kids like young me].

    And if you’ve started on a career, realise you’re not happy, don’t be afraid of moving ship, changing direction.

    Tim has a great line in The Office (the UK TV series): ‘It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than half way up one you don’t’.

  2. Thanks Duncan! A great piece I can now forward on to the (surprisingly large!) number of people who approach for advice on how to get a job in development. I don’t often venture in ‘giving advice’, but am always very happy to share my own path in case it provides some useful nugget of insight. As I’ve shared with your students in the past, mine was a similar circuitous path (involved a dissertation on the liturgical nature of religion in 5th century Athens! ah…. I miss university), but over time and with fare whack of hindsight, I can see that there was common thread of personal motivation that informed my choices – for me, this was and continues to be a really basic need to grapple with issues of social injustice – and importantly, through these varied experiences, I gained an understanding of, and confidence in, the kinds of skills I could offer this work. My advice, when I do offer it, is pretty basic…. there is no single path that will lead you to a fulfilling job – there are lots (lots!) of different paths you can take to arrive at the same place; you should avoid framing the challenge as being one of work/ life balance, it’s about life balance – your work should feed you in important ways; and keep trying to aim for the sweet spot where personal passion & motivation, skills/expertise & experience, and demand come together. What I take from George is that you may sometimes need to put a little energy into creating demand…. And to those being asked for career advice – always, always make time to share your path with others. It invariably has ‘gold dust’ that others will find useful, and if nothing else, it is often reassuring to hear that there isn’t a silver bullet that they’re missing or a ‘right way’ to get where they’re going.

    1. Thanks Claire, I think there’s another piece to be written more on the practical advice side, but not sure I’m the right person to write it! I usually refer people to Maia Gedde’s monumental ‘Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance’

      1. Hi Duncan! I’ll also forward a link to your piece to my current students on the Masters of Humanitarian Assistance at Deakin University in Australia. Maia Gedde’s book is a great place to start for those who can access it. But for those interested in something practical, much shorter (and free!) I have posted a link to a little booklet we produced when I was working at the School of International Development (DEV) at University of East Anglia. (if the link doesn’t work Google ‘Life after DEV UEA’).

        While this little practical guide is aimed at current students studying International Development in the UK, I hope the suggestions it offers are more broadly useful.

  3. Thanks for the inspiration, Duncan! I just uploaded my post, “The privilege of giving career advice in international development” (
    “The toughest question in terms of career building is the question of the slowly changing ethical framework of international development: How can I justify my engagement?
    Duncan writes: ‘I loved writing; I was (broadly) on the left; I wanted to understand social and political change and if possible contribute to it.’
    Is this still enough to build a career given our global Northern/ Western, male etc. privileges?
    the more important questions for which I have no good answer at this stage is, to put it more provocatively, who should have a career in international development in the future and at what cost will they happen in a globally accelerating labor market?”

  4. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given is ‘if you don’t know, follow the good people you want to work with’.

  5. A great exercise taught to me by a coach some years ago, helpful if you are puzzling over your long-term direction and role: Visualise your retirement party.. Where would it be? Who do you want to be there? What would you hope they would say about you? In my experience of doing for myself and with people I’m mentoring it is very telling.. it gets to the heart of what drives us, and what sort of recognition we crave and from whom. Best done in a pair so that your partner can listen hard and feedback.. its often the small details that are most insightful.

  6. My path was to simply offer my help to interesting people in work that appeared good and (even though an introvert) to be never backward in introducing myself to said interesting people! The best line was to ask people’s advice (they like giving it) and see what happened! I had zilch ‘social networks’ as they are now called when I left university (with a degree in theology and philosophy) but was a good letter writer (I sounded interesting) and never minded if people ignored me (they obviously had better things to do)! I went from experimental religious community to NGO start up (prisons) and a small grant making foundation and took it from there! And to this day have only made one ‘real’ application where the shortlist was more than 1 (and ironically having got that role it was the one I think I least enjoyed)!

  7. Hi Duncan! Glad to see that our forest conversations inspired you in more than one blog! I also think that a general piece of advice, which talks to some of the comments above, is that there is no “perfect job”. While that should not mean to remain in an unhappy job for years and years, I think it is critical to be reflexive and decide on what one is prepared to compromise on and accept, and then make the most of what is. In my case, I was pretty ready to walk out of the ASSAR project 12-16 months into it – but then luckily decided to stick it out by accepting some of the parts that bothered me (and were unchangeable), and change those that I had some power on. And things did change then and become easier (in some ways!). This blog ( talks to some of that “evolution” – and I think points to the importance of spending some time reflecting and seeing what we are learning, in the midst of all the busy-ness of what we do. Not so much of an answer to your question about what to do when you don’t know it, though – sorry!

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