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Guide to an Internship with the UN

A six-step guide to getting an internship with the United Nations.

 

So you want to be an intern at the United Nations? Good choice, you’ll soon be emerged in the most glamorous and admirable of lifestyles. You will reap unprecedented respect from your peers, attract whichever gender you desire and make enough money to outshine Scrooge with his pesky Money Bin. You’ll have two.


But before I reveal all the secrets to the greatest internship known to interns, I will run through an ordinary day in the life at the UN. 12:30 Arrive at the office. Have the butler take your coat. “A cup of tea, Madame?” No! You don’t want tea, you want hand-ground coffee with the beans you sourced from the latest field trip to Brazil. 12:45 Check e-mails. Another dinner invitation from Ban? Can’t he take a hint? 13:00 Time to leave for the day. A glass of sloe gin and tonic is waiting in the UN limo, which will take you to your tennis lesson.


So, how does an internship come about? We can go through the process in a hundred steps, but that would be very boring, so here are six steps to getting a United Nations Internship.


Step number one is: Find out why you want to be an intern at the United Nations. Well, who wouldn’t want the leisureable lifestyle described above? But a couple of days a year you might have to end some wars or cure some diseases, so you might as well have an opinion of why the UN is a good force in the world. The chance of being asked about this is high, so you better have an answer ready. And here’s an inside tip: if you have a phone interview, don’t prepare a five minute philosophical answer were you argue for the need of a supranational organisation in this territorially unjust world of nation states and arbitrarily drawn borders. Because 30 seconds into the speech you will find yourself acutely aware that body language is up to 80% of communication.And you might get an instant attack of paranoia that the interviewers are rolling their eyes at you for thinking you have all the answers to save the world, and you’ll have to rush to the last 30 seconds of your talk where you say: UN = good. No UN = no good.


Step two: The United Nations is a complex organisation, with a lot of very heterogeneous agencies and offices. An internship at UNHCR and UNIDO will be very different experiences, but you would know this. After all, you are highly intelligent and competent person, which you will have to be in order to even be considered. And speaking of considering, consider:

• What you have to offer the United Nations
• What you want to gain from doing an internship
• What you want to do afterwards

Combine these three points and you may be led to the type of UN organisation you want to intern for. I would tell you where to find a list of all the agencies, but like we have agreed on already: you are an intelligent person and Googling “List of United Nations agencies” is really the least we can expect you of being capable of. The same goes for “UN internship.” Maybe that is how you found this article. If so, consider yourself saluted.

 

Step three: You have thought of why you want to do an internship with the UN and you know a bit more about the type of organisation you want to work for. Now you have to find out how the organisation(s) recruit their interns. This varies widely from agency to agency and from office to office. Some offices accept unsolicited applications, while others require you to apply for a specific post. Many agencies only recruit current students, most commonly master’s degree students, while others prefer graduates. Some offices even prefer you to have a year or two of work experience. They are greedy. But they might also just want to make sure that you can handle the wealth of mind-blowingly interesting and challenging tasks they will feed you. Go to the different agency websites, check the recruitment section and get informed.


Step four: Apply. Writing a CV and job application isn’t rocket science, but getting some expert advice is always a good idea, so check some career websites. Keep in mind that everyone will emphasize their degrees from a world-leading university, so having attended Harvard, UCL or Sciences Po (or all three) isn’t going to get you an interview by itself. It is the United Nations we are talking about here – people from the world’s best universities will leave well-paid jobs in order to do an unpaid internship at the UN. That being said, you do not have to have attended a top university to get an internship, nor do you have to have studied international relations or political science. The UN needs and wants people from a variety of background, so try to think of what sets you apart. If you are applying for a communications position; do you have any video editing skills? Can you operate a camera? Let the CV show it. But don’t put all sorts of useless crap on there, people are not going to care about your ability to open a beer with your teeth – save that for the intern parties and for the dentist’s nightmare.


Step five: Chasing an application is always a gamble. Some people do not mind getting a phone call at five in the morning on their personal mobile phone, but many do. “Did you get my application? – Yes, thanks, and five hundred others, but I will prioritise yours because I love being woken up by some applicant who does not know about time-zones and has miraculously found my number.” Maybe a friendly e-mail to ask for the process forward can do the trick, but it can also come across as nagging so the safest is to cross those fingers till arthritis sets in.


Step six: You got the internship, congratulations! It may actually be that simple, but most agencies have interviews. Some require you to meet in person whilst others let you have a phone interview. Maybe you even have to take a test. This should not be necessary to tell a smart person like yourself, but get prepared! You will need to know basic facts about the UN, in-depth information about the agency you are interviewing with, and, as mentioned in step one, you need to be prepared to justify why you want the internship. A platitude, but: the more prepared, the better your chances.

 

Woo! You made it. You are an official intern of the United Nations. Or it simply wasn’t your turn this time. Internships at the UN are extremely competitive, and a lot of very talented people apply. Work on your CV a bit and try again another time, or at another UN agency or office.


But before turning this most excellent guide to fruition, remember that there is more to an internship than your tasks. If the main motivation for an internship is to secure a trilingual, hyper-intelligent and worldly grandchild for your parents, don’t apply to an office where you will be the only intern. No, you would want to apply to UNRIC, where the interns are hotter than Lassi the Finnish interns’ sauna, and where you can hide in the conference room on the eighth floor and make out behind the speaker’s stand in the corner. But if this is the main reason for applying to the UN you didn’t read step one well enough. Go back, and stop skimming through the article, it’s your future we’re dealing with.


Also, be nice. So you were the womb valedictorian and have written a brail guide to Agamben? Well so has half the office. A little humility will not kill you. It is the United Nations, but it is an organisation by and for humans after all. People want to get along with their co-workers, and luckily most of the UN interns and staff I have encountered have been extraordinarily friendly. And this is just one of the countless reasons why you should now return to step number one and get started on your internship application. Good luck!

 

Useful Links
Brussels based UN internships 

Internships at the UN careers portal 

Internships at the NY headquarters

 

Sigurd Tvete is Editor-in-Chief of Internal Voices and the Director's Intern at the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (UNRIC). 

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