Beyond Aid: Decoding Successful Career Change

Humanitarian Women’s Network
5 min readAug 15, 2019


Change is inevitable, so when faced with the prospect of transitioning careers it is normal to be hesitant, especially if humanitarian aid work has been a long-term career choice. Luckily, there’s a precedent, not only from women in aid who have made the jump but from women in other industries who have similar career hopped and come out on top.

So here are HWN’s top 6 tips to making the leap Beyond Aid.

  1. Get Certain

Are you sure you want to change careers? Jobs? Positions? Are you frustrated and want a change or dream of changing the world in a different way? Whatever it is, make sure you know what you want. A tried and true method to self-assess: determine your strengths and weaknesses professionally and personally, and identify what personality traits might serve you well in your chosen next life. Unpacked, this looks like asking the following questions:

  • What are my goals?
  • What brings me joy?
  • What is my money goal?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • Am I a boss or an employee?
  • What am I uniquely great at?

2. Research, skill-up, Reach-out

Once you’re sure change is for you, make a list of potential jobs/careers/industries that align with your interests/goals. Research these roles to understand the educational and skill set requirements, so you can prepare yourself accordingly by learning a new language, improving your Excel skills, building a website like a pro, maybe even getting that MBA.

Once you have a grasp on your end-goal, update your LinkedIn profile, CV, cover letter and portfolio immediately. Alice Calmettes, a former employee of Doctors Without Borders suggests simplifying your resume, “It’s unrealistic to fit all your experience onto your resume”.

After your re-brand is complete, spread the word that you are looking to make the jump by reaching out to your network letting them know of your ambitions, and attending networking events at least once per week. A recent LinkedIn survey found that 85% of jobs are filled by referrals- so your network really is your net worth.

3. Make a Plan

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Once you know what you want, you need a game plan to help you align your goals with your day-to-day actions. HWN-ers and leading researchers consistently recommend the following:

  • Articulate Your Goals, Tape them to a Wall

Write down a list of 3–5 goals that you would like to achieve in your next career. Be honest with yourself and realistic about your ability to achieve these goals vis-a-vis your skillset and desire to enhance said skillset. Once this is written down, tape it somewhere visible where you can see it every day; then revisit the list and make changes where applicable.

  • Daily To-do list

Create a To-do list of five things you plan to do every day in furtherance of your overarching goal — and make sure they’re all done before light’s out.

  • Make a Schedule & Stick to a Routine

What is your daily schedule? If you don’t have one, make one and ensure that it includes daily exercise, 8 hours of sleep, and ample time to do your work. Once you have written down your schedule, stick to it for two entire weeks — it takes about that long to form a habit.

  • Sound Mind x Sound Body

Change is tough, and transitioning from aid elsewhere can be particularly hard. Make sure you have a self-care plan in place which includes daily exercise, eating healthy and meditation.

4. Stay Positive

According to Alice Calmettes again, she stresses that it is very important to not go into a new career with certain expectations. The transition is bound to have hiccups and you should expect to put in more hours than usual. Kate Warren from Devex suggests that aid workers making the transition keep an open mind even while communicating with potential employers you might not see any connection or path to an opportunity with: you never know what conversation will reveal an opportunity.

5. What not to do

It can be difficult for former aid workers to translate their experiences to the private sector. Here are some tips to help bridge the divide:

  • Avoid “UN speak”
    Kate Warren of Devex stresses to focus on the positive experiences and innovative ideas you personally had while working in humanitarian aid. HWN provides a glossary of private sector lexicon here.
  • Don’t internalize rejection
    Accept this fact: you’re not going to get every job you applied for — however, don’t internalize it. Got rejected from one job? No problem, apply to ten more until something sticks.
  • Don’t burn bridges when you quit a job
    Just because one job did not work, don’t destroy the relationship you built with your colleagues or employer. Your reputation is valuable so don’t mar it. Also, nothing is forever, and you never know if you may want to return to the aid industry in the future.
  • Do not let your ego get in the way

Just because you held a senior position at your previous job this might not translate to your new role. To get your foot in the door a number of HWN-ers take temporary pay-cuts and title demotions at the outset. Once you’re in the door, you’ll have ample opportunities to impress everyone and ascend the ladder.

6. But the final and most important tip is this: Relax!
Career Coach and TED presenter, Laura Sheehan, explains that with career transitions, you are putting yourself into a situation where you will need to be adaptable, resilient and ready to find creative solutions to problems that will inevitably arise. Instead of fighting this lack of control and certainty, try your best to embrace it and ditch expectations you may have for your next position and see what opportunities you may encounter and capitalize on them. Asking yourself which skills you possess and then finding a way to use these skills in different areas and positions, are key to staying flexible and not boxing yourself in when looking into new career opportunities.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

Some resources to help you on your journey:
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