How to get a job in the United Nations

How to get a job in the United Nations

PART ONE: Knowing where to look

The United Nations is a public international organization formed by a treaty between states known as the UN Charter. Employment as a graduate-level UN official (this is known as the "professional category" or simply just "P staff") anywhere in the world is open to persons of any nationality with none of the work permit restrictions typically found in other sectors. The UN is required to keep a healthy geographic and gender balance among its professional staff population, so being female and/or a national of a smaller or developing country is an asset when applying for UN jobs! In 2019 more than 40,000 people were employed as international professionals in the UN (source:

The other major category for UN jobs is known as the "general service" category ("GS" or "G staff" for short). These typically do not require a degree. However, General Services positions are typically only available to nationals of the country in which a position is located, or others who already have the right to work in that country. GS positions are also not usually subject to geographic balance, so being from a particular country will not help you for a GS position in the same way that it would for a professional vacancy. General Services positions are subject to gender balance however, and applications from females are always encouraged. In 2019, more than 55,000 people were employed in the General Services category.

It is important to know that what is colloquially known as "the UN" is actually a family of organizations more formally known as the UN system. This organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and many more. The core UN (known formally as the "UN Secretariat") accounts for only about a third of all positions, the majority are spread among the various UN system organizations! You cannot apply just once to the entire UN system: almost every one of these organizations has its own recruitment system, and vacancies are spread out among all these various platforms!

All of this means that in order to be sure to find all the UN system vacancies, there are a lot of websites to visit! Make sure to check each one regularly to maximize your chances:

UN system and related organizations (in approximate order of size):

UN system vacancy aggregators

There are a number of websites which aggregate vacancies from the above websites. JobNet is a manually-updated site managed by a UN entity (the ICSC). UNjobs is a long-running manually-updated site managed by a non-UN nonprofit. UNjoblist is an automatically-updated site managed as a side-project (with no formal UN affiliation) by UN system official Sebastian Rottmair.

I am grateful for all these sites, especially UNjoblist and JobNet, as I have found many opportunities by using them. However aggregators can always (and often do) miss some vacancies, so if you have time you should do a manual search of each UN system entity's recruitment pages so that you can be sure to catch them all!

PART TWO: Don't waste time applying to positions you're not qualified for

An oft-quoted (e.g. this article from Harvard Business Review) piece of internal research from Hewlett Packard suggests that female applicants tend to apply to positions for which they are fully qualified, while male applicants tend to "chance their arm" and apply for jobs for which they only meet some of the necessary requirements. For United Nations staff positions, this "male" strategy will not get you very far. Read on for the surprising reason why.

PLEASE NOTE: this article assumes that the reader has some knowledge about the United Nations system, such as can be gained through undertaking an internship, or reading around the subject.

Although many UN system jobs resemble or even duplicate the important work carried out by non-governmental organizations such as Save the Children or Médecins Sans Frontières, make no mistake about it: the UN and its agencies are inter-governmental organizations, funded and managed by their individual member statesThis makes UN system staffers (international) civil servants. And much like the public sector workers in your own country, civil servants have specific employment rights.

What is known as the international civil service is more than 100 years old and dates back to the League of Nations, the UN's predecessor. The first Secretary-General of that institution, Sir Eric Drummond, modelled the League of Nations' Secretariat on the permanent, career-based civil service of his native Britain. If you are a history buff like me, more information can be found online (I'd start with the site of the International Civil Service Commission).

All this to say that international civil servants of the UN system have the right to a career. This mostly simply translates into getting due consideration when applying to another post with their employer. They can enforce these rights via one of two courts specially set up for UN staffers, the International Labour Organization Administrative Tribunal (ILOAT) or the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT).

In light of the above, what do you think will happen if you don't meet one of the requirements of a UN system vacancy but get the job anyway? The employing agency will likely get sued by an "internal candidate" international civil servant who was also gunning for that job, that's what! The tribunal judgments are published online and we can read the facts for ourselves:

  • In ILOAT judgment 1497, in Re Flores, Mr. Roberto Flores successfully sued the World Health Organization for selecting a candidate who didn't meet the requirement of a working knowledge of English in the vacancy notice, which he did.
  • In a 2018 judgement of the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (which was affirmed on appeal), Mr. Jason Munyan successfully contested the selection decision of somebody else for a position he had applied to but not won, because the hiring manager removed him from a list of qualified applicants on the (incorrect) basis that he didn't have the necessary "minimum of five years of progressively responsible experience in humanitarian affairs, emergency preparedness, crisis/emergency relief, management, rehabilitation, development, or other related area”.

As well as costing money, losing this type of litigation results in severe reputational damage to respondent organizations. That's one of the reasons why UN system HR departments are very careful about making sure that candidates meet 100% of the minimum requirements for a staff position, especially when (as is more often the case than not) there's an internal candidate applying.

So, while this advice may run counter to what you have heard about applying to positions in the private or third sectors, don't waste your time by applying to specifically UN system staff vacancies that you may not be qualified for!

Instead, follow these tips:

  • Be careful to distinguish between "minimum requirements" (sometimes just listed as "requirements") and "desirable attributes" (sometimes just listed as "desirable"). So long as you meet the minimum requirements, you don't necessarily need to meet the desirable criteria to secure the position. This is all the more so if you put in a great written test, interview, and/or if you are a diverse candidate.
  • Typically the minimum experience requirements are measured in years (old school I know), and are moderated depending on your educational level. For example, if you have a master's degree or equivalent you will typically need 5 years of relevant work experience to be qualified for a P-3 level position, whereas if you only have a first-level degree this will be 7 years.
  • If you're not sure whether your educational qualification is considered as equivalent to a first-level or anmaster's degree, register for your free profile on the UN Secretariat's HR gateway, Inspira. Once in, there is a free Academic Degrees Database which you can consult.
  • Make sure you know where to look for UN jobs. They are not all listed on any single one website, so if you're only visiting one or two you are likely missing out! See my first article in this series.

Good luck :)

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