Career Options in International Development Studies

Career Opportunities for International Development Studies graduates are extremely diverse. Your degree in International Development Studies can take you in many directions.

Following this "path less taken" after graduation can sometimes lead to confusion and uncertainty, though. Therefore, this outline has been created to present the many and diverse career possibilities available to you, and to help you begin focusing your career aspirations in the international development field.

The Career Options are sorted into five categories:

A.  International Agencies & Work In the Field
B.  Community Organizing
C.  The Private Sector
D.  Graduate and Professional Schools
E.  Other Options

A. International Agencies & Field Work

With the training and insight you gain from your undergraduate degree in International Development Studies, a popular option is heading directly into a development related field. The IDS web page has a links page that offers examples of the agencies and organizations in this field. Among the popular options are:

Non-Governmental Organizations:
Non-governmental agencies (NGO's) operate outside of government agencies, but often publicize issues that governments later come to focus upon. In the field of International Development, many NGO's work on international issues: "Foundation for Global Community," "Greenpeace," and the "Middle East Children's Alliance" are some examples. One of our alumni is presently working for a policy group in Washington, DC called "Friends of the Earth," researching World Bank reform. Basically, there are hundreds of groups like this, although they can be hard to find out about at first - try keyword searches on the internet/www or in the UCLA library computers to start. Be aware that both paid positions and unpaid internships are equally common in this sector.

United Nations Organizations:
The United Nations is an enormously influential player in the field of international development, from its humanitarian relief programs to its multi-lateral military interventions.

Multi-Lateral and Bi-Lateral Agencies:
The main US government agencies that is concerned with International Development is USAID (US Agency for International Development). USAID has offices in Long Beach as well as in Washington DC, and often is involved in promoting overseas development projects, and analyzing the long-term effectiveness of US monetary aid. There are a variety of agencies out there, and many are semi-autonomous. These include the Peace Corps, which offers assignments for 2-3 year periods while you gain experience en route to other career opportunities (, and the Inter-American Foundation, which is a public/private joint venture trying to promote alternative development strategies in Central and South America.

Foreign Service:
The US government, as well as more and more state governments, have work opportunities abroad that relate to development. Applicants for the foreign services (hired through the US State Dept.) must take an exam offered once a year-- but if you pass it, opportunities in embassy work, foreign trade negotiation, and delegations to international bodies (UN, WTO) are available. Specialized trade missions sponsored by different state governments commonly go abroad to promote opportunities for US businesses in foreign countries. Various levels of government also engage in educational and cultural exchanges: contact the Ford Foundation (

English As A Second Language Instructors/Research & Travel:
Aside from the Peace Corps, there are many opportunities to combine travel and International Development in a limited-duration work experience. Many countries, particularly in Asia, encourage Americans to come teach English to their students. These jobs can often include travel and housing allowances, and do not require formal certification. Teaching abroad can also allow you exposure to developing regions in which you wish to develop your career. While serving out the contract (1-3 yrs.) you've entered for teaching, you're free to develop business/community contacts that may serve to launch you into work more directly connected to your interests.

B. Community Organizing:

Many students are inspired in their academic pursuits by the knowledge that there are serious challenges that face their communities. Getting involved in these local development struggles is a an empowering, fulfilling and inherently community-centered/grassroots experience. This aspect of social life is commonly referred to as "civil society" - the aspect of communities which seeks to improve itself while not being driven by the market or the political mandates of the government. Examples of careers in community organizing include:

-Grassroots non-governmental organizations:
These groups are often organized around a single issue, and attempt to publicize, educate and motive people around it. They operate outside the legal and budgetary framework of government, but usually tackle "public-interest" issues. Some examples of these groups are: "The Center for Third World Organizing," "The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission," "The Rain Forest Action Network," and Santa Monica's "Heal the Bay."

-Social and environmental justice campaign:
This is a broad coalition of groups that recognize the inter-relatedness of environmental conservation/awareness and political/economic/cultural issues.

-Local political reform and organizing:
Political activism operates at many scales (municipal, county, state and national) and deals with issues that face us as collectively (rather than individually). Although the current condition of politics is one that can alienate and turn off people just as much as empower them, that doesn't mean that political routes to change are not viable. Local political activism can be an empowering experience, and there are many politically active organizations out there. Election campaigns for a candidates or propositions you believe will promote equitable development are an example.

-Other Organizations:
Look for organizations that deal with the social aspect of development issues such as AmeriCorps, Vista and Teach for America. These organizations provide excellent experience and have the added advanatage of providing money for future education or to pay off previous educational loans.

C. Private Sector Options:

Although development theory often makes corporations out to be the bad guy, significant opportunities for promoting meaningful social change exist within the framework of the market system. These organizations form what has been called a "parallel economy" - one that operates based upon consumer demand and factor prices, but that also internalizes the goals of long-term sustainability and resource conservation. Here are some examples of companies that exemplify this point:

-Sustainable development in cooperatives:
These are groups set up to promote environmentally sustainable agriculture and craft-production, as well as those groups involved in creating new markets (identifying retailers & consumers) for those products.

-Community Supported Agriculture:
Often referred to as CSAs, these groups focus solely upon reforming food production so that chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, ground water pollutants and other contaminants are not in our food (and are thus "organic"). These networks bring together households, restaurants and growers so that CSA's can be commercially viable. Much of the work involved is in spreading the network of consumers. "Earthtrade" is one local example.

A similar category to the above two examples. These are more urban based and try to develop environmentally & socially sustainable businesses. These may involve bringing third-world crafts to first world consumers (so that funds can be channeled back to the producers) or simply setting up locally produced craft products (ones that are specifically outside the realm of the globalizing economy). "Global Exchange" of San Francisco is a good example of this.

-Big Corportations:
Although these organizations are often demonized in IDS, an informed view on the work of these transnational corporations might make you a valuable asset in terms of innovative ways to spark change from within.

The media! International development is a cluster of issues that affects all people, and print, radio, television, and computer media are an important means to transmit ideas. See also "Documentary Film Making" below. "Global Exchange" (mentioned above) also stresses journalism as a means of promoting alternative forms of development, and raising consciousness.

D. Graduate & Professional School

Depending upon the career you plan to pursue, you may wish to develop more specialized job skills. Though many employers can provide on-the-job training, graduate and professional schools allow you to chose from many skills and subjects with which you can add to your B.A. in International Development Studies. Most Graduate and Professional Schools accept application during the fall and the winter for the next school year (some have deadlines as early as mid-December, though most are mid-February). At UCLA, for example, recent IDS alumni are presently enrolled in a variety of graduate programs (visit the IDS web page for a list of links to graduate programs in international development: Graduate and professional schools offer three basic types of training: technical, research-oriented, and education-vocational.

This most often comes in the form of a Master's program or professional degree (such as international law or business). They require anywhere from 1-3 years to complete, and offer training in skills that are directly applicable to occupations in the job market. Examples of these are:

-Learning international relations/non-profit management/public policy skills to work in middle management of a public, non-governmental organization.

-Learning planning theory, economic development strategies and demographic modeling in order to be a municipal planner (MA in Urban Planning), or work in environmental mitigation and protection.

-Learning environmental analysis (biology, geography, political science) to get involved in the growing field of environmental assessment, mitigation and EIR's (environmental impact reports that most companies need to file in order to build or expand) (MA in Environmental Science).

-Learning computer mapping / geographic information systems to be able to analyze and present data on both environmental and social issues - often combined with mathematics and/or programming skills (MA in Geography/Planning).

-Learning agro-ecology/agriculture or "social forestry" to be involved with resource use policy, anywhere from the federal level (Department of the Interior, EPA) to the local level (rural development agencies, conservation groups). Internationally, there also exists several research and action-oriented organizations which focus upon resource use/conservation, such as the Rainforest Action Network. (MS is Forestry, Agro-Ecology, or Agro-Forestry).

Research-Oriented Academic:
This path often begins with a Master's degree, but often followed by a Ph.D. (Doctorate of Philosophy). Pursuing a M.A. requires 1-2 years, while a Ph.D. usually requires a more serious time commitment (3-5 years), and you typically live on a meager income. Part-time work opportunities exist on and around most campuses, but are not guaranteed. While pursuing a Ph.D. in the social science disciplines, a good goal is to apply to enough schools (4-7) so that you have a good chance of getting at least one school to offer you a break on tuition (in the form of a scholarship, fellowship, or partial waiver). These are not too uncommon. The following programs are most directly suitable for continuing in International Development Studies at the graduate level:

-International Development Studies:
The obvious choice! However, there are a scarce few universities that offer MAs in IDS, and still fewer that offer PhD.s in this field. That's the cost of being ahead of the curve - IDS is an emerging and critically important field, but that doesn't mean that schools have been able to react quickly and develop their own programs.

Since this discipline specializes in the interplay of the social and bio-physical worlds, it is an ideal setting for pursuing International Development Studies. International development studies often goes by a different sub-field name within Geography, however, so be on the look out for buzz words like "Political Ecology". Since International Development Studies is a young discipline in itself, many of its scholars are trained and employed under the banners of other fields such as Geography, so you will be in good company if you can find a Geography Dept. that specializes in political ecology (such as UCLA). For internet information on graduate programs in Geography, visit the Association of American Geographers

-Urban/Regional Planning:
As strange as it may seem, UP is a good place to pursue International Development Studies. Planners consider themselves to be advocates for the public interest in a world otherwise ruled by market forces, and thus focus upon development issues and policy (both in industrialized and underdeveloped settings, urban and rural).

-Public Health:
This field is concerned specifically with the health of populations, but several schools (including UCLA) give attention to international health issues and problems such as disease and malnutrition. Education is similar.

-Sociology, Anthropology, Economics:
These disciplines often focus on development. Sociology is concerned with the broad changes in community as a result of industrialization and often focus on development--most usually in the US or other highly industrialized nations. Anthropology is concerned with culture and has many of the same concerns as sociology, but their work is focused primarily on commuities outside of the "Western World." Economics focuses on the fiscal policies that lead to and encourage development.

-Other Disciplines:
Regardless of the formal title of any academic program or department, there exists the opportunity to work with individual scholars there who are excited about international development issues. Read about the topics that interest you, then find out what organizations those authors are a part of. If they teach in a University, you should contact that scholar and investigate the opportunities for graduate study under their guidance.

*For more detailed information on applying to graduate programs, please consult the Graduate School Information page.

*To find out about which schools are highly ranked in the programs you are interested in, talk to faculty at UCLA who are in those programs, look up guides in the library (such as "Peterson's") which ranks schools by departments, or talk to graduate students themselves (they went through the same application process not too long ago).

Education/Teaching Vocational:
Pursuing a career in education-in elementary, high school or state college teaching-is a highly rewarding and challenging field. There are strong linkages between teaching vocations and the field of international development. First, many issues and problems surrounding the process of development are poorly understood, and our educational institutions are a good medium for raising awareness. This awareness can be passed on at any age, albeit with different levels of sophistication. Additionally, teachers tend to become involved in their communities, and thus are tied in to development issues at the local, grass-roots level. Places like Los Angeles have taken on a very international character, attracting migrant families from all over the world. Bi-lingual educators with an appreciation of many cultures are highly sought after. Teachers in public schools often require a state-mandated certificate, while private and religiously-affiliated schools do not usually require such certification.

E. Other Options:

Although the previous four groups capture most of the possibilities available to you, they're not everything:

-Art, culture, music:
There are many ways to communicate a message. Often times the most inspiring messages come in the form of the arts, so if you have a talent for performance dance, drama, music or other forms, there are outlets in the International Development field that can use you. For example, "Common Threads" is an LA-based group of artists that is seeking to publicize the poor working conditions of local garment workers. Their use of poetry readings, posters, photograph exhibits and other events has brought greater awareness around the city to the need to eliminate sweat shop working conditions prevalent in the garment industry. The "San Francisco Mime Troop" has performed at UCLA several times, using street theater to convey information about critical issues in international development. The SFMT actually does not perform mime, but rather uses dramatic theater, multi-media and song to stir their audiences. Their recent performances have included "Three days: How the Zapatista Movement Shook the World," and "OffShore," which focused upon the mobility of international business and its ability to pit different peoples against one another as they seek low-cost production sites.

-Independent, documentary film:
Another medium deserving of separate attention is documentary film making. As you have witnessed in a few of your classes, film can be an extremely effective means for raising awareness about issues in International Development. This is especially the case when you need to bring the world to your audience, and your audience normally doesn't get to see the world. Both UCLA and USC have excellent film programs with specializations in documentary film making, and classes are periodically offered to undergraduates. If you want to go the informal route, get to know some UCLA film school people, find out who does documentary work on development issues, and get involved.

These are private foundations that receive contract money from the government to carry out research for policy issues. Rather than mobilizing people directly for participation in a cause or for raising awareness over issues, international development think-tanks research the background of issues, attempting to create the basis for new legislation and aw. For example, if environmental legislation was being proposed in Sacramento, a thinktank might be called in to investigate its potential effectiveness as well as its shortcomings, contrasting it to precedents set elsewhere. Most thinktanks are located in Washington, DC, but others are on the West Coast, such as the RAND foundation, located in Santa Monica. Many research centers at UCLA (and other universities) serve this purpose as well, such as the Institute of Industrial Relations, Institute of Transportation Studies, and the Center for Child & Family Policy Research.


* UCLA Career Resources*

Make sure to visit the UCLA Career Center and their Internship Center (both in the Strathmore building) early in your studies to find out what types of internship and career opportunities are available in the field of International Development


Websites with Convenient Links:


Return to the Resources for Jobs and Internships page.


Published: Monday, March 01, 2004