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What Degrees Can Land You a Career at the UN?

What does it mean to really make a difference in a world that feels like it is more and more polarized every day? Can world peace and conflict resolution occur today? The United Nations (UN) might be where the world can come together to solve these global issues. “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations,” said former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. If you’re dreaming of making real change in the world, your professional path might just lead you to a career at the UN. Some specific degree options, described and highlighted here, can help you land a dream job and jumpstart your career at the UN...

Oct 21, 2019
  • Student Tips
What Degrees Can Land You a Career at the UN?

Officially founded in 1945 after World War II, the United Nations is an intergovernmental organization that strives to maintain international peace and prosperity. It works to develop friendly relations between independent nations, encouraging cooperation and providing the platform and space for nations to come together to discuss and debate their decisions. Currently comprising 193 member states, the UN’s actions are guided by the purposes and principles outlined in its founding Charter. 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN, and today, the UN employs a global network of approximately 44,000 people all working towards global stability, security, and peace.

Want to land a job at the UN? The United Nations’ career page is a great resource, offering testimonials and real-life examples of people who have made working at the UN a satisfying career choice. Many types of career paths and job options are available at the UN, but you will want to find the one that best suits your needs and talents.

“There are over 130 field offices, which include peacekeeping and political missions and humanitarian field operations, and they play an essential role in identifying, highlighting, and responding to emerging challenges,” says Andrew Scanlon, a protected areas officer in economic, social, and development network. Field officer placements are more of the “get down and dirty” or “boots on the ground” type jobs, whereas policymakers and diplomats, engineers and medical officers all work in more traditional work environments. But all play an essential role in advancing the UN’s mission: shaping our future together.

Even though there are many jobs and career tracks in which you can make a difference working for the UN, you might want to focus your studies and specialize in a field of study that will set you apart from the rest of the applicants. Some specific degree options, described and highlighted here, can help you land a dream job and jumpstart your career at the UN...

1. Development studies

The United Nations looks for employees who are dedicated to three pillars: integrity, professionalism, and respect for diversity. “If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it,” said Norman Cousins, an American political journalist and world peace advocate. All those interested in a career at the UN should “narrow their range of interests, and choose a few agencies, offices, departments you would like to work into,” suggests the UNDP Jobs Foundation. However, having a broad knowledge and substantial foundation in development studies will set you up for success in almost all departments at the UN.

Development studies, an interdisciplinary degree, allows you to learn about applied systems and combines a diverse group of social science fields. Your degree might include studies in economics, history, sociology, politics, theory, and development strategies across many different disciplines. Learning how to assess systems and applying data analysis to create development plans might be what you will do in your development studies program.

“We live in an era of multidisciplinarity, so you need to understand the political aspect, the economic aspect, the anthropological and sociological aspects of issues. Read at least two newspapers a day; read opinion pieces and journal publications. Make the connection between what is happening internationally and your own context,” recommends Dr. Shama Dossa when asked about how students can make the most of their development studies or social science degrees.

Part of your degree studies could include a volunteer experience, an internship, or a study abroad experience. “Try a development contractor. USAID doesn’t (generally) implement their own programs anymore -- it hires development contractors to go out into the field and get their hands dirty. So if you want field experience, that is a great option. Some of the development contractors also have entry-level leadership training programs,” recommends Morgan Courtney, writing for Bright Magazine. Gaining real-life experience in development will complement your degree studies, look great on your resume, and also help you narrow your interests and allow you to figure out how you can contribute your skills and energy to a specific department in the UN.

2. Human rights

Another excellent degree option which could help you land a job at the UN is a degree in human rights. According to, this field includes the study of “civil, economic, cultural, political, social, LGBT, and women’s rights.” A human rights worker is an advocate for equal rights for all groups of people, specifically including the most marginalized groups, and especially those in dangerous zones affected by famine, environmental and socio-political factors, and even war. A degree in human rights has an interdisciplinary approach, allows you to work on case studies, and gives you excellent foundational knowledge of this specialist field of study.

Many human rights majors include volunteering or going out into the world and gaining real-world experience. This can be invaluable for later gaining a full-time job at the UN. For example, Lisa Symth, an international development specialist, says, “The UN hired me as a consultant after the end of my volunteer year because they had already worked with me and understood the value I could bring to the organization. And my next job was as a direct result from that, and so on.”

With a degree in human rights you might land a job at the UN, but there are many other excellent organizations, nonprofits, and government bodies which also do excellent work, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. “Careers in the human rights arena are very competitive and so a strong academic background and plenty of work experience or volunteer experience will be required. It’s also worth mentioning that many roles within this area involve international interaction and additional language skills are, therefore, highly desirable,” reports

3. International relations

If politics and policy are more your thing, then a degree in international relations might be the best fit. Also a highly valued degree at the UN, international relations is a demanding and fascinating specialty in the field of political science. Students in international relations study how world nations interact with each other. History, politics, conflict, resolution, and more are all part of this area of study, and many students in this field become experts in foreign diplomacy and policy. According to the Balance Careers, some of the classes many colleges incorporate into their international relations curriculum include political science, geography, economics, and history. Some programs also include classes in anthropology, international law, and religious studies. There is often a world language requirement as well.

A degree in international relations will set you on the fast track for any type of international development, policymaking, or political career, encompassing many careers at the UN. “Political, peace, and humanitarian careers at the UN provide critical support and guidance on a wide range of issues, from assisting underprivileged and displaced individuals to liaising with key partners in the field. Employees within this path cover political analysis and prepare reports for different departments and committees. Work may involve preparing studies on political, humanitarian, and emergency relief topics,” writes Tamar Shulsinger, for Northeastern University’s graduate programs.

If you are looking to make a difference in the world and have a challenging and rewarding career, whether at the UN or another humanitarian organization, then you will be on the right track with any one of these degrees.

“One of my earliest memories is walking up a muddy road into the mountains. It was raining. Behind me, my village was burning. When there was school, it was under a tree. Then the United Nations came. They fed me, my family, my community,” said Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary-General. The power of what you can do is only limited by what you can imagine is possible. Real change can start with you and your studies...

S.M. Audsley


S. M. Audsley is a freelance writer and poet who lives and works in Vermont, a small but mighty state in the United States. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast and a lover of potlucks.