Getting an Internship with the United Nations

There are many ways to get an internship. Below are two student reports that offer some recommended steps

Note: Across the board, U.N. internships are unpaid.

Student Report: Steps to take to get a U.N. Internship

  1. Start now. Think about what you want to do for your internship. Consider how it will meet your academic requirements and career goals. Check out which U.N. organizations, agencies and programmes are doing the kind of work you'd like to do. Visit websites, read reports and conference summaries, stay abreast of U.N. in the news, and talk to as many people as possible who may know something about which United Nations organizations are doing work that you want to do. Use your contacts to find more contacts. Don't be afraid to email and even call people that might help you.
  2. Figure out where in the world you'd like to do your internship. Geneva is a major hub of United Nations organizations, but it is by no means the only place you could do a U.N.internship. A good way to determine where you want to go based on where the U.N. organizations are headquartered is by visiting U.N. System web site. Many organizations also have offices in many parts of the world, so check each specifically. Other types of organizations to explore include U.S. government and international non-government organizations (NGOs).
  3. Internship, study-internship or paid job? If you would like academic credit for your internship, consider a study-internship program. There are several in Geneva and other locations that offer courses in combination with an internship placement. If academic credit is not an issue, see “Working at International Organizations in Geneva” for the differences between professional and general positions.
  4. Apply. For a summer internship, it's not too early to start sending applications during the fall semester. (That said, the internship I got was one I applied to March 1st.) Basically all organizations have intern programs and each has its own specific application form, process and timeline. Check each organization's web site for specific information and instructions.

    Get your CV (long résumé, which is standard for most international jobs) in order and learn how to copy/paste efficiently! The International Center has books that give examples of CVs for use in Europe. Fill out as many applications as organizations you would like to work for, whether that's 2 or 20! Most applications are accepted by email, but you may actually have to handwrite some and send them via regular mail. Others may be completely online.

    Note that the application process for the United Nations Headquarters Internship Programme differs from most of the other organizations within the U.N. system.

    For the most part, you will be applying to the organization and not to a particular department or person within the organization. Most organization HR offices put all received applications, on an ongoing basis, into a database or, in some cases, into an actual physical binder. Employees of the organization are encouraged to check these databases if they want an intern. This system, combined with the fact that many U.N. employees don't know or think about finding a *free* intern this way(!), makes the next step crucial if you're going to stand out.

  5. Follow up. Within a week or two after you've sent an internship application, follow up on it with an email. Don't send a generic email to the HR department of the organization. Instead, target your email to someone working in the area, division or section where you want to work within the organization. Finding such a person may take some effort, but check the organization's website thoroughly, check the names on reports published by the organization, and even call the organization if need be.

    Once you've found the right person/people, send them a *short* email that includes: who you are; that you want to intern with them based on what you know about their work; that you understand the internship will be unpaid; a bit about your qualifications, degree or experience; and that you have submitted your official internship application to their HR office.

    Believe it or not, they may not know that they want you (and can get you for free) until you contact them!

  6. Repeat step 4 as necessary. You may need to be politely persistent. U.N. employees are busy people too, so don't pester, but don't give up if you don't get a rapid response.
  7. Handling the offer. When you hear back from a department or person interested in having you intern with them, be responsive and forthright. In many cases they will have to write up a specific work plan and make other efforts with their HR department on your behalf, so be very clear about your desire to work with them so as not to make them do unnecessary work.

    With that said, you can indicate your interest and ask to see a work plan before you finalize your decision. And while you're interacting with an organization over a pending offer, you can add some urgency to other potential offers or organizations that you haven't heard back from. As in any professional situation, do not string anyone along unnecessarily and do not burn bridges with a person or organization that you may later want to work for.

  8. Funding. Not really much advice here, except to say that the earlier you line up an internship, the earlier you can apply for funding. Most funding application deadlines come in February and March and require specific information about what you'll be doing during your internship. The U-M International Center help you with potential funding opportunities. See Funding Undergraduate and Graduate International Internships.
  9. Enjoy and make the most of a great professional opportunity!

Student Report: Working at International Organizations in Geneva

It is possible to find a well-paying job or internship for the UN or other NGOs in Geneva. To get these jobs, it helps to speak some French and/or another official U.N. language, even though English is the main working language. An unpaid internship or a contract appointment may contribute to the attainment of the perfect position. 

The U.N. and most of its sister organizations' personnel work from a bi-level system consisting of P-level (professional) and G-level (general service). Despite what one might expect, higher G-level positions can pay better than lower P-level positions.

P-level professional positions

P-level professional positions range from P-1 to P-5 and consists of the many program officers, specialists and advisors who do the “nitty-gritty” at the organization. A Masters degree and several years of relevant experience are usually required for such positions, especially for P-3 and higher. Read more about P-level positions, including salary and benefits here

The U.N. and its sister organizations (ILO, GATT, etc.) do not typically hire without a list of significant recommendations and publications. Although, HR departments may be frustrated when contacted about advice and will not interview unless there is an advertised position open, persistence is recommended. It is possible to interact with someone that can provide suggestions. 

P level positions are usually offered as unpaid internships. The experience can be an excellent method of gaining professional experience and the potential contacts and references will look great on a resume for future recruiting. Since internships are unpaid, students will have to pay for living expenses in Geneva for up to 4 months. See Living in Geneva for more information.  
When looking for a full time job offer, keep in mind that many organizations have a policy requiring all interns to wait six months before applying to any vacancy. Look outside the organization you're interning with when applying for a full time position.

G-level general service positions and their advantages

G-level positions offer another opportunity to break into the U.N. system. They are often easier to get than P-level jobs. Read more about G-level positions, including salary and benefits here

Short-term/temporary contracts -- 1-3 months, usually to fill in for someone on leave -- are the best way to get a foot in the door at the UN. These positions offer experiences in different departments and the ability to meet with multiple people. Positions are paid on the salary level of the person for whom you are working. Short-term contracts are numerous, as many full-time workers need coverage for holiday time or leave of absence. Once the contract finishes, contacts help find other placements within the organization.  

Getting the first position can be extremely difficult. Search online searches, use personal contacts, or try an in-person search. 
Searching for a G level job in Geneva:

  • Start with the HR department
  • Look in the organization of choice’s directory and contact department heads or any other titles that seem promising
  • If you are onsite, visit the main office of the organization of choice and give a resume and cover letter to the secretary
  • Ask departments for an informal interview
  • Ask anyone and everyone to see if they know positions opening

Geneva Organizations

Below are several websites that list Geneva-based organizations. Research and seek out the contacts to find a desired job or internship.

U.N. Jobs Listings

The resources below provide information about current vacancies and how to obtain employment with the U.N..

Organizations to try that have offices in Geneva

Institut Henry Dunant 
International Commission of Jurists 
International Labor Organization (ILO) 
Comité Internationale de la Croix Rouge (Committee of the Red Cross) 
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 
International Organization for Migration (IOM) 
Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) 
International Trade Center (ITC) 
International Telecommunications Union (ITU) 
U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 
U.N. Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) 
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 
United Nations Office at Geneva (UNO) 
World Health Organization (WHO) 
World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) 
World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

Miscellaneous Tips

  • For secretarial positions that can help get you in the door, have two resumes: one stressing your clerical experience and one stressing what you REALLY want to do. It also helps if you can have both a resume in French and in English.
  • Hone up your language skills. Concentrate on the six official U.N. languages — English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian.
  • To eat cheaply go to the supermarkets just across the border in the French villages - you will save over 50%!


Authors: Peter Keller-Transburg and Karen Mcdonald