10 tips to succeeding at your first job in the field

10 tips to succeeding at your first job in the field

During the last semester of her Master’s degree, Lizzie Falconer spent six months interning at the humanitarian aid and relief NGO Catholic Relief Services in South America. Here, she shares the ten lessons she wished she’d learnt before starting, and recommends to anyone starting a new job. As a bonus: scroll down to see the positions she’s hiring for!


Over the six months of my internship, I worked in three different CRS offices: La Paz, the high-altitude capital of Bolivia; Quito, capital of Ecuador, and Esmeraldas, a small city on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. Three offices in six months means I met dozens of new coworkers every few weeks. I had to adjust to several new office cultures, and adapt my own working style to each unique office environment. It was a crash course in how to be an effective intern, and I made all kinds of mistakes. Here are a few of the key lessons that I wish I would have known before I left grad school:


1. Ask questions, but first, try and Google the answers.
This is a basic, but useful tip. First, become well versed in your organization’s material. If they’ve given it to you: read it. Highlight it. Write questions in the margins. And secondly, look up your bosses and supervisors on LinkedIn. Try to learn as much as you can about who you’re going to work with before you start the job or the project – what did they do before they worked here? What did they study? Where did they grow up and what inspired them to work in this field? Once you’ve done these two things, go ahead and ask questions! Your supervisors know you’re an intern and expect you to have lots of questions, but asking something that was in the material will show them you haven’t really read it, and that isn’t good. Once your work starts and you have a question about the project, before sending an email asking for help, stop and think to yourself: Could I find this answer in a different way? Does Google have the answers? Does one of my colleagues know? Go to them first, and then to your supervisors. You will appear engaged, prepared, and curious.


2. Figure out the power structure at the office.
In grad school I took a class on Network Analysis, a data mapping tool that allows you to look at groups of people and understand who has power, who has influence, and who has the knowledge. Think about your organization this way. Ask yourself: who seems to have influence here? Who has worked here the longest? Who is new? It’s important you understand not only the formal hierarchy of your organization but also the informal: who sits together at lunch? Who arrives the earliest? Who stays the latest? If there are communication difficulties, where and how do they happen? This will help you navigate you way around the organisation, and understand who will be most receptive to questions about your project, or time off, or company culture.

3. Model your e-mail language off those of your colleagues.
Despite having studied the language, I had never learned how to write formal documents in Spanish. For the first few weeks, particularly since I was working entirely in Spanish, I kept a note on my desktop titled, “key phrases” and a list of sentences I liked, taken from my colleague’s e-mails. But this works for English too. Pay attention to how your colleagues talk to each other, and when in doubt: always err on the side of more formal.


4. Don’t e-mail while angry – just wait.
When deadlines are tight , people are tired, and you’re frustrated about something, it’s easy to fire off a quick e-mail you might later regret. Instead, take a deep breath and talk to someone in person, or wait five minutes and rewrite your words.


5. Listen.
Your internship is about learning, and the best way to do this is to watch and listen. Ask if you can sit in on meetings that interest you. Bigger organizations often have webinars or other learning opportunities, make sure to sign up.



6. Eat lunch with your coworkers.
Having lunch with your coworkers shows you’re interested in getting to know them. This is a great chance to find out what a career in this organization looks like, and which roles might suit your own trajectory.


7. Remember personal details about your colleagues.
You want to build rapport with your colleagues, and an easy way to do this is to remember personal details about them. Make a calendar event for birthdays. Write down the name of their children/partner/dog/cat. People appreciate and will remember the extra effort of a birthday card or asking how their child is doing in kindergarten.


8. Show up to meetings prepared
At my office, everyone is always running a million miles an hour. It is rare to get a meeting with a higher-up, and when I do, it might only be for fifteen minutes. Seize this opportunity. Before the meeting, make a list of the three to five questions to which you need answers. Know which ones are the highest priority. If you’re running out of time in the meeting, suggest two options for meeting again according to the other person’s schedule. Speaking in person is always more effective than a meeting invite that gets buried in their email.


9. Take care of yourself.
Despite the long hours you may be working, taking care of yourself needs to be a top priority. This becomes especially important if you’re working on a project that requires you to be in the field often. I make sure I always have probiotics, a full water bottle, Nescafé, a book, and a yoga mat. These five items help me stay physically and emotionally healthy, so I can keep working hard.


10. Try to do your best, but remember: everyone knows you’re an intern.
On my first few projects, whenever I hit a point where I wasn’t sure how to continue, I would freeze up and stare at my computer screen for hours, worrying that I was an incompetent intern and my supervisor would realize she had made a mistake in hiring me. This was the wrong way to handle it. While there are some things you should know (review Tip #1), your supervisor knows you’re an intern and expects you to ask questions. If you feel stuck on an aspect of your project, make a list of questions and then go speak to your supervisor. Their job is to guide and mentor you. An internship is, above all, an opportunity to learn.

I hope you can follow these tips, but also give yourself room to make mistakes. I learned most of these lessons the hard way. A new organization in a new environment is daunting, but as long as you approach it with an open mind, a willingness to work and are eager to learn, you will do just fine. Good luck!


Thank you so much, Lizzie!


Lizzie is hiring a few interns for her team at Catholic Relief Services, to work with her in the Baltimore office this summer. The internships are PAID ($2000/month) and last for two months, but you must be a U.S. citizen or have work authorisation in order to be considered for these roles. If you perform well, you may have the chance for more opportunities at CRS.

Click Here to download application details

This article was originally published by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) on their website, and is reprinted here with kind permission from MIIS and the author herself. All photos courtesy of my dear friend Dallas Cabrices.

7 thoughts on “10 tips to succeeding at your first job in the field”

  • Thank you so much for the tips,though I haven’t gotten any job yet.i would really appreciate if you will recommend NGO jobs for a starter like.i am a nigerian and a graduate of Architecture.thank you

    • Rachael, the best thing you can do is get as much experience on a variety of projects at your stage – in architecture or something related to your area of interest. The more experience you have – even if it’s volunteer or student work – the better you’ll be positioned to apply for and Get paid roles.

  • This article was really informative=thanks! My biggest ongoing frustration is that alot of the roles on international sites are for people that are US Citizens or have the relevant work authorisations. Coming from Australia it makes it quite restrictive to experience and grow in such roles.

    • Totally understand, Natalie! It’s easy to feel that way when you come from X country, that jobs are not available for citizens of your country. All development jobs are funded by donors who like to see their own citizens benefitting from funds (this is about politics, after all), but for positions requiring more qualifications and experience, they generally open applications to any nationality, so you have better chances (in terms of citizenship access) as you get to higher-level roles.

  • Your posts are always inspiring and make me exceptionally different every moment I read them. this is a useful hint not only to interns but to those already working.
    Keep it up Malika.

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