Once upon a time, I was an intern at United Nations headquarters in New York. Back in the spring of 2010 in fact. I wrote about the experience on this site, and didn’t really actually finish documenting it (story of my life). However, it seems there is still a demand for information about the internship programme, considering the amount of emails and comments I get receive.
I’ve kept this here more for posterity than anything else. I’m sure there is much more up to date and relevant information does exist now on the internet.
But anyway, below are some frequently asked questions regarding the internship programme that were relevant at the time I did the internship (2010).
Keep in mind, they’re answered from my own perspective and are not intended to be definitive answers. I’ve provided some answers to questions that keep cropping up, but if you have a specific question, leave a comment on the post and I’ll try to get around to addressing it. You can also catch me on Twitter. Naturally, comments are moderated, so play nice. Inappropriate language or aggressive trolling will be discouraged.
*Editorial disclaimer #1* Keep in mind – I do not work for the UN nor am I affiliated with the internship program in any way. I’ll re-emphasise: these are practical tips that I’ve formulated based on my own experience of doing a ten week internship at UN headquarters in New York. UN documentation, including internship documentation, will trump anything I’ve mentioned here. The intention of this guide is to simply give you a reassuring and dynamic resource as well as insight into life as an intern at the UN.
*Editorial disclaimer #2* – Inspira – Since I completed my internship, the UN have moved to an online application system called Inspira (or the UN’s careers portal) (here’s a link to how to use Inspira). I haven’t used this system so I cannot answer questions regarding how to apply using this system. If someone out there has some helpful comments on using this system, please get in contact and I’ll put them up here.
Who am I? Well, read about me here.
- Why do an internship?
- What do you do in an internship?
- What qualifications do you need?
- How do I apply for an internship and what tips can you give me on applying?
- What happens in the selection process?
- How many applications are received and how many interns get accepted each session?
- How do I ensure I intern in a department or area I’m interested in?
- What departments offer internships?
- What are the alternatives?
- How long does an internship last?
- How much work does one do on an average day?
- What are the costs of an internship?
- Can I get funding?
- How much should I budget for accommodation?
- Where should I get accomodation?
- What visa do I need?
- Need a further question answered?
- Comments from others, former and current interns and the like
- Other resources
Well, why not? The United Nations is pretty much the jewel in the crown for students of international relations, international development, or international humanitarian law. It is a great water-cooler topic of conversation. It is something that will make all your friends jealous.
I can tell you this, if you’re thinking about applying, it is worth the expense if only for being able to spend a few months in New York, quite possibly the greatest city on the planet.
Internships can be valuable experience for those about to enter the work force. One can learn much about the office environment and the daily pressures of working for large bureacratic institution. There are, of course, some office politics, but I was fortunate enough to work in a great team. I did, however, hear a few horror stories from other interns. Rest assurred, it is possible to change departments should it not work out (though chances of success are unknown).
Many people do internships under the impression that it looks good on the CV. As I said, working at the UN may make you the envy of your friends but do not expect it to land you a job, either within the IR field or within the UN.
It varies. You may find yourself doing administrative work, compiling reports, providing recommendations, running errands, attending meetings, taking meeting minutes. It really depends on the demands of your supervisor or the particular department. With reference to my own experience, I assisted with peacekeeping training documentation, copy-editing, as well as provided specialist IT assistance.
Do not expect to spend your internship hanging with Ban-Ki Moon, being called in to provide expert advice at the Security Council, nor solve all dilemmas on the Korean peninsula.
Outside of the formal ‘work’, many things intern activities do occur. You can get involved in the various intern committees that the internship department sets up. These committees do things like organise visits to the various national missions to the UN, organise social or sports events, publish an intern paper talking about events at the UN or places to eat or drink or even stories from specific interns.
During my time, I was head of the sports committee and help publish the intern newsletter and it was a very rewarding experience, mostly because I got to know many of my fellow interns.
You’re also usually permitted to attend many of the conferences, meetings and other open forums that occur in UN headquarters. I was once lucky to get the opportunity to attend an open UN Security Council discussion on violence in Palestine as well as a NGO-organised discussion on nuclear weapons (it was organised by ICAN and was very interesting because it preceded the review of the NPT treaty in 2010).
To be an intern, you must be enrolled in a university or higher education degree as a student. Typically those who intern either are studying their masters or are doing a relevant PhD. You must be doing postgraduate work to intern (i.e not undergraduate).
However, the backgrounds of interns is highly varied. I met interns who had backgrounds in international relations, international development, humanitarian law, business studies, information technology, geography, communications and even architecture.
Unfortunately, it seems that being unemployed or simply being interested in the field doesn’t cut it. Sad face.
As I said, you must be a student to get an internship. Unemployed doesn’t cut it. Every now and then, typically three to four times a year, the UN advertise the internships on their jobs board. You will have to go through the motions, create a ‘personal history profile’ with all your relevant details, skills, education and work history, and draft a cover note to attach to your application.
One thing that pays to bear in mind is that the majority of people applying for UN interns will probably have skills in, or are studying, degrees like law or politics or international relations or development. If you’re doing those, you’re going to have to emphasise not only your skills in these areas but also your other skills.
In my instance, while I studied a degree in international relations, I also had a degree in history and information technology and five years experience in database systems. Therefore, I could emphasise these skills in addition to my knowledge of international relations.
The key to making a good application, I believe, is to emphasise skills that will help you in a general office and administrative area because, in many ways, that’s probably what you will be doing.
The intern department will send around a pool of applicants to various departments and teams within the UN who have expressed interest in having an intern. These teams then peruse the intern list, decide a shortlist and then approach the potential candidates.
In some cases, you will do an interview, typically over the phone. This doesn’t happen in all cases, however I did a phone interview and fortunately passed!
I’m told there is over 3,000 applications for each session of which around 250 are accepted at different stages of each session. So success rate is below 10%.
That shouldn’t discourage you though. I applied to the programme twice, and got it on the second go. Actually, I got offered three internships on the second go. So miracles can happen.
Short answer – there are no guarantees. You may be offered multiple internships at different stages of the process As I said, I got offered at least three at different stages including two very interesting ones after I accepted my first offer – but that’s the luck of the draw!. Each offer could be correlated to my specific skills in areas such as IT and procurement rather than my university marks or interest in international relations.
My advice is, if you are offered an internship that is of at least some interest, TAKE IT. You most probably will not be offered another one.
If you are trying to get into a specific department, I do not really have an answer other than to research key people and perhaps see if you can approach them. However, You will still have to go through the whole application process.
Any department may request an intern and many do. My memory fails me, but I do recall that the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) usually gets a large chunk of the intern intake. I worked in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) which also seemed to take a large number of interns. The Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) also had many lawyer types interning.
Missed out on UN internship? Don’t fret! There are other often more interesting options!
There are lots of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) based in and around UN Headquarters. They often do very valuable work in conjunction with the UN and are sometimes even much further advance on particular issues than relevant departments within the organisation. Often interns at NGOs get to a lot more exciting things like lobbying diplomats or organising international conferences on specific issues. You might consider approaching them.
There are also internships available at the various national missions to the UN. These may be of interest.
Typically, the UN asks you to do a minimum of ten weeks. It is also very common for people to extend their internships and you shouldn’t be surprised if your supervisor or your department asks you. So if you’re really keen, you may want to make allowances for this possibility.
Most departments don’t expect interns to do more work than the average working week. You’re looking at a usual 9-5 day job. Although I know of certain Norwegians who worked outrageous hours 🙂
As long as you ask in advance, your supervisor is usually more than happy to give you a reasonable amount of time off to go to interesting things in and around the UN secretariat.
Keep in mind that you’re an intern. Not a slave. You’re paying a lot of money to get to the UN so, therefore, you want to maximise your enjoyment of the experience. But also, there is an agreement in principle not to abuse the priveleges of being an intern so requests to go hang out in the Security Council chamber every day probably won’t be looked on favourably.
As far as I know, the UN do not pay interns. I’ve heard rumours of external funding, but do not count on this. No one I knew in the programme got outside funding. Everyone was entirely self-funded, including me.
Living in New York is costly. Very costly. Particularly if you like to socialise. Your costs will include flights, food, accommodation, social activities and transport around the city.
The life of an intern is incredibly social, so you should make allowances for ‘doing things’ – whether that’s going to attractions, eating out, bar hopping, or simply having lunch out with your fellow interns.
Seriously, don’t bank on funding. As I said above, the UN don’t pay interns. I didn’t know a single intern who had received funding when I was there. I wouldn’t even know where to start to try get funding. Be 100% prepared to rely on your own funds.
Accommodation varies but typically budget up to $1,500 USD a month should be enough. I lived in midtown Manhattan for $1050 a month in a two bedroom apartment which was a good deal.
The internship programme director usually gives you a great accommodation list. Look through that in detail. I do not recommend using Craigslist. I had a bad experience as did many other interns I met. Best to avoid.
If you’re desperate, you might try roomarama.com.
The UN Secretariat is in midtown Manhatten, not far from Grand Central. Therefore, living on Manhatten is probably ideal. I was lucky enough to live a few blocks away, but living that close is largely unrealistic. Many live in Brooklyn, some in Queens. One (crazy) intern lived at the other end of Long Island and commuted in. Most places in Manhatten are expensive to live in. Harlem seems a good choice for those wanting cheaper accommodation. Many interns end up living here. Living in the Bronx or further north will mean an hour+ commute via subway.
In hindsight, if I was going back to intern, I’d love to live in East Village or Lower East Side. Lots of cool stuff happens here.
Probably the most common question asked by any potential intern.
Unless you’re a US citizen, you’re most probably going to need to get a visa to enter the country. We all know the UN is international territory, but unless you’re planning to arrive via helicopter into the UN Secretariat and camping hobo style on the front lawn, you’re most likely have to enter the United States of Barack Obama.
Visas are a bit of a minefield. My best answer is “whatever the US embassy in your country of residence says you need”. Many come in on the 90 Day Visa Waiver programme available to certain nationals. You have to pre-register with the US embassy for this and it can be done online.
My visa story? I decided it was worth the time and money to get a B2 tourist visa. This meant I had to fill and application form online, provide passport photos, fly to Sydney (where the US embassy is located in Australia) to do a quick interview and give them my passport so they could attach the visia to it.
If you chose to do it in a similar manner, you should give yourself a lot of time to sort this out. As soon as you’re confirmed as an intern, get visa’ing. It would be pretty bad to turn up at JFK without a suitable visa and the immigration official denying you entry.
Getting a longer visa (like the B2) is essential if you’re making plans to extend your internship. If you only plan to stay the 10 weeks, perhaps visa waiver is the best.
With regards to the above, do not take my word as gospel. The US embassy is the ultimate authority on US visas so get in contact with them.
If you leave a constructive comment below, I’ll do my best to answer with reference to what limited information I have. I also use twitter fairly regularly.
Please don’t email me or leave comments like ‘can you look over my application’ because, I can tell you now, it won’t happen!
Also, if you’ve been an intern and want to add to, expand, or correct any of the above, feel free to also comment or contact me via twitter.
Best of luck!
Some have graciously contributed further insight. Here is a selection of messages I have received regarding the FAQ.
Noemi from the UN Interns LinkedIn group wrote in:
I interned at the UN secretariat for 4 months and had a pretty similar experience. I have a few things to add.
- The average length of an internship is 3 months that can be extended to a maximum of 6 months. You basically begin in the department that accepted you, but you can look to change the department you intern once you’re at the UN. I was in the Dept of Public Information and was constantly asking for an internship with the Office of legal affairs and I got one in the end. You just have to send emails with your CV to the different departments you’re interested in. It is best to finish your initial internship first and then look for a new one for the rest of your time permitted at the UN. If after 6 months you still have the money and the disposition to intern. Legally you aren’t allowed but you can ask to be a volunteer, or you can work with NGO’s or your country’s mission to the UN. When I was there I finished my internship with DPI got my internship at the OLA department and then asked for one at my country’s mission to the UN. There are a lot of options for you guys to intern there. The hardest thing is to get hired by them.
- Interning at the UN does in no case guarantees you will be hired by the UN after your internship in fact there is a rule you cannot be a hired as a professional at the UN for 6 months after the end of your internship. The exception is G-level positions – that is executive assistant work or consultant positions that are temporary. They most likely expect you to have at least 5 year of professional experience in the field of the job posting. Basically they appreciate our work but pretty much will not hire us after, which is fair thinking of how many interns go through the UN in the three sessions of internships they have per year (around 750) so it would be hard for them to hire all of as. Anyways don’t go there thinking you’re going to get a job there it most likely not going to be the one in a thousand that gets hired, but it helps with working in some other places.
- Third and final thing I want to add is that the only way to control which department you might end up is to focus your cover letter towards the area of interest you have. If you’re interested in journalism and you want to work for UN Radio, talk in your cover letter about your passion for journalism, radio and so on. This is just an example but I’m sure you guys catch my drift. The only way to get to where you want to go is RESEARCH – do research on the issues your desired department is doing now, main news in the department, possible outside organisations they collaborate with and develop some experience related to those issues, or organisations the more your education extracurricular activities fit in with the department the more chances you will have to get asked to intern for them. Know what you want, do your homework and you will get it.
Best of luck,
A commenter, Isabel, asked in April 2011:
Hello! Thanks for the FAQ, very helpful!
I am interested in applying for the UN Office in Viena, as I am researching crime and UNODC is based there. They don’t have a deadline for applications, and I suppose the process is pretty much the same, maybe less competitive, as there may be less applications than to NY. What do you think?
A friend of mine and former student colleague of mine, Michael Addicott, is presently interning at the UN in Vienna. He had the following helpful advice.
The UNODC in Vienna does not impose deadlines as they take a steady stream of interns all year round. On any given week, you will find new interns about the offices.
My advice is ensure you are thorough with your application. From the other interns I have met, each department takes their interns based on that interns experience, be it professional or academic.
I am doing my internship with the corruption and economic crimes branch due to my Masters course and work experience in banking.
If you are researching crime, I would be very specific about the areas of crime that interest you the most, and the reasons why they interest you.
There was no interview process for mine. It was a case of the department I am in coming forward and requesting an intern, then the intern coordinators find the most suitable candidates. So your task in the application is to make yourself the most suitable candidate for the department you are most interested in. Be sure that your references are informed of your application, because they WILL get an email asking them to fill out a form about you and your suitability. You are likely to be contacted about an internship before your references are though.
I can’t shed any light on the number of applicants they take. I do know, however, that they maintain a database for a year or so of potential applicants, so I would imagine they would receive quite a few, particularly from Europe.
I received an offer approximately a month or two after my application was submitted. If you don’t receive anything within 3-6 months, I would suggest applying again. From what I hear around the office, most departments take interns at least once a year, so keeping yourself at the forefront should eventually get you seen if your application is suitable.
I hope this is some sort of help and that you do end up getting an internship in Vienna.
Harvard University have a interesting Insider’s Guide to United Nations Jobs and Internships that looks to be a great resource.
Another great discussion thread on internships is located here under the heading “Why the (UN) internship should be unpaid”.