7 tips to consider if you want a career in human rights

On Friday, we shared a list of opportunities and organizations to explore in human rights, in honor of Human Rights Day. However, breaking into this field can be a bit challenging, so we invited Akhila Kolisetty, a law student and blogger who has worked at various human rights organizations, to share a bit about her journey and experiences.

by Akhila Kolisetty

Photo credit: ind{yeah}, Creative Commons/Flickr

I first developed a passion for international development and human rights as an undergraduate at Northwestern, where I studied economics and political science. My time studying development economics in London and working with an international access to justice NGO in Geneva hugely influenced my worldview, convincing me to work at the intersection of access to legal services and women’s rights in the global South. After graduation, I chose to work at a civil rights law firm and also to fundraise for a start-up NGO in Afghanistan that sought to open legal aid clinics promoting rule of law and women’s rights throughout the country.

Having spoken with women and girls in Washington D.C., Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, I’ve noticed the interrelated nature of poverty and violence against women and the impact a passionate legal advocate can have on the lives of the poor. And yet, legal services work remains underfunded in the international development realm. This interest has eventually led me to law school, where I’m hoping to develop the skills to be a better human rights advocate not only through fundraising and running an NGO, but through direct representation of the poor – especially women, girls, and refugees.

Is a career in international human rights for you?

Getting into international human rights can be a challenge; it is a difficult field to enter and can be especially competitive, particularly in today’s economy. In addition, there are many things to consider: how willing are you to travel abroad, live away from your family and friends, acclimate to a completely new and unfamiliar environment, and sometimes live in rough environments? The more flexible you are, and the more passionate you are about living abroad and learning from poor communities, the better chance you’ll have to breaking into this field.  Here are a few tips to help you get started.

1. Volunteer and intern as much as possible

Unpaid internships are essentially a requirement to get into the development and human rights field. Check out a start-up social enterprise’s website and email them offering to contribute something: a social media presence, website development, event planning or grant writing. These things can go a long way for a small NGO! In fact, small organizations can actually be more receptive to your help, and more willing to give you a significant role than large NGOs. At the same time, internships with well-established NGOs can be vital in giving you credibility and valuable experience. Try everything you can to gain experience, skills, references, and a strong sense of what work setting you thrive in.

2. Learn and think critically about development and human rights.

If you’re just starting out in international human rights work, educate yourself! Even if you’re not majoring in international relations, development studies, human rights, or a related subject, you can still learn by reading relevant books (check out works by Bill Easterly, Paul Collier, Dambisa Moyo, and Amartya Sen – among many others) and useful development and human rights blogs (such as A View From the Cave, Chris Blattman, and How Matters). More than anything, I think it’s valuable to think critically about your involvement in international human rights, and about how you can realistically contribute and best make an impact as an outsider in this work.

3. Study or intern abroad as an undergraduate, and learn other languages.

Studying and interning abroad can give you critical “field” or in-country experience that can help you get your first international human rights job. Studying or working abroad can give you a much better sense of the issues facing the country or region you live in, and can also impart valuable language skills. Knowing another language and having the ability to speak thoughtfully about the politics and economics of a region can be a real asset. Spending time abroad will also give you key contacts; maintaining these contacts can help you find a job down the road, or perhaps even apply for programs such as the Fulbright, which allow you to devise your own research project.

4. Learn concrete skills relevant to NGO management.

Most NGOs appreciate skills such as grant writing, fundraising, research and writing, communications, program implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. If you can develop concrete skills in writing grants, hosting fundraising events, researching and writing human rights reports, or marketing organizations effectively through web design and social media, you will be able to contribute concretely to the needs of most non-profit organizations. Learning valuable skills in school – such as strong writing, research, and economic analysis – can also be very useful.

5. Blog, write, and engage in social media.

Personal branding can be useful in the development and human rights field. Starting a blog and contributing your thoughts on human rights and social justice work can be a useful exercise in honing your knowledge, increasing your awareness and understanding of key issues facing your field, and also getting your voice heard. Combining blogging with social media such as Twitter can be extremely useful in making connections that can eventually lead to a job, considering the importance of networking.

6. Have a specific goal if possible, but also be flexible.

Focusing on a specific subject matter area – such as women’s rights, environmental justice, refugee rights, economic development, or post-conflict reconstruction – can be helpful, although it is not necessary. Having an area of focus, however, can allow you to develop particular expertise and knowledge in one area. At the same time, flexibility can go a long way. If you’re willing to take on a lower salary or relocate to a new country or city, for instance, you’ll have a lot more opportunities available to you.

7. Consider graduate school, but be careful about the cost.

I chose to go to law school because of my particular passion for the intersection of law, human rights, and development and my desire to learn direct client representation. A Master’s in International Affairs, an MPP, or even a Ph.D. from a top school can also be helpful in breaking into the field. However, many graduate degrees are extremely expensive, and you should consider carefully whether the degree will be worth the cost.

Ultimately, a career in international human rights can be incredible; it is deeply inspiring and energizing to see grassroots movements, the positive impact of aid and development, and small victories that add up to broader social change and justice. At the same time, it can be truly frustrating and challenging, with constant international travel, time away from family and friends, and the seemingly slow pace of change you want to see happen. Following these tips will help you break into the field – but it’s up to you to decide whether this is the right path for you, and the right way to make an impact!

Akhila Kolisetty

 

Author Bio: Akhila Kolisetty is a first year student at Harvard Law School and a graduate of Northwestern University. She has worked with human rights and legal non-profits in Washington D.C., Chicago, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, and is passionate about issues of gender-based violence, access to justice, and rule of law.

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Comments (4)


  1. Human Rights Day | Services In Action writes:
    December 10, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    [...] you are interested in getting involved, as a volunteer or as a profession, here is a great blog, 7 tips to consider if you want a career in human rights.</p> This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← All We Want [...]


  2. mnstpdu08 writes:
    December 12, 2012 at 12:01 am

    There’s a lot missing from this list. Actually, I don’t think most of it is realistic. If you want a job in the field, you pretty much have to go to grad school. Most organizations require a Master and/or at least 3-5 years of experience. This field is extremely competitive, given the limited positions available, so it’s a disservice to students to foster the belief that if they follow the steps they may obtain a job in the field.


  3. M. writes:
    December 16, 2012 at 3:41 am

    I have to agree with the comment above. Perhaps more doors are open for individuals such as Ms. Kolisetty, who apparently is able to afford to attend schools such as Harvard and do numerous internships around the world. For her, I imagine more doors are open than for the average individual and it seems she doesn’t realize that. She seems to think that most individuals can afford an expensive graduate education or working unpaid in foreign countries. The average individual cannot and will be heavily penalized in terms of being able to get a job in this field.

    As someone who has done numerous unpaid internships and graduated from a much less expensive law school than Harvard with honors (I had to go to a less prestigious school where I was able to get a scholarship. otherwise I would not have been able to afford it) and who speaks numerous foreign languages, I was unable to enter the human rights field. I just didn’t have the bank account to continue to travel to foreign countries or work unpaid (for the umpteenth time) to get the experience that those hiring in the field wanted. If one does not come from a very well-to-do background and cannot afford to work overseas for numerous years unpaid, it is best to find another career. This is truly a career best left to those well-to-do folks who have the financial security to be able to do all the things Ms. Kolisetty suggests.


  4. Akhila writes:
    December 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Dear M, thank you very much for your comment! I regret not addressing your point in the original piece; I was focusing more on concrete tips based on the state of the field, rather than thoughts on whether following these tips is even possible for most people. Unfortunately, you’re absolutely correct and I very much agree with you. Sadly, entering the human rights field (but also, the nonprofit field generally) requires one to do unpaid internships. The injustice of that is definitely clear to me. I hope that more universities institute co-op programs or summer internship stipends (my undergrad provided scholarships/fellowships for students who wanted to do unpaid internships, which I was lucky to benefit from), but unfortunately many universities do not have such funding available. Furthermore, the funding wasn’t always enough to work abroad.

    However I would like to say that it is still possible to afford a graduate school in some situations. I have to take out loans but many law schools have good loan repayment programs; this is the only way I’m able to take on this huge debt. If I choose to work in government or non-profits, I don’t have to pay back most of my loans, depending on my salary. Furthermore, my law school gives me summer funding to do unpaid internships. Unfortunately, once again, I absolutely recognize that many law/graduate schools don’t have good loan repayment programs/summer funding. It is definitely a matter of luck/privilege and whether you’re able to go to a school with 1) scholarships; 2) funding; 3) loan repayment programs. Yet as the above poster pointed out: the irony is that graduate degrees are probably necessary for many jobs in the development/human rights field. It’s really an individualized situation: some may be able to afford it, some may not and will have a harder time getting into the field. I just wanted to note that everything you said is very true and a sad consequence of the structure of the human rights field (and I’m very lucky to at least be able to intern in the field). Thank you for your comments.


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