Reader career question 01: Eradicating poverty with a PhD and/or UN job?

One of the numerous advantages of the blog is that I do receive interesting career- and study-related questions from readers around the globe.
With their permission I will publicize some of the queries and share my nuggets of wisdom from my response...comments and further questions welcome!

I would be grateful if you can advise me on my dilemma.

I’m (from a Middle Eastern country) 33 years old banker with excellent experiences in investment banking and credit risk. I have always been disturbed by the extreme inequality and poverty in the underdeveloped world but unfortunately I haven’t had any opportunity to join a development agency. I looked for a connecting point where my professional experience in the financial sector and my interest in development can meet. So I earned an MSc in Development Finance (…) in 2012. I enjoyed the debates on the development very much and I produced excellent essays during my study. Again, the degree hasn’t helped me to find a development career. So I’m considering seriously doing a PhD in the UK as an endeavour to achieve my dream to join one of the UN development agencies or even join the academic field.

What do you think given that I haven’t got any practical experience in development?
Dear (name),

Thanks for your message. This is indeed an interesting dilemma.

I can see four issues in your query that are not necessarily related or mutually exclusive.

1. Working in banking for 'development': With your background in banking and finance you could try to work for development-related issues. Microfinance, saving groups cooperate banking-there are a lot of bank and companies that are interested in new customers in developing countries. UN work or a PhD may not be the best route to achieve sustainable social impact.

2. Engaging with inequality and poverty 'at home'. As much as I can understand your international ambitions, I wonder whether there is an option for you to work from/in (your country) on development-related issues. This could even be with an international organization, but also with smaller organizations to get to know the realities 'on the ground better'. UN work, a PhD and banking expertise may not be necessary, but the latter could be useful.

3. Working for the UN vs. eradicating poverty. While there is nothing wrong with a wish to pursue a career with the UN, I am a bit skeptical as to whether it would really fulfill your development ambitions. And with your background in banking, the World Bank or IMF could even be better options for a career in international organizations (the reader clarified that he had received a scholarship from an IFI and was now barred from applying (which probably deserves an additional post…).
Again, the three other issues are not really related to this issue. Right now, the UN system is more competitive than ever and every job advertisement will receive hundreds of responses from qualified candidates.

4. A PhD as career turbo. Unless it is in a very quantitative and specialised field of development economics, a PhD in Development is unlikely to be the career boost you are hoping for. All of the three issues above are perfectly feasible without a PhD and the value for money of this investment is questionable.

I think you need to clarify your career ambitions further. All of them are legitimate, professional choices, but it depends whether you are planning to make a 'difference' in the field or opt for a career in development bureaucracy (an MBA or professional degree from a U.S. university may be more suitable) or even academia (the long, painful road of a PhD plus turning it into a career).

I hope this is still helpful. Don't hesitate to ask further questions!

Warmest regards,


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