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United Nations career insight

uczjsdd27 September 2021

Dr. Sunday Leonard has a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from UCL and is now a Programme Management Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme. Sunday kindly told us about his career journey and offered tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path. As Sunday graduated during the credit crunch, he also offered insights for those graduating into an uncertain economic climate.

Tell us about your current role

I work in Washington D.C. for the United Nations Environment Programme – UNEP. My role entails providing scientific and technical advice to project implementers and policymakers on how to make our environment better. In my current role, I work in the Secretariat of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) to the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The GEF is a fund established to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. It provides funds to developing countries to enable them to invest in nature and support the implementation of global environmental agreements including on biodiversity, climate change, chemicals, and desertification. The STAP provides independent scientific and technical advice to the GEF on its policies, strategies, programs, and projects, and also brings the latest scientific knowledge on environmental issues into the GEF Partnership, thereby keeping it up-to-date. I’m often working on new science-policy reports – for example, I just finished a report on the circular economy and climate change – to help guide the GEF to implement circular economy projects that can deliver climate change mitigation benefits and deliver transformational environmental change.

What’s the UN recruitment process like?

In the UN system, we have different staff categories including general service, national professional officers, field service, and professional and higher categories.  I am in the professional category. The  UN does not usually use CVs, instead, we use a Personal History Profile – PHP. You fill in your work, education, and personal information online to generate a PHP. It’s quite like a CV but with more set descriptions. In addition to the PHP, you’ll also have to submit a cover letter for the particular position. You will also need to answer some screening questions regarding required and desired qualifications, experience, and skills for the position you are applying for before submitting your application. These are usually “yes or no” questions and with written text to support your answer if yes. If you answer “no” to a required question, your application will not be screened further.

After the submission of your PHP and cover letter, your application is reviewed against relevant skills for the job. Long-listed candidates will usually be invited to undertake a written test. This can take different formats. I’ve seen written tests that are objective questions, but most of the time they are very time-limited technical essay questions. I’ve also encountered a test where I was given 72 hours to draft a concept note. The written test shows the recruiter your understanding of the technical issues related to the position. If you make it through that stage there is the competency-based interview, where you’re asked questions based on the competencies relevant to the role. If you do well there, assuming your references check out, you could be offered the job. In some instances where there are more candidates deemed qualified, the best candidate will be offered the position, and the rest may be “rostered”. It’s possible that when another similar position arises, a manager could select someone from the roster rather than having to go through that recruitment process again.

How did you move from your Ph.D. to your current role?

I went straight from undergrad to masters to Ph.D. with no break in between. So towards the end of my Ph.D.,  I was already tired of being in the academic environment and I was hoping to work outside academia, and my initial goal was to work in an Oil and Gas company. I interviewed with several companies, including BP and Shell. I received an offer from Shell, but for various reasons in the long run it didn’t work out. When I started looking elsewhere, things had become difficult due to the 2008/09 financial crisis; lots of graduate programmes were shutting down.

After seeing it wasn’t working out in the private sector I started applying for research post-docs, and I got one at the University of Greenwich. I did that for a year, while still applying for external roles.

I had a grad school friend who was already working at UNEP and he encouraged me to apply. When I looked at UN positions, I didn’t see how I was qualified. I had been working in the lab, training to be quite a technical engineering graduate, and UNEP focused much more on policy. But with his encouragement, I found a position I thought I could struggle to modify my CV to fit. It was a lot of work because the job was asking for applied experience and a history of influencing policy. I had to think about the policy aspect of my Ph.D. work, and the transferable skills I’d gained during grad school, and modify my CV to be convincing, at least to be shortlisted. And getting shortlisted at the UN is a big deal. After getting the role, I later discovered that more than a thousand people applied for my position, so for me to even be invited to the next stage was a big achievement. I passed the written test and competency-based interview, and I started with UNEP in January 2011 in Nairobi, where the organisation is headquartered. I moved to the Paris office on promotion in 2015, before moving to the Washington D.C. office in 2017.

How did graduating into the last recession impact your career path?

On a practical level, I had to stay for a further year in academia, and I ended up on a different path than I might otherwise have been on. But more than that, it was a very discouraging period. When I started getting responses saying we cannot go ahead with you or with the recruitment process because of the recession, it felt demoralising. But I told myself I couldn’t let it get to me, and that I needed a role, for now, to give me the space to strategise, so I pivoted back to focus on academia, and I just kept trying, and I kept my options very open – applying to a range of role types and locations. The post-doc role really gave me the financial stability and space to calm down and assess my options and think about what I wanted to do. And in the end, at the time I was offered the UN role, I also had two other offers, one in Canada and the other in the UK. So the persistence and flexible attitude worked for me.

What does a normal day look like for you?

With COVID we have a new definition of “normal”: I’ve not been to the office for a year and seven months now. Everything is being done online, but the good thing is we’re still getting things done. In general, a typical day might involve a technical task, where I’m researching the literature or horizon-scanning for knowledge that needs to be applied. It could mean I’m drafting a report or a research article, and I do actually still publish journal articles as we want our knowledge to benefit the scientific community. Or I could be designing or delivering a presentation. I also might be doing administrative tasks, like being involved in recruiting and interviewing people for consultant or other positions. My past roles have also involved managing budgets. And there are lots of meetings – I’m always meeting with people to get perspectives from policymakers and so on. One important aspect, before COVID, was also travelling, meeting stakeholders, attending conferences or conventions related to my field.

What are the best bits?

The best bit is definitely seeing your work have an impact on decisions and policymaking. In contrast to typical academia, where you’re researching in the lab to get it published, often in the hope that in combination with lots of other research there will be a great impact in the future, in the UN you’re dealing with real-life immediate situations, which is very interesting. For example, in my first year in the UN, I was part of the team that developed two reports on hydrofluorocarbons, ozone depletion, and short-lived climate pollutants. The findings of the reports were influential to the creation of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (which I ended up working for in Paris), which aimed to promote the identified solutions in the report. When you see policymakers making an intervention based on a report you helped put together, you know your work is actually effecting a real-life solution to a real-world problem.

What are the challenges?

In the UN there aren’t many “fresh grad” positions. Most positions require experience, so it can be challenging to enter without policy experience, and if you make it in it can be difficult to navigate the system. Another challenge is that in the UN promotion is mostly via a competitive process. This means if I want to move – like when I moved from Kenya to Paris, on promotion – it’s not like someone just assessed me as an employee, saw I was doing well, and promoted me, which is a process that can happen in many commercial companies, and even within post-doc roles in academia. Instead, you must look for a vacant position and apply for it in competition with many other people. Sometimes this means you have to be very flexible to move ahead. If I had for example not wanted to leave Kenya, it would have limited my chances to move ahead. I’ve had to be open to moving to where the positions are available – Paris and Washington D.C.

Also, things don’t move as fast as they do in academia, and you’re not as autonomous. When I was in academia, I woke up, decided what I wanted to tackle, and did it. But there are many other factors at play when decisions are being made in large organisations like the UN, and if you’ve been in academia for a long time, that can be frustrating. None of these things are problems, but people should be aware of them when entering the system.

Did you need your Ph.D. to get your position?

A Masters degree is generally the minimum qualification for most professional UN positions, or an undergrad plus two years relevant work experience (in lieu of the masters degree). So a Ph.D. was not required for my position, although I’ve seen positions advertised where it states that having a relevant Ph.D. is an advantage.

However, although it wasn’t asked for when I first applied, I believe my Ph.D. was one of the advantages that led to me getting shortlisted in the first place. And many of the skills I acquired during my Ph.D. have been very useful, not only in navigating the interview process but also in doing the actual job. For example, when I faced the written test during the recruitment process, the question I was asked was not something I could have had a ready-made answer for. But as a Ph.D. I knew how to do my research. In one hour I was supposed to respond with my answer, and I was able to do my research and writing on this unfamiliar topic – and not plagiarise in the process – convincingly enough to pass the written test. In the job itself, project management skills are key – and that’s one of the most important skills people develop during a Ph.D., even if they don’t realise it!  Experience of working in teams and written and oral communication skills, all of which were sharpened during my Ph.D., have also helped me in my role.

What’s the progression like?

As I mentioned, you have to apply for vacancies competitively to progress. But in the UN Secretariat, there are certain rules about progression. For example, at my current level, I must move laterally at this level before being eligible to apply for positions at the next level. It’s part of the administrative process of the UN; they want to see you’ve acquired a range of experiences and an understanding of the organisation.

The next position up for me is Senior Programme Officer. The good thing is that within the UN there are several opportunities to move and be trained, which can help you learn and progress. My goal is to move to that higher level, which may mean I have to acquire new skills. I may need training in relevant fields or management to improve my chances. It’s not unusual that to move higher you have to pick up new skills, but progression can be easier within some private or public sector organisations compared to the UN, which is something people need to consider when deciding where they’d like to work.

At the senior position, there’s more management responsibility, and you’re also dealing with people at the very top levels. If you’re at the Director level, for example, you may be talking to top government officials, and there are many challenges; countries can object to certain recommendations, and you need to be politically savvy to deal with that. So that’s very different from me looking at the science and putting policy recommendations together based on it. Convincing countries and leaders to actually make those changes needs a different skill-set.

What are your top tips for our researchers?

  • Assess the skills needed in the role ahead of you, and learn to recognise and sell those you’ve gained in your Ph.D./post-doc. These might include being able to research a variety of things, being able to understand, interpret, and present data, communication skills, and project management skills. And if you don’t have some of the skills needed already, proactively seek experiences that will build them. The Ph.D. years are the perfect time to volunteer or take classes. When I was in UCL, I took a course on business at London Business School and that was useful. There may be opportunities to take training courses free or cheaply while you’re a student, and you may never be more autonomous than you are in academia, so take advantage of that.
  • If you’re still doing research, try to direct it toward the interest of your desired job/organization. If you’re interested in business, direct your research to more of a business or commercial angle. If I’d known my future direction, I would have spent more time looking at the policy implications of my Ph.D.
  • Consider internships and volunteering in your field of interest. As I mentioned, you need work experience for most UN roles, my first position in the UN required 5 years of work experience. I combined my Ph.D. years at UCL, my work experience before starting my Masters, plus my one year at the University of Greenwich – which added up to 6 years of work experience. If you don’t meet the work experience criteria, you can’t be long-listed for a UN position. So take up internships and volunteering positions to accrue work experiences and build your skills.
  • Learn to write for a non-academic audience. In the UN, I need to prepare documents that busy policymakers can quickly understand, so the language has to be simple, concise, and persuasive.
  • In most positions – not just in the UN – employers are more comfortable hiring people they know to have the desired skill-set for the job, especially if they come by referral. They’re less of a risk. And networking provides you with useful insights and information, and the opportunity to be referred. So take opportunities to network with people through conferences, meetings related to the UN, and go to industrial-focused talks, seminars, conferences, etc. where you’ll meet people from outside of academia too.
  • Study industrial trends – whatever industry you’re interested in. That will be useful for you in interviews and on the job.
  • Be prepared you may not be treated as “special” compared to undergrad or Master’s colleagues. For most non-academic positions out there, an undergraduate or Master’s degree may be enough to get the job, so you may start on the same salary as new graduates. But the skills you have will speak for you later on and should help you move upwards. At first, though, you must keep an open mind.

 

Any specific tips for researchers navigating an uncertain economic climate?

My main tip is to be flexible. Things may not go exactly how you had hoped due to factors beyond your control. You may need to take positions available to you for now, and you can use that as a stepping stone to your next stage. It may take a little longer to get where you were hoping to go, and it may be frustrating to settle for “less” originally, but try to concentrate on getting a foot in the door of the industry you’re aiming at, and then see how you can navigate the system from there.