What I wish I’d known… Thomas Byrnes

Food-Security-MalawiIt was a pleasure to host Emergency Overseas Aid Worker and SOAS alumni Thomas Byrnes as part of our ‘What I wish I wish I’d known…’ series. Thomas shared his fascinating insights and experiences gained during five years working for NGOs as a Food Security and Livelihood Emergency Specialist, managing projects in Palestine, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Syria, Philippines, South Sudan and Pakistan.

A key message from Thomas was that persistence, proactivity and more persistence are crucial to entering the international development field. This is reflected in his own career path, working his way up from intern to senior manager.

Whilst an undergraduate at the University of Kent (Intl Politics & Intl Relations, BA), Thomas co-initiated ‘UNICEF on Campus’ – a project raising funds on campus for UNICEF. It was through a contact he made at UNICEF during this project that he found an internship position in Ghana. After graduation he headed to Vietnam to teach English. Here, he made the most of opportunities and also volunteered helping Vietnamese orphans. After these experiences overseas he was passionate about ‘changing the world’ and wanted to get involved at a structural level. Realising that postgraduate qualifications are essential for working in the NGO sector, Thomas joined us at SOAS and gained a Masters in Development Studies.

In terms of job hunting, Thomas had some key advice: “Keep applying! Keep emailing! Email until they say ‘Please don’t email us any more’”. Advertised jobs receive such a high number of responses from applicants, that it may be that your application gets filtered as reaching the requirements yet not actually get read due to the high numbers of applications received. Thomas first got a role through his persistence with Acted, the French NGO. He applied for every opportunity they advertised over two months. He was interviewed for a position in Pakistan, and received an email saying he wasn’t suitable. He emailed straight back with a suggestion: “What about the position in Sri Lanka?”. And they agreed! Essentially, the people carrying out the recruitment process are very busy, solutions help them too.

The essential value of contacts, networks and LinkedIn was also a key message. Research is crucial when making applications, and contacts can be a huge source of information and advice. Don’t ask directly for a job, ask about them, ask how they got where they are, and you can learn a lot of valuable insights. 90% of the jobs in the Aid sector are not advertised online. Volunteering and internships are a great way to gain essential skills and experience, they are also a fantastic way to make useful industry contacts.

What are the biggest challenges?

Having to make really tough decisions. For example, digging a well is undoubtedly a positive thing: clean water will reduce the mortality rate in the under 5s by 80%. When we are investigating 10 villages and building 1 well, however, we are having to choose between people and make decisions that will affect their lives and their childrens lives. There is always a trade off, we’re always working with ‘just enough’, we can never help everyone. We give just enough food that will mean people wont die, but they will still be hungry.

What do you enjoy most?

Knowing that we have delivered tangible benefits for people, which is really satisfying. It is a tough day, standing for 8 hours in a food distribution centre in a refugee camp, but at the end of the day I know in a very real way that 30,000 people now have food because of me.


Thomas is happy to share his valuable insights and experiences with SOAS students, he can be contacted on LinkedIn. He also gave a wealth of information about working overseas for NGOs, which will be shared in a blog post to follow.

Alice Moon, Careers Consultant


Who is influencing your career ideas?

What I wish I’d known: Jan Wilkens (MSc Middle East Politics 2012)

Who is influencing your career ideas?  For Jan Wilkens, currently working and studying for a PhD at the University of Hamburg, the support and encouragement of academic staff plus insights from work experience has had a great impact.

As an undergraduate, Jan really enjoyed his classes on International Relations and was able to get a part time job as a Student Assistant in a research team working for the Professor in this subject.  He supported the team through assisting with research but also taught first year students as a seminar assistant.  This experience, combined with the encouragement from his Professor, began to make him think about an academic career. Whilst studying for an MSc in Middle East Politics at SOAS his dissertation supervisor encouraged him to apply for a PhD as the next step towards working in academia.  Jan chose to go back to Germany to do this for a number of reasons including availability of funding. He was able to secure a job which also enables him to study for a PhD, back at the University of Hamburg with the research group headed by his former Professor.

Jan feels that his current role provides him with very valuable work experience for the future. In addition to teaching, researching and writing applications for grants, he is a project manager for a large scale research project which involves coordinating the research of 8 academics. This significant insight into the ‘business’ of research, how systems work, the politics and funding have helped to confirm his interest in  an academic career as well as providing some solid evidence to include in Post-Doctoral applications. And just in case you wondered if he could fit anything else, he is working on a book project and, oh yes, his PhD as well!

Jan is realistic about his future and acknowledges that sometimes no matter how well prepared PhDs are for moving into a Post-Doc position, funding may not be available so the practical project management skills which he is acquiring now along with his other work experience can be transferred to other roles outside of research.

Work experience can also help you decide what you don’t want to do.  Jan interned on a project with refugees for part of the UNHCR in Syria during his undergraduate degree. Whilst he gained a very useful insight into how an international organisation works and developed further valuable skills including project management, it also helped him realise that this wasn’t the sector in which he wished to work.

So what are Jan’s tips for current students thinking about a PhD and beyond?

  • You don’t necessarily need to go straight onto a Masters after completing your Bachelor’s degree and could use the intervening time to get some valuable of experience related to your future career or area of study. Jan felt that it might be more difficult for students to go onto work after their Masters course then return to study for a PhD.  From his perspective, the intensity of the Masters level study really creates a momentum that can carry through into the Phd and having a break from this along with, perhaps a good salary, from employment, might make the return to being a student more of a challenge.
  • Think carefully about why you want to do a PhD. You may have a real passion and interest in your subject but how will the qualification fit with your long term plans? Don’t use it simply as a way of postponing decisions about your future.
  • Competition is tough for academic and Post-Doctoral positions so start building your portfolio of experience during your PhD, for example, working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant.

Claire Rees

What I wish I’d known: The Alumni Perspective

Our alum at today’s ‘What I wished I’d known’ was Sam Mayer. Sam has held analytical, managerial and executive roles in various development organisations including the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Columbian University’s Earth Institute and Grassroots Soccer. He is a leader in the ‘Sport for the development sector’. Sam received his MSc in Development Economic from SOAS in 2007 and now lives in New York. He currently works as a fundraiser, raising funds for Grassroots Soccer, an organisation that using football to engage and motivate young people.

Sam enjoyed his time at SOAS. He encourages students to try to get some work experience, whether paid or volunteering. This will give you some good networks and help you develop your skills. It would also give you some insights into how organisations work and help you decide what sort of work you want to do in the future.

One of the benefits of getting work experience for Sam was that he was able to explore the different aspects of his interests and experience. He was particularly interested in how the public and private sector can work together to impact change in the society. This led him to work in project management, doing analytical work in the real estate sector and then travelling to Africa to work on development projects.

His key advice is for students to imagine themselves five years from now and think strategically about the sort of work they will like to be doing. Whatever the work might be; now is the time to get the skills and experience needed for that job.

Diana Omololu

How to get a job, SOAS style…

by Steve Lipscombe, SOAS Alumnus, now working for the BBC, who participated in the mock interview workshop on Tuesday 3 February.

It was great to return to SOAS after a few years away to participate in a mock interview workshop. During those years away I ended up in a role that isn’t uncommon among SOAS graduates – at international development NGO with a focus on Asia – so I was happy to come back and talk about my experience, interview techniques, hints and tips.

I was then asked to write a blog, but it seems someone has beaten me to it. My colleague has already written a really practical blog on our website for anyone thinking of applying for a job with us. A lot of the hints and tips there can be applied to any role. So take a look!

But the hints and tips on that page aren’t necessarily tailored for the average SOAS student – and that’s what we focussed on in the workshops.

What’s so special about SOAS? Well, we all know the clichés about SOAS students (documented at overheard at SOAS) and elsewhere. But from my experience at the workshop, it’s true that most students at SOAS have got some interesting stories to tell.

Whether it’s volunteering, travelling, work experience, living abroad, or crusading tirelessly for any given cause, these are the sorts of things that help employers realise that we’re interesting people, we know what interests us, and we care. In an interview situation where lots of people might be suitable for the same role, it’s things like this that can help set us apart.

For example, I have a strong hunch that it was the work experience that I gained in China during my year abroad that helped me get my first job in the UK as a graduate. The experience meant I had loads of examples to give in my interview – talking about different working cultures, working as part of a global team, and dealing with the unexpected. I was also able to apply it to a role working in the UK with a focus on Asia.

Some other examples from students in the workshop included practising for jobs that matched a specific specialism from their degree course, or applying for an NGO that worked in a sector which was relevant to their volunteering experience. It’s the logical connections that you can make between who you are, what you’ve done, and the role you’re applying for that can help set you apart.

So when a potential employer asks you to talk a little bit about yourself, think! Try not to sound like everyone else. Stand out! It’s not just about where you’re from and what you’re studying. Relate the role you’re applying for to your values or your personal experience if you can.

Even if you’re reading this and you don’t really know what you want to do when you graduate (we’ve all been there…), you’re in a strong position because you probably have some great experiences to talk about. Think about those stories, and how the experience gained from them can help you succeed in the role you’re applying for. By making that link for the interviewer, and doing the thinking for them, you’ll be more likely to walk out of the interview with your head held high.

What I wish I’d known: The Alumni Perspective

The fourth session in the Careers Service’s ‘What I wish I’d known as a student’ featured a wonderful SOAS Alumni, Leonie Le Borgne, who completed a Masters in Violence Conflict and Development 3 years ago. Leonie had planned to go into humanitarian relief work, but got side-track by a social enterprise opportunity in the Philippines.

Leonie was one of those students who took part in many activities whilst at university. For example, she volunteered at two different organisations at the same time –Tibet Society part of the Tibet Relief Fund and Greenshoots Foundation. It was during her time at GreenShoots Foundation that her boss offered her the chance to do a placement year abroad. Leonie ended up in the Philippines, were she worked with a partner organisation that works to transform the slums. She worked on a project funded by the private sector to build new homes for slum dwellers. Whilst working on that project it became clear that the needs of the people were much greater than initially thought, for example, people had lovely home but no money. After researching and talking with the local community, she helped local farmers set up a social recycling waste management project that helped them to generate income.

On returning to England, she found the Student Hubs job vacancy via the SOAS Careers Service. It was a graduate scheme with a placement at SOAS. She is now a permanent member of the SOAS Student Enterprise team helping students start up social enterprise projects.

One top tip: Leonie says that doing work experience of any type is very important. She was lucky to find something that she really enjoys, but there are loads of other opportunities for students. She encourages students to get involved in internships and to not be afraid to volunteer even if it is just for a couple of hours a week. She was given a great opportunity by her two day a week volunteering experience and now she has a career that she really enjoys.

SOAS Careers Service thanks Leonie for her time and contribution.

SOAS Careers Service Launches New Project with Alumni

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On Tuesday 20th January the SOAS Careers Service launched a new initiative – What I wish I had Known as a Student with SOAS Alumni.

These lunchtime sessions which run between 1:30pm and 2:30pm every Tuesday and Thursday during term time have been designed to give alumni the opportunity to share their experiences of the workplace and to pass on their hints and tips to current students.

The small group sessions give up to six students the opportunity to hear from alumni from many different sectors.

Our first session kicked off with Adam Edwards, a SOAS Development Studies Graduate from 2004. After graduating from SOAS Adam followed a career in temporary contracts on Government projects and has been working in this sector for the last decade. This presented its own set of challenges and is not the career path he expected when he joined SOAS. The opportunities as well as the pitfalls can be traced back to the decisions Adam made as an undergraduate, and this is something that Adam discussed in detail during the session.

The event went down a storm with the students that attended with some really positive comments:

“Excellent presentation. Keep it up.”

“Extremely insightful.”

“Small enough to get some personal info.”

Before Adam left he gave us his top tips for current SOAS students:

  • Check out if there are any professional bodies or associations for the sector that you are interested in working in and join them – you generally get free or reduced rates while you are a student.
  • If you’ve not got one, get a LinkedIn account.
  • Be flexible.
  • If you have language skills, keep using the language whenever you can.
  • Don’t just apply for your dream job, be more pragmatic and give yourself a few more options.
  • Use the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) structure to explain your extra-curricular activities to potential employers. For more information about how to use the STAR structure, check out the Careers Moodle page.

So what’s Adam doing now and what are his next steps? Adam is in the process of setting up as a consultant in Geographic Information Systems and starts a PhD at Birkbeck in September. He’s also looking to achieve the Prince 2 qualification in project management.
We wish Adam the best of luck for his future ventures and look forward to seeing him at SOAS again soon!

Did you miss out on meeting Adam? Well never fear, we will be running these alumni sessions every Tuesday and Thursday during term time. For more information about these events and to book, visit our events page.