Good Interview questions for international development newbies

This is a re-posting of a post, with one question added

Last week at happy hour, we found ourselves giving advice to a budding aid worker who was about to have her first round of interviews for her first “real” aid job. She wanted to know what questions she should be asking of the organizations and people with which she’s interviewing. These are the questions that one has to have ready, when inevitably interviewers say, “Now what questions do you have for us?”

She got some great suggestions from@oabello@gurrity@PatrickOdongosn, and now my readers can share them too, thanks to @marcmaxson who suggested this post. I hope these can be useful to those people hoping to determine the “right fit” with an organization’s values, approach, and management style. Here’s some of our ideas, in no particular order:

  1. How would you describe the organizational culture?
  2. If I were to be offered the position, what do you see me accomplishing in my first month? In the first six months?
  3. What other organizations would you consider to be your organization’s peers? With which other organizations do you collaborate?
  4. What was the last book that you read related to your work?
  5. What mechanisms does your organization use to obtain feedback from the people you serve?
  6. How are strategic decisions made in the organization? And how are they communicated?
  7. How do you ensure community ownership of your programs?
  8. What are your organization’s most promising or “provocative” programs?
  9. Do you consider your organization a learning organization? If so, how is this demonstrated?
  10. Do you think your organization offers something unique to the aid sector? What is it?
  11. How would you describe the relationship between programs and communications/marketing/fundraising?
  12. How has your organization changed over the last 2-5-10 years (as appropriate)?
  13. What is the most important piece of practical advice you would offer to someone starting on their first day on the job?
  14. How does your organization monitor what percentage of its financial resources reach the ground?
  15. How does this position contribute to the organization’s overall mission?
  16. Others? Kindly share them via the comments!

Added by Marc Maxson: What college courses should you take?

I would add this additional question you need to be asking everybody before you leave college. This came up in a subsequent meeting.  I asked others which course from college was totally useless for their work. None of the 8 of us had any overlap in our answers. I couldn’t think of any useless course. Even archaeology and introduction to film taught me about Hoteling’s Principle and constructive critique, respectively.

What I will say is that everyone should be taking more statistics courses. This is not because we all need to be backing our ideas up with more statistics, as those in the randomize controlled trial school (RCT) of international development believe. Doing more statistics will not turn fuzzy, flawed, meaningless, or biased data into correct answers.  Learning advanced statistics will teach you that there is no magic to statistics. It is powerful, but cannot intelligently yield truth from biased data, period.

Statistics should be taught to every high school and college age student because it is our ‘Defense against the dark arts‘ course for international development.

Everywhere you go, people will use statistics to try to lie to you. They might wow you with numbers or scare you with their advanced degrees. We should be using more advanced multivariate statistics in our study of the world, but few professors even want to touch this stuff. Because it is difficult to understand, they think that it is better to leave this knowledge in the hands of the experts. But a little bit of knowledge about statistics is more dangerous, because people start using it to gather wrong answers from biased or misleading data. Look at my previous post about which president shrank the size of government? If you compare it with charts from an earlier post (all data is correct from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), the same data in an earlier post on the same question led me to the opposite conclusion, because counting Post Office employees and local government workers along with Federal Employees obscures the real situation. The best lessons on avoiding this are (1) always ask if your data is clean enough before thinking about statistics and (2) if it will take tens of thousands of people in a randomized controlled trial to see any significant difference, your intervention ain’t significant. Save the money and experiment with something that will yield more dramatic social change.

If you are ready to know who is lying and who is honest, here’s a primer that a 6th grader could understand:

You can read it in a day. This, and The Tao of Pooh are the two booklets I reread the most. All the examples of lies come from popular media (journalism) so every citizen needs to know this. If you look around the United States and ask yourself how we got to a place where popularly elected leaders are capable of such a lack of understanding of the world – it started here with misunderstanding what happens to numbers when you look at aggregated observations.

2 thoughts on “Good Interview questions for international development newbies

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your view on the need for statistics in high school and college, Marc. My basic understanding of statistics doesn’t just help me do my work as a social scientist, it has made me a more critical thinker overall. It has made me better at analysis and decision-making at every level, from casting my vote to selecting a city to live in to buying my groceries. I would add that the college course that has benefited me the most was public speaking out of the Communications Dept. It taught me the value of economizing my word use and organizing my thoughts in a way most accessible to listeners. I had the good fortune of being in an ethnically-diverse class which also served as anthropology course, demonstrating the differences in ways of communicating among various cultures. It made me a better communicator in general, i.e. a better conversationalist, writer, and even note-taker. Plus, there is something a bit empowering about learning a skill that is reported to be the greatest fear for most Americans.

  2. Maybe I should retitle my mixed methods university course “Mixed Methods for International Development, or Defense against the dark arts.”

    I’m still trying to shop it around to area universities.

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