Choosing a Career in International Development

Book Review by Mason Murphy

Book review:

Russell, D. (2013). Choosing a Career in International Development: A Practical Guide to Working in the Professions of International Development. College Station, TX: Virtualbookworm.com Publishing Inc. Available in paperback and Kindle editions. 252 pages.


In his book “Choosing a Career in International Development: A Practical Guide to Working in the Professions of International Development,” Donovan Russell defines international development as efforts “that may consist of a single project to address a fairly well-defined societal problem or a series of distinct projects that are targeted on separate but related problems in society.” Counselors will benefit from reading this book if they work with clients who have an interest in working for international non-profit or non-governmental organizations.

Russell is a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University’s Institute for Public Administration with extensive experience working in south Asia with USAID and the Peace Corps. He also received his Ph.D in Educational Administration from Cornell University. Through this book, Russell outlines a 10-step career planning strategy for clients to follow: 

  1. Reflect on why you want to work in international development.
  2. Write a one-paragraph statement on your career objective.
  3. List the three fields you feel you have the most expertise in.
  4. Describe the specific expertise you have related to each of the three general fields.
  5. Identify organizations that specialize in the specific fields you have listed.
  6. Reflect on academic and or other methods of training or preparation in relationship to your career objective.
  7. List either the part of the world or specific countries you are interested in, and why.
  8. Research current development work that is going on in the countries you have listed.
  9. Consider your understanding of how development work is organized.
  10. Consider the type of organization that would interest you the most at this point in your life or career.


This strategy may seem similar to what most career counselors would do with clients who are exploring or transitioning careers. However, there are a few key steps within this process that are very important, as the field of international development can be unique when conducting a job search. Counselors may well need to utilize multiple sessions to move through the 10-step career planning process that Russell outlines. Focusing on the five highlighted steps below can help a client move more effectively through the process and feel more fulfilled with the outcome:


Most clients want to work in international development because they simply want to help people in need. Clients may have exposure to international development through seeing humanitarian and relief efforts on the news. When clients are asked further questions about why they are interested in the field, they often struggle to give additional information. The reason is that international development is a field that is hard to operationalize. Donovan encourages career counselors to take time to increase clients’ reflection and awareness of their purpose.

This activity can be more than just free association writing with clients. Counselors can use this as a tool to begin to explore the values of the client. Clients can go beyond just the basic idea that they want to help people. Conducting this activity with clients allows them to create a vision for what that “help” might look like, meaning what task, job, or project could a client be doing for an organization. Russell focuses on helping the client see international development work in terms of conducting a project, a methodology that allows clients to operationalize the field much easier.

Clients may list traditional fields like education and healthcare. Russell focuses on these fields as avenues to conduct international development. In this step, counselors have an opportunity to expand the definition of fields where international development is taking place. Russell references agriculture, infrastructure development, economic development, finance, business, human rights and social justice, democratization, conflict resolution, natural resources, climate, food security, refugee resettlement, women in development, gender issues, and community organizations.

Russell mentions that this is a critical part of the exploration process, and another aspect clients struggle with when trying to engage in international development work. Clients may have a glamorous view of the part of the world or country they want to work in. Counselors can utilize practicality to make this piece effective. Making a direct connection to the client’s current work, counselors can help identify a place, such as asking a client what he or she noticed about the weather on the way to work and what mood arose with that observation. This can help clients narrow the geography by then connecting a client’s mood to work productivity.

Russell’s book includes a web resource, www.interaction.org, that can be extremely useful to the career planning process. It provides project-based resources with an interactive map. Clients can pull up a map, click on a country, click on specific project numbers within the country, and view organizations that are currently working on these types of international development projects. Clients can then read articles, blogs, and view webinars for further research.

Russell references traditional avenues of involvement through volunteerism in organizations like the Peace Corps, the Red Cross, or teaching English as a Second Language through a variety of organizations that offer that opportunity. Russell dedicates an entire chapter to focusing on education projects. This can benefit clients who have other interests. For example, curriculum and program development projects can be replicated through multiple outreach efforts.


Suggested Usage
Russell’s book can be a beneficial resource for both post-secondary career counselors and private practitioners who are working with clients interested in international affairs, or working with international nonprofits or non-governmental affairs agencies. The book is tailored towards graduate level faculty and students. Counselor educators may also find the book useful in teaching future counselors how to work with clients in this niche area.


Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.


Mason Murphy 2018Mason Murphy, MEd, MPA, works as a Career Counselor at Texas State University. He is visually impaired and holds an MEd in College Student Affairs, an MPA in Public Administration, and is pursuing a Ph.D in Adult, Professional, and Community Education. His research interests include international students and students with disabilities. Mason also serves as a Field Editor of NCDA’s Career Convergence web magazine. He may be contacted at mmm210@txstate.edu.


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Brian Montalvo on Thursday 08/02/2018 at 07:36AM wrote:

Hi Mason - Great book review! I enjoyed reading it. Hope you are well.


Charles Lehman on Thursday 08/02/2018 at 11:18AM wrote:

Good information on how to advse about this important career field

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the opinions of this organization.