Advice, Learning

Getting To Grips With Your Social Media Self

Of late, I have been on a Twitter ‘sabbatical’.

This sabbatical was not the product of a conscious, thought-out decision in which I actively decided to remove myself for complex reasons of social network activism or in an attempt to reconnect with the ‘good old un-connected days’. Rather, it happened slowly and without me realising, until one day, I logged on to Twitter and realised that I hadn’t engaged with the network for over six months – my account was just sitting there, quietly waiting for me to come back, asking me what I wanted to Tweet about next?

It would seem that my Twitter sabbatical coincided with a period of time in my life in which my goals and career focus were in a state of flux.

A year ago, my Twitter ‘space’ had a clear identity.

I was actively engaging with a relatively defined community of people (those working in or interested in the cross-section between Africa, information, technology, media, development, human rights) and most of my followers were (or still are) from that community. The rest all probably have something to do with coffee, the other passion which made it regularly into my Twitter feed. My network, by and large, was relatively ‘bounded’.

In my days working in the newspaper industry and studying at SOAS and the University of Oxford, I used Twitter as a professional and career development resource. I have blogged before, on this very page, about how I used Twitter as my ‘rolling online CV’. I Tweeted my own ideas, I engaged, I re-tweeted, I live-Tweeted at events and conferences, I hashtagged, I plugged blogs I had written, I got jobs through Twitter, and I came across endless accounts of people and organisations whose work I still follow and admire. Essentially, I became an expert in how to curate a useful, successful online community network – and I gave you guys nine tips so that you could do the same!

It seems strange to re-read that ‘nine tips’ blog now, in the context of now writing this one. At that time, I wrote: “Watch what you Tweet – If you imagine your Twitter page as a rolling online CV, you automatically become more aware of what you allow on to your feed” (this statement remains true, by the way).

Because the thing is, that in order for Twitter to serve this purpose for you – for it to be used as a way of tapping into a specific community (whether that be #globaldev or otherwise) – you have to have a very clear idea of who and what that community is, and what your role is and could be within that community. By knowing those things, you can ‘curate’ your Twitter feed to cater to that particular audience.

Every Tweet becomes a clearly-made choice and every interaction is treated as a key step in building new professional relationships. You become a hyper-aware manager of your online presence. You constantly criticise, and critically analyse, whether your online Twitter ‘self’ is an accurate reflection of your offline non-Twitter self, and if it could be improved. For those of us on ‘the bottom rungs of the ladder’, those choices carry that little bit more weight.

But what happens when that network needs some re-shaping? If you move to a slightly different ladder? What happens to your carefully-defined Twitter then?

The totally brilliant Danah Boyd writes extensively about the ways in which we manage identity in different contexts (online and offline) and coming across her work while studying for my Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute was one of the many revelations of my postgraduate degree. My main takeaway from her extensive work is that the Internet has confused and disorientated the ways in which we have historically, or traditionally, always managed our identities. We haven’t ever had just ‘one’ identity; we are a complex set of identities, which we have always been able to manage and curate between different contexts relatively easily.

Back in the day, would we have let our friends, grandparents, employers and ex-boyfriends all see the same set of holiday pictures? Would we have included on our CV a short section titled ‘Political Views and My Attitudes Towards Gender, Race and Religion’? Probably not. We would have navigated our way between these different contexts and presented the aspects of our identities, of our lives, that were appropriate to each of those contexts.

Life on the Internet completely throws those contexts into disarray. Boyd describes these contexts as becoming ‘collapsed’ – i.e. that those contexts are no longer as easily defined or ‘bounded’ and are therefore harder to navigate.

Do I accept this work colleague on Facebook? If I tweet about this salted caramel brownie, will this very impressive and important consultant unfollow me on Twitter? If I share this article on the EU Referendum, will I have a bunch of random people I worked with five summers ago and haven’t spoken to since all start to judge me for my political views?

Maybe not everybody asks themselves these questions, but I do.

There are two points to this blog, really. One was selfish – to force myself to write some of this experience down; to put academic ideas of ‘collapsed contexts’ and ‘online identities’ into actual practice and everyday experience; and to explain to anybody who wants to read this why I disappeared off the map for a while.

The second is to add a final, tenth ‘tip’ to that blog I wrote three years ago:

10. Don’t let your Twitter, or any social network, define you. Twitter and social media are great resources for putting ‘who you are’ onto the professional map, but if that ‘who you are’ changes – don’t panic. Human beings are dynamic, not static, and so too should be our social networks.

For the record, I do now intend to be back, re-defining and re-curating my Twitter space. Maybe some people will drop off that network, hopefully new people will join. I think that’s kind of the whole point.

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Advice, Jobs

The Professional Skill All Interns Need But Don’t Get Taught

I am reading a really interesting paper on ‘intercultural competence’, a once rare skill that most job advertisements now list under ‘Requirements’ in some form or another.

Receiving training and figuring out how to work with people from many different cultures – national, regional, religious, organizations etcetera – used to be the preserve of the well paid and highly experienced. The authors frame the problem:

“In an increasingly global business environment, managers must interact effectively with people who have different values, behavioral norms, and ways of perceiving reality. Many jobs now entail an international dimension, so the challenge of communicating ideas and making decisions with people from different cultural backgrounds is no longer limited to a relatively elite group of expatriate managers who develop skills and knowledge by living abroad for years at a time.”

We live in an interconnected world where you interact with your line manager over Skype, the people sitting on the next desk might work for a different company all together and monthly office hot-pots are a walk into the unknown. Now everybody has to learn these skills, not just managers.

Interns, office managers, technical support – everybody.

I spent last year working for a startup in Nairobi. Our small team worked in four or five different time zones and supported clients in almost 30 countries. Intercultural competence was not only expected, it was practically a pre-requisite for the job. This may just be my own educational experience but I don’t remember getting any lessons on its importance to the job market. So how do you learn it?

The paper (in quite some depth) has solid advice.

“The core elements of intercultural competence therefore include an active awareness of oneself as a complex cultural being and the effect of one’s own culture on thinking and action, an ability to engage with others to explore tacit assumptions that underlie behavior and goals, and an openness to testing out different ways of thinking and doing things.”

Read the full paper here.

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Advice

The People You Work With Should Help You Grow

A growth culture

By Maia Koytcheva

Have you ever found yourself wondering where you will be in 5 years time?

It’s a question that should be defined by more than your abstract career goal of becoming the next Ban Ki-Moon. It’s important to think about what makes you personally happy and what kind of environment you will thrive in professionally. You have to figure out how you work.

Over the years I have realised a few things about myself and what I want from my future. I have worked for a number of very different organisations – from small think tanks to large international organisations. But the one thing that, above all, has defined my career choices were the people I worked with rather than the different jobs and positions I have had.

When you start a new job, be it in a small 10 people team or in a huge organisation with thousands of employees, it will never take long for you start feeling a certain way about your colleagues, the team and ultimately your job.

This might be obvious, but you should not be filled with a sense of dread when you leave the house on Monday morning to head to work.

It will never be good for you to feel like you contributions at the work place are not valued – it will affect your productivity and the quality of your work. You should look for an environment that fills you with a sense of worth and excitement. A new task or project should not make you want hide because you feel it’s pointless.

On a side note, the lack of worth and challenges you may experience at one point or another in a job is not necessarily your own fault. Often it will be a result of bad management and a lack of understanding of the employees and the company needs.

What you should keep in mind is that you will learn much more in a workplace that accepts your questions and where you are allowed to challenge things – it’s the best way to grow professionally. You don’t want to belong to the 87% of people that don’t enjoy going to work.

You might be thinking that you prefer working by yourself in your home office, but I would argue that is simply because you haven’t had the luck to experience a truly great work environment.

A good team and company will be able to push you to a new level and you will gain much more than by working alone.

I have found myself in positions where I saw no future for myself in that company, not because of bad colleagues or my “boring” job but purely because of a lack of company culture that made me proudly want to say what I do and who I work for. (This is an interesting look at company culture and it’s different definitions).

The value of your labour and the intrinsic motivation attached to it are very important drivers for how well you work and how happy you will be.

I have been very lucky to have worked for some fantastic organisations, as well as some that have been less good. This has taught me to spot a few clear warning signs of a bad company culture.

Here are some questions you should be asking.

  • Have you spoken to people that work for that organisation, if so, what was their reaction to being asked about their job?
  • How often do people leave the organisation, how long have your boss and your immediate colleagues been there? (It’s always a bad sign if no one has been there for more than a few months or a year.)
  • Does a company value it’s interns (and for that matter also the secretaries and lower level office staff) and their contribution or are they just nameless, ever-changing elements to help with the more menial tasks that no one really wants to do?

These are questions you can quickly find out about during an interview or by talking to someone that already works there. You can even start finding answers by reading about the company values or their vision statement.

Ultimately I would say that beyond the immediate experience you might gain from a great position, there is little value in risking your own happiness and sanity for the sake of that experience if you cannot see a future for yourself in the company and cannot wait to leave the office every day.

You will gain a lot more by becoming a part of a team that values you and your efforts. There is no better feeling than achieving something together and feeling proud of your work and the organisation you work for.

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Advice

Things to remember as you volunteer or conduct research in a developing country this summer

Some fantastic tips on working overseas in a developing country.

An Africanist Perspective

Rafia Zakaria, on Al Jazeera America, writes:

My friend Jack likes to tell his favorite story about a summer he spent volunteering in Colombia. He recounts that story anytime he’s handed the opportunity, at parties, lunch meetings and airports. He highlights varying facets of the story on different occasions — the snake he found in his tent, his camaraderie with the locals and his skills at haggling. The message to his audience is clear: I chose hardship and survived it.

If designer clothes and fancy cars signal material status, his story of a deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character. As summer looms, many Americans — college students, retirees and others who stand at the cusp of life changes — will make similar choices in search of transformational experiences. An industry exists to make these easier to make: the voluntourism business.

As admirably altruistic as…

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Advice, Experiences, Platform, Support

My Positive Mistake

Written by Sigo Still*

Is sex a taboo in the world of international development?

Do you think sex is a taboo when it comes together with an STD? Have you always, 100% of the time, used condoms? Do you speak about all this with your sexual partners?

Does anyone think that it can happen to them? Well, it happened to me.

Yes, I had unprotected sex, and yes, I am talking about HIV, a virus which doesn’t care about gender, age, sexual orientation, education level, religion, good or bad people, national borders or anything else.

Here is my story:

After my Master in International Development, I went to an African country* as a volunteer to gain experience at the beginning of a career in aid. It was not my first time on the continent, I had been before: volunteering during a summer, tourism and on a university grant. After my 9 months volunteering abroad, I came back home and I went to the doctor for a general check up. The news was devastating. During my time as a volunteer, working, meeting amazing people, learning from a different culture, eating the food, dancing to the music, wearing the clothes, travelling around, I also had unprotected sex and the test came positive for HIV.

I have learnt that some mistakes are forever. I can not change my HIV positive status, it will be with me the rest of my life. Apart from the tears, nights without sleeping, doctor appointments and psychological therapy, I have used the situation to learn a lot about HIV/AIDS: treatment, visa regulations, prevention campaigns, organizations and other people stories. For me, getting to know the story of other aid workers in the same situation as me gave me hope and courage to continue.

Sex is part of our private lives and HIV is also part of mine, but I couldn’t think for a second not to tell my previous sexual partners. These were difficult phonecalls to make. and I was afraid of two things:

  1.  Losing my privacy because they can choose to tell others about it.
  2. It is going to continue to affect other people, as they don’t want to get tested.

Religion is a big part of their lives and they want to believe that they are alright. But the real reasons that make it very scary to know that maybe you can test positive is all the social stigma as well as the lack of information about access to treatment.

Why would you want to know if you think that other people will treat you bad or that you can not get treatment because you think you won’t be able to afford to pay for it?

Believe me, sometimes I have wished that I didn’t know. But I could become very sick, die or even transmitted to someone else (my future babies?).

In my story I didn’t use condom, but the only true prevention is for people to know their status. If you use condom you can still get infected – it can break, for example. I know what I am going to say is difficult to understand or believe, but it can be safe to practice sex with a HIV positive person under treatment, as the virus load get to undetectable levels in which case you don’t transmit it even without using condom. But condoms should be used – also to prevent many other STD, especially for the HIV positive person, as they are more exposed to new infections and it can lead to difficult to treatment combinations.

The risk is not in the number of sexual partners, the risk is in the lack of protection and unknown personal status. It can only take one time in your entire life without a condom (or with a broken one) to get infected.

Before I knew my status, I had an offer for my first real job in my aid career. A local NGO in Africa wanted me to be part of their team. Initially I decided to hide the truth from my future boss and I refused to take the job, as I couldn’t get answers from the embassies about work and resident permits for a HIV positive person and, more importantly, whether or not I would be able to follow my treatment there.

After the initial shock, I felt braver and I told my boss the truth. I sent him all my research with information of access to treatment and visas regulations. He has been very professional and has given me the time I needed to get myself together and deal with the situation. In few weeks I will start working with them. I am going back to work, live, and get HIV care/treatment in Africa.

I hope that to share my knowledge and experiences with HIV in Africa can, little by little, fight to reduce the stigma around this disease. People must not be afraid to know their status and to deal with it, or there will never stop being new infections add to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

_____

*The name of both the author and the relevant country has been left out to preserve anonymity.

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Advice, Experiences

Course Review: Development Studies and African Studies at SOAS

Written by Tomas Zak

When choosing what course I wanted to do at undergraduate level, I wanted to strike a balance between the practical part of my degree, which I thought would get me a job (Development Studies) and my own personal interests (African Studies), but I eventually realised this was a false distinction.

It was not a job-orientated degree. Both sides were intensely theoretical. In African Studies, the focus was predominately on learning a language and different aspects of African cultures such as film, music, literature, religion, etc…

Similarly, in what should really be called Critical Development Studies, there is a concerted effort to dismantle the problematic notion that “we” develop “them”. Instead, the course examines what it is in Western societies that inhibits development elsewhere. It looks into broader attempts at systemic reform, rather than piecemeal palliative measures perpetuated by the development orthodoxy.

Taken as a whole, the degree sought to marry this critical analysis of the development business with an understanding of a particular context – primarily by learning a language.

Pros

Language
As funding is getting cut across the board, fewer and fewer places have the language specialisation on offer at SOAS. The one thing I would have done differently when it comes to languages is to have gone on the year abroad, even if it meant taking a year longer to complete my degree, paying more fees and dealing with the pitfalls of SOAS organisation in a foreign country.

Through immersion you learn the most, but you have to be driven and above all, interested. SOAS has some great connections abroad, but it’s all about how you use them. I’d think carefully before picking a language as it is probably one of the decisions which will take the longest to bear fruit, but for me it was definitely worthwhile.

Interdisciplinary
In the core courses in development, there is no one lecturer. Lecturers will vary and come to teach their area of specialisation. So you will meet a lot of lecturers from different faculties and get to hear about how their current research ties into the topic at hand. It also gives you the opportunity to scope out potential dissertation supervisors.

Diversity
Not only in terms of nationality – but also in terms of a diversity of experiences, influences and norms. This applies to teaching staff and students alike and leads to interesting, albeit heated, debates both in tutorials, but also in the bar. It can begin to sound like a bad joke. A Tibetan monk, an anarchist and an Old Etonian sit down for a tutorial…

Cons

Ideological straitjacket
It is no secret that SOAS is one of the foremost centres for the study of Marxism and this seeps through into almost all aspects of teaching. There is very much a SOAS-line and after sitting in yet another tutorial full of nodding heads bashing the IMF, it can begin to sound like a broken record so try and break out.

London is perfect for this. There are talks, conferences, debates and book launches at places like the Royal African Society, the Africa Centre, the Overseas Development Institute, the London International Development Centre, Birbeck, LSE, Kings, UCL, etc… Chances are you’ll hear more than enough and come running back to the bubble that is SOAS, but it’s still worth hearing the other side.

Admin and organisation
Navigating the corridors of the Byzantine system that is SOAS bureaucracy will probably take up a substantial amount of your time. Menial tasks like changing courses or submitting a hard copy of an essay will have you running around chasing signatures and knocking on doors.

Tips on getting the most out of the degree:

Follow good lecturers not interesting sounding courses (H/T Chris Blattman).
At SOAS, the course I was most excited about on paper turned out to be taught by one of the worst lecturers. Some academics might have a wealth of knowledge, extensive work experience, huge research grants or have written ground-breaking books, but are very bad at public speaking and transmitting that information.

By contrast, a lecturer that has been running the same module year-on-year, benefits from a number of students shaping, improving and even challenging their thinking. If they are a good lecturer, they will have incorporated new ideas, have tried and tested different ways of teaching and altered the content of the course in response to current events and contemporary research. If you do end up taking the risk with a new course, don’t be afraid to change even if you are a couple of lectures in – I wish I had.

Don’t get fixated on the job at the end of your degree
Like I said, it’s not a job-orientated degree. For that reason, I got more out of courses I was genuinely interested in, irrespective of whether a module in “African Philosophy” has any practical application beyond university. In all probability, you won’t have as good a chance to explore your academic interests again after university so you might as well go for it.

SOAS isn’t for everyone, but to my mind one of the biggest drawbacks is probably its main selling point. Coming from a fairly right-wing environment, SOAS was an oasis where radical thinking was not dismissed outright, but considered as a plausible alternative. There are very few places in the UK where this is the case.

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Advice, Experiences, Learning, Platform

The Non-Academic Things I Learned During My Master’s

It’s been a while since I wrote for Development Intern, and I’m here to tell you why.

I must start by saying, that on completing my undergraduate degree in the summer of last year, I had grand plans for my blogging prospects. I was a fired-up newly-grad! I had things to say, founded-opinions to muse on, theories and ideas and people to take from the lecture theatre and into the context of real-world development conversations. I was sure that I would blog monthly. I started a word document with all my writing ideas. I assured my [ED: long-suffering] editor that come September, there would be a blog waiting in his inbox.

September got off to a good start. Despite being in my early twenties, the month of September still for me evokes the start of a new school year. I was full of the joys of buying new stationery, of stocking up on new books from Amazon, and of making grand plans to hand assignments in a few days before deadline (ha ha).

Of course, this year was slightly different: I was embarking on a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford, and I knew that this was a feat that would not be conquered with new highlighters alone. Still, I was ready for the challenge and I was confident in the choice I had made for the next stage of my academic and professional career.

I was not prepared for the crisis that would follow.

The first term of my postgraduate degree was characterised by a never-ending process of self-questioning.

For someone that has never once lost confidence in the education-related decisions or career choices I have made, this experience was entirely new to me. I no longer had things to say, and the word document remained untouched. Mainly, my crisis areas stemmed from:

1. Funding.

Somehow, writing that cheque at the beginning of term and depleting all my savings felt far more significant than clicking some buttons on the student loan website and borrowing the government’s money. Although the substantive amounts are probably about equal, spending what is already your own money is a much more tangible thing. As a result, you feel under more pressure because you’re only accountable to yourself (that’s for the development people), and you will go stir-crazy in a constant analysis of opportunity cost (that’s for the economists).

2. The course choice.

Those of you who read this blog will hopefully be more likely to understand my choice here, but most people don’t. My undergraduate degree was in Development & Economics; and my MSc degree is in the Social Science of the Internet. Before starting I could defend my course choice to the hilt, but once term got going the link between these two courses seemed increasingly tenuous, even to me. I knew I wanted a development-oriented and Africa-focused career, but I still didn’t know what that was. And instead of helping to clarify that, my Master’s gave me more questions than answers.

3. The Master’s bubble.

Admittedly, a master’s at Oxford is probably the most bubble-like of them all, but I would argue that to do well in any postgraduate course you have to retreat from the real world just a little. Or in my case, don’t retreat from the real world at all and then really struggle to balance the two. Studying at postgraduate level requires a different academic headspace to the one required at undergraduate, so you need to be in the right mindset before starting out. Again with the opportunity cost (but with life choices, rather than money choices).

If this all sounds a bit doom-and-gloom, fear not. My crisis is over, and I’m back to being a self-confident, driven student who still doesn’t know what she’s doing next, but who knows she’s going in the right direction (and who is going to try to blog more). And so, if there are any of you out there who are considering doing a Master’s, I leave you with a few lessons:

  • Be confident that you want to do ‘a’ postgraduate degree. Don’t do a Master’s because you can’t think of anything else to do.
  • When you do choose a degree, be confident in the one you choose. For many of us, a Master’s will be the last stop on our academic careers. Make sure that the course is the right one for you, and that you’re happy for it to be directing and driving whatever you do next.
  • Doing the degree won’t solve everything for you. If you’re thinking about doing a Master’s in the hope that it will give you all the answers about what you want to do with your life: it won’t. It will just raise questions, and throw them right back at you. Be prepared for that.
  • Think creatively. Doing a Master’s degree to get into development does not necessarily equal an ‘MA in Development Studies’. There are a plethora of courses out there that are more specific, more nuanced, and will demonstrate a more innovative way of thinking about development. Read: doing a Master’s in the Internet.
  • Finally, ask yourself the difficult questions. You know that little voice that sits in some corner of your brain and fires stuff at you sometimes? Seriously, listen to him. It’s a pain in the short term, but it’ll stand you in good stead to tackle his questions in the long run.
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