Don’t Miss a Story: Subscribe to PassBlue
Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.
As far as cool job titles go, you would be hard-pressed to beat that of Heli Pahlman, who is from Parainen, an archipelago town in southwest Finland. Her title has the words “outer space” in it.
Pahlman, 28, works as an associate program officer at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna. She is a staff member with the Committee, Policy and Legal Affairs Section, which is the secretariat for the UN General Assembly’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
The term “peaceful uses of outer space” refers to using space technology in satellite communications and navigation, natural resource management, environmental monitoring and disaster management and emergency response, Pahlman said in an interview with PassBlue. Her committee deals mostly with legal and policy aspects.
Just how did Pahlman, who has been with the UN for more than a year, get this gig? Through the UN Young Professional Program, or what UN folks like to abbreviate to YPP.
The program offers people no older than 32 an alternative way of working for the UN, bypassing the traditional track of submitting a resume through Inspira, the UN’s online recruitment system. The YPP is particularly helpful for those who have not accrued the five years of professional work experience that are required for P3 entry-level jobs, the lowest rung for which the UN recruits from the outside. The annual pay for P3 jobs in 2012 started at $72,000.
The UN’s P1 and P2 positions are reserved for those who have passed the YPP exam. P1 positions, though rare to come by now, do not require work experience, and the yearly wage in 2012 started at $46 000. P2 jobs requiring two to three years of relative experience; their pay clocked in at $56,000 annual salary last year.
The YPP program is open to those who hail from a preselect group of around 80 countries that changes every year. The list of eligible countries is published in the summer, as is the list of specific job families to which you can apply (you can apply to one group only). In 2012, they included architecture, economic affairs, political and social affairs, radio producing in Portuguese and Kiswahili (the language of the Swahili) and information systems and technology. Besides checking the official YPP Web site for information on applying, a Facebook group, United Nations Careers, is also helpful.
The 79 countries chosen for 2012 were a various crew: Afghanistan, Australia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sweden, United States and Vanuatu, among others. The 2013 countries will be announced in July; the YPP process from application to written test occurs from July to December. Applicants must hold an advanced university degree, like a master’s, and be fluent in English or French. People with dual nationality should choose the passport they are most tied with, but strategizing might help: of all applicants, only the best 40 per country for each occupational group are convoked – invited – for the written exam.
The UN Careers Facebook group said that by Aug. 27, 2012, some 3,400 Indians had sent in their applications, while only 9 people from Norway had done so. So a person with both Indian and Norwegian passports would fare much better by applying to the YPP as a Norwegian.
Over all, YPP competition is fierce: in the 2012 cycle, the UN received more than 41,000 applications, so it’s also good to keep in mind that some job families are more popular than others; of the 2012 applicants, 30 percent fell into the political affairs cohort even though there were six families to choose from. With a maximum of 40 people being invited to take the exam for each of the six options per country, this means that slightly less than half of all applicants have a chance of trying to ace the test.
A glimpse into figures from 2011 shows how difficult it is to get into the YPP. That year, there were 34,000 total applicants, of which 96 passed both the written and oral tests and got placed onto the employment roster.
“It’s highly competitive,” said Hong Sok Kwon, the chief of the examinations and tests section in the UN Department of Management.
Of the 96 people picked in 2011, about half have been offered jobs, Kwon said in late 2012. He added that the expectation was that the rest would be recruited by the end of the year; if not, their names would be removed from the roster after being on it for two years. The roster cap was instituted in 2011 so that only those who are likely to be placed make it to the roster.
“It’s only fair for the candidates and the organization,” Kwon said. “We don’t want candidates to remain on the roster for too long because this is a mechanism to recruit young professionals.”
If you pass the written test in your chosen job family, you then take an oral test. If you pass both, you can land on the roster. Pahlman stressed that preparing for the written exam takes time. Even great success in it doesn’t automatically lead to a position at the UN.
“When I took the exam, I honestly didn’t even dare to dream about actually being offered a job, let alone being offered a job within the first few months of being on the roster, but it does happen,” she said.
The written test has two parts, a summary of a text to prove writing and reading comprehension skills; and questions relating to international relations with a UN focus.
Pahlman decided to pursue the human-rights examination; she had studied public international law at university in Finland. In filling out the online application, Pahlman looked at the sample exams available on the UN Web site for guidance. The questions seemed far-ranging, she thought, so she studied not only human rights but also the whole UN system. (Yet questions can be as simple as asking how many countries are members to the UN. Answer: 193.)
Applications can be submitted from July to September each year. Invitations to take the written test are sent in late October. Pahlman was invited in October 2010 to take it in Helsinki that December.
“From that moment until the exam, I studied for a few hours every night,” she said. “I read treaties and articles and studied the organizational structure of the UN, trying to figure out who did what and which mechanisms existed, where and by whom decisions were taken.
“I also read reports of the secretary-general and various UN bodies dealing with human rights, to get an idea of which topics were currently high on the agenda and what was planned for the future.”
Still, Pahlman found the 4.5-hour test challenging. “The questions were much broader than I had expected, not only focusing on data, facts and figures, but on real-life scenarios and situations that the UN deals with in its work,” she said.
She received an e-mail on May 31, 2011, asking her to take the oral exam in Geneva. That response was unspoken code for one thing: she had excelled in the written test. The UN paid for her round-trip flights and gave her a daily stipend that covered accommodation and other incidentals. About a month after taking the oral portion, she landed on the coveted roster of qualified candidates.
“The UN made it clear that this did not mean that one would automatically be offered a job,” she said. “Knowing that there was a roster full of highly qualified people, I celebrated getting on the roster as an achievement in its own right, without any expectations of getting a job anytime soon.”
Still more qualifying occurred. In August 2011, she did a telephone interview for her current post, having prepped by studying the link between space and human-rights issues.
“It was easy to see how, for instance, access to satellite technologies is essential for improving the quality of life for many people in developing countries, through applications such as telemedicine or water resource management with the help of satellite data,” she said. As they emphasize at the UN, every aspect of its work is interrelated.
“You should try to see the UN as a whole and try to understand how the different parts work together and how everything is interdependent,” she said of the written exam.
As for space issues, she said, “Right now, I am finishing up an education curriculum on space law, to be used by the Regional Centres for Space Science and Technology Education, which are located around the world and affiliated with the United Nations.”
She is also the secretary of a working group that deals with questions on the sustainability of outer-space activities. Now there’s a title few 20-somethings can write on their resume.