What Degree to Study to Work for the UN? We Find Out

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The United Nations is one of the most prestigious organisations to work for in the world. A career in the UN allows you to have an impact on some of the biggest crises facing the world, from climate change and women’s rights, to humanitarian disasters and refugee migration. So, if you’re entering university and aim to begin a career in the United Nations, what degree should you study to have the best chance of working for the UN?

To work for the United Nations, you should study a masters degree in a relevant subject. The best degree subjects to choose for a career in the UN include international relations, humanitarian action, development studies and peace and conflict studies.

Importantly though, which degree you choose to study should depend on which part of the United Nations you want work in…

International Development

If you want to work for the United Nations, a good degree to choose would be a masters in international development. The UN works across the world alleviating poverty and assisting nations in their economic development. A masters in international development will give you the theoretical basis needed to work for UN agencies such as United Nations Development Programme  (UNDP), UNICEF and  the World Food Programme (WFP) – these UN agencies have mandates to work to assisting nations in their development.

Humanitarian Action

The United Nations works responding to humanitarian emergencies across the world. To work for the UN, you could study a degree in humanitarian action. This will give you the technical background as well as the theoretical knowledge needed to work with the UN providing humanitarian relief to those affected by conflict and natural disasters. Studying a degree in humanitarian aid could lead you to work with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), WFP or UNICEF.

International Relations

To work for the United Nations another good degree choice would be a masters in international relations. The UN is the major international organisation coordinating between governments on world issues like international trade, improving global health and responding to the climate crises. These huge global issues involve extensive negotiations and a masters in international relations will help you develop the skills needed.

United Nations Online Courses

If you are interested in working for the United Nations, we highly recommend the online course United Nations Jobs Guide. It’s a great overview of the UN recruitment system and includes valuable tips for anyone looking to build a career within the United Nations. Follow the link to the course’s page.

We also think the United Nations CV and Cover Letter online course is a must for anyone looking to get a job in the UN. It goes through exactly what is needed when applying for a UN position and provides guidance on what exactly to include. It also shows students what the UN recruitment process is like. Follow the link to get full details on the course.

An important step for those wanting to work for the United Nations is to get a strong understanding of how the UN works, and what its global role is. We recommend the online course Global Diplomacy: The United Nations in the World offered by SOAS in London. Not only does it give a fantastic overview of the UN; the fact it is offered by SOAS – one of the top colleges in the world for international relations studies, makes it a great addition to the CV of anyone applying for a job at the UN. Click the link for more information.

Global Health or Medicine

One of the core mandates of the United Nations is improving the health of citizens, especially in poorer countries. To work for the UN in a health role you should consider studying a degree in global health or a medical field. This will give you the knowledge and skills needed to enter the UN assisting to coordinate and implement health programmes around the world. The main UN agency to focus on if you study a degree in global health or are medically qualified would be World Health Organisation (WHO).

Public Policy

To work in the United Nations, you should also consider studying a masters degree in public policy. The United Nations works to assist member states with developing strong policies including on health and education as well as development. By studying public policy, you will learn the skills the UN needs to achieve effective policy changes around the world. A masters in public policy would be especially good for work at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) or World Health Organisation (WHO).

Refugee and Migration Studies

There are several UN agencies that work assisting refugees and displaced people around the world. If you want to work for the United Nations, you should considerer studying a degree in refugee and migration studies.  A masters in refugee studies will equip you with an extensive understanding of the issues around migration and refugee protection, and assist you in finding a job at UNHCR, UN-IOM or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Environmental Science and Climate Change

Climate change and the environmental crises is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. The United Nations works across governments to try and coordinate a global response to climate change. If you want to work for the UN in their response, you should study a master’s degree in environmental science or climate change. Completing these related degrees will help you get a job at the UN working to improve the worlds response to the ongoing climate catastrophe. UN agencies to target when you have an environmental masters include United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and UNFCCC (UN Climate Change).

Gender Studies

Many UN agencies work on issues of gender and how women are affected by global issues such as conflict and displacement or gender-based violence. You should complete a degree in gender studies if you are interested in working for UN Women – a smaller UN agency working on gender issues, as well as for gender specific work with UNHCR, UNFPA or UNICEF.

Peace and Conflict Studies

The United Nations responds to conflicts all over the world, through UN Peacekeepers as well as with humanitarian responses. To work for the UN in conflict response or peacekeeping, you should study a degree in peace and conflict studies. This will give you the theoretical background to enter the UN in conflict response. A degree in peace and conflict studies can help you work in UN peacekeeping in a civilian role or with UNHCR and UN-IOM.

Food Security and Nutrition

The World Food Programme is the United Nations agency tasked with ending world hunger. If you want to work for United Nations WFP, studying a degree in food security would give you the technical skills needed to assist the United Nations with responding to famines, droughts and floods that affect community’s food supplies. You could also study a degree in nutrition, that would allow you to work for UNICEF responding to crises affecting nutrition in young children around the world.

Social Work and Child Protection

Although degrees in social work and child protection often lead people to work in social services in their own country, the crises the United Nations responds to need skilled protection experts. If you want to work protecting vulnerable children in disaster zones with the UN you should study a degree in either social work or child protection and apply to work with UNICEF, UNFPA or UNHCR.

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Aviation and Transport Management

The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization works to standardise air travel around the world. It also coordinates between UN member states how air travel should be managed to benefit all nations. If you want to work for the United Nations a degree in aviation or transport management would provide you the knowledge needed to work for ICAO and work with the UN to manage global air travel.

Travel and Tourism

The United Nations has a role in managing world tourism and how it affects populations around the world. To work with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (WTO), you should study a masters in travel and tourism management. Based in Madrid, Spain, the UN-WTO works to ensure responsible and sustainable leisure travel and a degree related to tourism would help you get a job with the UN working to improve tourism’s impact worldwide.

Museum Studies

Protecting the worlds cultural and heritage sites is the mandate of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In order to work for the United Nations protecting world sites such as The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu in Peru or Taj Mahal in India, then you should study a degree in museum studies. Studying a masters in museum studies will give you a unique insight into how precious historical artefacts are saved and this can help you get a job with the United Nations in UNESCO.

If you would like to know about what to study to get a job at the UN, explore our list of the top United Nations online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.