How To Join The UN As A Social Worker (Complete Guide)

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Working for the United Nations can be a prestigious and highly rewarding career. If you are a social worker and considering joining the UN, there are huge range of jobs open to you. We’ve put together this complete guide to show you how you can bring your skills and experience in social work to a career with the UN.

United Nations Agencies Recruiting Social Workers

If you want to work in the United Nations as a social worker, the first thing you need to know is which parts of the UN hire social workers. The United Nations enormous. It is made up of a number of central bodies – such as the General Assembly and Security Council, as well as series of specialized agencies. UN agencies focus on areas of human development, humanitarian work, international cooperation and cultural preservation.

Some of main UN agencies that often recruit social workers are:

  • UN High Commission for Refugees
  • UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees
  • UNICEF – UN Children’s Fund
  • UNFPA – UN Population Fund
  • International Organization for Migration
  • World Health Organization

This is not a complete list of UN agencies that hire social workers, so be sure to explore a range of UN recruitment pages to find which are currently recruiting. However, the above UN agencies are some of the top recruiters of social workers. Let’s take a quick look at each one…

UNHCR is the UN’s refugee agency. It runs programmes assisting people forced to flee their homes due to conflict, disaster or persecution. UNHCR directly employs qualified social workers in coordination and management roles. It also implements many projects through international and local NGOs and these projects often hire social workers.

UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. It is the UN agency delivering services to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. Like UNHCR, UNRWA employs qualified social workers to coordinate their programmes but also funds NGOs and civil society groups that often employ social workers on their projects.

One of the most famous UN agencies is UNICEF. It is the UN’s children’s agency and funds projects around the world helping children affected by humanitarian crises or living in poverty. There are often opportunities for social workers to join UNICEF, either directly, or on UNICEF funded projects implemented by partner organizations.

UNFPA is the UN’s population fund. It runs projects for women and girls with a specific focus on sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence and women’s rights. Social workers play a key part in many UNFPA projects. Like other UN agencies, UNFPA often implements through partner organizations and it is common to see UNFPA funded NGOs employing social workers.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) became part of the United Nations in 2016. Founded in 1951 to assist people on the move, as well as to campaign for a more just response to migration issues, IOM is one of the main UN agencies employing social workers.

The World Health Organization is the leading global health body of the UN. It coordinates responses to pandemics, conducts research into public health issues and campaigns for better access to healthcare around the world. WHO often employs social workers on their projects to work in communities. These roles are often with local partner organizations funded by WHO.

UN Social Work Online Courses

If you are looking to work for the United Nations as a social worker, we highly recommend the online course Resilience in Children Exposed to Trauma, Disaster and War: Global Perspectives offered by the University of Minnesota. The course is highly relevant for anyone wanting to be a UN social worker and would be a great addition to the CV of anyone applying for social worker UN roles. Click the link to enrol on the course.

John Hopkins University offers an online short course on Psychological First Aid. We also think this course is a must for anyone looking to get a job with the UN as a social worker. It only takes around six hours to complete and provides a broad overview of how psychological support can be given to people who have suffered trauma. Follow the link to the course’s page for more information.

If you are interested in training as a social worker with the aim of getting a job at the United Nations, we recommend the online short course Social Worker 101 – Basic Training for Helping Professionals. It provides a broad overview of social work and what is required of social work professionals. The link is to the course’s page.

Qualifications Needed To Join The UN As A Social Worker

In order to get a job as a social worker within the United Nations, there two main steps you need to complete to become qualified. The first is to become formally qualified as social worker. The second is to gain an understanding of how social workers fit into the work the UN does. Let’s take a look at each step.

As we said, the first step to joining the United Nations in a social worker role is to become fully qualified. In many countries, social workers have to complete a bachelors or master’s degree and some amount of on-the-job training to become qualified. If you want to work for the United Nations as a social worker you need to become qualified to the level where you can work as a social worker in your home country.

Jobs with the United Nations are highly competitive. UN agencies also need staff that are highly qualified and with extensive practical knowledge of their field. For these reasons, the UN will only employ social workers who have completed their training. Often, they will look for social workers with some years professional experience. This is also true for UN funded projects being implemented by NGOs.

The UN will not fund you to become a social worker. You need to have completed your training before you apply for social worker jobs with the United Nations.

The second step to becoming qualified to get a job with the UN as a social worker is to gain an understanding of the types of work the UN does, as well as the skills and experience they look for in social workers. Most social worker jobs with the UN are on humanitarian and development projects. This is also the case for UN funded projects implemented by partner organisations that employ social workers.

Many UN social worker jobs focus on technical areas within the field. Examples of these include child protection, gender-based violence, public health awareness and mental health.  If you want to join the United Nations as a social worker you should research which UN agencies and types of projects interest you most, and then build a strong understanding of the technical aspects of social work relating to those areas.

A great way to get additional knowledge related to areas the UN works in is through online courses. There are many free courses, some developed by UN agencies, that provide an overview of technical areas of social work related to UN projects.

It is important to supplement your formal training as a social worker with short courses – in-person or online, in order to link your social work to the types of jobs the UN recruits.

United Nations Social Worker Roles

There are many types of jobs social workers can do within the United Nations. With many different UN agencies recruiting social workers, the range of positions across the UN is huge.

With so many different roles open to social workers in the UN, it’s not possible to detail each one. However, let’s go over some the main roles that social workers can take on with the UN.

The first type of jobs social workers are can get with United Nations agencies are in management and coordination roles. The UN hires staff with specialist qualifications to manage projects. For UN programmes focusing on community development, public health, mental health or gender-based violence, often a trained social worker is recruited in a management position. Management roles within the UN will require you to have several years of relevant professional experience, often within the UN or working in humanitarian aid NGOs.

The second type of role that social workers are often recruited for on UN projects is as frontline social workers or councillors. Many UN projects require social workers to be involved directly with communities affected by crises or living in poverty. Often, United Nations agencies fund local or international NGOs to implement projects and many frontline social worker jobs on UN projects are recruited by partners.

Another type of job that social workers can take with the UN is as a technic advisor. UN agencies recruit advisor with specialised skills to assist in the management of their projects or provide technical inputs to projects implemented by partner organisations. Many social workers within the United Nations are in roles where their expertise is required to ensure quality implementation of community-based projects.

As well as running projects that directly assist people in need, many United Nations agencies are also major campaigning and advocacy organizations. UN agencies run international campaigns on a huge range of issues, from better protections for refugee, to ending female genital mutilation; from climate change to women’s rights. Social workers are often recruited by the UN to bring expertise to campaigns and many work in advocay roles in UN agencies.

A final type of job that the UN often recruits social workers for is in capacity building and partnership roles. The UN funds hundreds of organisations around the world to implement humanitarian and development projects. It also recruits staff with specialized knowledge and skills to build the technical expertise of these organisations and monitor the quality of their work. For many types of projects, qualified social workers are highly sought after.

As we said, there are literally hundreds of different jobs within the UN that social workers can apply for, these are just some of the main broad categories. Be sure to explore different UN agencies and recruitment sites to see what types of roles suit your interests.

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Applying for UN Social Worker Jobs

UN recruitment is notoriously complex. If you want to join the United Nations you need to have a basic understanding of the job categories the UN has and what different terminology means.

The United Nations essentially divides positions into two categories. The first is P, or ‘professional’ positions. The second is G, or ‘general service’ roles. The naming isn’t great as there is really nothing more professional about P jobs.

The difference between United Nations P and G jobs is where and how they are recruited.

The UN recruits P jobs internationally. Post holders are hired from all over the world and work as expats on UN projects. Many people with P jobs move around the world between different postings with the United Nations.

G roles with the UN are recruited within the country the United Nations is working. This means people with G jobs must be nationals of the country in which the UN has its office.

There are also D jobs within the UN. These are essentially the same as P jobs but more senior.

As well as the UN giving all jobs a letter coding which shows how and where it is recruited from, each job within the UN system is given a number. The number indicates the seniority of the job and how much experience is needed to get it. This is why you will see jobs with the United Nations advertised as P-5 or G-2.

If you are looking to join the UN as a social worker, the position you apply to will depend on your years of experience and whether you aim to work abroad or in your home country.

A good idea is if you are early in your career then apply for low-level G positions if the UN has projects in your country. As you gain more experience, it can be possible to expatriate and work abroad for the United Nations in a P role. If you are from a country where the UN doesn’t run projects, then building some experience as a social worker, either in your home country or abroad with humanitarian and development NGOs, can be a good path to take before applying for P jobs with the UN.

As well as the fixed-term and permeant jobs the United Nations has, there are also a huge number of consultants who work on UN projects. Consultancies with the UN cover a range of areas and are at different levels of seniority. However, generally to be a consultant with the UN you need several years of professional experience in social work, particularly in areas related to UN projects.

Another good route into working for the UN, including as a social worker, is through volunteer positions and internships. UN Volunteers is a scheme that deploys professionals into UN projects around the world. Volunteer postings usually last a few months can be a great way to start a career with the UN. Many people who took UNV postings later moved into P roles working abroad for the United Nations. UNV often recruits people with specialist professional backgrounds so look for recruitments that require qualified social workers.

The United Nations has a range of programmes for recent graduates and young people. Some of the main ones are the UN Internship Programme, the Junior Professional Officers scheme and the Young Professionals Programme. These schemes aim to give new recruits a broad understanding of the UN’s work and are not often focused on technical areas such as social work. However, if you have recently qualified as a social worker, consider joining one of these schemes as you may be able to move later in your career into a social worker role with the United Nations.

If you want to learn more about how to get a job at the United Nations, including as a social worker, explore our page on the top UN 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.