A career within the United Nations – From outer space to field support

Heli Pahlman is a young Finnish woman currently working for the United Nations in New York. Heli has achieved what many dream of: a career within the UN. How did she achieve it and what advice can she offer to our readers?

Qualifications and work life

Heli graduated from Åbo Akademi University with a Master’s degree in Social Sciences in 2008. During her studies, Heli studied a wide range of different subjects. “I studied public international law, and human rights were at the core of my studies. I also took courses in a variety of subjects, ranging from political science and comparative religion studies to language studies in French and Portuguese”, she explains. Briefly after getting her diploma, she was accepted to the LL.M. program (Master of Laws) at the University of Helsinki, from where she graduated in 2009.

Heli also had an interest to gain international work experience through a few interesting internships. “After my studies, I did traineeships at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and at the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations in New York, before moving back to Finland in 2010”.

Regardless of Heli’s impressive qualifications and traineeships abroad, finding work was not easy. “Like many recent graduates, I was sending out job application after job application without ever hearing back, and this was of course very frustrating. However, I kept myself busy with some temporary jobs here and there, and some courses in development studies at the Open University in Helsinki”, Heli says.

Heli Pahlman

Heli was intrigued by the career options offered by the United Nations. “Around the same time as I moved back to Finland in 2010, the United Nations organized its National Competitive Recruitment Exam, which is aimed at young professionals under 32 years of age who want to work for the UN”, Heli says. The exam is currently carried out under the Young Professionals Programme (YPP). Young professionals, from countries eligible that year, can apply to take a written exam in a specific subject or a ‘job family’, such as political affairs, economic affairs or technology. The competition is tough; only 40 applicants per country can take the written test in any subject. But the reward is tempting: those who are successful in the written part, are called to an interview, which may then lead to securing a spot on a roster from which young professionals are recruited throughout the UN.

Heli applied to take the exam in human rights in 2010. “Six months later I heard back from the UN that I had been successful. A few weeks later, I was interviewed in Geneva, and a few weeks after the interview, I got a message saying I had been placed on the coveted roster. It was also made clear that this did not mean I would necessarily be offered a job, so while I was excited to have made it this far, I continued sending job applications as I had been doing all along. Imagine my surprise when only a few months later, I got an e-mail from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna, asking if I would like to interview for a position there. I did, and I got the job”, Heli says.

Working with outer space affairs was not really something Heli had imagined herself doing. “But the opportunity was simply too interesting to pass on”, as she states. “I worked with space law and policy issues with UNOOSA for about three years. In 2014, I participated in a reassignment program through which I was reassigned to New York, where I now work for the Conduct and Discipline Unit in the Department of Field Support”, she tells us.

Life in the Big Apple

What does Heli’s average day at the office look like then? “My work involves paying a lot of attention to detail, gathering data, compiling reports, communicating with member states and peacekeeping missions, and working on improving the systems for tracking and addressing misconduct by peacekeeping personnel. My work here is very different from what I was doing in Vienna, and it feels invigorating to be challenged to learn new things, which I do, every day. Days can be very busy and the hours can be long, but for someone who got into international law because of the very idea behind the UN, there’s something very special about going to work everyday and seeing the UN Headquarters right there, across the street”, Heli says.

New York also offers a countless amount of interesting things to do. As Heli explains, “There are always a million interesting things to do, amazing restaurants to try and concerts to go to - the opportunities are endless”.

Advice for our readers

Many dream of a career within the United Nations, but it seems difficult to reach. Could Heli perhaps offer some advice to the Europass reader? According to Heli, you might not land your dream job right out of university, and very few in fact do. But you shouldn’t give up just because it is not easy.

“It can be challenging to get a foot through the door at the UN because competition is fierce and there are so many highly qualified applicants for each and every job. That being said, I would recommend gaining international work experience as early as possible, doing traineeships in fields relevant to your interests and being proactive. Keep yourself up to date on what’s going on in the field or area in which you are interested, and look up what opportunities exist to get hands on experience”, Heli emphasizes. If you are interested in taking the YPP exam, Heli recommends plenty of study time, staying focused and trying to understand how the UN works as a whole. If you are feeling nervous for the exam, Heli highlights the fact that everyone else taking the exam is in the exact same situation.

Life does make unexpected turns and surprising events might come your way. It might therefore be a good idea to remember Heli’s important advice: “Keep learning and embrace opportunities that come your way, because you never know what doors they may open”. Maybe even to space – who knows?

Heli PahlmanHeli Pahlman is currently working for the UN in New York. Does that sound interesting? Read on, and find out how she succeeded and what advice she has for you.

Tex and photo: Maaria Tirri

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