How to approach the job application process: Experiences from the think tank/non-profit sector


The summer semester is here to those in the US. For some of us, its time to don our caps and gowns down the academic aisle. Some of us are lucky enough to still be in school next semester. Whether you are graduating soon or in four years, someone will ask the inevitable question – “What are you doing next?”

This blog post will talk about this step dreaded by many: the job application process. Whether you’re a fresh graduate looking for a full time job or a student hunting for summer internships, this post aims to help you think about finding your way in the ‘real world.’

My job search strategy can be summarized in a 3-step concept: First, be targeted in your job search; Second, be irresistible to your prospective employers; and Third, get connected to those you’re interested in. This framework seems like common sense, but articulating it in a disciplined and constructive manner has guided me throughout the past three years, eventually landing my dream job right after graduation. This post is my attempt to share my personal experiences and those of my peers in the environmental non-profit sector, both as an applicant and as a hiring manager. Although I am mostly focusing on competitive non-profit* or think tank* organizations as the title suggests, there are many points in this post that could also work in other sectors.


Step one. Be targeted.

Knowing precisely what kinds of jobs or internships you want is the key starting point. Search far and wide and get as detailed as you can. Ask yourself, “What kinds of job would I like to be doing?” List all of them.  What kinds of organizations, what research topics, which subjects, which geographical focus, located where?  Be honest with yourself and take your time until you’re satisfied with what you truly want. This step is not about existing job openings, but about identifying what you are looking for.

To give an example, at the beginning of my job search I took about two months to narrow down what I wanted to this very sentence: “I would like to work as a researcher in an international environmental non-profit based in Washington, DC, working in the intersection of development and environmental protection, focusing on forestry/land use or energy governance, preferably with an Indonesian focus.”

Sounds very detailed?

What if you don’t know for sure what you want? Start this thinking process anyways, jot everything you’re interested in your notebook, better yet, put them in an Excel worksheet. Go through a process of elimination to narrow them down to at most five of such sentences.

After you’ve got this, you might want to identify what kinds of organizations could potentially provide what you want. A good place to start if you want to do something related to your current major might be your textbook and reading materials. Which organizations make the data you cite all the time in your assignments? Whose paper greatly inspired your thesis? Do you find yourself always using charts and figures from one particular organization? Which organization published a paper on a very obscure topic that was the only cite-able resource for your policy memo last year? This was how I found my current employer.

Another place to look for non-profits is the website They are the go-to web portal for non-profit jobs, particularly in the US. I would advise you to take a look at the “Organizations” page where you can learn about more than 70,000 non-profit entities that have profiles in this website.

Hopefully, step one will give you a reasonably narrow target for job search, including at least a handful of organizations you’re interested in.


Step two. Be irresistible.

It’s one thing to know what you want, and another to know who actually wants you. Identifying the very organizations or teams who would potentially be interested in you is the most crucial step. Unfortunately I don’t see this realization in a lot of my college peers and I don’t hear this enough from career coaches.

Put yourself in a recruiter’s shoes and be honest with yourself in assessing your strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself, “Looking at my resume, what kinds of organizations/companies would be interested in me?”

For example, my resume suggests that I am an “environmental economist with a focus in energy security, some advocacy experience and significant Indonesian background with fluency in Indonesian and French.” Of course, the technical team at let’s say –Google- will never even think of hiring someone with my profile.

Make realistic guesses on who would be interested. In my example, perhaps an environmental organization working very closely on Indonesia (or maybe even in Indonesia)? The sustainability division of a consumer goods company? An environmental consulting firm focusing on tropical land use change? The Indonesian government focusing on international environmental treaties? The list goes as far as your imagination.

Being irresistible has much to do with the person who’s judging (the employer) as well as the person being judged (you). An environmental non-profit may find my skills and background much more valuable than the technical team at Google does.

You would want to find a place where your skills are valued and in demand. You want to stand out in the hundreds of cover letters each hiring manager receives, since at most you will have five seconds to grab his/her attention with how you ‘package’ yourself. In those precious seconds, it is a good idea to be completely unforgettable.

You will have higher chances of being that way if the organization and the job description fit you like a glove. By thinking about the job search process with the two steps, hopefully you will be able to identify some employers who might be a good bet.


Step three. Be connected.

Figured out roughly several organizations you’re interested in who might have a chance in also being interested in you? Now, get to know them. In my experience, employers are much more likely to hire someone they know from previous positive interactions, whether that is from directly working with that person or from a very good reference.

You want to be part of the employer’s professional network. They would be much more at ease with you if your resume contains organizations or references that they immediately recognize. This includes a previous internship at a related organization, a class with a professor that your target employer has also worked with, or membership in a related national association.

For example, one of the candidates that I’ve interviewed recently has experience interning at an organization we work closely with. Another has done academic research with my co-workers in another department. These are traits that most employers are attracted to: a piece of your resume that they immediately can connect with. It shows that you’ve been in this field before, that you’re not completely new to the issue, and you have a connection to what your target employer does.

What if you don’t have that? Well, it takes time to build this connection. I would recommend getting to know your target employers, see their professional profiles online or on LinkedIn.

Next, get to know them by going to conferences, seminars, or brownbag* events that you know they will be present. Try to reach out to them and strike a conversation. Perhaps ask for an informational interview*. This is what I did with my current employer. I went to a UN climate change conference during my senior year and identified people from my target organizations in a global forest event. I went up to them, gave my business card, and followed up after the event. Fortunately, they remembered this encounter; my attendance in the conference showed my interest in the subject and in their work. Although they didn’t have a job opening right away at the time, they contacted me as soon as they did.

Whichever field you’re interested in, it might be a good idea to go to the most well attended annual event with the intent of networking. Examples include the UNFCCC COP for climate change; RSPO for agriculture/palm oil; Rio summits for sustainable development, etc.

Another source of professional contacts is your favorite professor. He/she is an accomplished researcher in your field, (hopefully) knows your academic strengths and weaknesses, and also has a wide professional network including non-profits. Go to office hours and discuss with them your career plans. Your professor will give you career advice and perhaps connect you with people in organizations that you are interested in. One of my coworkers did precisely this before landing his current position.

One caveat for Step 3 is that you must do your homework before connecting to people. Employers are always happy with enthusiastic, polite and knowledgeable inquiries. Ensure your research is solid before you outreach to avoid sounding ignorant. Once you have the opportunity to connect with your target employers, find a way to be appropriate yet unforgettable.

Yes, the job search process is time consuming and stressful. But you gain so much from the experience to make it worth it. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you find this three-step concept useful and informative.




*Think tank:  an organization that conducts research and engages in advocacy in areas such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology issues and in the creative and cultural field.

(Diane Stone ‘Think Tanks and Policy Analysis’, in Frank Fischer, Gerald J. Miller. & Mara S. Sidney (eds.) Handbook of Public Policy Analysis: Theory, Methods, and Politics, New York, Marcel Dekker Inc. 2006: 149–157).

Examples in the US include the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), the World Resources Institute, Hudson Institute and the Cato Institute

*Nonprofit organization: an organization that uses surplus revenues to achieve its goals rather than to distribute them as profit or dividends.

(The Nonprofit Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Start and Run Your Nonprofit Organization (Paperback), Gary M. Grobman, White Hat Communications, 2008).

Link to explanation by

Examples include WWF, Greenpeace, Conservation International, Amnesty International, International Red Cross.

*Brownbag: An (often) informal presentation or seminar during lunch break. The name “brown bag” is derived from the brown bags used in the US to package meals brought by attendees or provided by the host.

*Informational interview: A meeting between a job seeker and an employee of a company to ask for career advice and information, not for employment.



Photo credit: Careers in Non-Profit from Sonoma State University website

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Ariana Alisjahbana is a recent MBA graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. Originally trained as an economist with a BA from Boston University, Ariana started her career at the global think tank World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, DC. At WRI, she led the creation of the institute’s first Southeast Asian office and worked with the governments of the United States, Indonesia, and Singapore on environmental issues. Fascinated by her experience developing Global Forest Watch, Ariana decided to pursue an MBA focusing on the internet industry. Ariana completed her MBA internship at Google, where she was part of a global team that developed the new Allo Messenger app. After Google, she interned at Yik Yak, a location-based social media company. Currently, Ariana works for Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant.


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