"When you walk the halls at UCL, and see previous alumni and learn the history of UCL and its achievements, it provides you with a different view of what is expected."
Adam McVie studied on the MSc Risk, Disaster and Resilience and now works for the United Nations World Food Programme as a Programme Policy Officer in their Gambia Country Office.
Why did you choose the course?
I really wanted to go into international humanitarian response, and also studied a BSc in the subject. While doing my placement year during my bachelors, I found that 95%+ of people in the sector had at least one Masters, and it would be extremely hard to get into the sector with just a bachelors. Therefore, I undertook the course in IRDR to achieve those requirements, but also to get closer to the humanitarian agencies, which are primarily located in London.
Why did you choose the IRDR?
When looking for the institution to do my masters course I looked for institutions that have a disaster management course, and an institution that is well respected and has the professional linkages that I needed for a career.
What did you enjoy most about the course or your studies more widely?
The key note lecturers were all experts in the field, being the author of many of the foundational text books in disaster management, either in the UK or internationally. There is also a diversity of guest lecturers that provide a wide selection of topics such as island vulnerability, insurance, cyber security etc. While considering what to do for my thesis, my lecturer set up a meeting with a representative from Anglo-American mining company who provided me with ideas and options for my thesis topic.
What were the most interesting things you did, saw or got involved with while at UCL?
I studied philosophy at A-Level, and so seeing the preserved body of Jeremy Bentham was an interesting induction to UCL. Due to the wide range of other courses, you can also participate in clinical studies as well, which you can get paid for. So I had my brain scanned twice, and participated in economic and psychology studies multiple times. It was a good earner for my lunches while at University, but it was also very interesting to understand other courses and participate in interesting psychological studies.
In what way did studying in London enrich your studies?
As the course was in London, I was able to undertake part-time employment as a waiter for some extra money, and the job was flexible enough that I could work my hours around the course. When it came to writing my thesis, the amount of lectures reduced, so I was able to intern at an international humanitarian charity. This allowed me to develop my CV for post-graduation, and I immediately got a paid role within the sector after graduation.
How did being at UCL change you and the way you think about yourself?
The expectations of UCL felt different than my bachelors university. When you walk the halls at UCL, and see previous alumni and learn the history of UCL and its achievements, it provides you with a different view of what is expected. The support services are also much greater as well, and its presence within London also ensure that there is a greater concentration of alumni and relevant organisations in the area.
How do you think the course has prepared you for your career?
Due to the lecturers being sector specialists, and who have worked in the sector as professionals and not just as academics. The course provided students with a practical element to the disaster management sector, with case studies and experiences as to what real disaster/ risk management looked like, and involved.
Would you recommend the course/IRDR to someone else, and if so, why?
Yes, I would recommend the course, and compared against comparable courses the quality and prestigiousness of the lecturers and the University give a boon to your understanding. Many of the lecturers within IRDR, (literally) wrote the book on disaster management, so having that source of knowledge is extremely beneficial for your learning and development as a professional.
What advice would you give to a student considering UCL?
Living costs are high in London, in terms of accommodation, travel and social activities. However, the opportunities are also higher in London as well, both in terms of short term work to get extra money, and also career opportunities for relevant work experience. Studying in London, as with any university course, is entirely what you make of it – just maybe with more extremes ie £5 pint’s, and pricey Jaeger bombs.
Which organisation do you work for and what is your job title?
I am currently a Programme Policy Officer for the United Nations World Food Programme, and am currently based in their Gambia Country Office.
Tell us about your current role. What is the core purpose and typical activities?
The main element of my role is to manage and support the development of Disaster Risk Financing activities, and support Government capacity development in climate services, and climate change adaptation activities. The main activity I work on is a macro insurance, that tracks rainfall, and automatically pays out if the data considers the rainy season to be a drought. I support the government in capacity development and explain the strengths and weaknesses of having different parameters for the policy. I also support in other climate services activities such as forecast based financing, developing early warning systems and other general WFP activities such as food distribution and corporate deliverables.
Which parts of your UCL experience were the best preparation for your job?
Within the humanitarian sector, 95%+ of people have at least one masters degree, and so ensuring that I have that on my CV allowed me to achieve the requirements for the role. However also having such a specific degree, allow me to have a comparative advantage in applications to the disaster management sector. Within the IRDR course itself, I also specifically learnt about risk insurance products as well, which played a key role in getting me the role at WFP, as the main activity is supporting the development of risk insurance products.
What advice would you give to a student looking to get into a career in your sector?
The international humanitarian sector is very competitive, and so focusing on a specific theme within that sector will give you added leverage when applying to your first roles (child protection, climate change, food security, social disruption etc). Most humanitarians have generic degrees in Geography or international development, and so specializing in a degree, but also your thesis will give you an added edge. Getting that first paid role is key, as once you are in, it is relatively easy to move around the sector – however that first role is extremely hard to get, as you are competing against a surprisingly large number of graduates. Use your time at University to get volunteering experience/ internships to help you build your CV, develop connections with alumni/ professionals in the sector, and use your thesis as an excuse to build contacts and become recognised in a sector/ organisation. There’s also “hidden sectors” within disaster management, that the IRDR degrees help with that a newcomer to the sector aren’t aware of, such as UK emergency planning, business continuity, search and rescue, nuclear site management, insurance/ reinsurance, risk management etc.
What are your future ambitions?
My aims are to continue doing in-country roles to gain experience and management experience across a variety of contexts and environments. My career has also pushed me towards disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation roles, which is good as these sectors are growing internationally as countries become more developed and climate change becomes more prevalent in impact. My ultimate aim is to become a Head of Programmes, for a civil society organisation and be in a leadership position while undertaking side roles in my spare time (trustee, community organiser etc). However with any sector, who knows what the future holds, as opportunities arise that ive not known about before, and that might open a new avenue for me.
Any other tips/things you’d like to add?
The disaster/ risk management sector is a niche to the outsider, however when you are in the sector, you realise there is a whole host of different skill sets and sub-sectors to consider. Explore the sector to see what is the best fit for you, and how you want to spend your career. For example, the charity sector is full of interesting people, and interesting activities – however tends to not be well paid. Business continuity tends to be more well paid, however will typically have that for profit ethos. While undertaking your degree, understand the different aspects to the sector, and research job profiles, to understand what you want from your career and life.
The humanitarian sector more specifically is a professional career sector now, and just having a degree and an interest in the sector is not enough to get that first step into the sector. You need work experience in the sector to get that first full-time role in the sector, and that first step is the hardest. At some point you will need to gain work experience (internship, volunteer, shadowing) to get that first step into the sector, and so you need to be extremely committed to the subject in those early years to get through that initial barrier. Consider roles overseas straight away, as they have more prestige that UK roles, however you cant undertake an international role and study, unless you take a placement year, or do it during summer break. Once you are in the sector though, you will be a professional with a degree/s in disaster management, and will be preferred over those candidates with a more generic degree such as geography.