A Masters can get you to the heart of global politics – and closer to that charity job. By Emma Carroll

Have you got back from a gap year in the Third World to find yourself struck by the contrast between life here and abroad? Do you feel that the campaigns about fair trade and aid relief are now impossible to ignore? Do you feel strongly about improving the lives of the world's poor? If the answer to these questions is yes, you may be wondering how to get a job in international development with a body such as the UN or with a non-governmental organisation like Action Aid.

Nadia Idle, who works for War on Want, found herself in this position. "I wanted to understand why inequality and extreme poverty are so prevalent today," she says. "Why is it that in areas so rich in resources, there are communities, or even whole countries, stuck in what seems to be a never-ending cycle of poverty? And why especially is this the case when there is so much money coming from the West?"

Although a desire to contribute financially may be admirable, it is usually not enough to make a long-term difference. Poverty is about much more than just low incomes. The lives of the poor are characterised by risk and uncertainty, often without access to basic healthcare or education. Such problems rarely have a quick fix and you need to be clear about what you can do and the skills you have to offer before you start.

One way to improve your chances of working for a charity or government agency is to do a Masters in development economics. This can lead to both research work and jobs in international organisations, and will equip you to work on development issues here in the UK, too, such as urban regeneration.

"The subject is an exciting one, and students are potentially able to affect the direction of development policy in big ways," says Professor Andy McKay of Sussex University.

He says that developing countries' problems often stem from the fact that their markets work inefficiently, and an understanding of this economic context before specialising further pays dividends when you come to apply for jobs.

This was certainly the case for Tim O'Brien, who did the MA in development economics at Sussex and now works as a policy analyst with the United Nations Development Programme in Sarajevo, analysing the macroeconomic and social development of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Lindi Hlanze also studied the MA at Sussex and is aiming for a career in development journalism. "Having specialised skills in economics might improve my prospects for a career in international development, one of the most competitive fields for graduates to enter," she says.

So how should you go about choosing a programme? All the courses combine a firm grounding in microeconomics, macroeconomics and quantitative methods, as well as offering a range of options on topics like poverty, inequality and corruption. The aim is to equip students with the analytical tools to do further research or practical development work. You will find that universities vary in the emphasis they put on these different components.

Professor McKay recommends that you look at the number of students on the programme. At Sussex, between 20 and 30 students enrol on the MA each year, which allows for a lot of personal attention and more opportunities for students to contribute to the discussion.

Your route to the UN – courses in England

Sussex MA

Length: One year

Entry requirements: First degree in economics

Content: Development economics; international economics; economic analysis; and quantitative methods, dissertation

What do the students say? "Sussex has a small, friendly department... I quickly got to know an inspiring group" – Lindi Hlanze. "The quality of the teaching is first-class, and the close relationship to the Institute for Development Studies is a strength of the programme" – Tim O'Brien.

SOAS MSc Development economics

Length: One year full-time, or two years part-time

Entry requirements: Good second-class honours degree in economics, or equivalent

Content: A refresher course in maths, five compulsory modules, three optional ones, dissertation

What do the students say? "The working atmosphere at SOAS was brilliant. Tutors were all characters, but accessible and helpful. Students were of all ages, from all around the world" – Nadia Idle.

Oxford University MSc Economics for development

Length: One year

Entry requirements: Good upper second-class honours degree in economics, with evidence of ability in quantitative analysis

Content: Economic theory, elective modules, extended essay

What do the students say? "The teaching at Oxford is excellent and varied – especially in the areas that its professors have expertise – namely macroeconomic management, governance, poverty and human development" – Tom Newton-Lewis.