“Recently I attended a slightly depressing but inevitable life event; my 10 year high-school reunion.”
An old friend of mine who has spent the last few years studying baboons in Namibia commented to me that we were among only a few professionals out of 100+ classmates at our international school, to have built a truly international career. Reflecting on our conversations as 17 year olds, this was a fairly surprising fact, considering many of us were aspiring jet setting international business people, save the world type aid workers, or wannabe James Bonds etc. Life clearly had other plans.
Therefore, exclusively for Life After Study Abroad, I have a compiled a list of tips to help you as you consider an international career. They are entirely subjective and based on my own experience, but I hope they help.
1. Make sure you REALLY want to develop an international career.
Alright, this may seem a little obvious, but it is so important to consider. Generally an international lifestyle can be exciting, incredibly rewarding and often life-changing. However, it is important to consider the effect all that travel has on your personal life at home. And it can take years of work before you make it into a prevailing wage job abroad. The best way to test the water is by studying, volunteering or interning abroad, so you can figure out if you would be able to do it long-term.
2. Develop your intercultural communication skills.
If I had the choice between an excellent intercultural communicator with only an undergraduate degree to run a field office somewhere in the world or a Harvard MBA grad with no intercultural communication skills, I would pick the former. I’ve seen the car crash that is professional teams heavy on qualifications and light on intercultural understanding. But how can you hone these skills? Get international experience and LEARN as much as you can about how people get along personally and professionally. Nothing has been more valuable to me in my professional life abroad than understanding my fellow local co-workers and participating in the local culture. This means going above and beyond your traditional 9-5 professional while abroad. It’s so important to always accept invitations to meals, coffees, drinks, community festivals etc; to not only understand the local culture but also to show that you want to participate in their community.
3. Get international experience.
You’ll find it hard to get work internationally if you don’t have some sort of international experience. Preferably in the region or country you intend to work in.
4. If you can’t get international experience, develop your skills domestically.
Ok, I know this goes against the point I just made, BUT, I worked for years domestically in urban low income neighbourhoods in the US, and there wasn’t too much difference between those professional experiences and the projects I experienced abroad. It’s all about how you develop your professional story, linking experiences domestically to what you want to do internationally. Experience in education is usually highly transferable for example. If you are a talented (and qualified) educator in the US, chances are you will be as, if not more effective abroad.
5. Develop your international network.
Be shameless in the building of your network abroad! The best breaks I have had professionally have come from tenuous links to various contacts all over the world. You’ll find that people will go out of their way to connect you with people in the countries you work/travel in when you are looking for experience or travel abroad. I have had incredible professional opportunities and this has mainly because I made the most of as many different connections as possible in my first few years out of college.
6. Invest in a culture, country or region long-term.
Many of my fellow globetrotters, especially in the diplomatic or international development field, like to spend 1-2 years in a country and then move on. Its part of the glamour of an international career. I, on the other hand, believe that you can develop much deeper knowledge, skills and personal ties to a region if you invest as much time as you can in one geographic or cultural area.
7. Learn a language to a professional level.
This is simple, but takes years of hard work and dedication. And even if you end up in a different part of the world entirely its good to have at least a second language under your belt first in order to show a potential employer that you are capable of learning languages to a high level.
8. Become a specialist.
It’s so important to give an employer an idea of your special skills. This could be within a broader set of interests, but if you are considering grad school in order to get a step up in your international career, I would strongly advise you to go deeper into one area rather than a more generalist international relations degree. An old colleague at the UN recently gave me similar advice. Many big international employers in the non-profit or governance space are facing big budget cuts. They are increasingly moving towards hiring contractors and freelance specialists. Moving into a specialty field can help get your foot in the door while leading to broader roles as you become better known in your chosen sector.
GO FOR IT. I have been lucky in the opportunities I have had, but I strongly believe you make your own luck. And luck usually emerges from the deep end, so spin the globe and go for it!