I’ve been working overseas for nearly 2 years now. I write this post from once again another country I never thought I would wind up in (Qatar) and I have ZERO regrets about quitting my consulting job in 2013 and marching directly in the direction of my fears, which happened to involve hopping on a plane to Lagos, Nigeria and embarking on a job and lifestyle that both embodied everything I ever wanted to do and also completely terrified me. If you ask me what I’ve learned and gained in return, it is nothing short of growth, adventure, friendships, business contacts, new skills, and unforgettable memories.
And I want everyone to feel like this.
So it’s no surprise with the theme of my blog and the speed of social media that at least once a week I get a message on Facebook or an email that goes something like this:
“Hi, I’m so-and-so and I graduated last year with a degree in this-and-that and want a job where I can travel. Can you help me?”
I love these messages because every single one of them reinforces my belief that more young people should — and are — actively embarking on similarly uncharted and adventurous paths and just need a little help (or push) to get there. I’m thrilled when I can be that helping hand and want to share my typical response to those private messages and emails with everyone.
Here’s my answer to those of you who have ever sent — or is thinking about sending — some version of that message to me or to anyone else in your life working abroad.
(If you read this and still need more help or want advice tailored to your individual situation, then hop on over to my Office Hours and sign up for a session!)
Do you just want a job or is this a career move? Do you care about the difference?
It’s fairly easy to get a job abroad: Apply for a working holiday visa in Australia. Wait tables in Paris. Work in a hostel in South America. Do a “volunteer vacation” in South Africa. Teach English in Mongolia. All it takes is some dedicated Google-searching and enough money to afford the plane ticket. And the guts to pack up and go, of course.
Working abroad in a way that purposefully moves your career forward is different. Getting a position you can proudly put on your resume for the rest of your life is more difficult. Not impossible, just more difficult, and there are two main ways to go about it, neither of which is quick and easy because there are no shortcuts to building a dynamic international career.
The rest of my response is catered to the second type: long-term, career-focused travel jobs. If you’re a backpacker looking to see new parts of the world and make enough money to get by, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and there are plenty of places on the Internet that can help you out, such as Jobs Abroad and Go Overseas.
Two ways to make a career move abroad.
1. Work your way up. That’s the short, nicer version of what I usually tell people, which is, “suck it up and take a name-brand job for a few years in order to get transferred abroad internally or to learn a tangible skill that is in high demand.” To be frank, not many sexy jobs abroad go to someone from another country who is fresh out of undergrad with no work experience and few unique skills. You’re expensive to import and there are usually strict local policies to prevent companies in many countries from hiring a foreigner when strong local talent is readily available.
Basically, take a corporate job for a few years, make sure you have your ideals and next steps clearly defined to avoid being enticed by money and dragged up a ladder you weren’t originally bargaining on climbing, and come out on the other side with a very strong value proposition for a specific company, sector, or area of business that is compelling in any part of the world.
Warning: What I also tell people is, if you aren’t being hired to work internationally (as in, it’s not in your title or contract), then don’t get your hopes up. The only way to be guaranteed to work overseas is to be hired to do exactly that. If you’re taking a consulting gig thinking that because they have an office in China and you studied a few years of Mandarin that you will have that opportunity at your fingertips (that was my faulty assumption in my previous job), then you are setting yourself up for disappointment and a delay in kicking off your international career.
If you’ve built up some relevant experience and aren’t seeing a viable internal move or aren’t being approached for international positions…
2. Pack up and go. Remember I said this wasn’t going to be easy?
After spending the last two years surrounded by expats, I see just how easy it is to become one. I often tell people approaching me for job advice, with all seriousness: “Just go to a city like Bogota or Addis Ababa or Hong Kong with enough savings to hang around for a few months, find the expat bars, make friends, network (because that will be your full time job for awhile), utilize your country’s local business associations and chambers of commerce, aggressively get yourself in front of companies, and an attractive position will probably unfold.” This is especially true if you go for a “second or third-tier” city (think Doha instead of Dubai, Stockholm instead of Paris, Nanjing instead of Shanghai) where there are simply fewer foreigners around looking for jobs.
Warning: This is a better approach for, but not limited to, those who have tangible skills and a genuinely impressive resume with 2-3 years of work experience.
These are the two high-level ways to go, as far as I see it, and then there is a whole lot of strategy (aka the tactics: where to search, how to network, etc.) for either approach, which I discuss in great detail here.
What do you want to do exactly?
If you can’t articulate what you want to do, at home or abroad, then I’m afraid you have some more soul-searching to do before I, or anyone else, can help you. You have to help us help you.
For example, if you can tell me, “I am a graphic designer and would like a job as a Creative Director in an advertising agency in South Africa,” then I can almost certainly point you in the right direction. But if you tell me, “I studied International Relations and want a job where I work abroad and learn about other cultures firsthand,” then I’m at a loss for words.
This is where my tough love comes in.
It might sound crazy, but sometimes I say, “pick a direction, any direction,” especially when it comes to getting hired abroad. I know you have a lot of options and probably a lot of things you’re passionate about; we have all been told since birth that we can do anything, but the fact is, we’re drowning in our own potential. Just pick something and try it on for size. Be impulsive. Follow a gut feeling. Make a choice. It doesn’t have to be forever, but you also can’t go on basking in your own “potential to do anything” forever either. The inability to articulate who you are, what you do well, and what you are looking for is reflective of an internal immaturity that is not attractive to employers in any country and will only promote “failure to launch” type situations.
“But, Elaina, that’s why I want to travel — to figure that out.”
And travel is a fantastic way to do just that. But if you’re traveling to figure yourself out better, then this means you probably aren’t ready (or qualified) to make a career move abroad. Instead, I’d suggest saving up a wad of cash and go backpacking for awhile, scheduling some informational interviews in professional areas of interest to you, and/or taking time to ask yourself some tough questions.
International experience begets international experience.
The good news, my fellow travel and international career enthusiasts, is that your first serious overseas job experience is the hardest one to land. After that, you will have an increasing amount of credentials that construct your personal and professional brand in an international context for the long-term.
We will all work international jobs.
I like to reassure everyone approaching me with international ambitions that, rest-assured, we have entered into a period of human history that is irreversibly globalized. If not immediately, then certainly at some point in your career, you will have to work abroad. Your area of expertise, no matter how specific or seemingly local, will somehow have global implications; your clients or your colleagues or your competition (or all 3) are going to be international, and working internationally will become a fact of life.
The only question is how eager you are to make international work experience a part of your resume now or later — and I trust if you are reading this then you want it to be sooner rather than later.
This article originally appeared on Life Before 30 and is republished here with permission.
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