How to Work Abroad as Professional

Career Wanderlust: How to Work Abroad as a Professional

Do you dream of working abroad as a professional? A sort of “career wanderlust?”

There is already a bountiful amount of information available about how to work and travel at the same time. Most suggestions for accomplishing this goal include working in the tourism industry, becoming a freelancer, yacht stewardess, or travel photographer. Those are all great ideas and if that’s your goal, you should go for it! But this post is about how to work in the career field that you would otherwise pursue at home, but abroad.

Certainly, this will be easier in some fields of work than others, but in my travels I’ve met people working abroad as baristas, farm hands, lawyers, PR executives, and doctors. In a short series on this topic, this post begins with advice before you go.

Whether you are a young professional just starting out or you’ve been in your field for years and feel pulled towards a location abroad, this advice is for you. Depending on your current stage, some piece of advice may be more relevant than others.

1. Make your vision obvious by your actions

Dream. Make plans. Tell people about your plans. Take action on those plans.

Not everyone feels comfortable with quitting their job, selling all of their belongings, and buying a one-way ticket to Kathmandu.

As much as that idea might stir something inside you, you might be halted by the suggestion. Those types of epic decisions are awesome and make for a captivating story, but if such dramatic decisions are not for you, it doesn’t mean the end goal cannot still be yours. In fact, the caution and pragmatism that causes you to pause might also be an ingredient in your ultimate success. There’s nothing wrong with being strategic.

Particularly, if you are looking to work as a professional abroad, each move should be a stepping stone. If you arrive without a plan or an unexplained gap in employment, it’s not the end of the world and with some hustle you might still be able to make it work, but as the saying goes: “Chance favors the prepared man [or woman].”

However, don’t just take pride in your plans, take pride in your action. Start learning the language. Start researching opportunities and apply. Depending on your stage of life, this will take a different form.

– If you are an undergraduate student, apply for study abroad programs or summer internships in your country of interest.

– If you are a graduate student, I would highly encourage you to apply for summer work in your country of interest.

When I was in law school, I was fortunate enough to work in Thailand every summer and for a short time after taking the bar exam, before accepting an offer in New York City. The field of law is incredibly conventional and slow to change, but often misperceived as non-transferable abroad. The accepted wisdom is that you need to intern in the place where you want to get a job offer and within the jurisdiction of the law you studied. Makes sense.

However, when I left a job in Asia to attend law school back home in the U.S., I still wasn’t finished with Asia. In the terrible legal job market we had, I didn’t want to choose the experience of working in Asia at the risk of not receiving a job offer near my home and school. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.

At first, I didn’t even know if I would be able to spend the summer working in Asia, but I put out applications all over the place and received several offers. I’ll never forget the night I placed a long distance call on my parent’s house line, after receiving an email that an attaché at U.S. Embassy Bangkok wanted to speak with me about an internship. I accepted the offer and was on cloud nine. I just need to recall that memory and the entire experience and I’m back on that cloud. That internship led to more opportunities in Thailand.

Long story short, since I knew it was a gamble to spend every summer working abroad, I worked in the NY tristate-area every semester during the school year as well, to establish experience and relationships in the area.

I believe in trying to “have it all,” but sometimes it doesn’t come all at once. Be strategic and take small steps of action along the way, so that someone could examine your choices and your vision for your future would be obvious to them.

Imagine looking down at your life from an aerial viewpoint, where you can see exactly where you are headed, even if you haven’t arrived yet.

2. Be willing to tap the brakes for the best education

If your country of origin is one that international students flock to for higher education, give careful consideration to your plans when deciding where to obtain your own degree. Certainly, some degrees, by their very nature, have added-value when obtained from an overseas university. For example, if you’ve finished your undergraduate degree and are interested in getting a master’s degree in a foreign language, a program in a native-speaking country might be a great fit for you.

However, there are many fields that require a degree from an accredited university in your country. Even if you don’t want to work in your country, you need to think about the future and the transferability of your degree and not underestimate the global value of an education from your home country, however disenchanting the thought of staying home might be.

A law degree is a perfect example of this. If you are a U.S. citizen, even if you want to work abroad, get your law degree in the U.S. Some foreign countries allow non-citizens to be licensed attorneys in-country, but many do not. In some countries, if you have foreign citizenship and want to work as an attorney in-country, your best opportunity will be as a foreign consultant. And there is NOTHING wrong with being a foreign consultant. Much of your work might be the same as your local colleagues and your compensation will not be hurt, but often bolstered by your foreign (home country) expertise.

So, before you rush into a graduate program abroad, examine your field. If it’s more advantageous for you to obtain your degree in your home country, tap the brakes on your international move.

Utilize your summers by applying for internships in the country you want to later work in. Work during the school year in your home country as well. Keep eggs in both baskets.

This does not mean you are not “following your dreams” or that you are compromising. It’s just the pragmatic thing to do and you will likely increase your opportunities in your target country exponentially by doing this.

3. Participate in programs, but forge your own path

This point is SO important. If you envision yourself living and working in a country you’ve never visited before….go visit it first. If time, money, and work permit, the most ideal way to do this is for at least a month to a year in some type of organized program.

However, while there are many study programs, volunteer programs, and work-study programs out there that can be great resources as an introduction to a new country, if you don’t branch off and forge your own path, you will not be able to establish yourself as a professional in your field in that country.

Here is what I mean by “forging your own path”:

– Making contacts (business or personal) outside of the program

– Attending events outside of the program

– Eventually applying directly to a company, business, or organization that does not double as a business or organization that solicits foreign workers for a travel-like program of hand holding

Again, these types of programs are incredibly valuable for your first introduction to the country, but to a certain extent (which is sometimes very broad) they are also isolating and artificial.

The first time I went to Asia, I participated in a semester-long study abroad program in Chengdu, China. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I made life-long friends and met my husband!! Can you ever ask more from a study-abroad program? When the semester ended, I extended my trip through the summer (for one handsome reason).

I came back to the States, finished my undergraduate degree, and applied to a scholarship program through my university for current students and recent graduates to study at our Chinese sister-university for a year. I received the scholarship and was so excited to go, but I knew I wanted to do more.

Before I left, I applied to work full-time as a teacher in the city I would be studying in. After just finishing 3 consecutive semesters of 20-credit loads, I figured I could handle going to class in the morning and teaching in the afternoon.

I also wanted to go to law school in the not-far-off-future, so I planned to prepare for and take the LSAT while I was there. I enrolled in an “on-demand” online LSAT prep course with Kaplan, which would allow me to log-in anywhere in the world and get ready for the test. (I later took the LSAT in Shanghai, which was an interesting experience to say the least.)

When it came time to leave, I think my university was a little surprised that I was actually going on a work visa, not a study visa! Once I arrived, the Chinese university was equally surprised when I turned down the dorm room they provided, because my employer provided an apartment.

This is one example of what I mean by participating in programs as an introduction, but forging your own path. Even though I worked as a teacher (which I enjoyed very much) and did not intend to remain in that field, I was branching out, which leads me to my next point…

4. Begin with the skills you have and build from there.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you have a dream that you’re eager to live out right now, but the pieces just aren’t in place yet. Often, great success (however you define it) manifests in a way that we could not have expected. You may not have arrived at your dream destination (either figuratively or literally), but that doesn’t mean you’re not already on the path.

It’s important to start wherever you are, to begin utilizing the skills you already have, while building new ones. Then, figure out ways to use your preexisting skills synergistically with the new things you learn. You are building a strong foundation on which you will layer nuanced stones of expertise throughout the years.

For example, maybe you always had a talent for organizing events, parties, or gatherings. Perhaps you are now beginning to study a new language and you dream of being doctor, lawyer, or engineer. At first glance, these interests might seem unrelated. What are you going to do- throw a party for doctors in Russia (or wherever)?

Maybe not immediately, but you can begin learning Russian and spend a semester or two living there. If you are already finished with schooling, you could apply to teach English in Russia, so you can learn the language in its native land, while supporting yourself.

Then, through those programs, you can branch out. Maybe you can organize an event at the university you are attending, or at the school you are teaching at.

From there, you can use that experience to pitch yourself to another organization or group of businesses in the area. Your native fluency in your mother tongue and expert knowledge of your home country will always be an asset abroad. Highlight that.

Now, for that missing piece. You’ve always wanted to be a lawyer or a PR executive or an entrepreneur. If you would be best served by obtaining a degree in your home country, go get it. However, you might very well already be qualified to start getting your foot in the door. Do you want to work in PR and have an undergraduate degree in communications, business, or even international relations? Apply to PR firms in that target country. Maybe you can start with copywriting, polishing English translations of white papers, etc. and build from there.

If you purposefully walk toward the goal of using your event planning skills in your new field in your target country, perhaps through trade shows or professional conferences, the skills you’ve build over the years will serve you well.

That is just an example, but the principle of the progression can be applied to a multitude of skills and interests.

The most wonderful part of creatively bringing together your seemingly disjointed skill-set is that it takes off the pressure of having a master plan that would be derailed with one miscalculation.

Always keep learning. Start with the skills you already have. To the extent that it’s feasible in your life, keep directing and redirecting your path. As long as you are always moving forward and always building and utilizing new skills, everything will come together, probably even better than you imagined.

These are all important things to think about before you start making a plan to move abroad to work as a professional. An upcoming post will address important advice to consider once you’ve made the plunge!

Thanks for reading! I’d really love to hear about your experiences and dreams! Leave a comment below and tell us about it!

“Do not despise these small beginnings. For the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”
Zechariah 4:10

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