How to Get Your International Career in Gear

Written by  Jean-Marc Hachey June 22, 2009
An international career doesn't happen overnight. Some tips to get you going.

Do you ever imagine yourself working abroad as a professional in Paris, London, or Singapore? You are earning a competitive salary, living in a great apartment, and taking short vacations to nearby exotic travel destinations. Your life is full of interesting conversations. You are meeting people and making friends from around the world.

International careers don't just happen! They are carefully planned and built up over a period of time. It is a fundamental fact that international employers want you to have international experience before sending you to work abroad. So, you need to plan ahead.

The key to gaining international experience is to dive into "all things international" while you are at school and university and by taking a gap year. This can happen both in Canada and overseas. You need to build up a host of international experiences before you are ready to start applying for professional international jobs. And the great thing about building these experiences is that you can have a blast doing it!


The Ideal International Profile

International careers are built on experience in various areas. Here is a list of things you should be doing during your time as a university student to improve your odds of getting a full-time, professional international job after you graduate. More than in a domestic career, you must have a long-term strategy for building your international career, block by block.


Academic Studies

Broaden your skills inventory by taking outside electives during your studies. For example, a science student should take internationally-focused social science courses; a history major should consider finance or management courses. Language skills are extremely valuable in international work, regardless of your academic discipline.

Consider an MA if you are aiming for professional positions. In some professional fields, an MA is a prerequisite for international work. This is especially true in the social sciences, pure sciences and business, though it is less important in health careers, engineering and computer science. No matter what your field, include courses with an international component or investigate subject matter with an international focus for major research projects.

Get other academic experience. Attend or help organize an international conference; participate in a professor-led research project; work as a teaching assistant; become a tutor; make public presentations; actively seek to work on team projects and preferably teams with foreign students.


Networking and Cross-Cultural Experience

Create opportunities to network with international experts. For example, write a paper that requires you to speak directly to someone working internationally in your field.

Find opportunities to meet and learn about people from different parts of the world. You can assist with foreign student orientation; act as a tour guide for visiting professors; work with refugees; or teach English as a second language.

Become socially active and knowledgeable in cultures other than your own. Befriend foreign students; become familiar with their food and social behaviour; try to pay a visit to them and their families in their home country (you will love it); actively participate in foreign student associations; hang out at ethnic social clubs.


Overseas Experience

Gain international work experience as an intern, co-op student or volunteer, preferably in your field of expertise. Try for two internships over the course of your years of study. Strongly consider taking a gap year to gain international experience. In Canada, there are thousands of international internships positions available each year, allowing you to live and work in all parts of the world.

Study abroad for one or more semesters. Study abroad in your field or to learn a new language. Almost every university and many colleges in Canada have exchange programmes that help you study abroad for credit.

Get out and see the world. Do not underestimate the value of backpacking and travelling the world. You need to interact closely with people from other countries in order to learn the skills required by international employers. Extend your stay while abroad to study, volunteer or intern. Consider travelling in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, rather than the traditional choices of Western Europe, Australia or New Zealand.

Be Creative. Increase the value of all your international travel by combining two or more objectives while abroad. For example, take four months off and learn Spanish full time in Guatemala. Living with a local family and having a full time one-on-one instructor could cost less than the cost of going to school in Canada. Extend your stay there by giving computer courses to local charity groups or volunteering to write English language brochures for eco-tourism groups. Travel in the region and practice your new Spanish skills while visiting with professionals in your field of work looking for short-term internships.


Hard Skills

Be functional in a new language. Be able to speak and read a language other than your mother tongue. In Canada, consider learning French or Spanish. In all cases, be an active listener and learn to pick up 20 or 30 words in any country you visit for more than two weeks.

Improve your economic and geographic knowledge of the world. Have a solid knowledge of the political and social forces shaping the planet. Get a well-rounded start on this by regularly reading news magazines such as The Economist.

Acquire some business skills. The most sought-after employees are those with multidisciplinary backgrounds, including business backgrounds and strong people skills. Employers seek scientists who can understand market research, engineers who can manage research teams and help commercialize products, and political scientists who can work in trade promotion. There is a need to assess the business aspect in almost every field, such as strategic planning, financial management and systems analysis.

Work on developing other management skills such as project management, accounting, training, research.

Develop your writing and analytical skills. Demonstrate these skills outside of course work by participating in a research project, writing a brochure, publishing an article in a magazine, or writing for a web site.

Strengthen your computer skills. Acquire strong word processing skills; be comfortable using spreadsheets and relational databases; hone your internet research abilities.


Soft Skills

Develop organizational, people, and leadership skills. Demonstrate these through work or volunteer experience, preferably with an international group. Organize an event or get involved as an executive member of a committee.

Intercultural communications abilities. Demonstrate these by being conversant in describing patterns of behaviour in cross-cultural work and social environments. Learn to professionally describe these real-life experiences.

Show that you have strong coping and adapting abilities. Demonstrate these with examples of how you coped when living away from your support structure of family and friends.


International Job Hunting Skills

Experience has shown that many people who are successful at finding international work have done something extraordinary to land their first job. They have gone out on a limb, acted boldly (but politely), have been entrepreneurial, have sacrificed certainty and taken risks to gain international experience and land that first job. International employers are looking for individuals who are fully committed to international work and living, and your job hunting methods should reflect this.


A Last Word

International jobs require a long-term commitment—you need to invest in yourself to build an international IQ. This process eventually becomes a lifestyle, an outlook on life, and a commitment to internationalism and cross-cultural learning. It is a very interesting and creative process. Go forth—the world is your teacher. And have fun with the exploration!


Jean-Marc Hachey is the author of
The Big Guide to Living and Working Overseas.

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