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Getting your first job

By Ola Mirzoeva

Exploring career options, building an international network, contacting potential employers, informational interviews and the important art of pitching yourself.

Exploring international career options

The first step to a job hunt is getting clear about what it is that you are most passionate about, what skills you can contribute to that area, and what gaps in your CV you may need to fill to get you to your desired destination.

The realm of international work also offers a range of work environments, from highly structured team-based work in multinational organizations, to more flat reporting structures in start-ups, to government or NGO environments.

Questions to ask yourself might include:

  • Which course subjects were most engaging to me in my studies and what kinds of organizations are active on these issues?
  • What kind of work environment do I want to be in? Am I best in a team or do I prefer more independent work?
  • Do I like a lot of instruction or do I thrive in an ambiguous environment when I structure my own approach to solving problems?
  • Are there particular sectors or issues that interest me?
  • Am I driven by profits or money, or is contributing to wider social goals important to me?
  • What countries and regions are most interesting to me, and why?

Once you have narrowed down the must-haves for yourself, the next step is to conduct online research to test your assumptions and fill in gaps in your knowledge so that you can get a better understanding of the type of work you would be doing, and what it might be like to live in a certain part of the world.

You can conduct searches on LinkedIn, and read job descriptions to narrow down where you best fit. Interested in marketing but not sure if you want to do market research or advertising? Read a few job descriptions and LinkedIn profiles to see which feels like a closer fit to your interests and skills. Following companies on Twitter and LinkedIn, and keeping a pulse on current events related to your areas of interest, are also great ways to zero in on the right path for you—and discover potential employers that you may not have known about previously.

To complement online research, you can seek out industry conferences or community events, which can give you a good idea of what the current issues and opportunities are in a given field. In larger cities, there are regular conferences and information sessions available, and some offer free or discounted rates for students. Come prepared with questions for the presenters and use the opportunities to make connections, and become literate on the language of the industry and the skills that matter most to taking on the relevant challenges or opportunities.

Consider starting at home

When competing in the international job market, one way to get noticed is by branding your CV with experience at an international company known for rigorous training and work culture—for example, top-tier firms in management consulting or banking. Many professionals with international careers started at headquarters in North America or Europe, before pursuing international opportunities. This approach will give you the opportunity to hone your skills in a more structured and familiar environment while building credibility and work ethic that will open doors internationally going forward.

“I think one of the hurdles that many people can face while trying to work abroad is getting a company to sponsor their visa right out of the gate. One of the strategies that you can use is to start at a company that 1) has a presence in your home country, as well as in others where you are interested to work and 2) is willing to sponsor employees who wish to make international transfers”
Michael Tucci, Product Manager, Amazon

Building an international network

Once you have a clear idea of the kind of work that interests you, start surrounding yourself with people that are doing your dream job. This may be easier said than done, and networking may come easier to some people than others. Whether it is a pain or a pleasure, the effort put into building an international network will pay off. The people that you build a meaningful connection with will be working for you in your job search. They can put you on to potential job leads you may not have known about otherwise, they can provide connections and referrals to hiring managers or others in their network, or they can become career mentors that can be helpful sounding boards and advisors on your journey.

“Once you're abroad you have to do everything you can to meet people, build your network and understand who is doing what. After you get your foot in the door, the next opportunity will usually come from your network.”
Monica Rucki, Strategy & Operations Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Google

There are many ways to develop an international network. This can include attending international conferences, participating in an academic exchange to a campus abroad, or getting involved with international student groups on your campus.

“It was important to both prioritize moving abroad and developing the network to make it happen. If I hadn't had the interactions I did with exchange students in Canada, gone on an academic exchange myself, and participated in international conferences, I would not have had the same resolve to make the move.”
- Victoria Cai, Uber Technologies, Singapore

Other ways to build your international professional network include attending recruiting events, volunteering for causes that interest you which have an international presence (for example, the Red Cross chapter in your country). Your university alumni network is also an excellent resource for learning about the types of jobs that are out there and starting to build connections. You can approach this from a number of different angles, such as asking your professors for introductions to former students in your field of interest, approaching your university Alumni Relations department, or just reaching out directly to alumni through LinkedIn with a brief and friendly message introducing yourself and requesting to learn more about their role, organization and career trajectory.

When networking, remember that people love to talk about themselves and are generally open to offer advice and guidance to help others seeking to follow in their footsteps. You will be surprised by the positive response you get if you lead with curiosity, warmth and a genuine desire to learn and connect. If you are connecting in person, remember to ask your contact for a business card or email address, and follow up promptly. Keep these e-mails brief, but try to be specific in your follow-up and refer back to the conversation so that you can be sure that you stand out from the pack. If you can, try to reflect on what you can offer to the networking relationship as well. This could include sharing articles of common interest on occasion or offering your own contacts or access to student networks. Even in your early career, the best networking relationships are a two-way street. And remember, building and nurturing a professional network is not something you do just when you are looking for a job.

“I never stop networking even when I'm happy with my job. I think it is important to keep expanding your network, and meeting like-minded people. You find out about organizations that are doing incredible things, and you never know how your paths will cross in the future.”
-Katherine Arblaster, Project Manager and Consultant, Mennonite Economic Development Associates

Contacting potential employers

Once you have an orientation on the issues in a given sector or country, make a list of organizations that you are interested in pursuing employment with, and systematically track your progress on reaching out to them against a timeline and goals. This is a good opportunity to practice your Excel and project management skills!

Whether or not an organization has an opening, an informational interview will put you on their radar for future openings and may open doors to other useful contacts or insights on breaking into an industry.

There are a number of ways to reach out to companies about potential opportunities or to request informational interviews. This can be done through seeking connections to employees through your personal network of family and friends or through initiating introductions through wider social and professional networks such as LinkedIn and Twitter. When reaching out to different companies, develop targeted introductory messages—cookie-cutter strategies rarely bring results. Approach them through multiple channels including email if it is available online, LinkedIn, or cold calling. Make sure you can articulate clearly why you are interested in the company and what you would like to learn from the meeting.

“Don't underestimate the power of cold calls. Shoot emails out to people that you know that are working in a field that interests you, or that have already done it. Email me! You'd be surprised by how many people who are willing to talk and share advice, and some of those conversations may lead to career opportunities abroad.”
Michael Tucci, Product Manager, Amazon, France

Pitching yourself

You have received some positive responses from your outreach efforts and now it is time for your first meeting. While approaches to informational interviews vary, there are some general guidelines.

1. Make the meeting about the other person. Think about questions that you want to ask them that will lead to valuable information for your own search. Examples of these questions could be “How did you decide on this career path?” or “What do you think the most important skills are for new hires at your company?”

2. Be ready to provide a brief introduction about yourself, including your educational background, prior work, volunteer or international experience related to the role, as well as your interest in the company and your vision for your career trajectory. Practice telling this story to friends and family so that you feel comfortable when you meet with potential employers.

3. Expect to keep the meeting brief (30 minutes), and select a location most convenient for your contact. They are doing you a favour by meeting you. Be sure to thank them and follow up promptly. You may wish to include your CV and/or cover letter in the follow-up e-mail.

CVs and cover letters should always be customized to the organization you are applying for, and reflect knowledge, interest and respect for their industry and the way they do business. The cover letter should also briefly outline your interest in a role in the company and your credentials that would make you a successful candidate. Be sure to include contact information, as well as a date on the letter. There are many great samples online that you can use for inspiration and to make sure you are writing in a professional yet friendly tone. When possible, always make an effort to find out the name of the hiring manager and address the letter directly to them.

One way to pitch yourself that reduces the risk for the organization is as a short-term volunteer in your area of interest. This will allow you to demonstrate both your technical skills and your ability to work within the organizational culture of the company.

Finally, it is important to be patient and flexible when embarking on the search for an international career. As mentioned in previous sections, gaining work experience at a company in your home country can lead to opportunities abroad. This can be either through the skills you acquire through the work, or by way of a direct transfer to an office in another country. There are many paths to an international career, and if you make your intentions clear and continue to be on the lookout for opportunities there is no doubt you will get there.


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