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Jobs in international business: A primer

Relevant degrees, hard skills, soft skills and global competencies, and international experience are all important elements to succeeding in international business


While there are many different possibilities, there are some well-worn paths to working in international business. The sections that follow look at business degrees, STEM subjects, MBAs and international degrees as starting point for entry into the international business sector.

It is important to note that educational qualifications are only part of the picture: practical experience and understanding of the country/region in which you are seeking employment are equally important—and affect the value of a degree in terms of opening doors. For example, holding a specialized master’s degree or MBA may carry greater weight in markets like Europe where organizations show a preference for candidates with degrees from reputable institutions.

In the area of entrepreneurship, and especially in the social enterprise space, new businesses are started by people from all backgrounds. Water and sanitation, renewable energy, agriculture and financial services are some of the areas where social businesses are making profit, while making a positive social impact. Social entrepreneurs attest to the fact that business skills are essential, but they can be learned or hired as you grow your idea.

Regardless of which degree you choose, make sure to seek out and take advantage of opportunities on campus to build an international profile: this includes participating in international student groups, attending international conferences, participating in academic exchanges or completing courses with an international fieldwork component. These avenues will be developed further in the “International Experience” section below.

The time to start building the foundation for an exciting international career is now, and there are many resources on campus at your disposal.

"You don't need to have a business degree to start. What I do think you need is fearlessness, adaptability and the ability to communicate. Everything else you can learn on the way.”
- Dennis Tessier, Founder, ARTI Energy Ltd, a social enterprise focused on renewable energy in East Africa.

Undergraduate business degrees

Undergraduate business or commerce degrees are some of the most versatile, as they equip students with both hard analytical skills and softer professional communication skills that employers at international companies and organizations value. As a business student, internationally-focused courses may not be mandatory in your coursework. Pursuing electives in international business, or courses from other faculties such as international relations, political science or international development demonstrates to potential employers that you have an orientation on international issues, strong writing and research skills, as well as practical business acumen. Pursuing a specialization or a minor in a field such as international development can also help set you apart from other candidates with a similar degree, and set you up for a career in emerging markets. Business degrees also provide the prerequisite courses for pursuing certain professional designations such as that of a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA), which can help you meet the visa requirements for working overseas.

“From working internationally both in India as well as being a Canadian in the United States, I have to say that the decision to get my Chartered Accountant designation was absolutely crucial to get the visa that I was given. I probably wouldn't have been able to come here and work otherwise.”
Sara Cousineau, Senior Finance Assistant, Ritz Carlton Hotel, Maui

Business programs often have well-developed partnerships with business schools internationally. Completing an international academic exchange can be a life and career-changing experience, and can offer the opportunity to grow your international professional network and add international experience to your CV. You may wish you apply for an academic exchange to countries where you have an interest in working. While abroad and on your home campus, be sure to take advantage of recruiting events and company information sessions, and inquire about opportunities at international offices.

Undergraduate business students can find a range of exciting international opportunities right after graduation. This includes jobs in more traditional areas such as marketing, consulting, operations management, finance and consulting, but can also extend to government organizations and international social enterprises or not-for-profits which require many of the hard and soft skills taught in business programs. At the mid-career level, many undergraduate business degree holders choose to pursue an MBA or other master’s degree. The pros and cons of MBAs, including international MBAs are discussed in further detail below.

STEM degrees

As technology becomes increasingly integrated into the business world, the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math present more and more opportunities in the business sector, as well as entrepreneurial opportunities.

The task for those pursuing STEM subjects is to balance theory with practical applications and soft skills relevant to success in international business. Compared to business degrees, STEM degrees may not offer as many opportunities to develop skills like presentation-making, pitching, and teamwork, which are important in the business world.

As a result, it may be a good idea to pursue practical courses with a focus on using analytical tools to solve real-world problems in industries such as tech, logistics, or telecommunications may be directly applicable to companies. If you have the option to do a minor as part of your degree, you may consider focusing on courses in a department related to international business or international development to round out your skill set.

STEM students have unique access to well-established programs such as Engineers Without Borders, which can be a great entry point into international work. Co-op terms can also be a possible avenue into international work. Even if you start in a role more closely related to your field of study, you may be able to build your skills within the organization and transition into other roles and office locations.

STEM degrees can lead you to technical roles within international business, such as software development, or can also be applied within fields such as management consulting which requires rigorous data analysis and problem-solving skills that STEM students often hold in spades.

“Machine learning technologies and natural language processing are examples of some of the technologies that are impacting consulting. The supply of consulting firms is also going up. Companies need to evolve and make themselves more efficient, and these skills are in high demand.”
Derrick Lichti, Senior Vice President, CPCS Transcom, East Africa

International degree

Pursuing a degree outside of your home country can be a great way to grow your network abroad, learn a new language, and actively seek international employment opportunities. It may also be a helpful signal to potential employers that you are committed to working in the country, as you have invested in learning about the culture, local economy and politics.

Before selecting a country of study, it may be worthwhile to look at the country’s immigration policy for obtaining a work permit during or after graduation. Another factor to consider is the degree’s recognition in the countries where you want to work.

At the master’s level, it is not uncommon for universities to have multiple campuses that students can rotate between while still obtaining one degree. One example is ESCP Europe, which is a pan-European business school which has campuses in Berlin, London, Madrid, Paris, Turin, and Warsaw.

As studying internationally can be a major investment, it is important to conduct thorough research when making your selection, and make use of the time in-country to build a professional network and actively pursue internships and professional opportunities.


In recent years, the prevalence of MBAs has risen significantly. For example, in 2012, MBAs made up over 25% of all master's degrees achieved in the United States. While some consider MBAs as one of the most predictable paths to success, other sources indicate that the labour market is oversaturated with MBA holders. For those coming from a non-business background such as engineering, an MBA following a few years of work experience has the potential to offer a fast track into managerial roles at multinational firms. As these degrees can often be very expensive, it is worthwhile to reflect deeply on your personal goals and the value offered by a specific program before blindly following the pack.

International MBAs

While the MBA was a uniquely American phenomenon in its early days, and many of the world’s most reputable programs at American institutions such as Stanford, Harvard and Wharton, international MBAs are growing in prevalence and are staking their claim in the global rankings.

INSEAD, which has campuses based in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, has been consistently ranked among the top three MBA programs globally, calling itself “the business school for the world.” It is a top recruiting destination for multinational companies such as Google and Amazon and leading global management consulting firms such as McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group. In Canada, the number one ranked MBA program, at the Schulich School of Business at the University of Toronto, has recently launched an International MBA (iMBA) which includes an international work term, language study and personal coaching.

One important question many prospective MBAs ask themselves when deciding to go international, is whether their degree will be recognized in the parts of the world where they want to work. While this is an important consideration, and certain MBA programs carry more brand recognition in different geographies, ultimately MBA-intensive sectors such as management consulting or large multinational corporations will be aware of the top programs.

While established international MBA programs can offer students access to international opportunities due to their reputation among global companies, this comes at a premium. In some cases, students receive sponsorship from their companies to complete an MBA, and return to a one or two-year fixed contract in their organization following graduation. For self-funded students, the decision to pursue an MBA may mean taking on over $200,000 in debt for a one-year program. Online MBA programs are growing in popularity, with an average cost of $40,000. While they deliver similar course content, due to the nature of remote study they admittedly lag on the networking component compared to on-campus programs.

The most important thing to consider when deciding to pursue an MBA is what you aim to get out of the experience. If cost is a deterrent, ask yourself if there are other ways to get to where you want to be in your career – you will certainly find that there are many paths to the same destination.

Hard skills: which ones, and where can they open doors?

From a hard skills perspective, many of the same skills that are valued at companies and organizations at home are also going to be highly valued in international settings. The benefit of hard skills is that they translate well across cultures. The stronger your technical and quantitative skills are, the easier it will be to prove yourself and add value in international settings.

Languages: Knowledge of languages can help you get your foot in the door in the region that you are interested in, as it is an important signal of your interest and commitment to understanding and adapting to the local culture. It has been said that learning a language is a skill in and of itself, so learning a new language can make it easier to pick up other languages in the future as you grow your international career.

Analytics: The ability to analyze large data sets in Excel is an important hard skill for decision-making for international companies and organizations. Roles requiring analytics include market research, finance, accounting, operations and business strategy.

Communication tools: (Microsoft Office, Adobe) Most corporate entities use Microsoft Office tools including Word, PowerPoint and Excel to communicate both within the organization as well as with external stakeholders. Mastering these universally-applied tools to present information in a clear and engaging way is important for collaborating effectively in a range of international teams. Other more specialized communication tools such as the Adobe Suite can be assets for those specifically looking to work in communications roles.

Financial analysis/valuation: Examples of financial analysis tools include discounted cash flow modelling, net-present value calculations, and using the Bloomberg terminal. Knowledge of these skills and tools can lead you to a career in in global financial hubs like London, New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong in industries such as venture capital and private equity.

Web design/coding: Having a basic understanding of coding language and web design can open doors to work in tech start-up hubs such as Silicon Valley, Stockholm, Barcelona and Dublin. Governments around the world are orienting their policies to support high-growth tech-start ups and as such, those with skills relevant to the tech industry can more readily capture international opportunities in tech hubs around the world as they arise.

Project management: Project managers are found across a range of organizations that need to execute deliverables on a specific schedule, such as companies in the business services sub-sector. In emerging markets, where there are many large infrastructure development projects underway a large demand for qualified candidates means an opportunity to export your project management skills to these markets and add value.

Business courses or relevant experience (for STEM / international studies graduates)

As a business student, internationally-focused courses may not be mandatory in your coursework. Pursuing electives in international business, or courses from other faculties such as international relations, political science or international development demonstrates to potential employers that you have an orientation on international issues, strong writing and research skills, as well as practical business acumen. Pursuing a specialization or minor in a field such as international development can also help set you apart from other candidates with a similar degree, and lead you to a career in emerging markets.

Likewise, for those studying STEM subjects or international relations/international development, supplementing core courses with business subjects can help you build a well-rounded skill set that companies are looking for in this sector. For those coming from a STEM background, business courses in areas such as finance, applied statistics and operations management can offer avenues to apply math and technology approaches to business problems. Courses such as general business strategy, international finance, industrial relations, marketing, consumer behaviour and macro-economics can be natural complements and extensions for those approaching international business from the social sciences.

Global competencies

Global competencies - consisting of knowledge, attitudes and soft skills - are consistently cited by international business professionals as the most important determinants of success in building an international career. While building intercultural competencies is relevant for anyone seeking an international career, those coming from a STEM background may have to reach further outside of their core course curriculum to find opportunities to build these skills through volunteer, work, or extra-curricular activities.

Cultural self-awareness: Understanding how your own background and culture have influenced your worldview, attitudes and behaviours is a fundamental step to understanding and interacting effectively with people in other cultures. In international business, awareness of one’s cultural biases is crucial for areas such as consumer behaviour research, product development, and negotiation. Cultural self-awareness skills can be cultivated through reading international literature and news sources, volunteering for international organizations or culturally diverse community groups, to name a few.

Respect and openness: Cultivating an attitude of genuine openness and curiosity about other cultures will help you to think comparatively, without prejudice, and view cultural differences as learning opportunities. When it comes to working in international teams, in multinational corporations, for example, respect and openness are crucial to solving problems in a creative way that take into account the perspectives of different country teams. In fields such as human resource management, this skill set is especially critical as HR professionals must exercise non-judgement and cultivate open communication and a supportive environment. Building up your knowledge of other countries, seeking out diverse perspectives on issues, and maintaining a healthy spiritual practice such as yoga or meditation can help you practice respect and openness even under the sometimes challenging conditions of working abroad.

Curiosity and humility: Like an iceberg, much of a country’s culture may be hidden below the surface. To develop your knowledge of another culture, you will need to seek out meaningful interactions, put yourself in unfamiliar situations, and be willing to move out of your comfort zone. In international business, especially in sub-sectors,such as business services, you will likely be dealing with clients from cultures that are unfamiliar to you. In order to provide high-quality services, it is important to be sensitive about the questions you ask, and always remain humble and cognizant of how you are perceived and what potential gaps may exist in your knowledge. These traits take time and deep self-reflection to cultivate.

Listening and observation skills, socio-linguistic skills: Other cultures may communicate differently from what we are used to—for example, communicating more indirectly, or being reluctant to disagree or to deliver bad news. It is important to develop the ability to recognize and accommodate these differences. You’ll need to be aware of non-verbal cues, cultivate patience, and develop the ability to adjust speech (both speed and word choice) to accommodate speakers of other languages. In the realm of international business, this is especially critical in client-facing roles as well as for collaborating fruitfully with internal team members. For example, in Germany, the cultural attitude is that everyone tables their ideas for others to criticize and dissect with no hard feelings, whereas in countries such as Japan or China, this behaviour may lead to a colleague or client ‘losing face’ and the working relationship being damaged.

Analytical skills and critical thinking: In order to be culturally sensitive, you need the ability to view the world from someone else’s perspective. While this ability is partially rooted in empathy and emotional intelligence, it also requires critical thinking and analytical skills. As a business person, this comes from your ability to look at a situation and logically structure decisions and identify possible root causes to issues. “Could the customer have meant X based on the context, or was it Y?” This type of analytical thinking and interpretive approach can be achieved through knowledge of psychology and behaviour change theory, as well as through close observation – or even by asking trusted friends and colleagues of their underlying intentions when you are not certain yourself.

“Flexibility is the most important quality to succeed in international work. It is OK to have non-negotiables, but it is best to try to keep those at a minimum and embrace the peculiarity of where you happen to be.”
- Bryan Lee, Operations and Finance Manager at Mountain Hazelnuts, Eastern Bhutan

International experience

As a student, there are numerous ways to get international experience in order to build global competencies and a global network that can lead to more long-term professional opportunities.

International field-work courses
Many universities offer courses which have an international fieldwork component as part of the curriculum. Although a trip may be a couple of weeks, these experiences can help build an understanding of what it takes to work in different cultural contexts, and can also offer networking opportunities. Many longer stints abroad started with a short visit to a country which sparked a chain reaction.

International business conferences/ student networks
International conferences can be a great way to network with other business students as well as industry professionals. Business conferences often contain interactive team activities and even mini-competitions. To make the most of these experiences, connect with as many people as you can who are both students and industry representatives. Come prepared with a list of people you want to connect with, your business card and personal elevator pitch. These will be discussed in further detail in the section “Getting your First Job” below.

Academic exchanges in business programs
Academic exchanges can be a great, relatively low-cost way to gain international experience at a top international institution while learning about language and culture in a full immersion environment. Academic exchanges generally run on a partnership agreement, meaning that you do not pay any additional tuition to access the institution and its resources. Make sure you use opportunities to network, form mentorship relationships with professors and attend recruiting events in your city or region.

Pursuing internships during your studies can be a great way to gain practical experience in your desired field in order to build your international portfolio when applying for jobs. They can also be a low-risk way to test the waters to determine which issues you are most passionate about and what organizational culture is the best fit for you. Most importantly, internships can lead to other job opportunities with the organizations you work for, or referrals, as you prove your ability to add value to the company or organization’s mission. Intern programs can be highly structured and include rotations between offices and departments, which is more common for large multinational companies. In smaller companies, or in the international development field, interns often have the opportunity to shape their roles and contribute their unique skills. Be prepared to think strategically about the specific skills and strengths that you bring to an organization, and what you aim to get out of the experience.

In later sections which examine subsectors of international business more closely, you will find resources which link to intern job boards in Canada, the US and internationally.

Work experience
Paid work experience can also help you move toward an international career, and sometimes starting at home is the way to go. Professionals in large multinational companies such as Google and Amazon often gain their early work experience in management consulting firms where they hone strong analytical and communication skills which then open doors to more competitive international roles in leading global companies.

For example, for those interested in accounting and finance, completing three years with an accounting firm in your home country will lead you to an internationally recognized Chartered Professional Accountant designation which can open doors to work overseas at accounting firms or in multinational corporations.

Ola Mirzoeva

Ola Mirzoeva was born in Moscow, Russia, and grew up in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks four languages, and worked in Ukraine and East Africa following her Bachelor of Commerce at Queen’s University. Ola is an avid dancer and poet and believes that we design our own destiny.

Website: https://olamirzoeva.wixsite.com/explorationalliance

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