Archive for November, 2009

Reality check: are the jobs out there?

Monday, November 30th, 2009

An Andrew Sullivan reader is having a rough time finding that first job out of college:

I’ve only had five cumulative months of employment since, this in spite of a “practical” degree (economics) from a “good” school (East Coast whatever – if my situation is any indication, an Ivy degree doesn’t mean jackshit). Friends of mine with relatively less worldly degrees in many cases have not been able to find a job at all in over a year. And it is not that we’re just sitting on our asses, playing video games because we think we’re above a certain kind of work – this high-handed claptrap is perhaps the most irritating snobbery of so-called “experts”, of a piece with their stellar market analysis over the last decade. No, when we say we can’t get a job, we mean we can’t get any job.

Certainly white-collar jobs, those that we thought we were being prepared for, are so few and far between that they’ve become the stuff of lore, a mythical entity. When someone manages to snag one of those these days it’s treated like a fucking miracle, complete with celebration and deepest envy both. This just for a job! Not two years ago a job was practically a birthright, plentiful and in season; now it’s something to forage and kill for. But we’re having to compete now for jobs that anyone can do – which makes it that much harder to get them as well. Temp agencies mostly turn us away. Shit, even the damned Safeway near me isn’t hiring. I’m perfectly content to bag groceries or wash cars or do construction, but there isn’t a scrap of work to be had.

If all that sounds unbelievable, then you just don’t know what it’s like right now for young, inexperienced people whose first taste of the labor market has been one of closed doors and pounded pavement and steadily increasing panic. At the moment I do have a part-time temp job and I’m grateful for it, but I don’t know how long it’ll last. Every time a superior passes my desk I quake because he or she could be coming to give me the axe – this is how we fortunate employed spend our days, adrenaline-riddled and constantly on tenterhooks. I don’t have health insurance. I’m engulfed in student loans.

How does this compare with your experiences? Are recent college graduates looking for work in international education, exchange, and development having this much trouble? Is the white-collar job in international affairs out there to be had, or rather a “mythical entity”?

A few links I’d neglected to post

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

And then I’m off for the holiday:

IIE’s Open Doors 2009 report was released last week. We paid close attention to this at the Alliance, but I forgot to mention it here. So, here you go. Open Doors is the standard for international educational mobility data—and the 2009 report happily illustrates that the number of foreign students studying at U.S. universities and Americans studying abroad are both up more than 8 per cent. Still, only slightly more than 260,000 Americans are studying abroad, which is not enough…

…and apparently President Obama agrees, as he announced that he wants 100,000 Americans studying in China (which is a pretty hefty increase from the current number of just over 13,000). How and when this will happen remains to be seen, but we are, as always, optimistic.

Have Work, Will Travel — An Australian world traveler makes the case for an expanded working holiday program in the United States.

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Mad Men fans:

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone:

“The wanderlust of a new generation”

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

In so many ways, such a beautiful thing. If my own generation (I’m pushing 30—guh) is one in which the world knows no boundaries and international interaction is an accepted, common, and well-loved part of personal and professional life, then those younger than me—the “next” generation—is pushing this concept to Jean Luc Picard-like heights. And this, it’s worth repeating, is a beautiful thing. It’s one of the reasons I got into the international exchange field. The more and the earlier young people are exposed to the wondrous variety yet common humanity that makes up our world, the better—the better for them, for their families, their countries, their chosen professions, and all of us.

From a purely practical perspective, though, this wanderlust can throw up professional development hurdles. That is, us young folk inflicted with wanderlust, because we are fixated on traveling to exotic locations as part of our careers, tend to view potential job opportunities solely by the travel opportunities inherent within them. I’ve said this before, like yesterday, and I’m drawn to it again because of this BusinessWeek article focusing on the top employers for those who want “international work that will take them abroad.”

I already made my argument yesterday as to why one will be well-served to examine the entirety of a potential job or career track rather than focusing only on the travel aspect, so I won’t rehash things again. But I will make a point I don’t think I’ve made as extensively in this space as I should: that an internationally-oriented job can be deeply fulfilling and help to satisfy wanderlust even if travel isn’t a regular component. In my case, my days are spent deep in issues of international exchange, which I find to be cool and terribly fulfilling. Because I’m immersed in a professional world that is completely international, I always feel international, regardless of where I physically am.

I may be sitting at a desk in DC, but I’m emailing with the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. I’m contemplating the potential implications of the lifting of the travel ban to Cuba or of Obama’s promise to send 100,000 American to study in China. I’m meeting with an education ministry representative from Ireland who is helping in our efforts to convince Congress that exchange programs need to be properly, but not overly, regulated. I’m talking to the Fulbright Commission in Mexico. I’m talking to an EducationUSA advisor in Budapest. I’m talking to an exchange agency in Bangkok who is helping to recruit our next international intern.

True, I get very excited about the actual international trips I get to take and for me, like for so many of us, the ability to travel (for work and for pleasure) is a big part of my existence. But the fact that I am immersed in an international world and international issues with international people on a daily basis and in my daily work is not something I take for granted—and all of this does, I find, help to satisfy my wanderlust during those times when I’m not able to jet off for some place new.

Mentoring update

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

A month and a half ago or so, I noted that I am now, despite my reservations about the concept of a formal and prescribed mentor-protege relations, an official American University mentor. I also mentioned that my AU senior and I seemed to be on the same page about things—we don’t really know how this is supposed to work, but we’ll just keep an open mind and see how things progress.

And I’m happy to report that they’re moving along well, and naturally. We haven’t felt the need to force things—say, by going to a professional event together simply because we felt like that’s what we’re supposed to do. Rather, we’ve kept it low key and that’s worked well for us. We’ve met for a beer and just chatted—a bit about school and career stuff, but mostly about ourselves, getting to know each other. She came to an Alliance event, heard a Congressman speak, and got to meet several people in our field and find out more about what kind of work they’re doing. And we’ve kept in good touch via email. I’ve forwarded her articles or event listings I’ve come across, and she’s asked me questions that happen to pop into her mind. For example, the other day she emailed me:

Do you keep in contact with your former employers? And how much contact with people is enough to claim that you are in contact with them? Is this like you exchanged business cards with them at an event once upon a time or you drop them an e-mail to say hi every few weeks?

I realize the obvious answer is that it is entirely circumstantial and depends but I thought I’d ask. The reason is that I will probably have to start applying for jobs in the near future (scary!) and will probably need references. Because I was gone all last year I don’t have references from my junior year (unless I apply somewhere in [country where she studied]) and will probably have to depend on my supervisor from sophmore year internship (and wherever I intern next semester). Is it unfair for her to be called by a prospective employer if I haven’t talked to her in a couple of months (I contacted her over the summer)?

A good question, one I was happy to weigh in on. I like that she’s thinking about things like this and that she feels she can ask me about them—not because I know the right answer but rather because it’s good to discuss and talk stuff like this out. Even if we don’t arrive at an answer, at least we’re moving the discussion along.

So I’m pleased with the way the official mentoring duties have gone so far and hope to have more positive updates soon. After the jump, my answer to her email question.


I get it: you want to work abroad.

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

But what kind of work do you want to be doing abroad?  Why do you want to work abroad?

These are questions I continually raise in my sessions. Traveling/working abroad is not synonymous with pursuing an international career. They can overlap, and for many of us hopefully they will—but they are not one in the same. Just because a job has a travel component or allows you to live in a different country doesn’t mean it’s the right job for you or your international career. It might mean that, but you’ve got to look deeper—go beyond the travel component.

This issue loomed large during my sessions in Tulsa last week. At an evening session last Tuesday, I first threw out a few remarks and then chaired a panel discussion that included a Foreign Service Officer, a TU marketing professor who had done the Peace Corps, the Director of Business Intelligence for the Hilti Corporation (based in Liechtenstein, Hilti “develops, manufactures, and markets products for the construction and building maintenance industries, primarily to the professional end-user”), and the Director of Global Business Services for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. It was a great panel, representing a diverse array of jobs/experiences with international elements to them.

Yet I kept being forced to draw the conversation back from discussions of “how will this job take me abroad?” to more concrete discussions of “yes, but what do you actually do in your job?”

For example, the Foreign Service Officer spoke about his 32 years living in umpteen different countries and some of the cool adventures he had. All great stuff. But I felt compelled to draw him back to the specifics: What was his daily work like? What did he spend his days doing? He was a consular officer—how did his work differ from the work of other professional cones in the Foreign Service? What about some of the difficulties that come with moving every few years to a new country? With living in difficult and dangerous locations? The travel is cool and all, but it won’t matter unless you enjoy the work you’re doing and the life you’re leading.

Also, take the Hilti representative. He spent much of his time talking about his company’s internship program, how students are recruited for it, how one might get hired on full time and then, after that, what it would take to work abroad or travel abroad regularly from a U.S. location. It was all about the travel. Which, again, is all well and good, but, again, I felt the need to draw him back with a simple question: but what do you actually do? I had no concept of what kind of a company Hilti actually is, let alone what this Director of Business Intelligence’s job might entail on a day to day basis.

So he told us a bit about it. And I’ll admit, I kind of zoned out. It had something to do with sales, more to do with statistical analysis and several other things that make me break into a cold sweat. The next day I spoke with a TU student who’d done an internship with Hilti and found it not to be to her liking. She’d been drawn in by the sell of the “international” and hadn’t looked deeply at what kind of company Hilti is and what she’d be doing as an intern. What she ended up doing were tasks not at all suited to the kind of work (she discovered) she’d like to be doing.

I don’t mean to bad mouth Hilti here—on the contrary, it seems like a fine company and its rep at TU a funny and interesting guy. I also understand that there are many people who would love to work at a place like Hilti and do the kind of work that makes me break into a cold sweat. My point is that we shouldn’t be judging a job or a potential opportunity by the simple fact of whether it has an international travel component. That may be one part of our judgment, but we also need to be looking at what we’ll be doing day in and day out during that job. How do we want to spend our days? I want to travel to great places, for sure—but I also want to do fulfilling work that matters to me and that I enjoy. Work that takes place in an environment I can thrive in and with people I like. Work that allows me to live the kind of life I want to live. Don’t let the travel part trump all other considerations, or you run the risk of finding yourself in a job that travels, yes, but one that you really don’t like all that much.

An odd new trend in cover letters?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

A quick rant: We’re currently accepting applications for the Alliance’s spring 2010 internship (the deadline is Friday if you’re interested), and I’ve noted with bemusement and confusion a cover letter quirk that I’d seen sporadically before but that now seems to be in full bloom: the use of the full name in the salutation.  As in:

“Dear Mark Overmann” or “Dear Mr. Mark Overmann”

I find this to be really weird. I understand the necessity of not presuming gender, especially with “less common” or “not gender obvious” names—you don’t want to run the risk of calling a Mr. a Ms., or vice versa (hence the “Dear Mark Overmann,” I presume—perhaps Mark isn’t an obviously male name? This could be true, especially for non-American and non-English-as-a-first-language applicants). But seriously, a simple look at my picture and bio, conveniently posted one click away on the Alliance website, shows that, indeed, I am a male, which seems to me permission to go ahead and use the common salutation of Mr. followed by the family name.

And what to make of “Mr. Mark Overmann”? This is the truly weird one to me. If you’ve already determined that I’m male, isn’t it completely stilted and strange to keep my first name in the salutation? Or did my mom and grade school teachers instruct me incorrectly on how to address a letter? Am I being culturally insensitive here? Am I wrong in forcing my American notions of format and protocol on all job seekers, especially if they aren’t American, even though we’re an U.S-based (albeit internationally-focused) organization? Perhaps I’m just being too stubborn and cranky and should take it easy on vulnerable job seekers who are only trying to be politically correct?

Regardless, I’ll admit my first reaction when I see these odd salutations in a cover letter tends to be: the applicant hasn’t done enough research on the position and the organization to know who it is they’re writing. And I don’t mean research on me here—my ego isn’t so big that I expect internship applicants to have my career details committed to memory before applying. But I do expect applicants to have a good idea (or at least to convince me that they have a good idea) of why they are applying for this particular internship versus the many others out there. I know that most applicants are applying for this internship among many others. That’s totally fine and to be expected. But what makes one application stand out from the others is when the applicant has taken the time (even just a bit of it) to tailor their application to our organization and to make us believe (no matter how true it is) that they really want to work not just anywhere that does international stuff, but here and with us.

And to me, the salutation is a small but somehow still important indication of whether an applicant has done this or not. If you haven’t even taken the time to understand at least a little bit to who it is you’re writing (and Google makes this, on average, pretty darn easy to figure out), what other details are you going to neglect or plain ignore?

From exchange student to microbrewer

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

I’m tardy in my follow-up from Tulsa (which was a well-spent day and a half during International Education Week chatting with students about international careers), but before I do a full wrap-up, a quick study abroad story of the “you never know where things will take you” nature. As relayed by my Tulsan dinner compatriots at a dark, kind-of-hipster but still kind-of-old-timey and altogether charming restaurant called Lola’s on the Bowery, while drinking a Marshall’s Atlas IPA:

Eric Marshall was studying in the unique International Business and Language program at the University of Tulsa when he decided to study abroad in Germany. His time in Germany—namely his time spent at pubs and amidst the local beers—was so formative that he decided to return after graduation and take a self-guided learning tour of German breweries, learning the secrets of the craft. He used his business skills honed in the IBL program and his beer-brewing skills honed in Germany to create the Marshall Brewing Company, the results of which I discovered are quite hoppy and refreshing.

You never know where study abroad might take you…


Off to Tulsa

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

I’m heading out to the University of Tulsa to celebrate International Education Week and speak at TU’s International Careers Symposium. More when I’m back east!

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise.”

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

As a devil’s advocate-like follow up to last week’s take on why travel really, really isn’t a waste of time, a few quotes from some luminaries on why, sometimes, it can be better to stay at home and how what we thought we might have left behind actually goes wherever we do. First, Emerson:

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise.

Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

After the jump, GK Chesterton and one of my favorites, David Foster Wallace.


Get a job abroad, where there are apparently more than in the U.S.

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 tells us how to “tap into the growing overseas job market.” Jean Marc Hachey gives some good tips in the second half of the article, noting that international/globally-minded employers aren’t usually looking for a regional specialist, but rather someone with previous overseas experience and cultural skills that will enable him or her to adapt and roll with the punches:

What they are especially interested in is that you can demonstrate that you have crossed over various cultures at various times, and you have a set of skills that mean you can quickly be up and running in new cultures.

Mary Anne Thompson, quoted earlier in the article, makes what strikes me as a big generalization:

In order to apply for a work permit or visa on your behalf, most employers have to prove there’s no one in that country with the credentials to do the job, and show that they advertised the job and no locals applied for it.

“Most employers?” Is this really a fair statement to make when we’re talking not about a particular industry or city or even country, but rather “the world”? I’m sure this can be true in certain instances (it can be now in the recession-ravaged U.S.), but is this really so true that one can generalize like this and not be rather misleading? Maybe so, but it just strikes me as an odd thing to go out there and state as fact.

Why Penelope Trunk is really, really wrong

Friday, November 6th, 2009

When she gives her four reasons why traveling is a waste of time. Where do I even begin…

It was shocking to both me and my friend Joanne at Rogue Stampede (who first alerted me to this article and at whose blog this has been cross-posted) that a prominent Gen-Y career coach was pontificating such an insular opinion, especially in light of the U.S.’ strengthened push for soft power in the Obama era. I’m also astounded that Ms. Trunk, as a professional career guide, so discounts (or just fails to recognize) travel, international and intercultural competency, and linguistic skills as important 21st century career competencies. ALL careers these days (not just those I blog about) are international to some degree, and the sooner her readers understand this and equip themselves with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a global economy, the better off they’ll be. I’m afraid Ms. Trunk might eventually get left behind if she isn’t able to shake this insular outlook and apparent fear of that which isn’t right beside her.

But let’s pump the brakes for just a second. As Joanne mentioned in our discussion about this, other people’s lives and decisions are not for us to judge. If someone wishes not to travel and to remain close to home, that is their decision and there is nothing wrong with this. In the same way, those who do love to travel should be permitted to do so judgment-free, yet also have no right to view themselves as better or superior to those who don’t travel (everyone who’s traveled has been at some point at least a bit guilty of feeling better than the bumpkins who haven’t been where they’ve been).

Cut to a scene from last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men: When discussing the pompous, I’m-so-cultured opinions of someone who had done a lot traveling, one character commented: “Just because she’s been to India doesn’t mean she’s not stupid.” Beautifully said and that sums it up: Just because you’ve been on an airplane a few times and eaten some weird food doesn’t give you permission to act like a know-it-all jackass.

That said, I fervently believe the benefits of travel to an individual, both personally and professionally, are far too great and real for Ms. Trunk to so casually dismiss to her readers. Let’s start with her gross generalizations about culture. She says that you don’t need to leave the U.S. to find cultures different than your own. This is certainly true, but you do need to travel to fully engage and understand them. It is true that I can experience something about, say, the black culture of Baltimore by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates or having a beer with someone who grew up in West Baltimore. It is also true that I can experience something about Ethiopian and Eritrean culture by going to the 9th and U, NW, area in DC, known as “Little Ethiopia,” and eating a meal or talking to a cabbie. But these experiences cannot possibly be as powerful, formative, or true as actually traveling to those places. Is meeting someone from West Baltimore near your home and talking about black culture the same experience as actually walking the streets where he grew up and visiting his family? Is eating tibs and injera in downtown DC the same as eating them in downtown Addis Ababa? While the vicarious experiences we may have with other cultures near our home will be informative to some degree, to pretend that this is the same as actually going to a place and immersing ourselves in that culture is lazy and disengenous.

I was also intrigued by Ms. Trunk’s thought that it’s not culture that separates us, it’s economics. Jews, South Africans, French—as long as we’re from the same economic status, we’re the same, she intimates. She didn’t get along with those pesky farm kids in France, but the city kids were “just like” her. This argument strikes me as shallow and completely unthought-out. While the city kids in France may have been more socio-economically in line with her, did she really believe that this made them just like her? That there were no cultural differences between them? Did the notion that she was speaking French or (more likely) they were speaking English ever strike her as an obvious and smacking (cultural) difference between them? What about the cheek kisses in lieu of handshakes? The small coffees instead of the big Americanos? Long lunches and late, even longer dinners? I would imagine these were more annoyances to Ms. Trunk than cultural differences worthy of particpating in and trying to understand.

While one benefit of traveling and interacting with those from a different place is precisely that we do get to break down the walls of difference and see the similarities we have, it’s just silly to say that we don’t have cultural differences, only economic ones. Seems to me that this view is completely ignoring the fact that a whole host of factors contribute to our individual identities: national culture and socio-economic are two, but there are many more—and the mix for each person is unique and impossible to quantify. As Joanne recently wrote so eloquently on her own blog, “I am Singaporean, but I am also my own person, not a mere reproduction of my cultural background.” I think “cultural” here could be replaced with any number of other words (”racial,” “economic,” “religious”) and the statement would apply to all of us, no matter where we’re from.

Next point. Ms. Trunk writes: “People who love their lives don’t leave.” Are we supposed to take this as a serious thought?  Does she really believe all travel is about abandonment and running away? What if people love a life of visiting new places and meeting new people and experiencing new things? That’s exactly why I got into the business I’m in. I remember my dad saying, right before I left to live in China: “I’d feel a lot better if you just stayed here.” But for me, that wasn’t the case. He wanted me to stay in what he viewed as a comfortable place: my hometown, Cincinnati, working for a corporate real estate office. To me, this was the exact opposite of comfortable or a life I would love. For me, the comfortable thing to do—the thing that made me love my life far more than I did before—was to go to China, was to travel. We all have our preferences—some of us want to wander, some of us don’t. As I said before, no shame in either one. But for Ms. Trunk to say that one can only fashion a life they love by remaining in the exact same place and doing the exact same things over and over and never leaving it? I believe this to be a little silly at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. I love my girlfriend and my cat and my job, and I enjoy a good downward facing dog as much as the next person. But I also love to get on a plane and end up in New Delhi—because that is excitement to me. That is living. That is creating a life I love.

Ms. Trunk also believes it’s more “effective” to revel in the sameness of your daily existence than travel some place new to experience the vibrancy of a wholly unique place, culture, people, and life. I won’t argue that staying at home and fully realizing the beauty and complexity of the place in which you live is a bad thing. In fact, this is probably something more of us should take the time to do. But in no way will travel not help you see the world differently than before. In fact, it’s by traveling, by taking ourselves outside of those places we live and come to know so well (and often take for granted) that we are able to fully realize their beauty and complexity. It’s the same way that one only truly realizes what it means to be an American (or a Singaporean or an Ethiopian) when they travel outside of their homeland and are able to view their home country, culture, and people from a completely and totally different perspective.

Travel is not about running away. People don’t plan trips only when their lives are shit and changes need to be made, but instead of facing those changes and challenges, they flee (I wonder how much the Eat Pray Love mentality is affecting Ms. Trunk’s view here).  Travel for many is about the vitality of the experience. It’s about the newness of the place and the people and the food. It’s about the anticipation of the trip—the planning, the reading, the preparation for what you may encounter. It’s about the experience in the moment—the new sights, the new sounds, the new scents, the new flavors. It’s about doing those things you always wanted to do—and going with the flow when you’re pulled along on adventures that you couldn’t possibly plan. It’s about returning to the comforting embrace of home, sharing your photos and stories with friends, reliving the best moments, telling the horror stories of the worst, all the while teaching those around you a little bit about a place you’ve just been.

This is the beauty of travel to me, and if Ms. Trunk’s grown this sour on it, then I feel bad for her. I encourage her to plan a trip abroad to somewhere she’s always wanted to go (I know there’s at least one place) and when she returns, I’d be interested to know if she feels any different.

This made me laugh

Friday, November 6th, 2009

From the U. of Arizona Daily Wildcat, ten reasons “not” to study abroad. A few gems:

4. The legal drinking age is lower in almost every other country in the world and you’ll end up spending all your money on alcohol and exploring the night-life. You may also find it difficult to come back to the US and have these liberties again removed from you. Best to avoid the opportunity altogether.

5. Many universities have comprehensive orientation programs for international students and you’ll meet many people from all over the world who will tell you all these great things about their home countries and make you want to travel there. You don’t need the extra expense.

6. There’s no point in exposing yourself to any cultural diversity. Who needs more variety than what you’ve got right here?

9. You might end up somewhere where they don’t speak English and probably won’t be able to avoid learning the language. Even incidental language acquisition is a waste of your precious mental resources.

I love sarcasm. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Etiquette of the email request

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

David Comp vents about some rather rude emails he received from a random reader asking for assistance. David’s certainly not against helping out readers when they email with questions—all he asks is that they respect the fact that he is a busy person and may not respond to them as quickly as they might like. The offending emails went like this:

–Start October 31st message—






–End October 31st message–

No response from me other than my automated reply which I mention above.

–Start November 4th message–




–End November 4th message—

My first reaction is to wonder why this person is typing in all caps, the online equivalent of shouting. My second reaction is that I feel David’s pain. I receive a fair number of random email requests too and, like David, I’m generally happy to get them and respond. But also like David, sometimes life and work obligations get in the way and I don’t respond in as timely a manner as I or the writer might like. When this happens, I often appreciate a gentle follow-up/reminder from the writer. What I never appreciate is a pushy, entitled follow up like David got.

David wonders how much of the above two emails is intercultural miscommunication. Seems like there certainly could be some in there—the writer doesn’t appear to be a native English speaker and the awkward phrasing, caps fetish, and weird pushiness might be a result of tenuous English skills and limited understanding of American cultural “norms.”

Even so, I can’t fault David for feeling annoyed. I’d react the same way—and did recently when I received an email from someone I don’t know requesting career information. I was taken aback by how terse and impersonal—and demanding—the email was. Rather than using a gentle and conciliatory tone (”I know I’m imposing here, but might I trouble you for some assistance…”), this email took a rather demanding and impolite tactic, simply saying, “I am having trouble finding an international job and I need your help.  Please answer the following questions…” And then (I’m not making this up) there was a list of ten questions for me to respond to. And these weren’t easy-to-answer questions—they were asking for essays. I was astounded that this person thought this tactic was a good way to get my attention and advice. Rather than wanting to help them out, I was put off and wanted to delete the email with extreme prejudice.

If you’re emailing someone for an informational interview, for career advice, or for help with an academic or professional project (especially someone you don’t know or have no connection to), be very conscious of how you approach them, especially via email, and how much you’re asking of them. My main two recommendations when writing someone to ask for assistance, whether you know them or not, are: 1) Keep your requests (especially your first one) short and manageable (you’re much more likely to get a response if the person feels like they can accomplish the task reasonably fast) and 2) Always give the person an out (as in, “I know you are busy and may not have time for this…”). This allows the person to beg out if they are indeed too busy (and you should recognize that they may be) and is also the respectful thing to do.

One final thought: Just because email allows us to fire out quick messages asking for things doesn’t necessarily mean this is a good practice, no matter our culture.

Beyond Translator, Travel Writer, or Diplomat

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

An article of this title, penned by yours truly, just showed up in the fall 2009 edition of ND Global: the European Edition newsletter.  It’s a pretty decent read (if I do so say myself) on exploring the possibilities of an international career, so give it a look.  Reproduced below for your convenience:


Beyond Translator, Travel Writer, or Diplomat:

Exploring the Possibilities of an International Career

By Mark Overmann

Many of us—me included—have gravitated toward the field of international affairs because of a love of travel, languages, and cultures other than our own. This is only natural. Something I’ve come to learn, though, is that pursuing an international career is not synonymous with working abroad. Just because a job enables you to travel (or live/work abroad) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best opportunity for your career in international affairs. In the same way, even though a job doesn’t have a travel component, it may still help to build your career in international relations in significant ways. Building your career and traveling abroad can, and hopefully will, overlap, but they are not one and the same.

This is an important distinction to consider. Many young professionals looking for international work out of college and graduate school—again, me included—judge the worth of a position based on its travel component. The reality, though, is that many jobs available to those just out of college and grad school won’t include extensive travel—at least right away. But that doesn’t mean the work you’re doing stateside won’t be valuable and exciting, and it certainly doesn’t mean it won’t eventually lead to a position that does allow you to travel. (I’m only now beginning to travel regularly as a part of my job.)

A substantive experience abroad

Whether you end up working in the United States or abroad, traveling extensively or not, the best preparation for an internationally oriented career is spending time abroad (and preferably studying a language at the same time). As Sherry Mueller, my co-author on our book Working World: Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development, often notes, she looks first for a substantive international experience on the resume of a job applicant. For Sherry and many other managers, not only is time abroad expected of an applicant for an internationally-focused job, but such an experience also indicates that the applicant has developed the broader skills that come with immersion in a different way of life: adaptability, confidence, resilience, the ability to succeed despite language and cultural barriers. These are skills that all employers prize, but especially those in international affairs.