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.
So, no matter how you end up doing it—whether you teach English through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, or you pursue the Peace Corps, or you get a Fulbright teaching or research grant, or you do a European Commission stage*—the best way to get ready for an international job is to be international yourself.
Expand your notion of the international
Once you’re ready to look for a job in the international arena, expand your notion of possible paths to follow—international careers are not confined to translator, travel writer, or diplomat. Rather, there are countless opportunities to work for internationally-engaged nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations: for example, you could work as a Regional Education Advisor with the EducationUSA network based in Munich, or a program manager for Save the Children based in southern Sudan, or the manager of an Institute for International Education project based in Washington, or the director of the International Visitor Leadership Program at the World Affairs Council of Seattle. You could work as a study abroad or international student advisor at a university; as the international affairs legislative assistant to a member of Congress; as a consultant with Accenture working with the Department of State; or as a researcher at an international think. The list could go on, and as the line between the domestic and the international becomes increasingly blurred, the possibility of finding an international job in any sector continues to grow.
But how do I find these international jobs?
This is the most common question Sherry and I field, always from talented, motivated professionals who just don’t know where to begin. I think the story of a young woman I met recently provides an admirable example of how you can, first, see what kind of international jobs are out there, and then blend your use of technology and face-to-face contact in order to network your way into one of those jobs.
As a starting point, this young woman narrowed down where geographically she wanted to be and in what area she wanted to work (in her case, Washington, DC, and international exchange and global education). From there, she searched broadly for organizations that interested her, using such websites as Idealist.org, FPA.org, NAFSA.org, Devex.com, and Indeed.com. She consulted career books specializing in international affairs (like Working World!) and jotted down organizations most relevant to international exchange. She looked through the partners and members of these organizations to further broaden her search. She utilized the connections she was making via her profile on LinkedIn.com, as well as her university’s career services office and alumni database. From all of this research, she made a list of those organizations she was most interested in and located as many contacts at them as possible. She then emailed these contacts her resume, along with an explanation of her professional background and future goals.
She told me that she received a reply less than one-third of the time—a discouraging rate, to be sure, but she pressed on. She kept in contact with these repliers and eventually met with many of them (including me) in person when she arrived in DC. These contacts not only filled her in on their own work, but also referred her to other, related organizations. If a job opening appeared at one of these organizations, she applied for it and alerted her new contact to that fact.
Through one of these contacts, the young woman had the opportunity to meet with the president of an international exchange organization in DC, a meeting which directly resulted in her being referred to another individual who then informed her of a job opening before it went public. The young woman applied, interviewed well and this, combined with her excellent resume and the good impression she had already made at the organization through her previous networking contact, succeeded in landing her the job. Her strategy reinforced for me the notion that electronic job search tools, while vitally important, won’t cut it by themselves. Instead, getting in front of people and making yourself a “known quantity” will prove to be much more effective.
How do you want to spend your days?
As you’re searching and applying for jobs, consider other important factors that go into building an international career. For example: what kind of organizational culture will you thrive in? Is the hierarchy of the government or a consulting firm the right environment for you, or will you thrive in a smaller, less structured nonprofit? Also: What kind of daily tasks do you want? You may find an organization that perfectly fits your worldview, but in the end, mission-match won’t matter if you’re miserable in your daily work. And last: how do you want to spend your days? Where do you see yourself setting up a home base (or perhaps you don’t and would prefer a more nomadic professional existence)? Do you see yourself managing programs from headquarters, or rather implementing those projects in the field?
These are not questions that need be, or even can be, answered in one sitting. But they are important ones to consider because as you get your first international job, and then your next one and soon your next, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re no longer just getting jobs—you’re building a career. And the career decisions you make not only affect the kind of job you’re doing, but also the kind of life you’re leading.
Mark Overmann is a 2002 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, an English major and an Angers, France, study abroad alum. He now works as the Assistant Director and Senior Policy Specialist at the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange in Washington, DC and is co-author of the book Working World: Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development and the blog at http://workingworldcareers.com. Despite his parents’ vehement objections and his utter lack of experience with the country, Mark spent the year after his graduation from ND in China as a volunteer English teacher for the Salesian Lay Mission program (http://www.salesians.org/slm/index.htm).