Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

How to Build an International Employment Profile

International Careers Don't Happen Without Planning

Louvre: International life in Paris
Would you like to build towards an international career in Paris? It takes planning.

Imagine that one day you will work as a professional in Paris or Singapore. You will earn a competitive salary, allowing you to live in a great apartment, drive a car, and take short vacations to nearby travel destinations. Your life will be full of interesting conversations with friends from around the world. This life is attainable—if you plan ahead.  

International careers don't just happen. They are carefully planned and built up over a period of time. International employers insist that you have international experience before sending you to work abroad. The key to gaining international experience is to dive into all things international while you are at university and by taking a gap year off. 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!

Getting Started

International careers are built on experience in various areas. Here is what 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:

Academic Studies

  • An MA is a prerequisite for most international positions. This is especially true in the social sciences, pure sciences, and business. It may be less important in health careers, engineering, and computer science. No matter what your field, include an international component, directly by your choice of courses, or, indirectly in the subjects you choose for major research projects.

  • A BA in any field with outside electives broadens your skills inventory. For example, a science student should have four internationally focused social science courses; a history major should have four finance or management courses. Include language skills with all types of disciplines.

  • Other academic experience is important. Attend or help organize a conference; participate in a professor-led research project; work as a teaching assistant; write a book review for an academic journal; apply for merit-based scholarships and awards; participate in academic competitions; become a tutor; make public presentations; actively seek to work on team projects and preferably team up with foreign students.
Networking and Cross-Cultural Experience 
  • Network with at least three international experts in your field of interest. For example, write essays that require you to speak directly to someone working internationally in your field of interest.

  • Guide foreigners who are new to your country. You can act as a tour guide for visiting professors; assist with foreign student orientation; work with refugees; or teach English as a second language.

  • Befriend foreign students on your campus. Join foreign student social circles on campus; visit with them in their homes; become familiar with their food and social behavior; try to pay a visit to them and their families in their home country; actively participate in foreign student associations.

  • Become socially active and knowledgeable in a culture other than your own. Hang out at ethnic social clubs; learn to dance to African or South American music; become knowledgeable in one or more fields of ethnic music; focus on the writing or history from one region or country; learn ethnic cooking; join an Internet club with foreign members.

Overseas Experience

  • Work internationally for 2—6 months. As an intern, co-op student or volunteer, preferably in your field of expertise. Try for two professional internships over the course of your six years of study. Strongly consider taking a gap year to gain any manner of international experience. There are thousands of international internships positions available each year, and many of them are paid positions allowing you to live and work in all parts of the world.

  • Study abroad for one or more semesters. Study abroad in your field and learn a new language. Almost every university has exchange programs that help you study abroad for credit, and everyone should consider studying for at least one semester, often in your third year, while getting a degree.

  • Travel for 2—6 months. Do not underestimate the value of backpacking for six months. Interact closely with people from other countries in order to learn the skills required by international employers. One way to extend your stay abroad is to study, volunteer, or intern. Add onto your experience with a short trip at the end of your placement. Always consider traveling in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South and Central America rather than the traditional choices of Western Europe, Australia, or New Zealand.

  • Be creative. Extend the value of all your international travel by combining two or more objectives while abroad. For example, take four months off and study Spanish full-time in Guatemala while living with a local family and having a full-time one-on-one instructor for less then the cost of going to school in the U.S. or Canada. Extend your stay there by giving computer courses to local charity groups or volunteering to write English language brochures for ecotourism groups. Travel in the region and practice your new Spanish while visiting with professionals in your field of work who are looking for short-term interns.

Hard Skills

  • Proficiency in a new language. Be able to speak and read a language other than your mother tongue. First consider learning Spanish since it is accessible and useful in North America. In all cases, be an active listener and learn to pick up at least 20 or 30 words in any country you visit, however briefly.

  • Economic and geographic knowledge of the world. Gain a solid knowledge of the political and social forces shaping the planet. Start by regularly reading news magazines such as The Economist.

  • 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 website.

  • Computer skills. Acquire strong word processing skills (can you produce a table of contents, section breaks, footnotes, or use styles?); be comfortable using spreadsheets (can you produce a budget or sort a table of data?); be familiar with databases (can you explain the difference between a flat file and a relational database?); try to develop exceptional Internet research skills (can you find the phone number of a cheap Paris hotel in five minutes? What about the CIA country profile for Bhutan?).

  • Business skills. The most sought-after employees are those with multidisciplinary backgrounds, especially business backgrounds that include 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 of almost every field, such as strategic planning, financial management, and systems analysis.

  • Other management skills. These include project management, accounting, training, research, report writing, evaluating.

Soft Skills

  • Organizing, people, and leadership skills. Demonstrate these through work and volunteer experience, preferably with an international group, organizing an event, or as an executive member of a committee.

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

  • 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

  • Essentials for finding international work. Experience has shown that those who are successful at finding international work have all 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.

Make the Commitment

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, a commitment to internationalism and cross-cultural learning. It is an interesting and creative process. Go forth—the world is your teacher. And have fun with the exploration!

Related Topics
International Careers
More by Jean-Marc Hachey
Living and Working Abroad: An Interview with International Careers Advisor Jean-Marc Hachey
Job Strategies While Abroad How to Get the Best "Career Punch" From Your Study Abroad Experience
Marketing Your Study Abroad Experience
Teach English Overseas: A Stepping Stone to International Careers
Writing an International Resume


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