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How to Develop a Career Strategy While You Study Abroad

Job and career strategies even while studying abroad
Develop job and career strategies even while studying abroad.

Congratulations on your decision to study abroad. Perhaps you are off to Italy for a summer course in fashion design, to Britain to complete an MA in political science, or to Amsterdam for a semester of engineering. Wherever you are going, your mind is most likely consumed with excitement and anticipation — new friends, languages, foods, lifestyle, culture, weather, and travel. While all these new things may also seem a little scary, you know the value of going abroad. You not only will have a good time; you'll also build international experience to enhance your future job prospects.

To prepare for today's competitive job market, consider adding one more layer to your experience: supercharge your time abroad by adding career-enhancing professional experiences. Careers are built step by step, and you can double the value of your time abroad by doing a few extra things that will look good on your resume and prove to international employers that you understand the international workplace. Here are a few tips to help you get the best "career punch" from your study abroad experience.

Determine Your Career Goals

The new world economy demands that we have international experience as part of our training, and studying abroad is a powerful way to acquire these credentials. You should start thinking about your career before you leave home. Here are a few goals to consider during predeparture preparations.

  • Acquiring professional experience should be a key objective. If you don't leave home with this idea already in mind, you will likely get caught up in the fun of being abroad and forget that this is a golden opportunity to gain professional international experience. The first step is to update your resume before you leave. Then hit the ground running by immediately launching some of the suggestions that follow.
  • Use the study abroad experience to gain cross-cultural skills. Future employers, especially international employers, will judge you on your personality more than on your academic qualifications (although these are also important). International recruiters recognize that people who succeed overseas have a specific set of skills and traits — a high international IQ. You need to use your time abroad to mix and mingle with people from other cultures, and this includes "professional" mixing and mingling.
  • Don't focus solely on academics while studying abroad. Future employers will not be impressed by the number of courses you took while abroad, and they may not even look at your marks. What will grab an employer's interest is your success in integrating into a new environment.
  • Show cross-cultural initiative. You can prove your worth to future employers by taking the initiative to accomplish a few career-building projects while abroad. Organize an event; volunteer in your field; or arrange a visit with professionals in your areas of expertise. These small efforts will prove to future employers that you have what it takes to succeed in a new culture and your future resume will shine brighter if you can provide multiple examples of initiative in a culture other than your own.

Gain Professional Experience

There are many ways to extend the professional side of your academic studies while abroad. Even short professional experiences will be a valuable addition to your resume.

  • Join a multicultural student work team. Search out courses that require group work where you can gain valuable cross-cultural work experience. (Resume wording: "Consistently sought out courses requiring team-work with students from different cultures. Gained appreciation for the multicultural work environment where my culture was the minority.")
  • Intern or volunteer as a researcher with a prominent professor working in your field. It is often difficult for a professor to hire foreign students, so volunteer your services instead. If this fails, try to pair up with a local graduate student doing research work and offer to work with him or her on a volunteer basis. Since your time abroad is usually short, launch these strategies within the first two weeks of arriving on campus. (Resume wording: "Research intern with Dr. Goldstein, a leading micro-biology professor. Helped with data entry and compilation of results from lab experiments.")
  • Offer your English skills in countries where English is not the native language. You can easily use your English language skills to help a professor edit a paper for an international conference, teach English to fellow students, or help an organization build an English-language website. Consider putting together a lexicon of English terms in your field of study and offer a course on these terms to your fellow students. The possibilities for sharing your English language skills are endless.
  • Meet professionals in your field of expertise while overseas. Imagine being part of a small group of foreign engineering students and taking the lead to organize a visit to a local research and development engineering firm in your field. This strategy is easy to execute. Alternatively, if you are a political science student you could organize a visit to meet with professionals at the headquarters of an international organization situated in a neighboring city. Or plan to write an essay in one of your courses that requires you to meet local experts in your field. This is an excellent networking opportunity and can even be included in your resume. (Resume wording: "Initiated meetings with three local community development experts — government, social service agency, and private consultant — to design research parameters and identify local case studies to match my subject matter. Gained broad understanding of the local perspective on this issue.")
  • Volunteer off campus, preferably in your field. Extend the overseas living experience outside of the academic environment and learn about the local community that surrounds you.
  • Extend your stay abroad. Include a 1-month internship, a language course, or cross-cultural travel with a professional purpose. For the cost of one extra month, a professional internship will double the value of your study abroad experience on your resume.

Gain Cross-Cultural Experience Outside the Classroom

Professionalize your experience to show employers that you understand the cross-cultural environment.

  • Beware of the foreign student ghetto. If you only hang out with students from your home country, you will miss out on a lot of cross-cultural learning.
  • Join student organizations where local students are the majority. Your aim is to make local friends and perhaps take on a leadership position for one of their projects. (Resume wording: "Active participant in two local student organizations [Greenpeace and Milan Students for Human Rights] and key organizer for two social events. Gained valuable intercultural insights while working closely with local students.")
  • Learn to professionally describe your host country's culture. It's easy to be professional when describing another culture. Read a few books on your the cultural history of your host country. You can then create a short professional description of the cultural norms for your host country and impress future employers. (Resume wording: "Able to professionally describe the cultural traits of East Europeans in both a social and professional work environment.")
  • Integrate with local families and travel in the region. Befriend local students and meet their families. These visits provide valuable insights and can later be inserted into a resume. (Resume wording: "While living in student residence, was often invited by host country nationals to travel on weekends to their family homes. Gained valuable insights on family life in a wide variety of socio-economic conditions.")
  • Learn the local language. Language learning is a must for any international career. Even learning a basic vocabulary will do wonders in cementing relationships and indicates to future employers a propensity for languages. (Resume wording: "Norwegian language abilities for basic greetings and reading travel directions.")

Good luck and best wishes for your rewarding time abroad!

Related Topics
Study Abroad Work Abroad Advisor
International Careers
More by Jean-Marc Hachey
Writing an International Resume
Build an International Employment Profile
Marketing Your Study Abroad Experience
Living and Working Abroad: An Interview with International Careers Advisor Jean-Marc Hachey
Teach English Overseas: A Stepping Stone to International Careers

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