I’ve worked in more than a dozen countries over the past three years, including Mongolia, South Africa, Turkey, Qatar, and Nigeria, but I used to have a much less exciting job working in the consulting division of a huge multinational company in New York City.
Having spent my college years studying Chinese and conducting research in Latin America, I dedicated my post-grad nights and weekends to figuring out how to put my International Relations degree and foreign language skills to good use. I wanted out.
Eventually I landed my global dream job, but it took two years. Since then, I’ve learned to help other young professionals find the international jobs they really want, and my clients have gotten hired everywhere from Ethiopia to Colombia. I’ve also helped raise awareness that professional global opportunities beyond teaching English or joining the Peace Corps do exist.
Now that I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, here are some of the worst rookie mistakes committed by international job seekers -- and how to avoid them.
1. Not knowing what you want.
There’s nothing more useless than hearing, “Well, I really want to make a difference, so I want to work in a developing country.” Sigh. What’s your background? What’s your story? What are you good at it? What did you study? Where have you worked before? You have to find the overlap between what you’re interested in doing and what you’re qualified to do, and that overlap has to come in the form of a job title or at least an industry.
Tell me public health, or banking, or real estate. Tell me project management or accounting. Pick something. Pick the last thing you were employed to do and go from there. You have to narrow it down so you can actually network with people in that field and sniff out what jobs you might be able to get “over there.”
2. Not having a geography in mind.
The second worse thing is someone saying, “Anywhere is fine. I’d really go anywhere.” No, no, no. You can’t throw darts at the whole map and hope to be successful. Pick a continent at least, better yet a country, and even better yet a city. It should make sense with your background, whether it’s academic, personal, or professional. Did you grow up around a lot of Dominicans and speak Spanish? Did you do a short assignment in Russia and want to go back? It should be something specific and something that makes sense.
3. Focusing on a popular geography.
Lots of people want to work in England, but fewer people want to go to Estonia (hint: Tallinn is HOT for start-ups). Lots of people want to go to China, but fewer people think about Mongolia. Consider going off the beaten path where the talent is simply less concentrated.
4. Getting caught up on foreign languages.
I get a variation of this question a lot: “What foreign languages should I study if I want to have an international career?” “Do I need to study another language if I want to live abroad?”
I always say it’s “nice to have.” It’ll make you stand out. It’ll get you the interview. It shows you’re smart, curious, and relevant, but it’s your expertise that will get you the job.You’ll never be hired exclusively because you speak Spanish.
Even if you speak Croatian and the office has nobody, they’ll probably pay for a translator and an expert rather than cut corners sending a less experienced person. And conversely, you might easily get sent to Japan without speaking Japanese if you have the skills the company needs.
5. Not networking the right way.
You have to network. You have to put it out there that you’re looking for, say, investment analyst roles in East Africa. Then you have to talk to people in your field who live “over there.” You’ll only get the job if real, live humans know who you are and what you do and what you want to do. And they’ll probably love to help.
6. Not having prior international experience.
If nothing on your resume speaks to why you should manage business development for a company in the Middle East besides your five years in the field (but that is a great start), then it’s hard to stand out. Take a night class in Arabic, go on a two week trip to Lebanon, or join a community group that supports refugees. Find outlets to make sure your resume screams “global and cross-cultural competency!”
7. Waiting around in a multinational.
I always tell people this: if you weren’t hired for an international position, then don’t hold your breath. Enjoy the domestic role for what it is, learn new skills, and find great mentors, but don’t hope you’ll get an international transfer. If you’re in a junior role, it’s unrealistic to think you’ll be qualified to go abroad in short order. In most cases, and understandably so, you’ll have to put a number of years in to be considered for expatriate assignments.
So instead of buckling down and waiting for that opportunity to come up, buckle down and focus on getting a skill set and then apply to international jobs in your chosen field. If your company recognizes your hard work, you might get lucky. If not, you’ve been preparing yourself for the opportunities you really want.
8. Not building a freedom fund.
Financial health is the key to building a global career because moving abroad is inherently more risky. You might be leaving behind a “set path” at a more established domestic company (totally fine!). You might have relocation costs. You might get fed up and decide to pack up and go (not a bad idea, see point #9). But you can’t do some of this without 3-6 months of living expenses saved up and ready to float you as you pursue a more complex path.
9. Not actually picking up and going.
Hands down, the easiest way to get a job abroad is to be abroad already. My favorite is the story of my Mexican friend who flew out to visit his boyfriend in Doha for two weeks. He’s a fashion designer and film producer, and because the Gulf is so short on creative types, he landed four jobs in two weeks just by going around to companies with his resume (see points #3 and 9) .
If (and only if) you have a strong skill set and know what you want to do and where you want to do it, then you’d do well to go over with that freedom fund and purposely network your way into a job once you’re on the ground. There’s a lot of preparation and strategy that goes into a bold move like this, but it can be very effective.
No More Wondering “What If”
If you’re in the market for an international role, I hope these tips help you find the path to your dream job. No more waiting around and wondering what it’d be like to live and work overseas!
And if you’d like personalized guidance from someone who’s been there and has a vast global network, you can explore my coaching and career transition programs here.