What sort of international work experience is right for you? (Real, battle-tested advice from someone who has been there.)

When I went to college, I knew I wanted to work overseas someday.

Back then, there was little good advice out there about how to make that dream a reality.  I had to figure out a lot of things on my own — and I made a lot of mistakes.

But what’s surprising is that, 20 years later, things are pretty much the same.

The sad truth is, precious little of the advice out there about working overseas is useful, tested, and truly actionable.

And what does exist is often limited to experiences such as short-term odd jobs to fund travel that — while still quite relevant to some people — represent just a sliver of the myriad of overseas opportunities out there.

I confess that this continues to surprise me.  After all, when I first started working abroad, it was the late 1990s, and there was almost nothing available on the Internet, relatively speaking.

Ah, the late 90s…the Backstreet Boys had just emerged onto the music scene, Monica Lewinsky was all over the newspapers, and cell phones were still large black bricks with antennas:

The late 90s:  Crushing it with your Nokia and rocking out to Backstreet.

It may not, therefore, surprise you to know that I heard about my first overseas work experience, an internship with the U.S. State Department, by visiting a career services office in the flesh and picking up a printed flyer.  After all, I was in college and still using text-only email software.

Blistering speed via dial-up modem.

Twenty years later, a thrill of wonder still courses through me when a quick Google search unearths a sum of human experience that would have taken days to find when I was a student.

At the time, I was flying blind.  There was almost no online information about overseas experiences, and the lion’s share of what did exists related to very traditional overseas occupations like diplomacy and international banking.

I fell into the State Department internship half by chance.  Granted, I already knew I wanted to work abroad, but couldn’t have told you what exactly I was looking for.  All I knew is that I was going to hustle to find something interesting that was linked to my career goals.  I did know what I wanted in a broad sense, and so I pointed my ship in that general direction and set sail.

Fortunately, I had a great experience in that internship.  It led me to a lot of other experiences, including working as a full-time U.S. career diplomat.  But it still took me years to figure out my true calling overseas, and years more to find the right path to follow that calling.

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A.  The More Things Change…The More They Stay the Same

Yet…despite everything that has happened since 1999, despite the demise of the Nokia brick phone, despite the modern Internet, strong advice on working overseas remains nearly as hard to find as before.

Sadly, a lot of what purports to be good advice in this area doesn’t go much farther than clickbait territory.

Basically 90 percent of the Internet these days.

Just by way of example, some of the most readily-available (and recent!) articles on international work include the following tidbits (links withheld to protect the innocent):

  • “If possible, try to secure an overseas job before you relocate.”
  • “Create a [LinkedIn] profile that stands out. Once your name, photo and details are online, you never know who will find you.”
  • “If you’re applying for a job in England, Google ‘how to apply for a job England’.”

Questionable.

The thing is, most of these authors are undoubtedly well-meaning.  But honestly — based on over a decade of working overseas in the private, public, and non-profit sectors, this sort of advice is not pointing you anywhere meaningful.

Even worse, some of the self-proclaimed “experts” have precious little overseas work experience beyond leisure travel and a handful of short-term gigs or study abroad programs.  (Others have no discernible overseas work experience at all — they just apparently like to give advice about it.  Perhaps predictably, their counsel includes the useful pearl of wisdom, “If possible, try to secure an overseas job before you relocate.”)

While I by no means criticize leisure travel or studying abroad, it is a stretch to believe such experience is particularly relevant to someone actually looking to make a living internationally.  Many of these authors are often writing in their personal “blind spots” — in other words, a subject about which they know less about than they think.

That’s not to say that everything out there is bad.  Authors like Elaina Giolando clearly “get it,” but are few and far between.

Others have strong advice on specific but more narrow areas of overseas work, such as living a “nomadic lifestyle” working remotely, or about more established international careers like diplomacy.

To be clear, these are perfectly valid life choices, and can be enormously enriching.  I was a diplomat myself, after all.  And some of the authors (like Nomadic Matt, who focuses on short-term gigs to pay for travel) clearly know their stuff on those topics. If you are pretty certain you are looking for the specific experiences they write about, then their material is for you.

Nonetheless, those jobs only represent a sliver of what international work is out there for the taking. If you aren’t interested in short-term gigs or diplomacy, there is still a massive universe of international opportunities out there.

Viewing overseas work from just one lens can convince people just starting out that, if they don’t want to run their own business from a laptop or be a career bureaucrat, there are few other choices.  That’s just not true.  And that’s why I created this website.

Bro, I’m crushing it from a beach in Bali.

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B.  Why This Website Exists in the First Place

This website aims to reverse that trend.  It’s purpose is pretty simple:   provide advice about working internationally that (A) has actually been tested in real-life, and (B) relates to all areas of overseas work, from short-term volunteer jobs to careers in international business.

Luke Skywalker got his Jedi training by working with real Jedi.  He didn’t learn by following the Tatooine journalist covering Jedi issues on Imperial Twitter.

Similarly, your surgeon learned surgery by learning from other surgeons, not from the city newspaper’s health reporter.

That’s because, in most things at least, we learn a lot more about how to do something by actually doing it than from reading about it somewhere.

Moreover, if you want to understand the vast options available, you need to take a step back and look at the big picture.

More important still, before you hustle after an overseas experience, you need to figure out what you want from it first.

I can’t emphasize this last point enough.  In fact, it’s the basis for all my advice about overseas work:  figure out what you want — at least in a very general sense — before you start chasing down possibilites.

That’s because there are so many international options out there, that you can end up wasting a lot of time chasing possibilities that aren’t right for you.

I had to learn that lesson the hard way, but this website exists so you don’t have to.

Or worse, you could spend years chasing an international opportunity that you end up absolutely hating.  One of my more depressing recent experiences involved talking with an attorney who — in an attempt to escape soul-crushing paper-pushing in Houston, literally spend years working to get a transfer to an overseas office.  Turns out long hours pushing papers in Hong Kong is just as soul-crushing as it was in Houston.

You, only now in Dubai.  Have fun!

 C. So, how do you figure out what you want?

It’s actually not that hard.

Seriously.

It just takes some purposeful thought.

And just by asking yourself two simple questions, you will get 80% of the way there:

  1. Am I looking for a temporary job abroad or an overseas career opportunity?
  2. Do I want to work a for-profit company or a non-profit/government organization?

THERE ARE NO WRONG ANSWERS HERE.  Each choice is perfectly valid, and a short, non-profit overseas experience can be just as enriching as a career as an international consultant.

What is critical, however, is that your answers will shape what jobs are right for you—and more importantly, the best tactics to find them.

So let’s tackle these questions one-by-one:

1)  Am I looking for a temporary job abroad or an overseas career opportunity?

Looking for a short-term gig is much, much easier than finding something long-term and career-focused. This point may seem obvious, but it appears to be lost on a large number of self-proclaimed pundits, who fail to make this distinction. (Again, a notable exception is Elaina Giolando, who totally gets it.)

Finding something for a few months can—if you need to make money—be as traveling to a foreign country, meeting some expats through social media or other networks, and asking around for temporary work. And if you don’t mind volunteering your time, you may be able to just email some local non-profits in your city of interest and offer your services.

For those more career-focused, this can mean internships with companies or government agencies like the U.S. State Department.

Either way, it’s a lot easier to find something if you don’t need (1) a long-term work visa; (2) a pathway from that job to a longer career; or (3) a contract for a year or more.

With short-term work, the people you work for can take a much bigger risk that you might turn out to be a crappy employee/volunteer. They don’t have to sponsor you for a visa, worry about paying you for a long time, or be concerned about you jumping ship if you don’t like the foreign city you live in.

With long-term work, you become a serious investment, and the employer has to compare you to someone they can find locally. This last issue is particularly relevant in nations with strict work visa requirements or low local wages compared to your home country.  In the former case, the law reminds companies that they have to try and find a national who can do the work before they import someone else.  In the latter, the employer is probably going to spend more for you than it will for a local hire, since it has to provide a wage that justifies you leaving your home country (where you would earn more money than a local hire).

2)   Do I want to work a for-profit company or a non-profit/government organization?

The rules of the for-profit, private sector are very different than the rules for government work or NGOs. And as a result, a cultural and social gap exists between people who work the one world and people who inhabit the other.

People who bridge the two worlds are rare, and so the connections and networks you build in the private sector will often not serve you much in the public/non-profit world—and vice-versa.

When you are 21 and fresh out of college, this may not matter much. But as you are building your own professional career, it starts to matter more and more. As you gain experience, jobs—and particularly ones that are overseas and therefore physically distant from where you live—are increasingly won through your personal network.

So as each year passes, it can become progressively harder to bridge the gap.

I can tell you from my own experience. Moving from the diplomatic arena to consulting with Bain & Co. In my mid-30s, the process took almost 18 months of interest, effort, and networking. It wasn’t easy, and I had to convince a number of partners at the firm that I was capable and motivated to do for-profit work after working for the government.

Keep that in mind: time moves in just one direction. And unlike what your mother told you, once enough time passes, you can’t always be anything you want to be.

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D. What Your Answers Mean

Your answers put you into one of four categories that determine what type of international opportunities may be best for you given your current interests.  (Those interests can, of course, change over time.)

 

The Four Categories of Working Abroad

 

Subsequent posts explain more about each category and what it means for your overseas job search.  But for now, here is a brief overview:

1)  The Adventurer: Short-term & for-profit

Looking for new experiences, new friends, and a few dollars in his (or her) pocket, the Adventurer wants an interesting experience away from home without paying dearly for the privilege.

In many tourist locales, short-term, paid jobs abound, particularly during high season. Getting hired may be as easy as flying out there and asking around, or even just contacting people off of the right on-line forums.  (This is the area where websites like Nomadic Matt are spot-on, by the way.)

You’ll definitely see the world and meet new people this way, and often be able to make enough money to scrape by—although you probably won’t get health insurance or other benefits.

On the flip side, wages for these jobs aren’t great, and you are less likely to make enough money to save anything substantial. Jobs can be temporary, the hours irregular, and the work tedious (e.g., staffing a reception desk or cleaning a hostel).

Moreover, you may not be able to get legal permission to work this way. (Talk to a lawyer in the appropriate jurisdiction to be sure; I can’t give you legal advice and don’t suggest you break the law.) Nonetheless, some travelers ignore the law and do so anyway. If you decide to do that, know the risks and go in with your eyes open.

So while you aren’t likely to kick-start a career this way, you will almost assuredly find this interesting.

Pros:

  • Relatively easy to find gigs in large international tourism centers
  • Can allow for a flexible lifestyle
  • Great way to see the world while paying your own way
  • Great way to meet other travelers

Cons:

  • Pay can be low, hours unpredictable, and work tedious
  • May not provide a strong career-building experience
  • More vulnerable to exploitation by employers
  • Generally does not include benefits — e.g., health insurance is generally not covered
  • Work visas may be hard to acquire/work may not always be legal (check with an attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction to be sure)

Want more information on being an Adventurer?  Think that having an overseas experience that pays for itself sounds like a pretty sweet deal?  Then check out my 9,000+ word, long-form, super-detailed post that explains how to go from zero to working abroad as an Adventurer!

2)  The Volunteer: Short-term & non-profit/government

Want to see the world and help people? The Volunteer combines both of those passions through internships or other temporary assignments with non-profit organizations or the government.

The upsides are numerous. These jobs are significantly easier to locate that their longer-term brethren, and with a little effort a motivated individual can probably find an interesting opportunity. What’s more, these jobs do not confine themselves to large cities or cosmopolitan locales. Instead,

Also, the work involved can often be far more engaging than short-term paid jobs. If you are careful about choosing a short-term position that aligns with your longer-term professional goals, your temporary experience can actually serve as a professional stepping-stone to a career overseas.

Downsides exist to everything, and the Volunteer’s life is no exception. Most of these jobs are unpaid, so they may require you to (1) support yourself while abroad, (2) pay your own travel, and often (3) cover your own health insurance. Be sure to consider all the costs involved before you take the plunge; the cost of these experiences can price some people out of the market (although travel grants and other stipends are out there for the taking, especially for students).

Additionally, while some NGOs and government agencies have well-organized short-term programs, others can come up short. Because these short-term jobs are often unpaid, you can fall through the cracks at more poorly managed organizations that don’t have good systems in place to give you work.

(Also, in some cases, volunteer work can require a special visa. I can’t give legal advice, so check before you go.)

So, be prepared to take the initiative to get the work experience you want—in many cases, you will have to be proactive to get the exposure and skill-building opportunities you want!

Pros:

  • Relatively easy to find interesting opportunities
  • Geographic options not limited to large tourism centers
  • Can be a great career-building experience if you align your job with your future professional plans
  • May open doors to future long-term work

Cons:

  • Will probably cost you money; those who cannot afford them may be priced out of the market without travel grants or other stipends (usually restricted to students)
  • Often need to take initiative to get the experience you want
  • Generally does not include benefits — e.g., health insurance is generally not covered
  • In some situations, volunteer work may not always be legal (check with an attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction to be sure)

3)  The International Businessperson: Long-term & for-profit

Ask most people what they imagine overseas work to look like, and chances are they will think of the International Businessperson. An overseas financier, a globetrotting entrepreneur, an expat manager opening a factory abroad…these are the jobs that many movie clichés are made of.

To some extent, the clichés hold true—international business can make for both an interesting and lucrative career. But for those same reasons, these are some of the hardest jobs to land: after all, a lot of people want them.

These jobs can also allow a more complete immersion into the life of a foreign country, especially if you are one of a few foreigners working in an overseas office. Such immersion also comes with challenges of its own, including a far greater need to adapt.

I experienced this myself when I became a consultant after my work as a diplomat. As a U.S. official, I spent a lot of time working and speaking with other U.S. officials. As a consultant, I was one of two native English speakers in a large team—believe me, it was a much, much different experience.

Additionally, these jobs demand a work visa — large corporations or governments generally won’t run any legal risks by skirting immigration laws.  Getting work visas can be a major pain in the *ss.  Plus, you will need to move your home overseas.  Not every company will move you, and international moves can be a ton of work.

And once you are in your new country, you will often need to open a local bank account and all of the other mundane things of day-to-day life like getting your Internet service set up. Those less-glamorous parts of the job are usually not featured in the movies.

Finally, more money can also, as the saying goes, mean more problems, at least if you count long hours and stress among them. Career jobs in the private sector are (generally speaking) more likely to require late nights, weekend work, and constant stress than their public sector counterparts.

That is not to say that public sector jobs do not come with stress—just ask any consular officer who has had to deal with a natural disaster in their territory, or a diplomat managing a the visit of a head of state. But on average, the private sector will likely demand more in terms of long hours throughout someone’s career. (The diplomatic service required me to work long hours periodically. As a management consultant, I routinely worked until midnight multiple days per week, every week.)

Pros:

  • Strong career-building experience
  • Pay is usually good to very good, particularly if you are receiving benefits for being an overseas employee
  • Opportunity to truly integrate into and experience a foreign country
  • Establishes a strong foundation for life-long work in international forums and/or issues

Cons:

  • Hard jobs to get, especially outside the context of temporary reassignments in a large company
  • Resettling outside your home country for long periods of time can be more stressful and challenging than many expect
  • Long and stressful hours are often part of the package
  • Requires a work visa, which can be a lengthy and irritating process

4)  The Altruistic Professional: Long-term & non-profit/government

Want to serve your nation or humanity across the world? The life of the Altruistic Professional is the way to go. It may not be as sexy as it looks on TV, but you can’t get much better in terms of life satisfaction and knowing you are making a difference for your fellow human beings.

Beyond that major upside, career work in the non-profit/public sectors also comes with the ability to work in regions of the world that most for-profit employees abroad won’t see: less-populated or less-developed nations, rural areas, or conflict zones. (For example, I spent two incredible years living in the Cape Verde islands, a country of about 500,000 people in the mid-Atlantic. There aren’t many international corporate opportunities there save for straight-up entrepreneurship.)

Additionally, the government, international organizations like the United Nations, and bigger NGOs can pay a reasonably good salary with strong benefits that pay for things like housing, moving, and even trips home from time to time. You probably won’t get rich, but you will have some financial security.

And because those organizations have many people from your home country (in the case of government work) or seasoned expats (in the case of international organizations and NGOs), you will often have a ready-made social network that people in the private sector often don’t enjoy.

There are, of course, downsides. First and foremost, especially in public sector work, the government may require you to go where they want, which may not necessarily be where you want to go. You may have to live in challenging environments that involve physical danger, disease, or limited access to medical services. Mental health services may be nonexistent. Reading about that sort of life can feel adventurous. But when you wake up one night with your eye hurting so much you can’t keep it open, and the nearest specialist is hours away by airplane, things get real very fast.

Pros:

  • Strong career-building experience
  • Pay can be reasonably good in some situations (government and international organizations)
  • Opportunity to truly integrate into and experience a foreign country
  • Organizations often have excellent benefits and social structures
  • Establishes a strong foundation for life-long work in international forums and/or issues

Cons:

  • Hard jobs to get—jobs with governments and international organizations usually require a formal, lengthy, and uncertain hiring process
  • Many overseas jobs with government/international organizations require giving up some freedom of movement
  • Work may involve physical and mental hardship
  • Pay can be not-so-great in some situations
  • Resettling outside your home country for long periods of time can be more stressful and challenging than many expect

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E.  OK, I Have an Idea of What I am Looking for.  So What’s Next?

Each category of overseas work demands a different approach. I can tell you from experience—if you are approaching a private sector employer for a job with a public sector mentality, you will be swimming against the current, and vice-versa.

Same thing with if you look for a short-term job or internship with the mindset of someone seeking a long-term career opportunity overseas.

If you don’t know what you want, you will have a hard time getting it.

Over the next few months, I’ll be getting into detail about what it takes to get an overseas job in each category, based on my experience and that of many others.

Here’s the first installment:  The Adventurer — short-term, for-profit work experiences!

Enjoy, and please provide your feedback in the comments section!

3 thoughts on “What sort of international work experience is right for you? (Real, battle-tested advice from someone who has been there.)”

  1. Pingback: The Four Types of International Worker — #1: The Adventurer – How to Work Overseas

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