The first time I lived abroad was in college. I spent my junior year studying Chinese and teaching English in Beijing, China. It was a life-defining experience. Though I had little interest in returning to the States, I figured finishing my Bachelor’s Degree was probably worth the trip home but I was determined, with diploma in hand, to be on the first plane out.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Turns out that, unless you’re interested in teaching English for peanuts, living and working abroad is not as easy as it may seem. Positions are highly coveted, very competitive and, in my experience, there is not a huge international need for entry level applicants.
But don’t be discouraged!
My first PR job was with a boutique agency in Chicago. Working in a small organization is a great way to learn a lot fast and to avoid being relegated solely to the entry level tortures of press lists, media alert pitching and excel spreadsheets, though I certainly did my fair share.
As much as I enjoyed small agency life, I knew I had to get to a big agency with global offices if I was going to land that idealized international position. I came to a few other realizations as well: 1.) I needed more experience, 2.) networking would be essential, and 3.) I was going to have to be patient (not really one of my virtues).
I was lucky and I found a position with Ketchum in the Chicago Healthcare Practice. From the start, I worked to build relationships, volunteered for projects with international teams, learned about the agency offerings and took every opportunity – annual reviews, chance meetings with leadership, casual team conversations – to mention my international interests. (NOTE: While it’s important to convey your international interests, remember that you don’t want your U.S. team, or an interviewer, to think that you are not interested and committed to your current position.)
When the opportunity came up to spend a year in Switzerland, “on loan” to the World Economic Forum, mine was one of the first hands up.
A few tips for applying to international positions:
- International teams are multi-national which means that cultural perceptivity and sensitivity, versatility, adaptability and a commitment to team work are important to employers.
- Most E.U. countries make getting a Master’s Degree easy and affordable which means that most international employers now consider an advanced degree table stakes.
- My international colleagues speak at least two languages, if not more. Once again, ex-U.S. employers consider being a polyglot a basic requirement.
- Location isn’t everything. Make sure you are applying to a position you want, not just a city you like.
I only have an undergraduate degree which, with my mediocre conversational Chinese and pathetic French, puts me at a serious deficit for international positions. Without shelling out time and money for a degree in the States, which is still no guarantee, working internationally, by first getting inside a U.S. company, was really my only option.
It’s hard to find international PR jobs. Firms hiring outside candidates are usually looking for highly specialized, senior counselors. You may have luck searching for internal positions with internationally-based companies but, even those are hard to come by. For the company, it will almost always be more advantageous to transfer a current employee than to hire outside.
After three months of interviewing and waiting, I finally got that call.
It’s been a wild ride since arriving in Geneva. Working internationally is hard. Figuring out to live internationally is a bigger challenge but that’s for another post.