International Job Advice: Go In To Get Out

Abby Berg-Hammond

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.

4 thoughts on “International Job Advice: Go In To Get Out

  1. These are some very helpful tips for an undergrad looking to go abroad with a BA. Is there any specific advice you would give for someone looking to work in a setting other than agency?

  2. Hi Katie,

    Thank for you taking the time to read the post and for your nice note. I did my best to answer all of your questions below. I’m happy to look over a resume or cover letter or answer additional questions as you continue your job search.

    Good luck with the rest of your year and happy holidays!


    What advice would you give if an agency setting is not my preferred work environment? I am more comfortable in the smaller/non-profit PR sector after completing a few internships. Do you suggest looking for work here first?

    Nonprofits are a fantastic place to gain experience (especially in diplomacy) and they always need good people. That said, nonprofits in the States are unlikely to have the budgets, unless you are looking at Gates or Clinton Foundations, to transfer people internationally. If you are looking at international non-profit organizations, in my experience, everyone wants at least a Master’s Degree. As far as I can tell, international nonprofits are not lacking in resumes and they are only taking the crème de la crème. it is also pretty much required that you speak at least two languages, English and one other (French, Chinese and Spanish are at the top of the lists for nonprofits).

    You might consider looking into Corporate Social Responsibility programs at specific companies (almost all companies have these now). Some agencies also have Pro Bono or Non-profit Departments so that might be an option as well.

    That said, if international non-profit work is really your end goal in life then I highly recommend that you get a Master’s Degree. It’s probably best to work for a year or two and then get an advanced degree in international policy or business, sociology, etc. Once you have Master’s Degree doors will start opening up all over the place.

    You might also check out the United Nations internship program – not sure if you need a Masters for this one or not.

    What boutique agency did you work at here in Chicago, and did you enjoy it? How long did you stay at this first job before moving onto Ketchum?

    I started my career at Stewart Communications but, last I heard, they are not around anymore. I was at Stewart Communications for two years before moving to Ketchum.

    Would you say being offered an “on-loan” position is rare for someone with just a BA? This is my ultimate goal, but I am wondering what the chances are if I work outside of an agency setting.

    It is not at all uncommon for agencies to place their people with clients – sometimes for blocks of time (a few weeks or months) and sometimes on a permanent basis (e.g. one or two days a week). My situation is a bit unique because the World Economic Forum is not a client of Ketchum’s and I am here under a separate agreement – this is the first time I have heard of this type of arrangement.

    Good luck!!

  3. Hi Abby,

    Firstly, thank you for your post. It was so great and kind of shocking to read about your goals because they resonate with mine exactly! I’m completing a Masters degree in Communication at Northwestern and am looking for international positions in PR, which I was going to do through a multinational firm in Chicago. I landed on this blog through the Ketchum website. I have a diverse background, but my lack of experience in PR is what worries me. Would you please be able to look over my resume and provide me with feedback?

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