Working Overseas

International Careers

Is it really possible to land a job in an exotic place overseas? With 50,000 Canadians working abroad, many of them recent graduates, the answer appears to be yes. But how do people do it? The fact is, an international job search is different from a Canadian job search. Everyone's experience is different, but there are definite steps you can take to greatly improve your chances of finding an exciting job overseas. With careful planning, you can get the job of your dreams in the land of your dreams.

That said, do not approach an international job as an exotic vacation abroad. Employers are looking for competent, effective, and experienced cross-cultural workers to represent their interests abroad. International employees are hired as much for their personality traits as they are for their technical knowledge. No matter what your field of expertise, you can probably find an international job if you are able to demonstrate to employers that you have traits common to all successful international employees.

In this article you will find information on these topics:

  • The International Job Search: How Is It Different?

  • International Skills Inventory

  • Getting Experience to Work Abroad

  • Are You Ready for an International Job Search?

The International Job Search: How Is It Different?

International recruiting is done differently than hiring for a Canadian position. The personnel department is rarely involved; instead, you should contact the international division. More specifically, you should directly call the project officer in charge of work in your field.

Whether you are phoning employers or networking at a conference, always be ready with a two-sentence and a two-paragraph description of yourself that summarizes your volunteer, educational, and work experience and also highlights your international work and cross-cultural communication skills.

You must always call international employers to get a clear idea of what type of international work you want. These networking calls are crucial when you are first starting out. Inside information on what it takes to succeed is very important. Ask the recruiter directly, "What are the characteristics of people generally hired for this type of overseas position?"

Don't be discouraged if an international employer tells you that your résumé has been stored in the organization's data bank. Computerized data banks are crucial to international recruitment. Because of the nature of most international work, data banks help handle the unforeseeable needs related to international contracts and bid submissions. You must, therefore, contact employers every 3 to 4 months. If you are in the data bank, the employer is interested in you.

Last, remember that people with international jobs have usually worked their way up and "paid their dues." They have studied hard, traveled long, worked in hardship positions for little pay (often as volunteers), suffered innumerable career ups and downs, and been bumped from country to country, assignment to assignment. It's all part of the process--and part of the attraction as well.

International Skills Inventory

Enjoyment of Change

Are you the type of person who can adapt to new situations? The key is to learn to enjoy change. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is an appropriate proverb.

Open Mind

Don't try to transpose North American solutions to problems you encounter. You must have an open mind for new solutions and, equally important, recognize local solutions that already work and do not need to be changed.


Patience is a trait that applies to every aspect of overseas life. As a stranger in a new land, you should refrain from jumping to conclusions. There is often an underlying logic to things that will elude you. There is an old African saying: "The stranger who does not suffer from alienation falls short of his calling as a stranger."


You will be charting new waters where the correct assessment of the situation on Monday is often erroneous by Thursday. Being rigid in a new society will hurt your ability to get things done. The cultural convictions of the local population are much stronger than your persuasive abilities as an individual.


Humor can help you adjust to almost any circumstances and ease the stress of overseas living. Moreover, a sense of humor will help you enjoy the whole adaptation process.


When you move to a new country, everything from shampoo to politics is different. Knowing yourself will help you recognize the difference between being flexible and conforming to new social customs, on the one hand, and establishing limits, on the other.


Tolerance is critical when you live in a society you don't understand. If someone is late for an appointment, assume there is a cultural reason. If someone invites you to supper and then is surprised when you show up, this may have cultural origins. Go one step further: Study the cultural background or traditions of the behavior in hand.

Listening and Observing Skills

Your own listening and observing skills will determine how much you learn about your new environment. Observe people and ask tactful questions. Listening and observing are keys to developing intercultural communications skills.


It's easy to believe that solutions are impossible when you work in a culture you don't fully comprehend. Don't give up. Show persistence in completing the task at hand, whatever the challenges.


To be a successful overseas worker, you need to be energetic. Success at meeting deadlines and overcoming constraints demonstrates your ability to find innovative approaches to work challenges.

Getting Experience to Work Abroad

How do you acquire international personality traits if you have not had your first international job? How do you explain to potential employers that you understand the overseas cross-cultural working environment? How do you learn to deal with people from other cultures? It is easier than you think.

Your long-term goal while gaining international experience is to develop an understanding of what it is like to work with people from other cultures.

Start by developing your international experience in Canada.

  • Join an international organization or committee or volunteer to work with refugees in your community. Volunteer with the numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Canada. Become active with local committees and take on leadership roles.

  • Work as a volunteer host with the international students' office at your university or, better still, with an NGO hosting program.

  • Read books on cross-cultural management and country-specific books about doing business with the Japanese, other Asians, Mexicans, etc.

  • Take at least two or three courses in international business, politics, or contemporary cultural history. Write an essay that requires you to interview people who have international jobs with government, NGOs, or the private sector.

Gain experience abroad.

  • Cross-cultural travel is an absolute must. Take at least 4 months and travel in developing countries, visit businesses in your field of study, volunteer your services for a month, attend international conferences, and contact and visit members of industry associations abroad.

  • Take 3 months off to study another language abroad. Do you realize that 3 months of living expenses in Canada probably could pay for 3 months of Spanish studies in Guatemala, including airfare?

  • Volunteer for a short-term cross-cultural exchange program. There are more than 70 programs in Canada and thousands of others worldwide.

  • Study abroad in a culture different from your own. There are more than 310 international study programs at Canadian universities, many of which include a semester or co-op placement abroad. The federal government has a number of programs as well.

  • Apply for an international internship with an international organization, a private firm, an NGO, or a government department. You can arrange you own internship or join a formal program. For example, the federal government currently awards more than 2000 international internships each year through six government departments.

Are You Ready for an International Job Search?

If you answer yes to most of these questions, you are ready to undertake your international job search.

  • Have you worked hard at raising your international IQ through building geographic, political, and economic knowledge of the world; cross-cultural knowledge; adaptation skills; and knowledge about international aspects of your field of work?

  • Are you prepared to spend time and money in an active job search campaign?

  • Do you have a clear idea of the type of international job you want?

  • Do you know people working internationally in your field? Have you spoken to at least three people who have worked overseas in your line of work?

  • Does your résumé highlight your international experience and awareness?

  • Can you clearly explain to employers what you do well and enjoy doing? Can you explain this in the context of an overseas work assignment?

  • Have you written a two-sentence and a two-paragraph description of yourself and your key international qualifications to use when networking?

  • Have you researched the international aspects of your field? Have you conducted research on the international job market to determine where you fit in?

  • Do you have the skills to carry out an effective job search (letter-writing techniques, telephoning techniques, resume-writing skills, and interview and communication techniques)?

  • Are you knowledgeable about the international hiring process? Whom to contact? Who makes the hiring decisions? How long an international job search takes?

A Last Word

An open mind, a taste for adventure, an interest in other cultures, a strong self-concept, and a sense of humor-all are essential ingredients for the successful overseas worker. Of course, these traits complement the particular professional skills you bring to your assignment.

Landing that international job means you are about to experience drastic changes in your day-to-day life. Accept the changes, meet the challenges--and above all, enjoy yourself!

Jean-Marc Hachey is the author of The Canadian Guide to Living and Working Abroad.

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