There are many different ways to establish an international career, but it’s important to understand that many internationally-focused careers do not start abroad. Especially if you want to work for a large, well-recognized organization like the United Nations or become a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State, it’s pretty rare for that to happen immediately after graduation. Working abroad is a great goal, but recognize that it might take some time, persistence, and luck to get there.
The Path to “Abroad”
Gaining Relevant Experience as a Student
Studying and interning abroad during your time as a student are fantastic ways to start building a global network, and UW-Madison is one of the top universities in the world for pursuing these opportunities! In addition to experience living abroad, studying or interning abroad also helps you develop intercultural communication skills, become more independent and adaptable, and hone your foreign language skills with native speakers. You can choose from traditional study abroad programs that allow you to learn from and alongside people from other cultures, research opportunities where you can work as part of a team to advance a project, and internships to gain firsthand experience working in a new setting – or a combination of these! For students in the College of Letters and Science, a great place to start is the International Academic Programs office in the Red Gym. As UW-Madison’s central study abroad office, they can definitely point you in the right direction!
However, if going abroad during your time as a student is outside of your budget or impossible to build into your academic schedule, there are other ways to build relevant knowledge into your degree. Learning a language is a fantastic way to gain a marketable skill, and to build a strong understanding of other cultures. UW-Madison has one of the leading language programs in the United States, where you can learn the classics like French, Spanish, and German, critical languages like Russian, Chinese, and Arabic, or set yourself apart with a less common language like Finnish, Swahili, or Thai. Another great way to build internationally relevant knowledge into your academics is to choose the International Studies Major, or a regionally focused Certificate. Working closely with professors who are experts on international development, global security, and understanding other cultures is a great way to explore your interests and learn how to succeed in other professional contexts.
Building a Global Network
As you may have guessed, networking is absolutely essential to successfully working abroad. Not only will you rely on your network to help you find opportunities in your field, but it will be your best resource for understanding and navigating local workplace culture as you adapt to your new home and build your life abroad. Though it may feel a bit awkward at first, the more you practice developing meaningful relationships with professionals in your area of interest, the easier it will become and the better results you’ll get. A great place to start is right here on campus! Your Professors, Advisors, and TAs are great sources of information. Ask their advice on the types of jobs you should look for, or to see if they have connections in areas that interest you, and would be willing to make an introduction. You can also join internationally focused student organizations, like BRIDGE, WUD Global Connections, or a language exchange program!
Once you’re ready to branch out and start building a network beyond campus, two great resources are Badger Bridge and LinkedIn. Both sites allow you to create a profile and reach out to professionals in your area of interest! The main difference is that Badger Bridge is specifically for UW-Madison Alumni, which is a great first step because you already have something in common. Because they are virtual, both resources allow you to find and contact professionals all around the world. As you put together a plan and start reaching out, SuccessWorks can help! Start with the Ultimate Guide to Networking, then meet with an advisor to talk about how to start that first conversation, what questions you should ask, and how to follow up after you meet a new contact. You can also take advantage of events like the Career Fairs and Networking Events, all of which can be found under the events tab on Handshake!
Choose the Direction that’s Right for You
Depending on your skills, interests, and priorities, there are many different kinds of work that can translate into international experience. Below are several options that are worth considering, and some resources to get you started!
US-Based Work with Global Relevance
A great way to start your international career is by exploring opportunities for Internationally-focused work in the United States. Starting your career in your home country gives you the chance to develop specialized knowledge that makes you a competitive candidate, a deeper understanding of immigration processes and systems, and a global professional network to find and successfully apply for opportunities. Especially if you speak languages other than English, look for opportunities where you can work fully in, or at least use occasionally, your language skills. This can definitely be in something like translation or interpretation, especially if you have earned credentials to do this specialized work, but there are also a lot of opportunities where you can use a language within other professional fields. Whether you want to work in business, NGO/Nonprofits, technology, education, or communications, look for opportunities at organizations that have programs, partners, or projects abroad. This is usually a good sign that, even if it isn’t written specifically into the position description, that there will be opportunities to expand your knowledge of those regions and apply your language skills in a professional setting.
Another great way to do globally relevant work within the United States is to work with underrepresented or underserved communities. This will increase your cultural competency, but also give you a better understanding of your own background and identity, the political systems that influence your everyday life, and how you can function within these systems to accomplish your goals. All of this will make you much more successful in your professional life abroad. Americorps is a great short-term service program that allows you to gain experience working in a variety of different projects around the country (while earning a living wage). You can also check out the Successworks Social Justice Internships, which connect students with Nonprofits and small businesses in Madison that are working for social change.
Short Term International Programs
One other common pathway to an international career is short-term programs that allow you to teach English abroad. There are a huge variety of these programs all over the world, and most of them provide a living wage and help with your visa/accommodations. Though they aren’t meant to become a career in themselves, taking advantage of networking opportunities while you’re abroad can make finding a permanent role much easier. The International Internship Program has some opportunities to teach English abroad as a student, and can point you in the right direction for post-graduation opportunities as well.
There are also programs that allow you to do research abroad. The Fulbright program is a great example, where applicants can design their own projects and work with advisors at foreign universities or other institutes of higher education to carry them out. To learn more about the application process for UW-Madison students, meet with the UW-Madison Fulbright Advisor, Mark Lilleleht.
Another short-term international work opportunity is through service-focused programs like the Peace Corps. UW-Madison has historically been a top-producer of Peace Corps volunteers, and has an advisor dedicated to helping students navigate the decision-making and application process named Kate Schachter! If you’re interested in international service, but Peace Corps isn’t your style, make sure that you’re doing your research to ensure that the programs you choose are reputable and have a positive impact for you and the communities you serve.
Another common path to a global career is to attend graduate school abroad. If this is an option you’re considering, be sure to choose a university that has plenty of advising, networking, and support resources for international students. Depending on your field, you’ll also want to be sure that the degree you pursue will help you reach your long-term goals. Not all degree types have the same career outcomes, and you don’t want to get into a situation where your degree doesn’t meet the professional requirements you need to advance your career.
Federal Government Work Abroad
The Foreign Service is a great career option if you want to live and work abroad long-term! There are several different types of positions to suit a variety of skill sets. However, note that the application process is a long one, and many Foreign Service Officers apply more than once. Check out our Diplomatic Careers page, and visit careers.state.gov for more information!
Though it isn’t much like what you see on TV, intelligence organizations like the CIA, FBI, and NSA are a great place to use your language skills and pursue an internationally-focused career. The hiring processes for these organizations aren’t the most transparent and can take up to a year (or more) because of the security clearances involved, so it’s important to plan ahead. Learn more about intelligence careers on the Federal Government page.
USAJobs is the main hiring resource for the federal government, including international and internationally-focused roles outside of the Foreign Service and Intelligence Agencies (ex. USAID, Customs and Border Protection, International Trade Association, etc.). The Civil Service section of the Federal Government page can help you understand and successfully navigate this process.
Nonprofits, NGOs, and Intergovernmental Organizations
Another great area to think about if you’re interested in international work is with NGOs or Nonprofits. Organizations like these have a huge range in the types of positions, everything from financial/budgeting, communications, program management, and more! Idealist is a great search resource for these opportunities, and you can even search by issue area to find jobs with organizations doing the work you’re most passionate about.
International development is an area of globally-focused work that spans NGO, Nonprofit, Intergovernmental, and Government organizations, and is growing in popularity. It is also, however, a particularly competitive field where extensive international experience, a specialized graduate degree, and a professional network in relevant organizations can go a long way in making you a strong candidate. Devex and DevNet are two great resources to find international development opportunities.
If you’ve ever dreamed of working for the World Bank, UN, or World Trade Organization, you’re not alone! These opportunities are highly competitive, but not out of reach. Because these well-known organizations receive so many applications from all over the world, networking is essential to break in. Though you’ll find jobs with these organizations posted on sites like LinkedIn or Indeed, they’re often missing information or out of date. Instead, rely on the organization’s website and apply through the original posting!
- Think about where you bring value
- Be mindful about visa/work permit processes
- Where to find jobs with international companies
A huge area of opportunity for students with an international interest is with international companies, or American companies working abroad. Because this is such a wide field, it’s difficult to classify them into a single category, but there are a few general things to keep in mind if this is an option you’re planning to pursue. One is that, when looking for opportunities, you should always keep in mind where you bring value. For example, if you’re an American citizen who majored in Marketing and spent a year abroad in France interning with a French company, your skills and experience understanding and navigating these two cultures could be valuable for a French company looking to expand to the United States. Be aware that international work permits often require the company hiring you to prove that no one in-country can (or wants to) do the work necessary for the role, so be sure to stress the unique value of your perspective and experiences in your resume, cover letter, and interview!
When looking into opportunities with private companies abroad, it’s also essential that you think about the visa and work permit process. These processes can take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, and be frustratingly complicated for both you and for the company to navigate. This means that not all companies are willing to go through the process to hire someone from another country, and even if they are, make sure you’re informed and prepared to legally live and work abroad. Do your research before applying, and ask these questions early on in the hiring process!