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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

The Smart Career Move You Haven't Considered: Working Abroad

Two years after graduating from college, I found myself working retail in New York City and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself. How did I—with my near-perfect GPA, summa cum laude honors, and Phi Beta Kappa membership—end up selling iPhones?

But while it was unfortunate at the time, my post-grad situation actually led me down an unconventional path that showed me one of the best things you can do for your career: Get a job in another country.

During my time working as a mediocre salesperson, I decided that my next career move would be to work at an organization using technology to achieve social change. And, after talking to friends and professional contacts, I was put in touch with an organization in Mexico City that offered me an internship.

"Mexico City?" I thought. "Isn't that dangerous?" But I was desperate for an escape, so I packed up my stuff and moved.

It turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. One month after arriving, I was offered a full-time job, and my temporary internship led to more than three years—and counting!—of exciting (although admittedly often tumultuous) personal and professional growth. Here are a few reasons why working abroad can be a great option, especially if you are at the start of your career.

You Will Learn to Be Adaptable

Each country abides by a different set of values, mannerisms, and customs in the workplace—and when you start working somewhere new, you’ll have to adapt fast. For example, Americans tend to value getting to the point in conversations for the sake of efficiency. In Mexico, I quickly learned that being direct with co-workers often comes off as rude and even condescending, and it won't get you very far if you need to collaborate with someone. In fact, time spent making a personal connection before talking about business—even if you simply need to ask someone to send you a file—goes a long way here.

While it can be frustrating to have to change your working style this drastically, adapting to new conventions teaches you to be more flexible, agile, and compassionate. It makes you more sensitive to how other people react to you in a professional setting and makes you an all-around better communicator. When you do move back to your home country, you’ll be able to point to this adaptability during interviews—and it will take you far in any job you have.

You Will Have a Better Chance of Taking on High-Level Positions More Quickly

You are most likely well aware that the job market in the U.S., especially in big cities, is highly competitive. On the other hand, if you know the field you want to work in and research which other countries have opportunities in that field, you will likely open yourself up to a much greater chance of snagging your dream job and taking on more responsibility more quickly in another country.

For example, Mexico and Chile both have cities with interesting tech and startup scenes—but young folks looking for jobs aren’t flocking to these cities like they are to San Francisco or New York. The relative lack of competition, combined with the fact that many Latin American startups like the idea of having a native English speaker with international connections on their team, means that prospects are good for American grads looking for opportunities to grow. The majority of my expat friends living in Mexico (myself included) were hired into or quickly advanced to high-level positions in their companies—positions that would have taken them many years to work up to in their home countries.

You Will Become Bilingual (As Long As You Don't Only Hang Out With Expats)

There are numerous personal and professional benefits of being bilingual. For one, people who speak more than one language tend to get paid more (as much as 20%!). Also, being bilingual can allow you to form a vital part of a company's growth strategy, whether it is trying to enter new markets on a national level or expand to other countries. Overall, being bilingual is a skill associated with top performers and earners: 31% of executives speak two languages. And being bilingual is actually proven to make you smarter, as it makes you better at solving complex problems.

This is, of course, assuming you don’t only hang out with expats! Enroll in intensive language classes, insist on speaking the native language even when people speak to you in English, and don't give up. I'm pretty bad at languages, and I learned fluent Spanish in nine months—I bet you could do it in six!

You Will Foster a Global Network of Contacts

We've all heard numerous times that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and many of us experience this on a daily basis through social media, conference calls with international colleagues, and increased business travel. Working abroad gives you the chance to build relationships with people in your field on an international level, so even when you decide to move back to your home country, you can continue to nurture these relationships from afar and incorporate them into your new job.

For example, if I were to move back to the U.S., I could position myself as someone who can bring valuable business contacts and high-level knowledge of the region to a company looking to expand into the Latin American market. I could even start a company with a business model based on connecting the Mexican and American markets, using my contacts in both regions as a starting point.

The older we get, the harder it is to drop everything and move to another country, so I strongly advocate taking a job abroad early in your career so that you can expand your perspective of the world, immerse yourself in another culture, and gain experiences and skills that will make you stand out against other job candidates. You'll undoubtedly also create some amazing memories along the way.

Want to learn more about how you can get a job in another country? Forbes has a great summary of steps to take to get started on your international job search.

Photo of woman moving abroad courtesy of Shutterstock.