20 Years Abroad: Tips for Starting Your International Career

By March 13, 2020Expert Advice

When Jennifer Birtcher started her career in Los Angeles, she had no idea that she would end up working and living in England, Japan, Kenya, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland. Now an internationally recognized HR expert, Birtcher enjoys sharing her story and helping other professionals realize their dreams of having an exciting international career. Here are some of the tips she shared on a recent iHub Cultural Conversations podcast.

Wanderlust: How to Get Abroad

International positions are hard to come by for young professionals for many reasons, the biggest being cost. Companies will typically end up paying twice as much to bring in a foreign employee compared to hiring someone domestically. In the face of this difficulty, Birtcher says: “When you’re younger in your career, how can you prove that you’re going to bring expertise to the employees in this other country? You can’t really.” So how can young professionals achieve their dream of working abroad? According to Birtcher, “it’s not glamorous.”

Early in her career, she would go to her boss frequently and remind him that she would love the opportunity to work abroad if the company ever had an international assignment. She also worked very hard to prove that she had much to offer, no matter where in the world she was. This combination of perseverance and perspiration paid off, when only a few short years into her career she was assigned to work in London.

Once there, she was assigned to various support offices across Europe because of her continual effort and thoughtful networking. When the company she worked for went out of business, she had put herself in a position where she could be recruited by other international firms. Her key takeaway? “Every time I saw a door open… [I said], ‘I’m here ready to do it.’”

Culture Shock: Getting Accustomed to a New Place

One of the biggest problems professionals face once they have an international assignment is getting accustomed to cultural norms that are different from their own. This is especially true for Westerners. “We think that how we see things is the best way, but once you get living in these other countries, you think some ways they do things are actually better.”

Living in diverse places and being surrounded by people who think and live differently than oneself has a profound impact on the worldview of individuals. However, cultural growth often comes at the expense of awkward faux paus and embarrassing mistakes. For Birtcher, it required getting used to discerning what friendliness really meant in unique circumstances. While in Kenya, she had to adjust to an almost entirely male workforce. In Somalia and Saudi Arabia, it was seeing almost all the other women completely covered. And in Switzerland, it was learning how to live in a more strict, rule-based society. These adjustments take time, but they are incredibly rewarding and provide life-changing experience.

Final Tips

“I wanted to work internationally, so I made it happen” pretty much sums up Birtcher’s experience. And her experience seems to match those of thousands of others who have made their dreams of an international career a reality. Hard work and great networking are required. And when it feels like realizing an international career goal isn’t going to happen, don’t give up. “It could turn into something bigger and better than you had thought.”

To hear more tips from Jennifer Birtcher, listen to the iHub Cultural Conversations podcast here.