How long is too long when working abroad?
February 8, 2006 9:30 PM   Subscribe

Is working abroad (a.k.a. figuring out what I want to do for the rest of my life) for a few years helpful or hurtful when I come back to the States?

I just graduated from university in May of 2005 with a B.A. in Business Marketing and English Creative Writing. I also had quite a bit of profesional experience working in a PR/advertising firm for 2 years, writing for a newspaper, teaching freshman-level classes, etc. But, I got burned out and wanted to travel before I committed to grad school or a full-time professional career. So, I moved to Japan where I currently live to teach English. My issue is that teaching isn't really a career I want for a long time, it was more just an excuse to live abroad and travel. There's still so much more I want to do after this program ends...backpack around South America? in a cafe in Greece? ...who knows, even working on a farm in Australia? But, will a a couple more years of this kind of employment hurt me when I get back to America? If it will, is there anything I can do to enhance it so that I can continue working abroad while furthering my professional skills? I'm still not exactly sure what I want to do, but I love to write, meet people, and come up with creative ideas. Have any suggestions? Thanks in advance!
posted by workinprogress to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I asked a question about travel jobs and got some pretty good ideas, so that might help.

You and I sound very alike in terms of what we like to do. Maybe you'd like to be a travel journalist of sorts? Work with a TV station that does travel shows?
posted by divabat at 9:53 PM on February 8, 2006

any job that does not clearly help you to progress toward a goal or help you develop identifiable skills in the field that you'll one day go into is hurting you for when you go back to America or wherever you start your real life.

When you interview for that dream job someday, they're going to ask you why you did X for a year or 2. If you answer "because I wanted to explore and see what I wanted out of life," that's probably fine. But the next question will be "so what did you get out of it that will help you in this, your dream job?" and your answer better be something better than "it helped me grow up," "I got to see a lot of cool stuff" or "it helped me make up my mind."

Figure out how doing X for a year or two will actually move you ahead in your life. You can't put your life on pause, no matter how much you'd like to. Your life moves forward, and the years you spend doing X now are never coming back, so make them count. Maybe you can make them count in a fun way. Maybe you can't. FWIW, I made them count in a fun way -- took a year off after undergrad and did a really cool job that I never would have done otherwise, in a city where I really wanted to live for just a year or so but not permanently, and it built my resume really well and changed my life (I met my wife there). But you must do it knowing that it's actually moving you forward. There's no coasting in life -- you're either accellerating or you're slowing down.
posted by JekPorkins at 10:02 PM on February 8, 2006

Figure out how doing X for a year or two will actually move you ahead in your life.

Move ahead in your life??!! Dude, at the end of your life there is a hole in the ground and a stone with your name on it. I would not hurry to get there. And below your name, there is room for a sentence or two, your epitath.

What do you want that sentence to say? "Here lies Workinprogress, he was practical and worked hard and died with a lot of stuff." Or "...he grabbed life with both hands, explored the world, and became a better, fuller person as a result."

Grab your backpack and go. The rat race will be there when you get back.
posted by LarryC at 11:00 PM on February 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

I would not hurry to get there.

You're getting there at the same speed, whether you hurry or not. That's the point. Don't get a job just to make money. Make every decision in your life count toward making you the person you want to be, and realize that your decisions will have an impact on what doors are open or closed to you later.

It's not about the rat race. It's about your life, which is finite, and far shorter than you realize. Grab your life with both hands and take control, yes. When you grab your life with both hands do something with it so that in 2, 5, 10, 30 years, you still have hold of it, and you're not forced to just fall into the rat race -- you can make choices only if you set yourself up to have them available. The rat race is what happens when you've pissed away a couple of years and you can't get the non-rat-race job you want.

When you drift in life, there's only one place you go: That hole in the ground at the end. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Roam the world -- adventure, but make it count so that the rat race is not there when you get back: your life is.
posted by JekPorkins at 11:07 PM on February 8, 2006

I did something similar, without the whole getting-a-job part, at least at the beginnning. I left Canada when I was 23 to go a-wandering, and except for a few brief stints in Whistler in the early 90's, I haven't lived there since. I turned 40 this year. I'm in Korea, and have been for a few years. It's where my lovely wife comes from.

The difference maybe is that much as I love Canada, I never really planned to go back, and still don't, unless it's to (semi-) retire. It may happen, it may not.

I guess my point is that I wouldn't change a thing, even if I'm far from rich, and teaching (which I was always intending to do, anyway, and was trained for) still (though I've done many other things, too). If I'd gone back to stay, I reckon I'd probably be nuts-deep in the ratrace, in debt and regretting the fact that there was so much world out there that I hadn't seen when I had the chance.

That said, everyone's different. But your life will change more according to the people that you meet than the jobs you take or the plans you make. At least that's the way it worked for me.

If you're determined that you're going to go back some day, you can make your overseas experiences work for you -- just be alive in the moment, keep learning, write about it and think about it, hold it up against the mirror of who it is you think you want to be, at least that week. You'll figure it out.

And if you don't figure it out, well, at least you'll have lived in the meantime.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:37 AM on February 9, 2006

I have a Canadian friend who, like stavrosthewonderchicken, left Canada soon after graduating from university with a B.A. She started teaching in various cities in Japan on the JET program, then decided Japan wasn't where she wanted to be so she took a job teaching in Switzerland. There she met the man who later became her husband, and they still live there. She turned 38 last year, and she tells me that although she didn't expect her life to turn out the way it did back when she began her travels, she's as happy as anybody could be.

I'm Japanese, and after spending two boring years in a univeristy that can be said to be one of the best private institutions in Japan, I decided I couldn't stand it anymore and transferred all my credits to a Canadian univeristy and graduated from there after two very fulfilling (both academically and socially) years later. In Japan, a univeristy degree from another country, no matter how "prestigious" the institution may be in that particular country, means absolutely nothing. And to add to that, my major was in English Lit! My parents, especially my mother, was dead against the idea at first, because without that diploma from the Japanese univeristy, I would be considered a dropout by Japanese standards and wouldn't be able to get decent jobs here. And she was right; I couldn't find a "decent" full-time job when I returned to Tokyo. But I've managed to get by. I've never for a moment regretted the choice I made back then to change my life, because the choice was MINE. I know this story isn't about working overseas, but it's about choosing what seems to be the choice that becomes "hurtful" in the long run, and my point? I don't know... I can understand what JetPorkins is saying, and I can also understand what LarryC is saying, too. But it's your life, and your decision to make, so I guess my point is that from my experience, if you feel you want to "backpack around South America" or "work in a cafe in Greece" or "work on a farm in Australia," you just should, when you can. Sorry for the long post.
posted by misozaki at 4:21 AM on February 9, 2006

I agree with what everyone has said about just travelling, enjoying your life, and not worrying too much about the rat race. But if you're sure you want a responsible, corporate-type job one day, then yes, that kind of lifestyle will most likely detract from your ability to get that kind of job. Then again, you might get lucky.

I love to write, meet people, and come up with creative ideas. Have any suggestions? Thanks in advance!

If you have working papers for Europe (you didn't specify), you'll be easily able to get a job in PR as an English native speaker with your degree and experience. Even without working papers you stand a good shot. But it sounds like you don't want to do PR anymore?

There's always technical writing, but that can be tough to break out of once you're in it. I did it for a while and it wasn't for me. Then I got lucky and got into international consulting. I really enjoy it.

If you knew what kind of job you would be looking for eventually, it would be a lot easier to advise you. But if you don't know, then you might as well not know abroad as not know at home.
posted by hazyjane at 4:57 AM on February 9, 2006

I would just relax and explore some more. It's not going to affect your "life's work" because people don't hire you for your life's work - and the concept itself is very outmoded except maybe for monks and some physicians.

Your life's work is something you make for yourself, and configure on your own, based on your passions and interests and experience. So travelling isn't a waste, nor is it some sort of period that "doesn't count" - it just is what it is - being young and curious. Plus, any employer who can't understand that is incapable of offering a dream job in the first place.
posted by mikel at 5:02 AM on February 9, 2006

I dropped out of university in the UK and proceeded to work in several European countries over the following couple of years (it was good being a programmer in the late 90s).

At the time I started, I hadn't really considered working anywhere other than the UK, but I was contacted by a recruiter with a job in Germany, and after considering it for a second (and saying to myself "why not; I don't hate German people"), I gave it a shot. It was a blast, and became a springboard for working in other countries. Lowlife's European Tour, if you will. After a couple of years I moved back to my birth country of Canada, partly because of changes in my parents' location (from the Middle East back to Canada too), and partly because I had a good lead on a job which ended up lasting for several years.

My take: very, very few people who you interact with once you get back will have the experiences that you have working abroad. Even if you only encounter one other culture, having some understanding of how other people make their lives work will be extremely valuable to you, probably in ways that you won't consciously recognize. You'll also stand out from the crowd when it comes to résumé filtering, if only because the HR / manager will do a double-take when they see some foreign land(s) listed. Worked for me!
posted by lowlife at 6:01 AM on February 9, 2006

Network, network, network. One of the best things you are going to gain from living / traveling abroad is friends, aquaintances, and connections. Keep those connections alive and use them to your advantage when looking for career opportunities.

When your 80 years old, you are not going to regret spending time as a waiter in Greece. You will regret playing it safe in the rat-race.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:13 AM on February 9, 2006

The answer depends entirely on the kind of work you want to do, and the kind of life you want to have. If you're aiming for work in a creative field, most likely the person interviewing you will have done the exact same thing themselves (and if they haven't, it's probably not the place you want to work). If you're looking for something more routine or business-oriented, then (as JekPorkins said) you'd better start working on the excuses.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:46 AM on February 9, 2006

My original goal when I moved to Austin was to get a job in the video game industry. When nothing was available for a 20 year old with no industry experience, I ended up being a roadie and web admin for a local band. Several years later, I applied for a position at a gaming company, doing online marketing, and my experience with the band turned out to be directly relevant to the job I applied for, and I got the job - and loved it. The world works in ways you wouldn't expect, is all I'm saying.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:57 AM on February 9, 2006

I've punched the clock in Big Corp jobs and in that job interacted with hundreds of physicians (I worked in Big Pharma) and I think it's a totally false stereotype that they all started in their career straight out of college. Some did - but no more than in the more "general population." Same applies to lawyers and even doctors, something that is often assumed to be a very one-path profession.

Plus, I don't think Jeb's message is NOT to do it - just to be smart and do it. If you're going to travel/work-travel all over the world, you can still keep your eye out for quirky off-the-beaten-path experiences that will contribute to almost anything you might do later. OR, you can do the absolute touristy stereotype which everyone back home knows is code for "smoked dope all day, drank all night."
posted by mikel at 1:46 PM on February 9, 2006

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