The Puzzle of the International Ed Job Search

The international education job search can feel like working on an enormous puzzle. When you retreat to quietly work on a complex puzzle, you discover certain pieces that fit easily. Those “obvious” pieces are akin to the clarity so many of you felt when you select your career in international education (IE).  Just like those puzzle pieces that quickly snap into place, international education makes sense to you. But those stingy ones that you can’t figure out quickly – those tricky little pieces of cardboard – they become roadblocks to getting to that final “image” (aka “dream job”!) and they can make you feel frustrated, confused, and unsure of yourself.

I hadn’t worked on a puzzle in years nor have I applied for a job lately. However, the experience of tackling a 500 piece puzzle recently offered this IE career coach some terrific reminders for the IE job search:

1. Start somewhere. Anywhere.

I opened the puzzle box. I was excited! After all, I’ve traveled abroad extensively – I know what you see from an airplane window. How hard could it be to string together some clouds and sunsets?! 500 pieces fell from the box to the table. They all looked remarkably similar. Feeling overwhelmed by what felt like a million tiny puzzle pieces after decades away from puzzling, I reminded myself of what I tell my son when he does puzzles:  Turn the pieces over so you can see what you’re working with and start with the border.  Turning the pieces over is akin to actually opening up the job posting websites and listservs. Starting at the borders is opening a draft (or actual creating a first draft) of a resume and cover letter. Simply starting was enough to encourage me to keep going. After all, we have to start somewhere. Anywhere!

2. Its all in the details.

This puzzle has endless clouds and skies.  At first, they all looked like just that – clouds and skies. But as I worked through the puzzle I started to focus on the nuances in color, shape, depth, and hue.  It reminded me of the first time I went to Ireland and discovered how many shades of green there could be! It was the same with the images of blue skies. Some were grey blue, others were periwinkle. Some were “Carolina blue” and others had a pink hue. In time, I observed the shape of the puzzle pieces more closely (e.g. were they horizontal or vertical?).  Once I took the time to really examine the clues given in the subtle details of each tile, I could more easily spot its home. This is completely in alignment with the methodology that I teach for the IE job search; one must closely examine the job posting and the culture of the hiring body to understand their nuances. If your resume is screaming “deep blue” and they’re an employer full of pink clouds, you’re not going to be a good fit.

3. Step away.

Let’s face it. Applying to endless jobs online feels, well….endless!  It is mentally exhausting. It is emotionally wearing. It is tiresome. I don’t think I know anyone who is pumped to write their resume or edit it when I first meet them.

Yet when I think about this puzzle, I think about those times I thought things like “seriously, they must have mixed up a few pieces in this box because these simply don’t fit anywhere.” I was ready to give up at times. There were moments when I hit my wall. I simply couldn’t see the next move, began to feel sleepy or frustrated. It was time to step away – even for a few minutes.  I’d estimate that 75% of the times that I did so, I returned to the puzzle and immediately was able to place one to two pieces into the frame upon my return within seconds. It was a great lesson in the value of walking away and doing something else to be more effective upon my return. Sometimes you need to close the computer and do something else. When you return with a more clear head, that challenging bullet on your resume is much easier to edit or write.

4. Change your perspective.

When all else failed, I often needed to literally stand up and look at the puzzle from a different perspective. Sometimes standing up and looking at it from two feet above my normal vantage point meant the difference between seeing the obvious piece to insert right in front of me, or not. When you’re in the midst of the job search and cranking out variations of your key documents for your application, you often feel like you can’t be thoughtful about the necessary nuances for one more second. This is where changing your perspective helps. Stand up, look at the website from several feet away. What stands out? Is there a heading? A color story? An image? Step away and take a walk and consider other angles.  Who you might know that has some insight into the employer and their priorities? Perhaps a grad school professor? A classmate? A friend of a friend? A colleague on LinkedIn?

Stepping away gives our brain the break it often needs to show us something obvious that is literally right under our noses!

5. Practice patience.

Need to slow down? Some people knit. Some people meditate. Some cook. And now, this person behind the keyboard puzzles. It truly forced me to slow down, observe, breath, laugh at myself, hum or sing, and relax into the moment.  It was a delightful exercise in practicing patience which is so necessary during the job search.  When you’re waiting, waiting, waiting and watching the minutes on the clock and then days on the calendar slowly pass by, be reminded of what is happening behind the scenes in the job search. Committees have to convene and their calendars are not easily in alignment. Human Resources may have employee emergencies to address. It could be commencement season and everyone is literally drained and scrambling to get to the end of the academic year. There are dozens of reasons why the process feels (and often IS) slow. Grab a healthy distraction and remind yourself that your job is out there and that one day you won’t have what feels like all the time in the world to do a puzzle. (And let’s face it, staring at the clock and calendar doesn’t make them move any more quickly!)

6. Celebrate!

Whether you get the job you apply for or not, find a way to embrace the art of celebration for your efforts. When my son completes literally any small task, he smiles with such a look of joy and pride.  I took a lesson from him and was sure to celebrate my puzzle completion! I took a photo of it and my husband and son oohed and aahed over how cool it was to finally finish it after so much dedication. My son and I ceremoniously took it apart (yup, that’s him on the left shredding my work, lol!), but not before we observed the other side of the puzzle to see how it looked from a different perspective.  Applying to the international education job market can, at times, feel daunting.  Celebrate the little wins and the big ones, too!

7. Process Above All.

Puzzles, like life, are not about the “wins” or “end game”. They are about a PROCESS.  When I shifted my mindset to recall that the final picture was the result of the process, I enjoyed tackling this puzzle so much more and was able to reflect on the lessons with much more appreciation and gratitude for the people who took the photos, curiosity for where they were heading, and appreciative for the manufacturers of the puzzle.

When we apply for our first job in international education (or our fifth), there are many lessons we can learn on the journey. Take some time to consider the process as well as the outcome and you’ll find a much more joyful journey to your dream job.

Are you ready to grab a puzzle (and your resume) for new consideration?  I hope these observations helped you to muster up courage to move ahead on your job search path! The next international Education Career Academy for job seekers will launch soon. You can learn more about it by adding your name to the “first to know” sign up here.