The Sometimes Long and Painful Journey toward a Career in International Education

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I’m always learning. Perhaps that is what I most love about the work I do at Melibee.  As an international education career coach,  am always enlightened because of the unique desires and career paths of those I’m coaching. At the start of any coaching, I review how a mentee presents him/herself on paper via a resume. I see patterns of resume writing that sink potential international educators faster than the Titanic!  Then the field surprises me with a mentee receiving an unexpected job offer and a funky search process that is beyond the extremes of the bell curve!  Working in this field for twenty something years, mentoring so many who hope to be in this field, and constantly networking has given me an insider’s view of the journey toward a career in international education – and keeps me on my toes.

If I had to summarize the aspirations of those who I mentor and coach in only a paragraph, this would be it:

A marvelous career in international education is the goal. They have traveled, studied and taken classes to reach the top of the mountain where the title of “study abroad advisor” resides. They envision a desk with postcards from students who are abroad (ok, that might be dating myself a bit – maybe more like a Facebook post with some great photos instead?!) and hosting experiential cultural activities in a spacious, light filled classroom with bubbles of “a-ha” moments bursting out above the heads of the young students.  Faculty work in tandem with them, amazed at their cultural prowess! They are transforming pop culture loving youth into global citizens at every turn and getting paid for it.  FABULOUS!

Except for many, they’re not getting any closer to this daydream. Some have sent out over a hundred resumes.  Others work as baristas or in the mall to pay the bills.  Many are drowning quickly in school loan debt and living at home as they approach thirty.  Countless are more than a year into a job search that is going nowhere, fast.  Many are wondering where they went wrong.  All they wanted to do was inspire others to go abroad and be part of helping another person be profoundly impacted by the experience of crossing cultures.

After all, how hard can it be to get a job in international education?

Harder than they ever imagined.  How does anyone feel after getting rejection after rejection, or in countless cases, no reply at all?

I’ve been coaching and mentoring aspiring international educators over the years and am uplifted by their desire to work to change this world for the better.  Whether it be advising for education abroad in a college or  in a third-party partnership, they are committed to the idea of sitting behind a desk with an open heart and roster of program options at their fingertips, listening for the need.  While every job has its ups (being part of a student’s transformational journey) and downs (sharing study abroad opportunities and not being able to sneak away in their luggage is challenging!), it is still a job that I am so grateful to have experienced during my career.

I lead an international education job search cultural career cohort so that I can help these talented and eager future educators to find their dream space in international education, whether it be in advising international students, ESL, being a third-party provider, or other types of cross-cultural work.   Each cohort is eager to speed up the journey and land that job, feeling ready to hit the ground running.  However, my responsibility is to start from square one:

What is the story of each person’s resume and what type of international education position is truly a good match for both the job seeker and the institution?

Some of the Melibees, past and present. These are folks who I want to share an office space with!
Some of the Melibees, past and present. These are folks who I want to share an office space with – inspiring, dedicated, and able to laugh at themselves!

Imagine spending 40 hours a week in the confines of four walls.  Who do you want to spend your time with? Are they people who inspire you?  Do you believe in their mission statement? Are the students engaged and open for guidance on program options?  Is funding a major factor?  Does your boss mentor and coach you?  Do the faculty respect your role or treat you like a glorified travel agent bureaucrat?  Is your office’s priority making money or facilitating global citizenship as a path for life?

Sourcing the RIGHT opportunity is key in the job search.  I’ve had to have one too many discussions with cohorters about not just taking “any” job: having “any” job at any organization on your resume is a statement about who you are and where you want to be.  This is tough for some to hear, especially after they cranked out their 55th latte during a seven-hour barista shift.

“The only thing that is constant is change” is a quote we all know, and it certainly applies to the international education job search.  Just when we think we know everything about how to get a foot in the door, the rules change.  These days, potential employers are seeking examples of the applicant’s work prior to hiring. Cohort members have been put on the spot to do everything from create flyers to writing press releases.  Many are asked to “mock present” on a topic as part of the interviewing process.   Nerve wracking experiences for many, although clearly an opportunity to differentiate yourself and stand out from the pack.

As I prepare for our next cohort, I am reminded of the journey so many have been on this past year and have distilled three lessons learned here for those of you who are still seeking:

1) Toss your resume

Trust me on this: your resume needs a whole lot of work.  No matter how ready you think you are to put it out there, I can assure you that I would likely still give you feedback that you never imagined.  In most cases, resumes  that I critique are filled with bullets that are too general,  stuffed with tasks that have nothing to do with the posting, and are too LONG. Most people entering this field for the first time will want a one-page resume that can easily be read by an automatic resume screener.  If you can’t get past the machine, you won’t get to the human review.  Getting your resume past that screener is one of the first lessons you’ll learn in our cohort

2. Take the indirect path

Back when I got my first job in the field, I sent in a few resumes, got an interview and landed a great job.  It isn’t that easy anymore!  The international education career path is full of twists and turns these days, requiring a lot of networking, informational interviewing and resume/cover letter strategy experimentation.  It often means that one must volunteer (sometimes at several organizations) to have enough valid experience to make it into the “human review” of the resume.  This path typically takes longer, but the good news is that connections that made during this path will be incredibly useful down the road.  Additionally, you will come into your first job in the field with a lot more experience under your belt, which increases confidence and creativity in the new role.

yellow scarf

3. Find your yellow scarf  

With more than 100 resumes typically landing in human resource’s office for each new posting, it is imperative that you learn how to position yourself to stand out. I tell all my cohorters about the yellow scarf story to illustrate this point.  When I was Assistant Director of New York University’s Office of International Students and Scholars, I hired a graduate assistant from NYU’s School of Education each fall.  I always had great candidates and the decision was grueling simply because they all would have brought something new to the office and were well prepared from their coursework.  In my final year in the position, I had an especially stand out group of candidates.  Each one would have been a stellar intern.  I wondered how would I choose?  Ultimately, I went with the woman with the yellow scarf.  All other things were equal – but she stood out.  She was the only one who didn’t wear the ubiquitous black suit to the interview.  She wore a blue suit with the most vibrant yellow scarf and I remembered her, because in addition to her wardrobe, her resume and experience were as equally memorable.  I coach all my mentees to find their yellow scarves – in their personal and professional stories that ultimately reside on their resumes and are transferred in an interview.  Are you someone who specializes in increasing diversity in education abroad?  Are you a keen blogger with a following?  Do you have a passion for faculty-led programs in non-traditional locations?  Is your biggest strength in risk management?  Figure out your yellow scarf and flaunt it!  During the one on one mentoring that each cohorter receives, we explore this in depth.

By working with a group of international education job seekers at a time, and providing one on one coaching to complement the large group sessions,  we begin to see what specific path will yield the best results for each cohort member.  It is such a privilege for me to be part of their journey and to see the tremendous growth (and ideally job search end!) for those seeking meaningful jobs in international education. I’m excited that several of our cohorters have landed their first jobs in the field as a result of our work together and been able to practice using the language we teach them for their salary negotiation.  (And YES, you should be negotiating your salary offer, even for your very first job in the field.)

What experiences have you had in your job search?  Feel free to share your thoughts below in the comments section!

(Join Missy at the C4: Cultural Career Coaching Circle!)



  1. I would agree that all of these tips were great. I myself took the indirect path, which was quite slow, but I picked up many skills along the way. Personally, I cannot emphasize the importance of networking through NAFSA. In addition, not being afraid to try and present at conferences by doing something as small as a poster presentation. The good thing is people in the field of international education are very friendly and eager to help. However, as you mentioned, it is imperative to make yourself stand out because you cannot rest on your laurels of having studied abroad or an MA in International Education. Many applicants have that nowadays. When you do get your first job even if it is with a third party or for-profit company, I would recommend applying for the NAFSA Academy.

    • For many, NAFSA is a big part of the puzzle. For those keen on education abroad, the Forum on Education Abroad is also a great networking opportunity.

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