A Professional Visit To Vietnam
When and where did you work abroad?
For the academic year, I went to a university town near Hanoi, Vietnam. I was placed at the University of Technology because of my engineering background.
What made you want to work abroad?
By the time I stepped into Vietnam I was already a seasoned traveler. It was meant to be a continuation of the previous times I'd lived abroad, as well as a step towards my goal of living in the Pacific. MyWorldAbroad had taught me that international employers are more interested in whether you can function in an office abroad than they are in your GPA or technical qualifications.
How long did it take you to find a job and what job-search strategies did you use? Did you work in your field of interest?
I went through a program called The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE), which is an organization that sends engineering students abroad for paid, short-term work. Initially, about three months after my initial submission, they nominated me for a position in Poland. But because the position in Vietnam would allow for a longer term, I managed to convince them to switch me -- at the risk of the position not matching my field of interest so well. (In the end, it did match quite well!)
Describe the interview and selection process.
There was no interview involved - we just had to write résumés, CVs, cover letters, and supply documentation such as proof of enrollment, a visa bio page, proof of English ability, etc. The employer (in this case, the university) puts its trust in IAESTE to choose the best candidates rather than conducting interviews. One twist is that members who "raise jobs" on their campus get higher priority than standard members. Since I convinced the dean of my Civil Engineering department to hire a mechanical engineering student from Germany, I had a big advantage!
What was the biggest surprise about your work experience abroad?
That the locals are so eager to please visiting foreigners. No matter what I requested, an official would try to help me out and supply me with the connections I required; and I had so much power over what type of work I wanted to do.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities through your work abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
Yes! In this less-developed region, the clubs and activities aren't as "official" (i.e. they don't use email notifications, meetings are held at random times, and they often meet outside due to lack of space reservation). Everything is more spontaneous.
What made your work experience abroad a success?
Understanding all the possibilities related to finding work abroad! For example, now I know I can re-teach the engineering principles I learned at the University of Illinois at plenty of colleges throughout South-East Asia with just a master's degree. Talking with other foreigners also gave me insider advice on how foreign job searches are conducted. (For example, in Switzerland they still mail paper résumés to employers. And Australia is famous for a year-long work-holiday program that hundreds of thousands of international nomads take advantage of.)
What international career skills did you develop?
Confidence! Being more willing to reach out and network, which helped out a lot, even in the US. It gives you a fresh perspective, that there really is no reason to be shy with superiors or strangers. As students we all think something "bad" is going to happen if we leave a bad impression. Working in Vietnam taught me that connections are actually quite disposable.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting to your international work environment?
In less-developed countries, by far the most difficult challenge was comfort. By comfort, I mean a sensible, clean, dedicated office space or private library room where you can devote 100% of your energy into intellectual work. Distractions like poor weather conditions or unreliable Internet access really hindered my progress, and it took a while to get over the fact that I just wouldn't be at my best.
How did you deal with the cultural divide in the workplace?
For me it was quite entertaining; I was given more flexibility than most other workers and was often invited out for VIP events. However, I didn't like when my co-workers were messing around, gossiping loudly, or watching YouTube videos during office hours. In my frustration, I often left and worked in the library or café instead.
What was the most important thing you learned about cross-cultural communication while you were working abroad?
They're often too shy to criticize you, or they'll tell you they're eager to work with you on something when they really aren't. The locals keep a friendly image, whether or not it gets in the way of getting work done! So at some point, an acquaintance might have to tell you in secret what your co-worker or boss really meant by something he said.
What did you miss most about home?
Again, having that comfortable, private space to get focused and get things done. In most cities in Asia, you are constantly surrounded by people, severely limiting your "me time" (although overall I still prefer this way of living).
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps by working abroad?
Go to cities that serve as hubs for international jobs. Don't look for opportunities in traditional, landlocked towns. Cities that have a high diversity index (70 or above) are your best bets to find connections, as well as universities that accept many international students. Dubai, Hong Kong, and Brussels are prime examples of international cities where you can learn a lot from other cultures. When you DO first go abroad through a program that you find on a bulletin board, university posting, or online, network as much as you can so that when you do look for a serious job, the transition is more seamless and you know where the opportunities are.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
My future plan is to teach engineering at a university level in the region I am most familiar with (Southeast Asia). Of course, this is after I've racked up enough funds at a real job to go. So it will take about four or five years for this to happen.
Behrang's Q&A shows a strong international perspective and an understanding of what it takes to survive and thrive in a challenging international workplace. He clearly understands the value and personal rewards of building international experience and has worked on outlining a future plan of action that allows him to capitalize on his skills while earning money and soaking up culture in the host country of his choice. Behrang is already able to describe the pros and cons of the international workplace well, and can compare and contrast the professional culture of his home country and his host country proficiently. He might consider doing a work or internship term outside South Asia, in a region he is less familiar with, simply to challenge himself and build even stronger adaptation skills. Practical skills in engineering are much sought-after in developing nations and he could likely land a position with an NGO in a developing nation, or a teaching position at a school in South America without much trouble.
- Should Behrang decide to pursue engineering abroad full-time, Engineering: Sectors & Positions Abroad gives an excellent, broad introduction to some of the most popular international engineering job options.
- The Teaching Abroad As A Licensed Teacher section is mostly geared towards teaching in an international school, but there is a lot of carry over information for applying to teach at a university abroad.