By: Ursula Martin
Spring 1997, Vol. 4, No. 2
Is An Overseas Job in International Social Work the Job for You?
by Ursula Martin, DSW
Various interesting jobs serving different client populations are available all over the world. These include working with students in international elementary schools and universities, seeing clients for in-patient or out-patient psychotherapy, providing emergency services in crisis-prone areas, and defining and implementing social policies in developing countries. Very often overseas employers realize and respect the value of an American university education and social work training, so your skills and training will most likely be in demand and appreciated.
Different personal qualities and skills are needed for this type of work, regardless of the country or culture which interests you. Certainly you will need a genuine interest and ability to adapt to other cultures. You will also need a high level of frustration tolerance. Moving to and settling into another country involves many stressors as well as pleasures. Common stressors are isolation from your original culture, learning a new language, incorporating the numerous new customs involved in day-to-day living, and adjusting to your new workplace (which will have a new “work culture” of its own). For example, working in the Middle East involves learning about the bargaining/negotiating involved in activities ranging from grocery shopping to apartment rentals! It also involves learning about Islam, which permeates the culture, as well as the local laws, a new dress code, a different pace of life, and an emphasis on activities revolving around the extended family. The pleasures involve enjoying Middle Eastern hospitality, exotic food, and spectacular sightseeing of ancient ruins.
Another skill you’ll need is the ability to learn quickly. You will be learning about a new culture and style of living, new geographical area, possibly a new language, new living arrangements, a new job, new co-workers, and new clients just about all at once! This requires stamina, but with support, can be very invigorating. It will also be helpful for you to have a career plan for the future. Do you plan this as a “year-abroad” work experience or are you thinking of settling in a new country for many years? Your plans will make a difference in your job search, your activities in the new country, and to what degree you will establish yourself in the new culture.
Pros of overseas employment
- You’ll have a more attention-grabbing curriculum vitae with overseas work experience.
- You will have memorable experiences both on and off the job. Those people who have left overseas employment and returned home often fondly recall their work and life overseas.
- You will gain skills that can be transferred to a future job back home (particularly new language skills and multi-cultural work experience).
- You may experience extended travel within your new country, which will enrich your life experience there.
- Although salaries are often lower than in the U.S., you can earn up to $70,000 in overseas employment of at least one year and be exempt from Federal or state taxes.
Cons of overseas employment
- Homesickness. Based on experience with overseas workers, this tends to fluctuate in cycles. It can be reduced by keeping contacts at home, as well as getting involved in your new home' people and activities. Many people report that making American friends overseas also helps reduce the “culture gap.” Many overseas American embassies have referrals for orientation/support groups for adjusting to the new culture.
- Some countries lack the evolved training and education institutions for social work that the U.S. offers. Therefore, some employers as well as clients are resistant to, suspicious of, or just less informed about social work and psychotherapy. Yet, this can also be a “pro” for you, since you’ll get the chance to educate them!
If you are interested in an overseas job, there are different ways to secure one. Look in the local and national newspapers and magazines, as well as social work journals, for advertisements. You may also take the Federal foreign service exam, although the jobs are less specialized and you do not choose which country you are sent to. Joining the Peace Corps is another option. Personal contacts (friends, colleagues) may provide helpful leads. Or you can write directly to the university or agency that interests you and apply for employment (the library can provide helpful addresses).
Foreign employment offers many advantages and rewards. With advance planning, it can be a relatively smooth transition into a new, exciting opportunity. If you have a thirst for adventure, overseas employment may be just for you!
Ursula Martin, DSW, is a U.S. citizen who has lived and worked in Cairo, Egypt for three years. She is Director of the Student Counseling Center at the American University in Cairo.