If Opportunities Lead Abroad, Will You Follow?
by Dr. Robert Taylor, University of New South Wale (Sydney, Australia)
Early career engineers and scientists now have the opportunity to become global citizens. Today’s communication and video conferencing technology are making international collaboration both instantaneous and free (e.g. Skype, Whatsapp, Google Hangout, etc.). Rapidly advancing communication makes it easy to maintain working relationships and collaborations with people from around the world. Also, a large majority of ASME members have degrees from American universities, which makes them very attractive to highly international employers. In fact, I believe the skills, abilities, and reputation of ASME members positions us perfectly to be integral members of a rapidly globalizing world. I also strongly believe that those who take advantage of these trends will have successful careers and will play central roles in meeting tomorrow’s engineering challenges.
Here’s the catch: Having cool apps and top engineering training does not build collaboration. Nor do they make a young, competent engineer into a renowned international leader. The most effective way to build contacts and collaboration (international or otherwise) still involves real-world hand shaking. It usually involves consuming calories (or at least caffeine) with people. One way or another, to get linked In – or to get new contacts on LinkedIn – you must get out there and meet people. In today’s world, it is not enough to just build rapport with your current co-workers. To be successful in a global economy, today’s engineers will need to build rapport on a global scale. I will be the first to admit that this may not be an easy thing to do for an early career engineer. Most of us can think of some important people from around the world that we would like to meet, work with, or even work for, but it is hard to make this happen. The best and (maybe the only) way to ensure this type of success involves travel. If you physically go to places where potential contacts will be present, particularly places where both calories and caffeine are available (such as ASME conferences), there is a very good chance you’ll build lasting relationships.
Working Abroad – It Could Happen to You
At the risk of belabouring the obvious, I’ll go a step further. If you are serious about building international collaborations and being successful in a global economy, I would encourage you to study and/or work overseas. This may not be for everyone. Yet, for young, mobile, early career folks, I think it is something you should seriously consider. Aside from many other benefits, looking for work abroad has the following advantages:
- It opens up a world of opportunities – quite useful in a tight job market
- Some international jobs pay better and/or have better benefits
- By taking you out of your comfort zone, it forces you to learn about engineering (and life) in a whole new way
Working Abroad – It Happened to Me
To give you a little background on why I am advocating this, let me tell you about my own (albeit short) career path. First off, I was born, raised and educated in the United States. With the exception of an occasional ‘road trip’ to Mexico or Canada I rarely travelled. However, I did go to places – namely Universities – where plenty of hand-shaking, and calorie and caffeine consumption took place with people from around the world. In graduate school, I met people from China, Iran, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, etc. During many conversations with these people (when I probably should have been working), I realized that the world was both a lot bigger, and paradoxically a lot smaller, than I had previously thought. One thing became clear; my fellow students had travelled much more than me. In talking with fellow students, I also realized that I was not particularly well-connected.
Contrary to what I had imagined, many of them were not planning to immigrate to the U.S. A significant number were coming to the United States solely to get advanced degrees and to make professional contacts. Their plan was to then seek employment back home or abroad. In China, for example, a person with a PhD can easily become a CEO or politician. In fact, many of China’s leaders have been engineers. In India, the average engineer or professor can afford to buy a nice house and a staff to run it. Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. is a land of great opportunity, but there are also a surprising number of excellent opportunities outside the U.S.
Moving to the Land Down Under
Thus, when I started thinking about what job I wanted after finishing my degree at Arizona State in 2011, I knew I had some catching up to do as far as developing real international connectivity. At the time, I knew I wanted an academic research/teaching job, but the job market was pretty tough with big budget cuts going on in state schools around the country. At that point, I essentially looked for jobs in my field without any restrictions on location. I applied for, and ended up getting, a job at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Note: at the time of applying I did not know anyone in, nor had I ever thought about even visiting, Australia. All I knew was that it would be an ideal place to build international collaborations. The process involved an emailed application, a phone interview, a Skype interview, and a high-speed teleconference (i.e. no visit). When offered the job, I simply took it ‘sight unseen’, and promptly applied for a visa. Needless to say, making this kind of big, life decision is unnerving, but it has been an extremely good choice.
The Australian academic system is very encouraging and supportive for early career people. There are lots of scholarships, exchange programs and research funding for both resident and international students. In addition, for a country with a population of 22.6 million (~15% more than New York State), Australian Universities are quite good – six made the top 100 in the 2012 Times Higher Education world ranking. Australia’s cultural and physical positioning has allowed it to hit well-above its economic weight class. In addition, Australian cities consistently place highly in terms of ‘quality of life’ and ‘liveability’. The only drawback I’ve experienced is that I have to sit on planes longer to visit my family, friends, and colleagues in the United States – it is at least a full day to travel home. I also found out jet lag is a real thing! Otherwise, as mentioned above, staying connected with family and colleagues is not a problem with (free) voice, video, and chat through the internet.
Just Do It…At Least Temporarily
Similar arguments can be made for moving to other countries. I am not suggesting that you have to move internationally forever, but a few months or a few years abroad could serve to really accelerate your career. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people change jobs around 11 times between the ages of 18-46 . This means that by temporarily working abroad you’d actually be following a similar career path as your peers…while gaining much more international exposure. Overall, my advice to early career engineers is don’t think too hard about where you want to study or work, but to look for the best opportunities available. I would also suggest that you think long and hard on those opportunities which allow you to make professional contacts internationally. If you do this, my guess is that the best option may lead you over oceans. If living overseas is too big a move, I’d at least suggest that you put a high priority on jobs which allow you to do one or more of the following:
- Attend international meetings, workshops, conferences (e.g. ASME events)
- Work with people from companies and research organizations from around the world
- Actively seek new connections with key people regardless of location
- Take any and all opportunities to travel early in your career
Lastly, don’t just take my word for it. If this article does not convince you to pick up and move, or if you need more information, there are several resources that can help:
- U.S. Department of State – “International Jobs - Working Overseas”
- The Grown-Up's Guide to Running Away from Home: Making a New Life Abroad by Rosanne Knorr
- First Steps To Living and Working Abroad by Phil Byrne
- Survival Kit for Overseas Living: For Americans Planning to Live and Work Abroad by L. Robert Kohls
- GenXpat: The Young Professional's Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad by Margaret Malewski
- The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman
- CNN’s ‘Cost of Living’ Site
Bio: Dr. Robert Taylor’smain research interest is in the development of ‘next generation’ solar thermal collectors. Drawing on the fields of heat transfer and nanotechnology, he is researching new working fluids, materials and system architectures for solar energy. More information on Taylor’s work abroad ---visit Solar and Nanotechnology Research Group at UNSW.