Maybe you were like me, maybe not, but I always thought that working abroad right after graduation in a foreign country (I’m an American) would be fantastic. It’d be a thrill ride, and be totally awesome.
However, after a set of informational interviews in Shanghai, I started to realize that jump starting your career in a foreign country isn’t as easy as OCS makes it seem.
The language barrier can be a total opportunity killer.
Disclaimer: Most of this advice comes from my experience from talking to professionals in China. May or may not be applicable to your country of choice, ahem.
1) The language of business
The most important thing that will affect your career in a foreign country is how damn fluent you are in the business language of the country you want to work in. In China, if you’re not a top-level Exec, you need to know Chinese, otherwise you are severely limiting your options.
For instance, if you don’t know the language that business is conducted in, what sort of meetings can you be included in? Client meetings? Probably not. Sales pitches? Hell no. Given this limitation, start to think carefully what sort of career opportunities are actually available and what sort of work they would entail.
It’s easy to glamorize the exotic excitingness of being a foreigner conducting business in a far off country. It’s less awesome to be a foreigner delegated to teaching business English in a Chinese company.
2) Local pay?
At least in China, gone are the expatriate salaries for entry levels (although maybe they never had those salaries for the entry levels). Yes, you will probably live very well on the pay they give you, but if you’re planning to head back to the States later, you may or may not have a lot of savings depending on the country you’re living in.
There are still some companies out there where they pay you to the same international standards HR has set, but those are becoming more and more rare and increasingly competitive.
3) Office culture and corporate support
If you’re working for a MNC, then the type of culture and support you get in branches closer to headquarters is much different than what you get when you’re in your start-up branch. My internship boss this past semester would muse upon his days bouncing around Intel. As he moved further and further from the U.S. to smaller and smaller offices in Europe/Asia, the level of corporate support (in his case, technical troubleshooting support) started to dwindle.
It makes a lot of sense to start working in the larger offices in order to thoroughly get a whiff of corporate culture and to develop the contacts and relationships with the um…more important people who know how to do stuff. Many times, when you’re at a smaller branch, if you run into difficulties, it can be hard to figure out who else you should contact in order to solve the problem.
At the same time, however, there are plenty of reasons why you would want to work at a start up branch. I personally think it depends more on your personality type and what you deem to be important in the first stages of you career.
4) Actually finding a job
Obviously, if you want to work for a multinational, it’s fairly easy to apply for say the Hong Kong branch from the U.S. But, if you want to work for a local company, then chances are, you might have to be on the ground to do your job search. In other words, you need to literally be in the area where you want to work in order to find work. This is a duh for most people, but for Harvard students, this is taking a huge step into the unknown.
Some places also have stringent visa or employment restrictions. For instance, in Macau maintaining local employment rather than hiring non-Macau people is big political news. You might also get hit by massive taxes (thank you U.S. government) or might endanger your socialized services if you’re temporarily waiving taxes if you’re from a European country.
5) Life in a different country: duh
I have been to China before, but there are certain things I absolutely took for granted when I dropped by for a quick visit. The health care system is gods awful here. This means, if you are a foreigner expecting foreign health care standards, prepare to pay ridiculous amounts of money for foreign-run hospital service. (At the same time, if you’re on local pay, then such services may also be prohibitively expensive for you too!)
I also took the internet for granted. For instance, in China Blogger is blocked right now, YouTube has a habit of being blocked, Google cache is a huge no go. Internet is slow, internet can fail, and you can’t complain to the ISP because they’re partially owned by the government! And their competitors? Also owned by the government! Hurrah for efficiency.
Additionally, if you obviously look like a foreigner and you’re in a country where haggling is key for many transactions, prepared to overpay. Sad, ain’t it?
6) Business culture in a different country: hm
It’s easy to assume that all businesses value efficiency and value creation, that all businesses are merit-based, that all businesses are run as if the end all be all was shareholder profit. I assumed this, but then I started learning more about business in China where “guanxi” or relationships are absolutely essential. Guanxi can be a form of favor-gift-giving-borderline-bribery-but-still-necessary-if-you-need-anything-done-by-the-government sort of thing. People are promoted in many Chinese companies based on guanxi and how well connected they are.
If you’re going to be an industry that has heavy government ties or in a company that is partially owned by the government, then be prepared for massive headaches, politics and inefficiency. If you’re like me and hate inefficiency, then this sort of thing makes you want to pull your own hair out.