Career choices and the expat partner: what I could have done differently

Woman Using Computer“If only I’d known then what I know now” is not something I say often, partly because I don’t believe in crying over spilt milk and partly because the world changes so rapidly that often today’s solutions just weren’t available back then.  But an upcoming webinar on portable careers for expat spouses has got me thinking about what I would do the same and what I would do differently with my career, if I were to do it all again today.

Same: I would be a stay-at-home mom until my son finished school.  I am forever thankful that I had an opportunity to be both a working mum (before expatriation) and a SAHM (during expatriation) and to experience the joys and frustrations of both.

Different: I would have studied more while I wasn’t working.  Distance learning when we first went overseas would have been difficult but not impossible, these days it’s just a mouse click away and the choices are almost limitless.

Same: I would study the local language.  Even though I know now that hell will freeze over before I could work in another language, it is such an insight into the local culture and even just a few words and phrases make everyday life so much easier.

Different: I would find a mentor or coach to brainstorm with from time-to-time.  Like many expats I had no idea how long we would live overseas.  Even those who have fixed term contracts often find they are extended or cancelled.  I had never heard the term “portable career” and I didn’t realize that once my spouse had an international resume, more international assignments would follow.  Years slip away before you realize what’s happening.  If I were doing it again I would conduct an annual review of my situation and goals, ideally with someone who has expat experience, an unbiased opinion and enough guts to tell me what I need to hear (in other words, probably not a close friend)!

Same: I would do a lot of volunteer work.  Looking back I can see I learned a hell of a lot doing things I didn’t get paid for and with a bit of creativity they can be made to look quite impressive on a resume. Nobody ever asks how much you got paid. 😉

Different: When I did finally return to the paid workforce overseas I would have looked harder for something related to my original profession.  My personal experience, and what I’ve heard anecdotally from other expats, is that starting a new career when overseas often doesn’t translate well when you return home.  I found prospective employers here far more interested in what I did in Canada 15 years ago than what I did in Dubai 1 year ago.  But maybe that’s just me and Canada, and for those who never return to their country of origin it wouldn’t apply anyway.

The webinar, “Creating a Flexible Career for the Accompanying Spouse,” is hosted by a new Canadian group, Spouses Without Borders, but is open to anyone who has an interest in this topic.  It is on Tuesday, January 29 at 8.30am EST (1.30pm UK time) and you can register here.   I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.


24 thoughts on “Career choices and the expat partner: what I could have done differently

  1. Every blessed word you’ve written is true, and reflects my own experience. I wish I’d widened my volunteer experience, though. I spent many hours on school committees, but I think branching out and trying something new would have been more rewarding. Next time, I guess. 🙂

  2. So true Judy…”prospective employers here far more interested in what I did in Canada 15 years ago than what I did in Dubai 1 year ago.” My experience as the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan counted for next to nothing in Washington DC when I returned in 2005. Never mind the incredible problem-solving skills most expats have developed, or the flexibility and capacity for dealing with any situation. I think the US is similar to Canada in that people trust the familiar, and it is hard to relate to most expat posts- how many people have been to Baku, Dubai, Tbilisi?

    I gained far more than I ever imagined working overseas, loved it and wouldn’t change it. But like you, I wish I had known then what I know now. I would have made far more of it by preparing for the “re-patriation” transition. Who knew it would be that hard, being a foreigner in your own land?

    Good luck with the webinar- it’s a great service that is being offered now! Hopefully they’ll take your suggestion about how to incorporate international skills into a top-notch resume.

    • The problem is that repatriation is pretty much a taboo subject for expats. No one wants to talk about it, much less plan for it. It’s a bit like death, we’d all rather bury our heads in the sand and pretend it will never happen.

  3. Great article, Judy. The choices are never simple, and then there’s hindsight! I love your annual review idea. As job insecurity decreases for everyone, I think expats have a lot of useful experience to share. Jennifer

  4. Ha, ha, I agree about the wisdom of hindsight. Even as I wrote this, I was saying to myself “Who are you kidding? Would you really do that?” 🙂

  5. Insightful and frank article and information-rich comments for a rookie like me. Like many expats, I don’t know what our future holds, so planning is limited and repatriation seems like living death (I don’t want the adventure to end). Learning from the wisdom and experience of those who’ve gone before means I’ve discovered the benefits of volunteer work and the importance of a mentor much earlier.
    I missed the webinar (full house with sick kids off school) can you keep us informed as to whether a recording will be made available Judy? Thanks again for your insights.

    • I’ve asked about a recording myself, but haven’t had a response yet. I had to rush off to work halfway through just as it was getting interesting. If I get a link, I’ll post it. “Repatriation as a living death” omg that’s truer than you think 🙂

      • Oh Judy! My heart goes out to you *remembering you re-creating the Middle East for your Christmas meal* I guess that adventure spirit never dies – living death was certainly how it seemed to me when I envisaged myself back in my old life.

  6. Fabulous article, Judy.
    Perhaps I’m in a minority as I know how long I’ll be in a place, and I’ve worked for myself for more years than I care to count. Although I chop and change my work, it all goes back to the miracle of the internet! No, I’m not young, I just moved into expat life very late.
    My only regret? Not meeting my husband sooner so we could have spent longer overseas. Old dog, new trick springs to mind – learning languages is nigh on impossible for me now.

    • I’ve worked for myself most of my life too, but my problem is that I’m no good at working on my own from home – I get distracted, bored and desperately need other people around me to keep me motivated. I really envy those who can work independently, it’s the perfect solution for an expat partner.

  7. Hi Judy, thanks for the inspiration. Reading your post I was thinking that you were exactly describing my life, I have made more or less same choices or non-choices. I was lucky to understood 10 years ago when my son was born that I needed to hire a coach and discovered some new interests and talent to develop through training. I consider myself lucky to have a new adventure in a totally new culture living in Moscow. Learning a new language at my age is both rewarding and much more frustrating than 20 years ago when I learned Japanese:-)

  8. Even though I am only a first-time expat, I would have to say that this is must be one of the biggest long-term issues for people like myself. Sadly I didn’t have the foresight to see I may have had problems getting employment here in the US, so came late to the idea of a portable career. If anything has marred our experience living as expats here, this would be it. I wasn’t able to make the webinar either but am very keen to hear what was said. Thank you for raising this topic: it could definitely do with more discussion:)

    • I just heard today that the webinar was recorded and a link should be available soon. It will post it when I get it. I was only able to listen to half of it, so want to hear the rest of it myself too.

  9. I found it interesting, if not surprising, that Canadian and American employers so easily discount or ignore the work done by expats in foreign countries. It did make me think of my own work experience and the trouble I have now:

    I’ve always known how very lucky I was to be a writer and have a “portable career” from the start of my expat life. I wrote and sold 34 (35?) romance novels and it worked brilliantly. A few years ago I decided to write a non-fiction book about my (mis)adventures as an expat, light-hearted stories set in Palestine, Ghana and Armenia. Now here comes the “funny” part: I cannot find an agent or a publisher to take it on because . . .”Americans don’t want to read about places they wouldn’t go to on vacation.”

    So there it is. . . .

      • Yes, I’ve been thinking about it, but all the work involved . . . the marketing, the distribution, the publicity, the networking! I am so not a business person and don’t enjoy “getting myself out there.” Some people have a real talent for that!

        Also, I am really wondering how successful these self-published books are in terms of sales figures. I was spoiled by many years of not having to worry about anything but writing the books and the publisher doing everything else. Which isn’t the case any more now either with most traditional publishers demanding and expecting the authors to do a lot of the heavy lifting as well.

        Big sigh!

        • I’ve heard authors complain about the need to market their own books before. Unfortunately the abilities to write and self-promote don’t often go hand-in-hand. However the requirement to “sell” yourself, no matter what your field of endeavour, seems to be on the rise.

  10. Thanks for this post, it is very useful to me! Our first expat posting in the UK was for my job at the time, but my husband got the second, and now I find myself in Singapore not sure what my next step would be. Having 3 young kids it seems obvious to become a SAHM, do some volunteer work maybe, and focus on my writing. But I worry about going back to work in 5 or 10 years time and having too much of a career gap… The problem is also that in Singapore, part time work is hard to come by. I’d love to write, like Miss Footloose, and have this portable career, but publishers are hard to come by. I self published before, but selling books is not my dream, and I do not fancy going that route again…

    • With 3 young kids it would be hard to work even part-time outside the home, so I understand your situation. Have you thought about writing articles, rather than books? A number of my expat writer friends have been published in Global Living Magazine for example. I’m currently reading the new edition of A Career in Your Suitcase, which you might also find useful. I intend to write a review as soon as I finish it.

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