How to Get A Job in Study Abroad WITHOUT a Master’s Degree

Last week I wrote about the top graduate programs for a career in study abroad. But let’s pretend for a moment that you aren’t interested in getting a Master’s degree (at least not yet), but you still want to work in study abroad. Have no fear. There is hope. But as with everything in life, you’re going to have to accept some trade offs. Rarely will you have your cake and, well, you know, eat it too. This post is not about how to become a study abroad office director without having to work your way through the trenches or earn a little street cred. It’s about how to get in the door and work your way up.

Now, I just have one caveat. Everything I’m about to say will do very little for you if you have no previous study abroad experience. I mean it. If your only previous travel experience involves a tour of Paris, a brief visit to Rome, and a cruise through the Caribbean, you’re going to have a hard time getting anyone – universities or providers – to take you seriously. Which leads me to my first tip….

Get More International & Language Experience
If you’ve graduate from college and having trouble finding a job in study abroad, consider investing a year in boosting your skills and experience by teaching English abroad and focus on language acquisition while you’re there. Even after I finished grad school AND had two years experience as a study abroad advisor, I was still struggling to find a study abroad job (and that was BEFORE the economic melt down). After weighing my options, I decided that my European-focused study abroad and research experience wasn’t going to cut it. I needed some geographic diversity and knowledge on my resume. So I applied to a program to teach English in China for a year. Best decision of my life! Not only did I end up discovering a culture and country that I adored, but I leveraged my study abroad knowledge to create workshops for my Chinese college students on how to study abroad (short term and degree-seeking). All great content for my resume. When I started applying for jobs from China, hiring managers were MUCH more interested in me due to my diverse experience, new language knowledge, and my demonstrated ability to take initiative. [Though sadly any Mandarin I learned has slowly gone out the window. Use it or lose it, kids!]

Look for Study Abroad Assistant Positions
I know of a lot of large study abroad offices that have study abroad assistant positions that are pretty low on the totem pole, but that incorporate that coveted study abroad office experience. These positions typically focus on in-take advising before the student is handed off to a Study Abroad Advisor. They also do a lot of scheduling, office manager tasks, and answering the phone. However, if you’ve only ever been a student or student worker on a college campus, getting even a low level position in a study abroad office will help you understand the challenges, triumphs, and bureaucracy of higher education that much more.

Become A Study Abroad Road Warrior
Most people I talk to really want to work in a study abroad office at a university and that’s great. I love working on a university campus (most of the time). But if you don’t have a Master’s and you really want to work in study abroad, try starting out as a field rep for a study abroad program provider. Why I love these types of jobs? NETWORKING! Not only will you gain an incredible amount of knowledge about academic concerns, financial aid policies, health and safety issues by answering thousands of questions about these topics, but you’ll also meet an incredible number of study abroad administrators through campus visits, fairs, and conferences. You’ll be able to show your passion and knowledge of the field to a lot of hiring managers…and that ain’t bad. Some of these jobs are commission-based, some aren’t. Some of these jobs come with low salaries but other perks like international travel. As with everything, you have to determine what you’re willing to sacrifice in one area (i.e. salary) to avoid another area (i.e. getting a graduate degree). Which leads me to…

Work for a Study Abroad Company
I’ve worked at universities and for private (non-profit and for-profit) study abroad companies. And let me tell you that both experiences can suck at times and can be amazing at times. But an added bonus of working for a study abroad company is that entry-level positions typically do not require a Master’s degree. Depending on the size and scope of the company, you can work in academic advising, student pre-departure services, program development, financial aid advising, and many other areas. The great thing about these types of positions is the sheer volume of students you will interact with and advise. After a year or two in one of these positions, you’ll have heard it ALL and be able to talk about that valuable experience during future job searches. Another benefit of working for a provider – beyond the number of students and the networking (listed above) – is how much you’ll learn about how study abroad is administrated at universities across the country. And believe me, no two universities do it the same. Sure there are some baseline standards, but at the end of the day, how one university determines if a study abroad experience is credible can be dramatically different than how another university decides. It can be both enlightening and frustrating, but either way, you’re going to have a lot of great knowledge to carry over to your next gig.

Be Unique/Interesting/Passionate/Funny/SOMETHING!
You have no idea how many resumes and cover letters I’ve read that 1) don’t tell me why the person is a PERFECT fit for the job they are applying for and/or 2) bore me to pieces without showing me any of the applicant’s unique character and passion. [And if you’ve failed to do both of those things…well, that’s a pretty big problem.] Now, study abroad is a relatively conservative field when it comes to job applications. We’ve all filled out the same human resources online application forms that go on for pages and pages, and right before you hit submit there’s an error of some kind and you have to start all over. Ack! Hate it when that happens! But if you want to stand out in this crowded job market, do something to catch our attention. Start with superior application materials. Your resume and cover letter better be AMAZING and specifically demonstrate why you are going to rock it in this position! Then do something unique: create an online portfolio, create a video application, start your own blog about study abroad, write guest blog articles for me (seriously, do it!), but do something, ANYTHING professional that will get you noticed and remembered. Not sure where to begin? Here’s a great article from Mashable about social media resumes. Granted these people are trying to get jobs in social media, but you can take these examples and apply them to the study abroad context. Be creative and show any hiring manager who you are and why you’d be a perfect fit!

Note: I hope it goes without saying, but please, please, please for the love of all things study abroad, tailor each and every application, resume, and cover letter for the specific company/university/position you’re applying to. There’s nothing more insulting to a hiring committee to see that the applicant couldn’t be bothered to spend an hour tailoring the content to them. If you want them to seriously consider you, make sure you’ve shown them that you’re serious.

Demonstrate Your Academic Street Cred
The main reason that Master’s degrees are often required or preferred for study abroad jobs is simple: study abroad is, at its core, an academic experience. And in higher education there’s almost nothing more sacred than how academic credit is evaluated and distributed. (Okay, maybe faculty academic freedom and tenure are more sacred…but you get the idea.) That’s why it’s so important that study abroad administrators have a strong foundation in understanding the academic experience…which can often come from having a master’s degree. BUT, if you don’t have those elusive letters behind your name, have no fear. I bet you’ve still got a little academic mojo to share. When you apply for jobs be sure to highlight your high-brow academic experiences. Did you conduct original research as an undergrad? Complete an honors thesis? Better yet, was that research presented at academic conferences and submitted/accepted to academic journals? Did you work on a credit transfer research project for your study abroad office? Did you conduct field research on the ground when you studied abroad? Did you serve as the student liaison for your institution’s re-accreditation process? Did you co-teach lower division courses at your university or tutor in the writing/math labs? Whatever it is, be sure to highlight your academic prowess. Universities and providers want to know you can differentiate between studying abroad in Florence and being a cast member of Jersey Shore in Florence.

Volunteer with a Study Abroad Company or Office
Okay, I know that this option isn’t ideal. Hell…it’s terrible. BUT if you really want to break into this field, you might have to make some sacrifices…and this might be it. The key to this approach is to do project based work. Maybe the study abroad office wants to move to an online pre-departure orientation format? Tell them you’ll do it! Maybe they need to put together a faculty-led program policy manual? Offer to put together a first draft. Whatever the project is, make sure it has a clear start and end and that you put together some real deliverables and objectives for the volunteer position. And since you’ll probably need to keep working a paid job while you volunteer, try to get projects that you can work on from home. At the same time, be sure to etch out a few hours a week when you can be in the office helping with other projects, drop-in advising, random logistical duties (copies and coffee runs!), and to get to know your colleagues.

Take a Temporary Position
This is a tough one. But if you are a bit of a risk taker, determined, and confident you can make a noticeable impact in a short period of time, this may be a great option for you. There are a lot of study abroad programs that require a temporary on-site administrator/coordinator to help manage the pre-departure and onsite experience. A few I can think of are: World Learning-Experiment in International Living, Babson-BRIC, Semester At Sea, and NortheasternUniversity NUin Freshman Programs. These semester-long positions are temporary, but may give you just enough experience to get you noticed and land you an interview.

Be Diligent But Not a Pest
You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have asked me for advice on getting a job in study abroad who never, EVER follow-up on their job applications. They just send their resumes, cover letters, and references out into the interwebs and cross their fingers that they’ll get a call. Big mistake. If you want to be taken seriously, show them that you’re serious about the position. While I’m not advocating that you call and write the study abroad office or hiring manager every day, I AM suggesting that you follow-up on all applications you send out to 1) confirm it was received, 2) Check on the status of the hiring process, and 3) Check AGAIN on the status. You never know what is happening on the “inside” and why you’re considered for a position or not. But it never hurts to follow-up. It won’t work every time, but it may get you noticed.

Here’s a personal example, when I was teaching in China and applying for jobs back in the States, I had sent out more than 100 applications (I’m not joking). One of my applications was for a position with EUSA-International Academic Internship Programs as a University Relations Manager. I poured over my resume and cover letter, tailoring every word to that position. I had followed the application instructions perfectly. I had highlighted my travel blog about China for a little added flair. I thought for sure I was getting an interview. If I could, this is where I’d insert the sound of crickets chirping. I didn’t hear anything. Nothing. Several weeks went passed and I hadn’t received a confirmation email, rejection email, anything. [And this was the case for a LOT of jobs I applied for.] So I worked up the nerve to email the hiring manager and confirm that she received my application (and attached the original email). She was so happy that I followed up because my original email had gone to her junk mail folder. She interviewed me over the phone a few days later. My tenure in China ended and I flew back to the US a few days after that and interviewed in person for the position in Boston….and a week later, I had a job offer. :) I’ll say it again: It never hurts to follow up.

Take What You Can Get
I know it may not seem fair and I know it’s frustrating, demoralizing, and down right crappy, but in this economy, in this job market, and without the academic credentials that most jobs prefer or require, you can’t afford to be picky. As with almost any career in almost any field, you may have to put in a couple of years in a job that, in your mind, is beneath you. Manage your own expectations on this one. Loving study abroad isn’t enough. A lot of us love study abroad. You have to gain the skills and experience associated with working in study abroad. After all, if your car breaks down and needs to be fixed, would you choose a mechanic with specific training in all things automobile and a few years of experience OR the guy who just really, really likes cars and hopes to be a mechanic some day – who would YOU pick? The point is that the competition is fierce and you’ve got to be ready to “pay your dues” for a bit.

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By no means can I guarantee that these tips will work for everyone. But if you take a few of these tips and carefully strategize and craft your personal and professional brand, I have no doubt you’ll get a few interviews. And from there, it’s all on you to demonstrate why you’re awesome.

If you have other suggestions on how to get a job in study abroad WITHOUT a Master’s degree, please leave them in the comments. And of course, if you disagree with anything I’ve outlined above, I want to hear that, too.

Good luck and happy job searching!

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