This year at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication I hosted a panel called “Bushwhacking Your Way into an Intercultural Career.” I chose the word “bushwhacking” because for many, the intercultural career landscape resembles a dense forest where there are no clear roadmaps to success. I often meet people who want to make a living in this field and don’t even know where to begin.
The people with the most visibility in this field are almost all the founding members who have been developing their careers (and publishing prolifically) for the last thirty or forty years. It is impossible to emulate their journeys in the professional landscape we are living in now. Part of my motivation was to increase visibility of people who are actively blazing the trails. I wanted to create a space where they could share how they built successful intercultural careers in the last decade.
The three women who participated in this panel are truly amazing and represent the rich diversity of experience in this field:
Riikka Salonen, MA, began her intercultural journey in Finland 1994. As a part of her graduate studies she came to the U.S. to complete an internship with the Intercultural Communication Institute. For the last 10 years she has been offering diversity, inclusion, and intercultural programs at the Oregon Health & Science University and running a consulting business on the side.
TK McLennon, MBA, worked in Communications in the private sector for over a decade before launching her independent consulting practice. She now holds the coveted position of Intercultural Communications Coordinator at Brock University in Canada, a role that was practically created for her.
Kim Carroll, MA, began her career as an ESL instructor before starting a business to train other ESL instructors and those seeking TESOL certification. Through her network she became involved in intercultural training and coaching. She now runs – not one – but two independent consulting practices: English for Life Academy and Catalyst Intercultural.
I really wish I could call this post, “10 Things You Need to Do…” or “10 Steps You Need to Take…” but alas, friends, it is not that easy. This panel confirmed, if nothing else, that there is no clear path or guaranteed steps to take to ensure career success in this field. That being said, there is still plenty to be learned from their experiences, so I present you with the “10 Takeaways.” As you read through them, you may find some examples that contradict your own experience and that’s fine. These aren’t edicts – they’re examples. And they are certainly not rules – they’re reflections. This is what the panel (and I) have seen and learned along the way. May they be of service to your journey.
1. It’s all about who you know
The adage “you are who you know” holds true in this field. There’s a reason you won’t see many intercultural jobs on Indeed.com – because we almost always hire from within our networks. The people in your network may be your future colleagues, clients, collaborators, and employers, so try to get out and meet as many of them as possible. Attend professional conferences like SIETAR and educational programs like the Summer Institute. As with all networking, make sure to follow up and keep in touch. Don’t expect immediate job offers or opportunities. People will trust you more over the years, so consistency matters. Many people come and go, never to be seen or heard from again, but if you keep attending the same conferences year after year, your name and reputation will follow accordingly.
2. Find your niche and speak their language
Another reason you’re probably not finding jobs online with the keyword “Intercultural” is because few organizations even know what that is. Don’t try to educate them. The term is not important and you’ll have a hard time selling your services if people don’t know what they are buying.
So what word should you use? That depends on your niche. It is critical to focus on a particular market, instead of assuming you are equipped to help all peoples with all matters. Your message will not resonate with everyone, so honing in on who exactly you want to help is necessary. After you first decide who you want to work for or serve, then do some research on their primary interests and how your intercultural skills and services can benefit them. Note how the people in your niche are describing their needs and challenges and build your interview answers or sales pitches around their vocabulary.
3. A Master’s degree is a master’s degree is a master’s degree
In some disciplines, like law, the ranking of your school (Ivy league, 2nd tier, etc.) matters greatly in your job placement post-graduation. Top firms recruit from competitive universities and so on. In other disciplines, like accounting, it’s your grades that really matter. Most firms ask for transcripts and won’t hire an applicant with a grade below B+ in any accounting course.
In the intercultural field, neither the ranking of your school nor your grades are any guarantee of professional placement. Some argue that even the subject of your degree is of little bearing on your career aspirations in this field. For most intercultural jobs, merely a master’s degree is required – from any school and in any “relevant” topic. Once you can “check the box”, no one will ask you about the ranking of your college or your grades or even your subject matter. It will be up to you to leverage what you learned in your graduate program to propel your career. Some even argue that the people you meet in grad school (see point #1) are more important than what you studied.
4. Invest in certifications
There was consensus on the panel around the importance of getting certified. Certifications, they say, are incredibly meaningful to prospective employers or clients, even if they don’t explicitly ask for them. Certifications show that you know how to apply your knowledge in professional settings (unlike an academic research paper) and lend credibility to your work. However, unlike graduate school, which can be funded through loans, scholarships, fellowships, and even some employers, certifications are typically out-of-pocket investments. This field can seem elitist in the amount of emphasis put on self-funded learning. Invest in certifications that are immediately applicable to you now, and spread out the others over the course of your career. Some certifications include: Cultural Intelligence; Intercultural Development Inventory; Intercultural Training Certification; Personal Leadership; Certified Training Practitioner; Association for Talent Development Certification; International Coaching Federation; Kozai Assessment
5. Some jobs just don’t pay that much
Some of the most exciting and impactful jobs are with small nonprofits and grassroots organizations. While these jobs can be incredibly rewarding, the salaries for such roles can be quite low in comparison to others. It is not unusual to find a job that requires a Master’s degree, 3-5 years of work experience, and offers a yearly salary of $35,000-$40,000 USD. At some universities, faculty positions require a Ph.D. with 8-10 years of experience while offering $50,000-$60,000 USD a year. Unfortunately, in the intercultural field there is no 6-month Code Academy followed by a guaranteed entry-level $85,000/year programming job. Think carefully about the income you will need to create the lifestyle you want, and apply to positions strategically.
6. While others (Diversity & Inclusion) pay a lot
During the discussion of salaries and income, the panel stated that there is significant money to be made in this field should you chose to go into HR, specifically in the area of Diversity & Inclusion. Director of Diversity & Inclusion positions are typically offering $120,000-$170,000 USD a year. A VP or Chief of Diversity & Inclusion for a large organization can bring in $250,000-$500,000 USD a year. You will find these positions advertised online and many recruiters also conduct nationwide searches for candidates. Ironically, most of these posts don’t require a Master’s degree, but many require a Bachelor’s degree in Business or HR and 8-10 years of experience in HR and D&I work.
7. It’s ok to do lots of different gigs
Because there are almost zero jobs advertised for 100% intercultural work, most people in this field make their living from portfolio careers: a blend of full-time or part-time employment, consulting, coaching, sub-contracting from larger firms, teaching, tutoring, blogging, etc. There is no shame in piecing together the career you want from a variety of different revenue streams. In fact, this can be a great way to truly create the career and lifestyle of your dreams, since our interests can be so broad and not every full-time position pays that well (see point #5). All three of the panelists had portfolio careers at some point in their lives. While this sounds exciting, there are some challenges that come with it (see point #8). Pay attention to what excites you and over time your portfolio career will become more and more tailored to your interests.
8. You will make sacrifices no matter what you do
There was agreement on the panel that no matter which route you choose (employment, consulting, etc.) you will make sacrifices to achieve a successful career in this field. As mentioned in #5, some people sacrifice higher income for a rewarding and meaningful job at a small organization. For those on the other end of the spectrum, earning $100,000+, burnout from 80-hour work weeks may be just around the corner. For those in consulting, the lack of stable income or a steady paycheck make it difficult to invest in your retirement or buy a house. For those juggling portfolio careers that include jobs and multiple side hustles, waking at 4:00am for conference calls may be part of the deal. It is impossible to think about your career as a separate journey from your life, so as you are making decisions on your profession, education, niche, and salary, be sure to consider these answers in the context of how you want to live your life.
9. You’re playing the long game
As with networking and attending the same conferences year after year, remind yourself that you are playing a long game in your career, and it may be years before you see the results of your efforts really pay off. This may not be hard to hear for a 23-year-old recent college graduate with 40-50 years of working life ahead of them, but if you are entering the intercultural field from another career in your 50s or 60s (as many of my friends are), you’re probably not planning on taking 10-20 years to achieve your professional peak. Remember that if you’ve come from another field, you have enormous experience both in work and life (see point #10), that can be leveraged in your new journey. Instead of starting from scratch, think about how you can capitalize on what you already know and what you have already done.
10. All life experience counts
We are so much more than the bullets on our resumes. Our intercultural experience may come from our families, friends, and companions; the places we’ve lived; the challenges we’ve overcome; the mistakes we’ve made. It would be an oversight to merely look at the paying work we’ve done and assume it is all we have to offer. Growing up as the third-culture kid of immigrant parents, living in multiple countries, battling cancer, and having a biracial child are all things that nobody has paid me to do, yet they inform and inspire my work. These are not details on my resume or things I even bring up in professional conversations, but they affect every part of my being. We can draw strength from those identity-defining experiences in our lives and let them bring uniqueness and vibrancy to our jobs and businesses.