Nuanced findings on study abroad influence on careers

The long-held belief that studying abroad helps students develop skills that make them attractive on the job market is reinforced by a study released last week in which United States alumni of such programmes describe how their experience overseas contributed to their career advancement.

And while the idea that international experience has a positive impact in the workplace may not come as a surprise, the findings offer nuances that can help international educators design programmes that prepare students for their first job interview and beyond.

"In today's globally interconnected economy, most students will develop careers where they work for or do business with international companies," says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education or IIE, which sponsored the study. "Skills gained through study abroad can be powerful tools for long-term career success."

The findings were released last Monday as part of the IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad, an initiative that aims to increase the number of US college students who go abroad.

IIE data show that about 10% of US students go abroad at some point in their undergraduate years. About two-thirds (63%) of these go abroad for eight weeks or less. Just 3% spend an academic year abroad.

The study, based on a survey of 4,500 US alumni of study abroad programmes and follow-up interviews with 30 of them, asked participants to recall and assess the extent to which their experience helped them develop 15 skills that employers say are critical in today's workforce.

Respondents had studied abroad as far back as 1999. The largest share of survey-takers had been in the workforce for three to five years; some respondents had more than 15 years of work experience.

Overall, a majority of respondents reported positive skill gains in 14 of the skills, which focused on intrapersonal competencies such as tolerance for ambiguity, cognitive competencies such as language skills and problem-solving, and interpersonal skills such as communication and leadership.

More than 70% of respondents reported significant improvement in five skills: intercultural skills, curiosity, flexibility and adaptability, confidence and self-awareness. More than half of respondents reported significant gains in interpersonal and problem-solving skills. The only area not developed or improved pertained to technical and software skills, which most respondents said were not the focus of the programme in which they participated.

In terms of employment prospects, more than half of respondents said they believed their study abroad experience had some bearing on a job offer at some point in their career.

But details matter. Alumni who had gone abroad for a full academic year were more likely to link their experience overseas directly to a job offer than those who had gone for fewer than eight weeks (68% vs 43%). Science majors were more likely to link their overseas experience to a job offer if they went abroad on a programme that focused on intercultural skills than one that was focused on their discipline (47% vs 28%).

And even respondents who did not believe studying abroad contributed to a job offer believed that skills they developed through study abroad boosted their chances later for a promotion, particularly into management-level positions.

Many employers do not ask specifically about study abroad experiences during interviews, findings show, unless they have a personal interest in the destination or the specific experience.

Coaching communication

Students who brought up their study abroad themselves during job interviews were more likely to make a connection between study abroad and a job offer, suggesting that educators can coach students on how to communicate to prospective employers how study abroad helped them develop certain skills.

One of the more surprising findings was that participants in short-term programmes were more likely than those in year-long programmes to say the overseas experience helped develop their ability to work with teams, a skill highly valued by employers.

"The takeaway for institutions is that there is value in different types of programmes and short-term programmes that are structured offer advantages" for some students, says study co-author Christine Farrugia, IIE's deputy head of research. Programme developers can help students select the right programme, she said, by being "very explicit and intentional about the career-related learning outcomes of study abroad".