An Atypical Transition

Changing Jobs in the Global Humanitarian and Int’l Development Sector.

Job transitions are weird and somewhat stressful times for people no matter what kind of work they do, but I’m beginning to think that global humanitarian and development professionals may have it worse than most. On top of the usual uncertainty and stress of changing jobs, the results of our interviews may mean that we may end up in any one of several different countries, even different regions of the world. Take me for example. In the next couple of months, I’ll be transitioning out my current job and into another. I’ve got five active applications out there for jobs based in the following locations: Lusaka, Zambia; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Islamabad, Pakistan; Washington D.C., USA; and Nicosia, Cyprus. Maybe if Antarctica were an option, I would have a more diverse array of location options.

The work in each location is, of course, varied, but it’s the diversity of locations that has my family and me a bit unhinged. Having a bit of uncertainly around what exactly I’ll be doing is not a big deal – it’s all related and within the range of my professional competency. But, I’ve got a wife and two young children, and the uncertainty around how we will live for the next three years looms rather large. So many variables in play: language, food, culture, security, weather, topography, availability of international schools, even simple details like the ability to drink wine or hold my wife’s hand in public. Changing jobs in this sector is not just about changing what you do for a living, but changing the way you and your family live.

Thankfully, we’ve done all this before, and it seems to get easier each time. My wife and I have happily stuck together through five moves in four countries and we’ve watched our kids with amazement as they’ve adjusted, made new friends, learned new languages, ate new foods. I feel like we’re raising adaptable and resilient global citizens. Of course, there are drawbacks too of raising ‘third culture kids’ – there is sadness in pulling them away from their friends, fear that they will be rootless and restless, guilt for not providing a stable sense of place and belonging, remorse for keeping them so far from their grandparents, cousins and other relatives. And all of this adds to the tension of the job transition.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just indulging in a misplaced sense of exceptionalism. I don’t want to play the martyr or invoke tiny finger violins playing satirical dirges on our behalf, but come on; this is atypical of most job transitions, right?

Many of my blog posts share lessons learned, teach knowledge gained, or otherwise contain advice. I think I’ll break from that pattern and turn this over to you, my small and patient readership. What advice would you share about making international job transitions or about raising global nomads?

(btw, a quick shout out to The Displaced Nation, a site that creatively explores many issues related to being displaced as an expat, repat, or TCK)


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9 Comments on “An Atypical Transition”

  1. May 25, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Hey Aaron,

    Good to hear your perspective. I often feel within the development community that there’s sort of a culture of pretending like we don’t mind this uncertainty and are ready to go at the drop of the hat. While I myself tend to pretend like it’s no big deal, my wife and I have certainly had a hard time dealing with all the uncertainty. In particular, the lack of foresight and planning feels difficult for people like ourselves who like to plan our week-by-week and month-by-month in advance.

    I guess my personal wisdom has been that even when you do plan, part of that is just for your own psychological comfort anyways, given that plans often end up changing (e.g. perhaps the security situation in Sri Lanka is much better/worse than expected and the planning you made would end up changing anyways.) The ability to live with uncertainty is definitely an asset in development anyways, so I guess it’s best just to grin and bear it, while recognizing and releasing some of the ways it makes us feel.

    Best wishes in this transition!


    • May 31, 2012 at 10:21 am #

      Thanks for your comment Ryan. I agree that a high tolerance for uncertainty and change is sort of a job requirement in this field for many more reasons than job transitions. Rolling with it (and in it.) – Aaron.

  2. May 25, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    A favorite unresearched belief of mine is that 805 of kids become responsible members of society no matter how you raise them (tcks included). 10% are a mess no matter what you do. The other 10% – well, just hope yours don’t fit there, although you always have FIGT to help you….;-)
    Stability of the marriage relationship is most important factor – seems that’s in good shape with you. So do what’s best for you and your wife together, the rest will take care of itself.
    You know – if Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy……
    And don’t forget to choose what will make you happy – not la la happy – fulfilled is the word.

    • May 31, 2012 at 10:24 am #

      Thanks for the comment Norman. For now I’m thinking about these four factors as I consider the job options coming onto the table: the value, impact, and scope of the work for the organization, how the work will affect my professional development and trajectory, how the location of the work will affect my family’s well-being, and remuneration. Fulfillment seems to be a cross-cutting theme in each of these.

  3. May 26, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    We use technology and social media for the kids to help keep a virtual normal wherever we geographically are. Even though they aren’t old enough officially, I made them accounts on FB and they stay in touch w/their friends and family online. They can play scrabble w/their grandparent or chess w/an old classmate any day of the week. Also, we AP and studies show that AP-raised kids consider their parents “home” more than a geographic location. My biggest worry, and what I try to avoid, is that some expat communities are not diverse, almost ultra American. When we consider putting them in an international school in, say, Dhaka, I have heard it’s like the whitest US school you’ve ever been to. Granted, I’ve never seen said school, this is my worry, tho.

    • May 31, 2012 at 10:31 am #

      Thanks for that insight Annie. I think we could probably do a lot more with technology for our 6-year old son. He’s on the computer or iPad all the time anyway. It would be really cool if he knew he could reach out to his grandparents or friends whenever he wanted. Regarding the lack of diversity in expat communities, I’ve been able to avoid that problem so far, in large part because of my language skills and the fact that we are already a multi-cultural family. So we’ve never really needed to rely on an expat community to settle in. That could change, however, if we end up in a place like Pakistan. BTW, is ‘AP’ short for attachment parenting or something else?

  4. May 27, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    Aaron, I think you hit the nail on the head: “Changing jobs in this sector is not just about changing what you do for a living, but changing the way you and your family live.” As an international development professional, the career choices that you make impact where your kids grow up and how often they get to see their grandparents, what kind of job market your spouse has to find employment in (or figure out an alternative, if a job is not feasible locally), how often and for how long you’ll be separated from your family while traveling for work. And yes, that is atypical for most job transitions, outside of international careers.

    I have observed, as a career coach who works with international development professionals and other expats, that there are a lot of trade-offs to be made between career and family in this line of work. (Last week, I wrote a somewhat depressing list of them on this post on The fact that you’ve applied for 5 jobs in 5 very diverse spots in the world says to me that you are willing to make the trade-offs necessary to work, live out your marriage, and raise your family in these 5 places.

    It sounds like what’s tough at this point is not knowing which of the 5 you’ll land in, and since they’re so different, it’s difficult to prepare (emotionally or logistically) for them. How to cope with this type of uncertainty? I think that what may help you depends on several factors, starting with your own personality. As @mooreporfavor pointed out, if you and your wife’s personal preference tilts toward planning (Myers-Briggs “J,” anyone?) then this uncertainty can be particularly vexing. Perhaps even a little contingency planning done in parallel (“If we end up in Lusaka, then we’ll do X, Y, and Z; but if we end up in Islamabad, then we’ll do A, B, and C”) may be comforting. And when the decision is finally made, you’ve got some plans already defined that may just need some fine-tuning.

    In terms of helping your kids cope with the uncertainty, what may work depends on their ages as well as their temperament. My 6-year-old daughter is an introvert and is cautious about new situations. She is growing up as a Third Culture Kid, although we’ve been in the same country since her birth, so no big move yet. Even when all we’re doing is visiting (not moving) we’ve found that talking in advance (but not too far in advance!) about a new place is helpful to her. Showing pictures, telling stories, and letting her get used to the idea help her. For her younger sister, an extremely extroverted 3-year-old, those tactics aren’t as important, due to both age and general disposition toward change.

    It sounds like your kids are resilient, happy, and have enjoyed participating in different cultures. I’d love to hear **your** advice on raising global nomads!

    Best of luck with the job-hunt waiting game, and do keep us posted!

    • May 31, 2012 at 10:42 am #

      Thanks for the very good comment Shana. I appreciate your list of tradeoffs on and these are things that we’ve got to be open to considering. One of the things I’ve done is push hard to make extensive use of my home office. Last year I traveled to 13 different countries and was gone for about a third of the year. What helped offset this was the ability to be home when I wasn’t out of the country. This enabled me to make those small daily trade-offs that balanced my work and family demands. The ability to commute home quickly (walk downstairs) for something as simple as changing a diaper or sharing a cup of tea is invaluable. I could also keep my own office hours, which is helpful with global work anyway when meetings can start at 5:00 am or 11:00 pm depending on where the person on the other end of the line is located. This means that I can take time off in the middle of the ‘work day’ to run errands with my wife, and then pick up the work later after everyone’s in bed or by jumping upstairs in my pajamas before dawn.

      I’ll keep you posted as the jobs shake out. (oh, and I’ve added Jo-burg and Bogota to list of possibilities.)

  5. June 3, 2012 at 11:30 pm #

    Some studies have shown that ‘international exposure at an early age appears to have an enduring impact that positively shapes both children and adults’ (Glicksberg-Skipper, 2000). However, Berk (2002, p. 516) commented that psychological and other stresses that are placed on Third Culture Children as well as on non-mobile children require them to cope with challenging and sometimes threatening situations. An implication of this is that, in the socialising of children in education contexts, it is important that the right amount of challenge be matched with sufficient support and comfort so that, for example, children who are required to make global transitions do so successfully.

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