When you don't want to trade your career for a wedding ring

In a recent blog post discussing the gender gap within international development organizations, I attributed one of the challenges to gender equality — particularly at the leadership level — to the issue of “trailing spouses.” For many professionals, a career in international development means a series of overseas postings. For their spouses, that often means following along and trying to stay employed.

I recently met an international development professional who is planning her wedding to a newly minted U.S. foreign service officer. As she is making critical decisions, such as her color scheme, floral arrangements and selecting the least obnoxious DJ, she is also trying to prepare herself for a life and career that is always on the move.

She asked for tips on what she could do to maintain her career — and employability — in international development when her spouse’s job could take them to Lima this year and Bangkok next.

Many people working in global development tend to marry other professionals in development. Be it similar interests, the around the clock (and around the globe) nature of the work or romances that start when isolated on small teams out in the field, international development is chock full of dual career couples. Managing both individual careers can be a logistical and emotional challenge indeed.

Here are seven tips for managing your career and staying marketable whether you are posted in Lima, Addis or Bangkok.

1. Make yourself invaluable to your current employer

In the case of the woman referenced above, she is in the fortunate position to know a year or two in advance that she will have to relocate overseas. While it can be hard to find telecommuting arrangements as a job seeker, employers are typically more open to flexible arrangements to keep highly valued employees. If your spouse’s career is taking you overseas, talk with your current employer to see if there is a way for you to continue your work remotely or transition into a role that could more easily be done from afar. And in the meantime, focus on being one of those people an organization will be willing to bend over backwards to keep.

2. Build skills and functional expertise that can be done from anywhere

Some jobs simply can’t be done remotely. For example, I’ve never seen a telecommuting chef. But thanks to the rapid advancement of communications and technology, many functions these days do not require you to be in the office to get the job done. Writing is one of those skills. Development organizations are always in the need for strong writers to draft technical papers, write a grant proposal or pull together an annual report. Look to develop skills and experiences that can be done with just a laptop and internet connection.

3. Become a short-term technical expert

As aid work becomes more localized, more and more overseas positions are being reserved for locally hired staff. However, there is often still the need to bring in international experts to provide short-term technical assistance. Professionals who build a career doing this type of consultancy work have the flexibility to be based anywhere as long as they are willing to travel at a moment’s notice.

4. Maintain your network

Having a strong network is important for every professional, but particularly so if you are job hunting in a new location every few years. You will need to not only work extra hard at maintaining your network from afar (read these ”Nine tips on networking from the field”) but also be comfortable building up new networks from scratch when you arrive in a new country. A good place to start is with your spouse. He or she will automatically be plugged into a network with his or her employer. Attend their after office happy hours, make friends with their spouses and make sure your significant other is keeping an eye out for opportunities. (It’s the least they can do, right?)

5. Take advantage of spouse support services

If your spouse works for a large NGO, company or donor organization, check to see if they provide any spouse support services. For example, the World Bank provides career guidance, workshops and CV support to spouses through their Global Mobility program. Not only could these services help you kickstart your job search, connecting with these groups is a great way to build a network of other like-minded professionals.

6. Take turns

Many dual-career couples in international development have managed their careers by taking turns. One spouse will choose an opportunity and location while the other takes a back seat and then in a couple of years they switch. This can be challenging to orchestrate and does cause both spouses to have gaps in their resumes, but as long as you can keep your skills current through additional education or consulting work in the gap years, you can both maintain successful careers doing what you love. (Read ”Dual-Career Couples: On the Move” for more tips)

7. Stay busy

Volunteer, work towards a new degree or certification, take training classes, brush up on a new language or write a blog. You will have stuff to say on your CV, cover letter and in interviews when people ask what you have been doing. And it will help you maintain your sanity and sense of purpose when finding paid employment proves difficult.

Please share your tips and stories on maintaining your career as a “trailing spouse” in the comments section below. Tweet me your career questions at @DevexCareers — your question may just be the focus of an upcoming Career Matters blog post. You can also subscribe to my video blog on YouTube.

About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.