Oh, the Glamorous Life Abroad!
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch

Oh, the glamorous life abroad!  The pursuit of an international project management career often makes our eyes light up as we think about the possibilities of professional advancement, financial gains, cultural stimulation, and travel opportunities.  

It is often said that, however, that when you go abroad, the first stranger you meet is yourself.  The expatriate life is riddled with layers of complexity. So, before embarking on the journey it is important to reflect on the range of factors that will impact the overall experience.

Who Is Going Abroad?

Some project managers head overseas on their own to seek out career opportunities. However, more commonly an employer asks a project manager to take on an assignment abroad.  This year’s PMI Pulse of the Profession report cited several surveys indicating the importance of investment and expansion into emerging markets. This could potentially lead to more projects for organizations, and the need to send more project managers to these regions.

The industries below are showing the highest percentages of international assignment growth overall. Therefore, they may provide interesting opportunities for those project managers looking for prospects overseas:

                           Industry % of companies reporting increases in international assignments
Transport/Auto 80%
Construction / Engineering 79%
Information Technology 71%
Consumer Products 67%

Source:  Brookfield Global Relocation Services 2013 Relocation Trends Report

It’s not necessarily a requirement to have previous international working experience in order to get one of these assignments.

Companies report that only 22% of the employees that they send on overseas assignment have previous international assignment experience. Employers often look at other factors such as an expressed willingness to complete an international assignment, a specific skill set needed, or cultural or language skills relevant to the region.  It is important, though, to set expectations accordingly.  It is rare for companies to send new hires directly abroad; 89% of companies surveyed said that they send current, rather than new, employees.  

All sorts of people, at varying personal and professional stages, decide to take postings overseas.  While there is no “typical” expatriate profile, the same survey cited above has found that:

  • 65% are married
  • 43% have kids accompanying them
  • 23% are female
  • 38% are 30–39 years old; 33% are 40–49 years old  

Should I Go?

Before heading overseas, there are many questions to ask.  Here are some professional and personal factors to consider when starting the decision making process:

Professional Factor Questions to Ask
Local in-country challenges
  • How different is the culture?
  • How familiar am I with it?
  • What is the relationship between the local and home office?
  • Where will my boss and team be located?
  • How much travel is involved?
Attainability of objectives
  • Is my talent needed?
  • What is the reaction of local employees to expatriates coming over?
  • Do I have the skills, resources, and time to accomplish the objectives?
  • How much will I need to adapt my leadership, feedback, management, communication styles? How comfortable am I doing it?
Company support
  • What support does my company provide? Cultural training? Language training? Destination services? Tax assistance? Shipping? Home maintenance? Look-see trip? Home visits? Education allowance for children? Working visa support for partner?
Future roles after the assignment
  • What will I do after this assignment?
  • Is there a set career path?


Personal Factor Questions to Ask
Integration into local cultural environment
  • Do I find it culturally interesting?
  • What personal interests can I or can’t I continue to pursue overseas?
  • What new interests would I like to explore?
  • Do I want to lead a more local or more expat lifestyle?  Do I have a choice?
Family and friendship
  • Am I okay being away from my family?
  • What communication channels will I set-up?
  • Does my partner or spouse want to work? Can he/she?
  • Is my partner or spouse giving up a career?
  • What does friendship mean in the new culture?
  • What avenues will I pursue to develop new relationships?
Foreign language
  • Is it necessary to learn the local language?
  • Do I want to learn the local language?
Impact on children
  • Age considerations
  • Will children attend local or international schools?
    Are there seats available at the international schools?
  • Who will cover the cost of schooling?
  • Will this be financially advantageous for me?
  • Do I need more or less money to live in the host location?
  • Which expenses will the company cover?
  • What will happen to my expenses at home?
  • What are the tax implications?
  • What are the safety concerns in the new location?
  • How will I manage them?
  • Do I have any particular medical needs or issues
  • Is support available in the new location?


The expatriate life can be tremendously rewarding. On a professional level, it provides project managers with opportunities to be exposed to different national cultures, to adapt to diverse work environments, and to gain a broader perspective on the company’s business.  However, it is not for every project manager and the factors in the tables above should be considered in personal context.  Luckily, the global nature of projects today coupled with technology, allows many of us to work in an international environment without leaving home on a permanent or semi-permanent basis.  When contemplating this type of major career decision, keep this in mind: a love of travel is not the same as a love of living abroad.