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Changing Places in a Small World

Natalie Allen
The University of Western Ontario

Welcome to a new TIP columnthe brainchild of TIP editor Laura Koppesin which we focus on experiences associated with living and working internationally. Those familiar with writer David Lodge will recognize that the name of the column blends the titles from two of his novels. Although some of the spirit of these novels will permeate the column, expect a somewhat less salacious approach to the topic than Lodge takes!

Instead, my intention in the column is to use the wisdom and experiences of SIOP members to provide both inspiration and practical guidance for those considering an international work experience (IWE). Im using this term generically to refer to various arrangements under which a SIOP member lives and work in another country for some longer-than-vacation length of timesay, several months or more. These include academic (or corporate) sabbaticals, teaching stints/exchanges, consulting work, corporate work assignments, fellowships, or, even, graduate school. I intend to fill the column with the experiences of people from various places in the world, telling us what a temporary move from Country X to Country Y meant for themboth personally and professionally as I-O psychologists.

My credentials for this column, such as they are, are based on my enthusiasm for travel, coupled with academic research trips and sabbaticals. In the past decade, my academic husband and I have been spent 2, year-long sabbaticals away from our home base in Canada. The first year involved several months in each of Amsterdam, Padova, and Sheffield accompanied by two kids in diapers; the second year was split evenly between Sheffield and Sydney, this time with one kid in diapers and two of school age. Ours have been dual-career sabbaticals, during which we traded off locations and arranged for us both to have office space at each university at which we spent time. During both years, we developed wonderful relationships with overseas colleagues. We all learned a lot about differences and similarities. Our children thrived, made friends with kids they would not have otherwise met, and developed a keenness for going to new places. We rented our house in Canada to strangers, paid rent to other strangers (some of whom become friends), and had a wide range of terrific (and, occasionally, stressful) experiences. 

In this first column, Ive outlined some of the practical considerations that IWE-bound folks need to think about. Because much of this is based on my own opinions and experiences (and those of some colleagues), all the usual caveats apply.

Considering an IWE

People are motivated to embark on an IWE for many professional and personal reasons: to work more closely with people who happen to be far away, to live and work in another culture, to have new experiences, and learn new things. For I-O psychologists, of course, the extra bonus of an IWE is the opportunity to learn more about people and their work set against another cultural/national background. An IWE will not make you a cross-cultural expert, but it will broaden those proverbial horizons. Now, to state some obvious pointsan IWE may not be for everyone. Moreover, for most people, the IWE decision is not theirs alone to make. Clearly, the careers, education, and activities of the other people in your family/household will be affected by an IWE, and their reactions to the idea may well vary. Families are all different and they navigate complex decisions in various ways. (Definitely not my field!) Consequently, there is much diversity in the IWE arrangements that people make (we all go/some of us go, some stay home/some go for some of the time, etc.) If considering an IWE, think creatively about how you can make it work best for everyone, planning what can be planned and leaving other things as flexible as possible. Regardless of the approach you take, it seems a safe bet that if you and your family consider the IWE an adventure, it will be more likely to become one.

Considering Where To Go

How you approach this will depend on the nature of your IWE and what your goals are. In some cases, of course, the place is chosen for you. When the choice is up to you, ask yourself the following questions. Whose work interests and activities are similar to yours? Or who does something quite different, but that you find fascinating? Who inspires you? Where is there a meaningful role for you to play? Where could you have an impacton others and/or on yourself? What part of the world have you always wanted to explore? Typically, you need to set things in motion several months in advanceparticularly if you are arranging the visit yourself (e.g., the traditional sabbatical visitor) and/or if you hope to make use of university, institutional, or community resources (e.g., libraries, office space, computer resources). 

Some Thoughts on Logistics

Needless to say, there are several practical things that must be considered when embarking on an IWE. Some of these differ little from those considered on any international trip, but otherssuch as housing and schooling/
child carepresent unique challenges. In what follows are some thoughts about these two topics, as well as a catch-all list of other practicalities that occurred to me. By no means is this a comprehensive list nor will it fit each IWE template.

Depending on your situation, you will either have one housing challenge (where to live abroad) or two (and what about the house back home?). Obviously, how easily you find suitable temporary housing will vary as a function of where you are going, the type of place you need, the size of your household, whether your host institution (if there is one) can provide accommodation, and (regrettably!) your budget. Unless your IWE is quite lengthy, you will probably be searching for furnished accommodation. Recognize that this narrows your options considerably and start to look as early (and often) as possible. 

If you have a house back home, you might feel some discomfort at the thought of renting it while you are away, especially because it, too, will likely be furnished and will include all the trimmings. At the extreme, if you simply cannot bear the thought of strangers living with your stuff, the income might not be worth the stress. Trusted house sitters or a property maintenance service might provide a better solution. Most people, however, are able to organize their belongings such that the most precious and irreplaceable is stored safely away, to provide tenants with detailed information about the house and its contents, and to cross their fingers. Obviously, you need to stay in touch with your tenant. It also helps enormously to have someone nearby who you can trust to deal with decisions that are hard to make long distance (Is your neighbors request to chop down an offending tree in your yard actually justified? Is the washing machine really kaput or can it be repaired?). E-mail facilitates many such decisions, but youll occasionally need someone on the spot and, if you have to, it is worth paying for this service.

For both housing searches and tenant searches, consider every resource that you can. You might want to start with sabbaticalhomes.com, a terrific Web site devoted specifically to IWE housing challenges. In addition, inform the department chairs in the universities, colleges, and teaching hospitals in your area about the availability of your place. They are in a good position to know of incoming sabbatical visitors, post-docs, fellowship holders, medical residents, and other potential tenants. Similar people at the other end should be contacted to help you find housing. (To avoid useless leads, clearly outline your housing needs and the timing of your proposed IWE.) Register your own home at your local institutions housing services and, again, check the parallel resources in your host city/area. When dealing with academic institutions, remember that there are differences, worldwide, as to when academic years begin and end. Because the academic calendar often dictates the availability and costs of properties that are aimed at the academic market, take this into account when timing your search and that of your proposed visit. Finally, do not overlook commercial rental agencieseither as a mechanism for renting your place or finding housing. Such agencies typically have Web sites that provide photos of available properties and are responsive to requests from overseas. When searching for housing using agencies, read the small print. Find out about lease lengths (12 months is most typical; shorter stays may have to be negotiated), whether the places are furnished, and what furnished actually means. If relevant, ask whether children are permitted. Determine whether there is a security bond, how it is calculated, and what exactly it means. In Sydney, for example, we were required to put up $10K (Aus), in advance, which was held in trust until the end of our lease when the condition of the house was assessed. Quite motivating.

Schooling and Child Care
For those with school-age children, it is important to check out school arrangements as much as possible before you arriveto avoid surprises about availability and costs. Children of foreign visitors are usually warmly received. Whether or not a visiting child can be included in a particular school, however, can depend on local conditions. For example, two of our kids attended a wonderful state school in the UK for a half year. Had we been staying for the full year, however, we were told that there would not have been spaces for them. (My experience has been that private schools are much less interested in short-term attendees, but this probably varies considerably. Schools aimed at international student bodies, of course, are quite used to short stays.) Further, be aware that some countries/regions charge fees for foreign visitors to attend public (state-sponsored) school; others do not. It is best to know about this in advance as these fees can be substantial. 

If you want your children to attend the local school then, obviously, the choice of a school interacts with the neighborhood you choose. The ideal strategy, therefore, is one in which you secure housing and schooling in tandem. Easier said than done, I realize, but not impossible. If you can pull off an advance trip to secure housing and schools simultaneously, do so. (I did this once, but have also arranged schools/housing from a distance.) Either way, in this planning stage, be prepared to make a lot of lists and juggle multiple possibilities. Things do have a way of working out, although it may not feel so at times.

Just like back home, child-care arrangements (for preschoolers) while on an IWE take many forms: a stay-at-home parent, a daycare/crche, or local home-based caregivers. Needless to say, there is no one best way. To locate local caregivers, you will likely need to build in more time than usual, as youll have fewer personal resources, local knowledge, and word-of-mouth testimonials on which to rely. Further, your children, understandably, might need more settling-in time. It is all new to them, too. The arrangement that worked very well for us was to take a caregiver with us from home. She lived with us and participated in all aspects of family life. She cared for the children while we were at work and was an extra pair of hands when needed. (University students are often interested in taking a break, earning money, and doing some traveling while living in the more secure surroundings of a familiar household.) Clearly, there are pros and cons to this approach. If you decide to go this route, think of it as an I-O challenge that requires a job analysis, RJP, selection, socialization, training, and team development. Realize that the team will be embedded in an unusual organizationa family living in a new-to-them culture. This approach increases some costs (e.g., housing/household expenses, travel costs), but it also provides stability/continuity for children and some flexibility for the family. In addition to the usual job stuff, be sure to discuss upfront special practical concerns such as getting the appropriate visas, medical (and other) insurance, and incorporating vacation and/or emergency trips back home for the caregiver. Needless to say, it is critical that you pick someone you and your kids really like, who really likes you and your kids, and who can adapt to new situations, handle homesickness, and meet new people easily. 

Some Other Suggestions (in no particular order)

Ensure you have the proper visas for the place(s) you are going to, for the expected time frame, and, of course, for everyone in the household. Although some countries allow very young children to be on a parents passport, recognize that this reduces flexibility about who travels with whom, something that is more important for lengthy stays and may be critical if an emergency arises. To my mind, separate passports make more sense.

Investigate thoroughly your medical insurance coverage, get any necessary inoculations within the appropriate time period before you travel, and take along information about any prescriptions (drugs, glasses, etc.).

If you have pets, taking them with you is unlikely to make much sense given most quarantine regulations (check these carefully) so, obviously, plans need to be made for them. 

Experienced travelers know that less-is-more when it comes to packing. Take this advice very seriously when deciding what you need on the IWE. It is expensive to ship large heavy things long distances and lengthy delays can occur, rendering the receipt of some stuff no longer worth the expense.

Consider carefully how you will deal with local transportationthe what about a car? question. Typically, we have foregone a vehicle and, instead, rediscovered walking and public transportation. (The whining subsides reasonably soon.) While in Sydney, however, distances to work and other places compelled us to buyand then sella used vehicle. Much cheaper than renting (which is also an option) but, of course, this requires that you find a buyer at just the right time. Be sure to investigate the adequacy of your existing drivers license and check insurance coverage carefully. 

You will need to handle your banking and bill-paying arrangements both at home and abroad. Although youll be able to do a lot with cash and credit cards, in many countries, you will need to establish a local bank account to handle basic utility bills such as phone and electricity. (Banking regulations are wonderfully diverse. ATMs are great, but they are not all created equal. Patience is a virtue.)

Plan/budget as best you can (or are inclined to) but realize that you have less control over costs than you are accustomed to and that unexpected adventures that are too good to pass up may come your way. On the plus side, you may spend less on everyday stuff, realizing that it will have to get carried, shipped home, or left behind. A general statement about finances and IWEs: Unless you live under a particularly lucky star, do not expect your financial net worth to increase during this period! Instead, think of your IWE as an investmentin your professional development and in your life.

Finally, take your sense of humor and sense of adventure. Even with lots of preparation, there will be surprises along the way, and, as in real life, some bumps in the road. In my opinion, its definitely all worth it.

Future Columns

In future, Ill be turning the column over to other SIOP members who have had international work experiences. Guest columnists will describe where they went and (some of) what they did there. In the spirit of RJPs, well ask about the most valuable, and most challenging, aspects of their experiences and what they learnedabout I-O psychology and otherwise. I look forward to hearing from anyone with thoughts and experiences to share on this topic. Please feel free to contact me at nallen@uwo.ca.

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