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What to Do When You’re Overqualified and Underemployed

As an accompanying expat spouse, it can sometimes be difficult to get hired overseas, even when you’re motivated and highly qualified. Our guest author Emily McGee offers tips for thinking creatively about how to move your career forward or finding fulfillment outside of paid employment.

When I followed my husband to Kenya, I felt pretty good about my job prospects. I was coming to Nairobi with several years of teaching experience, my teaching certificate, great references, a Master’s degree from an Ivy league university, and a personal contact at an international school in Nairobi. I was confident I would find a teaching job.

Things did not work out as planned.

After networking with educators and NGO employees, I was offered two different volunteer positions, one writing a health curriculum and one volunteering in a kindergarten classroom. After months of hustling, I was finally offered a minimum wage job as an elementary classroom teaching aid. Even if I wanted to take the job, which I didn’t, I would have to wait months for my work visa, background check, and other paperwork to clear.

This experience left me frustrated and disillusioned. How was it possible that someone as motivated and as qualified as me could not find a job?

As many expat spouses know, it’s entirely possible to be highly educated, highly qualified, highly motivated, and unable to find satisfying work. What should you do when this happens?

Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper

Remember how your teachers would always tell you to keep your eyes on your paper? That advice holds true for adults. Don’t look at what other people are doing for work. No one is in the exact same situation as you and comparing yourself to others will leave you feeling frustrated or depressed. Focus on your own goals and challenges and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.

Think Outside the Box

When you are overqualified and underemployed, it’s the perfect time to think creatively about your career. Is there an online certification you can get that will benefit your career or make you more marketable? Will learning the local language increase your job prospects? You should also consider freelancing or consulting, which will keep you involved in your field and allow you to network while still bringing home a paycheck.

Find a Project

At its core, work is meaningful because it provides you with a sense of identity and a place where you can contribute to society. If you can’t find a suitable job, find a project that you identify with and that offers a way to contribute to the wider world. Here’s a short list of projects that trailing spouses often get involved with:

  • joining the Parent Teacher’s Association of a child’s school
  • volunteering at a local organization
  • starting a blog or website
  • trying a new hobby
  • taking a class, either in person or online

Work on Your Project Often

If you are no longer working for pay, it can be easy to lose interest quickly and dabble in many different projects, but try to focus on one project and stick with it for several months. Sustained work on one project is what makes the project feel purposeful and satisfying. Sustained work on a single project has other advantages, too. It can help you re-establish your identity outside of paid employment, it can help you develop marketable skills, and it can help you meet new people. If you don’t stick with something, you’ll never realize the benefits it can bring.

Ever since Emily McGee left her job as an English teacher, she has struggled to answer the question “So, what do you do?” Now she is embracing the struggle. Emily writes about career, identity, confidence, and freelancing at My Adaptable Career in order to demystify the world of freelancing and consulting for other professionals.

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