Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Should I work abroad? How important is a degree vs. work experience?

This month we consider the possibility -- and difficulty -- of securing a job abroad and ponder the futures of a new grad and a non grad

October  1997
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How hard is it to find work abroad? We look at what it takes to get a job both in and out of the U.S. Plus, who's in a better position: someone with a just college degree or a resourceful and experienced IS contractor with no degree? We show you both sides of the coin. (1,300 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I am in my 20s and have been working in IT for four years now, mainly as a Unix sysadmin. I have been toying with the idea of moving abroad to work, but I don't possess any higher education. Would it be possible for me to work abroad, or am I just dreaming.


Dear Dreamer,

The possibility of working abroad has less to do with higher education as it does with papers. With high unemployment in many European countries, for instance, they are very reluctant to give work to anyone that could be done by a citizen of the country. To get papers you usually have to prove that you have a unique talent and won't be taking the job of a citizen.

Software development is a hot market, and programming skills are generally translatable to most countries. And because computer technologies change very rapidly and it is often difficult to find people with the right skills, it is not an unreasonable dream to find work abroad.

The best chance you have of making that jump is to work for a company with operations abroad. Let it be known very early that you wish to work in a particular foreign office. Then, if the company decides to accept your proposal and transfer you, it must arrange all the necessary papers.

Occasionally, there are companies abroad with mission-critical projects who are looking to hire contractors and are actively seeking programmers from anywhere for short-term assignments. Pencom has in recent years sent contractors over to both England and Switzerland. So, of course, another option is to contact a good recruiter and see if he/she knows of any opportunities in foreign countries.

Working outside the country can be a difficult thing to arrange, but it's not a completely unrealistic dream. With persistence and a firm goal, anything is possible.


Work in the U.S.
Dear Edgar,

I've been a programmer and system administrator for seven years mostly with a wholesale/retail company. I'm wondering what is a best way for a Canadian to break into the U.S. job market.

U.S. Bound

Hi U.S. Bound,

Readers write in with this basic question all the time from countries all over the world. It's generally far more difficult to get work in a country where you don't have citizenship. It's possible, but you will have to get a company to sponsor you. The idea is that you are an expert in what you do and by letting you work here you wouldn't be taking the job away from an American.

Since the passing of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act), the doors have been largely opened between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. I suspect that, being a Canadian citizen, it's not so difficult to come and work here. I recommend that you consult an immigration attorney or someone at your consulate for more information.

Do I need a degree?
Dear Edgar,

I've been working for several years as a Unix sysadmin and Oracle DBA on contracts for consulting firms. Looking through the trade magazines and job Web sites, I can see there is still great demand for my skills, but I'm a little worried about my available opportunities seeing all the listings that declare "BS or MS in CS required."

To this point, relying on my experience and interviewing skills have gotten me a lot of contracts that requested a degree, but I barely have a year of college. Going back to school would require a long-term stay in one place, which could have a serious opportunity cost for me as I'm single and willing and able to travel. Also, short-term contracts pay better. All the salary surveys say I'm making about 30 percent more than others (many of whom have college degrees) in the same or similar position.

What I want to know is whether or not experience is still enough to sustain my career development as an IS consultant? Which path is likely to benefit me most: degree, certifications, or the experience gained from continued contracting?

Degree or No Degree

Dear Degree,

It doesn't sound like you're all that interested in attending school or getting a degree, as you have consistently found jobs that are attainable, interesting, and well paid.

Why go back to school?

There is no right answer. But if you do decide to go, the reason will be a long-term one: a degree will quite simply open doors to higher levels of advancement. In the practical world of software development, there is nothing like real world experience. There are many people out there who have a lot of degrees and theoretical understandings, but are virtually useless in a working environment. At the same time, there are many great programmers out there that can do nearly anything, but are shut out from the highest levels of a company because they lack a degree.

The important thing for you to do is assess your career goals. Are you happy traveling and making good money doing what you're doing? Will you be for a long time? Or, do you harbor strong aspirations for advancement? If contracting is in your blood and being your own boss is what makes you happy, you're probably better off continuing to build your skills and staying in the workforce. If you want some day to join the club of big money-making corporate leaders, a degree is something you should definitely consider.

Flip side: No experience -- just a degree
Hi, Edgar. I am getting a Masters in Computer Science and am in the final semester. I plan to start my job search next week. But the only thing that worries me is that I don't have practical work experience (i.e. no industry experience). Will that be a hindrance in me getting a decent job?

Looking for a First Job

Dear Looking,

Having no industry experience will be somewhat of a hindrance -- but not an insurmountable one. You have to start somewhere and everyone who holds a job now has, at one time, entered the work force with no previous experience.

In order to attract an offer you're going to have to demonstrate that you are capable of producing in a work environment. Your academic record may aptly prove that you have the needed technical skills; but a hiring manager is going to want to be sure that you can work well with a team and get things done in time and on budget.

More importantly, you're going to have to demonstrate a past that reveals some kind of work record. You say you have no industry experience, but you must have some job experience somewhere. Have you held down any unrelated jobs to pay for school? Have you worked in the computer lab setting up or administering systems? Have you done any freelance work -- building Web pages or networking computers? If you have, these can serve as points of experience on your resume. And the people who paid for the work can serve as references.

Work experience is a premium. If you had written me for advice a year ago, I would have said, go make inroads through internships or part-time jobs at companies that interest you. Then, when you graduate, it's far easier to transition into a full-time position at a company where you have already made yourself known.

You realize yourself that the lack of work experience will indeed be a hurdle. But understand that at the same time there are always companies looking for bright, young, educated people to come on board and help build a company. And in the long run, this degree you've worked hard for will prove itself an invaluable asset.


[Edgar Saadi's photo]

Edgar Saadi is senior vice president for Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the U.S. He specializes in guiding advanced systems careers and helping employees explore all staffing alternatives.

The career advice team can be reached at

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