“….I practiced interviewing by … failing a series of interviews before the one I had with my current firm. While one should avoid this counter-effective or costly practice, I have to say that fighting a real fight is a quick way to improve. Each time I failed, I did improve considerably….”
My name is Linh Ngo. Currently, I am working as a graduate architect at Hoch Associates, a mid-size architectural firm that has branches in Indiana and Ohio. It was lucky for me to find a job here with a super nice boss and very good employee benefits. My design job is very interesting as well since I have been exposed to diverse types of projects, and granted with relatively more freedom than in other bigger firms that I have been in contact. It took me a long way to get to this position, and sometimes the road got quite bumpy. However, I have consistently been determined, hard-working, and also, enjoyed generous support from family and friends. There was luck at times but without the above mentioned factors, luck definitely would not have knocked at my door.
I had my Bachelor in Architecture in Vietnam back in 2006 and have had various working experience in the construction industry before going to the U.S. in Fall 2013 for my Master’s degree in Architecture. As scheduled in my program, I had to start reaching out for internship opportunities as soon as November 2013, which was right in my first semester, to do a required internship in Spring 2014. Though I was able to get interviews from a couple of firms with my diversified portfolio and work experience, I failed at all of those places due to my lack of experience in communicating with the recruiters and presenting myself in a persuasive way. I know this was significantly attributed to my limited English proficiency and unfamiliarity with American professional etiquette. Not until mid-Spring 2014 was I able to secure an architectural intern position for summer 2014. The internship went on fabulously, and by the end of it, I was offered a full time position upon graduation. The firm also promised to support me in the H-1B visa petition. I graduated last May, and have just started my job for a few weeks after a month of vacation.
As I went over the process again, I have withdrawn some tips that I hope might be helpful for international students who are looking for full-time employment in the US. Here we go:
1. Be organized:
As an international student, you will face challenges from not only several culture shocks, heavy coursework, communication barriers, but also from the time frame of your program and the limited two months upon graduation for finding a job. That means you will always have more things on your plate than you can normally handle with the given amount of time. Therefore, being ORGANIZED is a crucial principle in executing all of your enormous workload including schoolwork, acculturation, adaptation, socialization and preparation for important professional events such as career fairs. By “Organized” I mean you need to balance your time spent on different aspects of your academic life instead of just focusing too much on one aspect and neglecting others.
I did not learn this lesson until I missed some important vocational events, as I had focused too much on studying in my first semester.
For students who are coming to the US for a one to two year Master’s degree, being organized is even more important since you cannot afford missing opportunities. Your best bet is to find an internship for the summer of the first year. Then with that internship, you will be able to demonstrate your qualifications and dedication to the recruiters, and convince them that you are worthy of their investment for a working visa. For one year degree pursuers, your schedule is very tight. You had better start looking for job as soon as you arrive in the US. This first summer is the only chance to initiate your job. It is much harder to negotiate for a full-time position immediately, and the firms might want to give you a 3 to 6 month internship to see how things go first. You have to look around for your best available option. For two year degree pursuers, without the first summer job, you lose a chance to strengthen your profile and put yourself at the risk of being unable to secure a job before your time in US runs out in the next hiring season. Plus, without any chance to show off, you have no ground to negotiate salary if you are lucky enough to find one.
2. Be well-prepared:
Do practice interviewing at home, so that you can be more fluent communicating in the actual interviews and leave the recruiters with positive impression about your confidence and good interpersonal skill. Even if the interviewers are interested in you or your CV, they will constantly give you different types of questions to see if you would fit in their operation, system and office culture or not. You have to ensure them about that. I practiced interviewing by … failing a series of interviews before the one I had with my current firm. While one should avoid this counter-effective or costly practice, I have to say that fighting a real fight is a quick way to improve. Each time I failed, I did improve considerably. So, always review and withdraw experiences in your previous interviews to perform better in the next ones.
3. Be strategic on building up your CV/skill sets,
I think it is also important to build up some hard skills in your area/industry to make you (and your CV) stand out of the crowd. For me, in my architecture field, it is computer graphic. For others, it could be coding, knowledge of a professional software, or an accounting certificate, etc… Chances are you will be chosen for that specific skill. A recent article on entrepreneur.com states that US employers are looking for hard skills over soft skills, and that despite the current high unemployment rate, there still are 4.8 millions of jobs unfilled due to skill gaps.
In order to hone your skills, I would like to call your attention to exploiting all the resources that are available on the Internet. In this ever-changing world of technology, there are so many things that one can self-teach. It can be from a YouTube tutorial channel, an online course at Lynda.com, or an elective in your curriculum. Be thoughtful! This also helps a great deal when you have to talk about your professional knowledge in the interviews and show how tech-savvy you are in finding working instruments as well as building up the needed skills.
4. Be passionate and work hard:
Needless to say, this is the key to unlock the door of employment for you, the door that all of your aforementioned efforts lead to. Writers of other stories have all addressed this, and I can’t stress this enough. Generally speaking, Americans are hardworking. If you like a peaceful and low paced life, the US might not be a place for you. And, as an intern, you should not just work to meet your boss’ expectation but to (over)exceed it. During my intern, I worked 10 ~ 12 hours per day and voluntarily worked at most weekends. That was how I proved to my boss that my passion is not by lip service.
5. On job search:
While I do appreciate the power of social/professional networks and the opportunities budding up from this means of communication, I did not find my job through those. All the employment opportunities that I had came from my college’s career fairs which were created out of our broad and strong alumni network. This kind of opportunity is relatively popular to students at my college and a good number of students have been able to turn them into internship/full-time offers. On the college side, we have the requirement of doing internship in the curriculum. Therefore, the advice I have here is: If one plans to study in the US and to work after graduation, an internship or co-op requirement in the curriculum is a big factor that you should take into consideration. Normally, programs with that requirement are backed up by a strong professional network.
One final note, which appears unrelated to the job hunt but actually is very related due to my personal experience: You had better have a driving license before going to the US. It takes time to study and practice to get the driver’s license in the US, and you might be too busy to get it before you need it. I live in the state of Indiana where one has to wait 6 months after the day they have their learner’s permit (i.e.: passing the knowledge test) to take the driving test. But if you already have a driving license from your home country, those 6 months could be shortened to two weeks. I think other states have similar policy as well.
I did not have a driving license in Vietnam and because of my busy coursework (and my unstrategic schedule), I was unable to get it by the time I had interviews to go to. Although I was lucky to have people give me rides, I could not ask for their favor all the time and in a convenient manner. It was also due to my shortage of transportation that I decided to give up applying to places that were so far for me to get to. If only I had had a license to drive a rent car to wherever and whenever I wanted to! You may think about public transportation, but it will entail more inconvenient arrangements and extra costs (hotel, cab, etc.) than you would think of.
Being able to get a job in the US is a great achievement; however, it is only the start of a new (and eventful) chapter in one’s career/life. If one wants to remain working in the US, the next step is the H-1B working visa, and there are more steps to go after that. Be organized and be ambitious, you will be able to shoot you targets one by one. Life is a journey with challenging but amazing rides. Enjoy your journey and best of luck!