Julia Richardson, professor of organizational behaviour in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies’ School of Administrative Studies, breaks new ground with her research on international careers in her book The Independent Expatriate: Academics Abroad. Most literature on working internationally tends to focus on managers and corporate executives being sent abroad as part of their role in a business or organization. Richardson’s research is one of the first to focus on a group of faculty who have decided to pursue their careers abroad on their own independent initiative.
Right: Julia Richardson
The book delves into the professional and personal experiences of British expatriate academics working in New Zealand, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey. It offers an in-depth exploration of what it’s like to be an expatriate, moving beyond the typical "how-to" guide, to consider issues such as why someone might become an expatriate in the first place, how the opportunity to do so comes up, what it’s like being away from family, feeling like an outsider, the impact on one’s career and thoughts about returning home.
As part of her research, Richardson conducted one hour in-depth interviews with expatriate academics with the specific aim of allowing them to “speak in their own voices” – in other words to express their thoughts and feelings freely and openly and to choose those parts of their experiences that were especially important to them. Along the way she made a few unexpected discoveries. Richardson learned that many individuals took their careers abroad more for the experience than they did for professional development. For these individuals, wanting to have "an adventure" far exceeded career advancement as a motive to go overseas. The book also describes how many of the single females she interviewed felt that having an international career was an entirely liberating experience that provided important career opportunities as well as their fill of adventure.
“I expected there to be a practical outcome to my research – that it would be a great resource for those in the field – but I was surprised by how much the participants opened up in the interviews about how their experience impacted them personally,” says Richardson. “The insights in the book are valuable for anyone thinking about pursuing an international career as well as those who are already overseas but who wish to better understand their own experiences.”
An expatriate herself, Richardson originally left the United Kingdom for a teaching career overseas. Bursting with the same sense of adventure she later was to discover in her research, she ended up travelling to work in Japan, Indonesia and Singapore. Later, she lived in New Zealand (attracted to the outdoors lifestyle) and finally, she came to Canada, this time looking for stability and the opportunity to further develop her career. She says that writing the book became very personal experience since she had the opportunity to talk to people who had lives very similar to her own.
“My reasons for expatriating changed as I changed,” says Richardson. “But it was that original sense of adventure, that desire to add a different dimension to my life, that led me to where I am today. We often have such a narrow view of our careers and what is possible – finish school, get a job, stay in that job, stay in one country – that we fail to recognize the value in experiencing something totally new. In fact, those new experiences can greatly enhance one’s career as well as contribute significantly to personal growth. Talking to the people in the study as well as people I have met during my own travels has somehow validated my own career choices and general life ambitions.”
Richardson’s book has inspired two other research projects. The first one she conducted with two other colleagues at York on international faculty working at Canadian universities. They discovered that the "search for adventure" was also a common motivator for beoming an expat, along with career development and a good lifestyle for their families. The outcomes of this research were shared recently in a publication about the importance of providing international faculty with support when they come to Canada.
The second project, funded by $40,455 in funding from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, concentrates on Canadian mining engineers and geologists working in Australia and the UAE. This project takes a different focus because Richardson, along with partner and colleague Steve McKenna and an international team of collaborators from Curtin University in Australia and the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, will look at why a large number of Canadians in these professions are seeking jobs outside of Canada and how Canada might later benefit from their international experience and, hopefully entice them to return home.