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Education Abroad – Leads to Significant Gains in 11 of 15 critical 21st Century Workplace Skills

IIE today announced a new study that demonstrates links between international educational experience and the critical skills needed for employment in today’s workforce. The study shows that studying abroad for longer periods of time has a high impact on subsequent job offers and career advancement as well as the development of foreign language and communication skills.

Of the 15 skills surveyed, the largest portion of respondents reported developing a broad range of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal skills to a significant degree through study abroad, namely: intercultural skills, curiosity, flexibility & adaptability, confidence, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, communication, problem solving, language, tolerance for ambiguity, and course or major-related knowledge. Teamwork, leadership, and work ethic were also reportedly developed or improved, but less significantly. The only skill area that was not developed or improved through study abroad was technical or software skills, with respondents largely noting that these skills were mostly developed through the academic programs on their home campus and were not a focus of their study abroad programs.

Study abroad expands career possibilities. Studying abroad gave interviewees both a broader understanding of career possibilities, and the confidence to pursue these career paths. The survey data and the information gleaned from interviews suggest that studying abroad had unintended benefits in terms of not only developing skills and shifting attitudes, but also opening career pathways and opportunities that had been either previously unknown or simply unconsidered. It also helped participants feel more ambitious and less tentative in their careers, in addition to opening up unanticipated career pathways.

The skills gained through study abroad have a long-term impact on career progression and promotion. More than half of survey respondents reported that they believe their study abroad experience contributed to a job offer at some point. It is notable that almost half felt that study abroad did not contribute to a job offer or were not sure. These findings are not surprising, given that others have noted a disconnect in both students and employers linking skill gains to study abroad (Thompson, 2004). However, interviewees that talked about having career prospects in mind when choosing to study abroad were better able to articulate both the skill development and career impact they gained through the experience. Furthermore, among interviewees who were not sure or who did not believe that studying abroad contributed to a job offer, most still believe that the skills gained through study abroad had proven relevant and useful throughout their careers, particularly as they were promoted to management-level positions where communication, interpersonal skills, and the ability to understand and work with difference were key criteria for promotion.

Longer periods of study abroad have a high impact on subsequent job offers and the development of most skills. Short term programs are most effective at developing teamwork skills. The strongest impact of length on skill development was seen in foreign language (r=0.35, p<0.01) and communication (r=0.22, p<0.01) skills. Among alumni who studied abroad for one academic year, 68 percent reported study abroad contributing to a job offer at some point, compared to just 43 percent of alumni who went abroad for fewer than eight weeks. At the same time, teamwork was more highly developed through short term programs, which tend to be more structured and team oriented than longer term programs where students might pursue more independent experiences.

STEM majors highly value the gains made in skills outside of their majors during study abroad. Physical and Life Science was the only major field in which studying abroad outside of one’s major was common; it was more popular for science majors to go on a program with either an interdisciplinary/general (28 percent) or foreign language (24 percent) focus than a science focus (21 percent). Science majors that went on a program outside of the sciences mostly reported their study abroad contributed to a job offer (47 percent), whereas those who went on a science focused experience mostly reported not being sure if the experience contributed to a job offer (48 percent), and only 28 percent reported it contributing to a job offer. STEM majors described academic programs at home as more insular and viewed study abroad as an opportunity to gain “soft” skills that others in their field lack.

Choosing a less familiar destination was positively associated with skill development and sense of career impact.

Interviewees who described wanting to choose a “different” location, often meaning a country or region they had not previously visited or a location they viewed as less traveled or culturally similar to the United States, were more likely to describe a clear impact on skill development and career utility.

Student intentionality and highly structured programs contribute to skill development. Having career prospects in mind prior to choosing to study abroad had an overall positive impact on the ability of those interviewed to articulate their skill development and the impact it had on their career.

These respondents were also much more likely to have studied abroad in more highly structured programs. Participating in highly structured study abroad programs, particularly those that incorporated group projects and activities, emerged as a common factor among those reporting significant gains in collaborative, interpersonal, teamwork, and leadership skills during their study abroad.


Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at IIE Study Shows That Studying Abroad Has a Direct Impact on Skills Needed for Career Success


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