How to get a job in comparative and international education

How do I get a job? That’s one of the most frequent questions from students applying to or new to the Comparative and International Education (CIE) program as well as from students about to graduate or just graduated from the program. Granted many of our masters students go on for doctoral degree programs (we have a great one at Lehigh), but many go into the world of professional work as well.

shutterstock_2028847_crop380wThe CIE community attracts people from all backgrounds and interests. For example, potential students may include government officials and education policymakers, research/policy institute social scientists, and program officers as well as school teachers and administrators from the United States and internationally. We also have a lot of students come into our graduate program right out of a bachelors degree. Some CIE graduates will either return to or move into school positions including classroom teaching, administrative leadership, or other school staff positions. Yet, in addition to traditional school settings, CIE students at Lehigh and in programs worldwide come from and move upon graduation into careers in government offices, ministries of education, and international development organizations, including:

Of course, there are also careers at universities and policy centers that focus on research. University jobs are often advertised on sites like the Chronicle of Higher Education jobs website, but research and policy institutes cast a wide net for CIE-educated and -trained professionals as well. CIE-relevant research and policy institutes include some of the NGOs listed above (e.g., AIR), but others are less development project-oriented and more research and policy-oriented. Those institutes that fall into the latter category include:

Comparative and international education is also a competitive area in the for-profit world, although you will have to come head-to-head with a lot of MBAs, economists, and engineers if you want to work for an international consulting firm like McKinsey & Co., Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.), Boston Consulting Group, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (aka, PwC), and others. These groups do education-related consulting worldwide (frequently related to strategy and implementation planning), and although their politics and approach are often the target of harsh criticism and cynicism among the CIE scholarly crowd, at some point more people with real knowledge and vision for education in context have to get in there and work with them. Could be you. It will be a business-oriented environment, though, so if you have an education-heavy CV, MBA-heavy consulting agencies like these might overlook you. The kinds of projects these consulting agencies work on, however, are fascinating and almost always large in scope (and budget) and nationally important — so if you like that sort of work a consulting position with one of these agencies could be exactly what you’re looking for.

But, what is the key to getting a job at one of these organizations, institutes, centers, agencies, or universities? The answer may be more simple that you expect: (1) be qualified, (2) get experience, (3) show productivity, (4) be a good colleague, and (5) be mobile. If you can do each of these, you have a better chance than most of getting the job you’re applying for and transitioning into a career as a scholar and/or professional in CIE. Let’s explore what each of these characteristics mean, though:

1. Be Qualified: Quite simply the certificate or degree you hold is often the first (and sometimes the only) thing that matters to recruiters and HR managers. So, make sure the certificate or degree you are earning means something in the “real world”. I don’t mean that your degree in the ancient languages of beetles isn’t worth anything, and I’m not making a human capital argument (so calm down about that). I am, however, suggesting that your certificate or degree has to be meaningful to the people you want to hire you. For example, if I have a certificate in TESOL, I am not qualified to work as an education economist at the World Bank. That should be clear. However, if you have a degree in comparative and international education and you want to move into the world of project management in international educational development, consider incorporating a PMI certificate or an international development in education certificate into your degree plans. Or, if you are thinking about moving into a career in academia that will require you to teach at a university or college, you should consider participating in a teacher development program that is offered at your college or university. It could be the difference in the combination of qualifications you’ve pursued that makes you stand out to a recruiter.

2. Get Experience: Experience in your target career can mean many things. CIE professionals (a) teach or run training workshops, (b) do research (and publish that research), (c) write or influence education policy, and (d) propose grants to fund what they or their parent organizations do. They also do a host of other things that are (e) more administrative or organization-specific and are often learned through on-the-job experience (i.e., internships) rather than coursework. So, if you are trying to get experience that you can put on your CV and talk about with people hiring for positions you’re interested in, then do one (or even better, all) of these 5 things to get experience.

(a) Teaching or training is often the bread and butter of CIE professionals. We tend to have a lot to say (!), and there are almost always needs for more or new information and training. So, teaching and training are mainstays of getting a job in CIE. The goal is to be able to document and demonstrate that you are both experienced in teaching/training and can effectively teach or train groups in the knowledge or skills that others wish to fund. Becoming a teacher and effective trainer means that you need to be comfortable speaking in public. In fact, you need to feel comfortable taking control of a group of people and be confident that you are the expert in the room that everyone should listen to. This isn’t just some psychological pep rally, though. You *really* need to be an expert in the area that you are teaching or doing training in. Begin by building on what you already know. If you come out of the classroom and have experience as a classroom teacher, you are an expert more than many other people about what teacher-student relations are like, about the pressures and constraints that teachers face on a daily basis, and many other things. Be able to articulate that. Next, make an outline of what a 2-day training workshop might look like, and specify which target audience you would work with. Finally, get some experience teaching or training. This can be volunteer at first, but being able to document it and provide real examples of what you taught or trained others to do is crucial.

(b) Doing research should be the most obvious if you are working your way through a CIE degree program. Your professors and colleagues at the university are all engaged in research of some sort. Work with them. Volunteer to be part of research groups. Turn literally everything you write as part of graduate school into something that is either published or publishable. It is increasingly rare to find graduate students in masters and doctoral programs in CIE who have not published at least one (or 5 or 10) research article(s) either collaboratively with a professor or independently in a peer-reviewed journal or volume series. Ask around, pay attention to the research opportunities in your program or college, and get published. And, if the senior faculty in your program happen to also be the editors of major peer-reviewed publications (e.g., FIRE: Forum for International Research in Education or International Perspectives on Education and Society), then volunteer to work as an editorial assistant. It is valuable and priceless experience in what it takes to do research, write it up, get it peer reviewed, and finally publish it.

(c) Education policymaking is frequently the target for research and publishing in which professors as well as professionals engage. What’s the point of doing research and getting it published if it doesn’t influence change (and hopefully improvement) in education both locally and worldwide? Influencing education policy, however, isn’t as much about research design and valid results (which are very important) as it is about communication. In fact, it’s mostly about communication. Communicating evidence-based ideas and research to those with the decision-making power is what it’s all about. And, sometimes, showing policymakers what is possible by actually starting a project or program that you believe in is the best way to communicate. Communicating your research or evidence in a way that aligns with policymakers’ agendas is key as well. If all of the education policymakers are interested in STEM, and you publish a bunch of stuff on culture, they’re not going to pay attention. If you publish in the CER, you may have just secured a position as an assistant professor somewhere, but the economists at the World Bank aren’t reading your stuff. It’s just a bunch of academics reading those types of publications. Get your work published or disseminated in digestible forms in front of your key audience: education policymakers. Of course, blogs and op-ed pieces are good for this, but so are scholarly journals that cater to MBAs, economists, and engineers (those folks working for the consulting agencies mentioned earlier). You can also communicate with policymakers very directly — i.e., directly to their faces. This is when you want to seriously consider how important internships at ministries of education and government education departments are. These examples will all give experience and help you develop communication skills as well as actually communicate in ways that facilitate change in education policy through evidence-based decision-making. The trick is to find and do something that is both interesting to you, and easily communicated as a policy initiative or new evidence for decision-makers.

(d) Grant writing and, more importantly, winning grants will get you hired very quickly. Those who know how to find and secure funding for projects are in high demand. But, it’s not an easy job. Find ways to become involved in the grant writing process and which provide you with actual experience writing real, submitted-to-funding-agency grants. This can be through coursework at your university (e.g., CIE 407), but it is even more likely to be done as part of a research team formed outside of the classroom by one of your professors or fellow students. Let’s face it — the ability to write grants is a highly marketable skill, especially in the academic field of comparative and international education and the professional field of international development and education. There is a constant and growing need for non-profit groups and other organizations or institutions you will probably work either with or for to find additional financial support. Do yourself a favor, while you are a CIE student do whatever you can to learn the basics of grant writing, including needs assessment, identifying potential funding sources, creating goals, and identifying assessment plans. Then write a grant proposal and submit it. At the best, you are funded! At the worst, you can put on your CV that you applied for a grant from an agency or funding organization and were ‘not funded’. It’s better than nothing at all, and shows that you have what it takes to prepare, write and submit a major grant proposal.

(e) Doing an internship. It will probably be unpaid, so prepare yourself for that. Getting real-world, hands-on experience in the kinds of agencies, organizations, and institutions that you will end up working in as a career often starts with a volunteer internship. So, know that you will have the opportunity to do it, and that you will live below the poverty level for a while when you do it. Look, it’s not always like this, and some people do get paid internships or low-level paid positions that work just as well (or better). But, for the majority of those interested in working in CIE, the internship is going to be non-paid. But, what it lacks in pay, it often makes up for in networking and experience. The perspective of someone who has working for the UN (as an intern or some other entry-level position) is VASTLY different than someone who has read books and taken courses on the UN. The connections and network of someone who has interned at AIR is VASTLY different that someone who went home and worked as a waiter or stayed on campus and worked as a library assistant over the summer. Do an internship.

3. Show Productivity. The key to making yourself marketable in CIE (and in every field, quite frankly) is showing that you can actually do something. In other words, is there an observable and measurable outcome to your work that contributes to solving a problem, puts new information and knowledge out in the world, or results in changes in process or decision-making? If you can show that what you do has an impact, then you are on your way to a career in CIE. So, how do you show that you are productive? It’s more than just listing your GPA and anticipated degree date. What did you actually *do* while you were in the CIE program, and how does that show that you are ready to work for the institution or organization that is hiring? Did you serve on any committees that either decided, organized, or managed something? If so, make that clear. Don’t just say that you were a member of the regional conference planning committee, tell and show those who are hiring what you actually did. Did your membership in that committee result in the largest attendance on record? Then, mention it. Did you work on a research project resulting in a publication? Then tell what you published, why it is important, and who you expect is reading your research. Be specific about your outcomes, and don’t let recruiters assume what you did. Show what you did and the impact it had.

4. Be a Good Colleague. Getting a job is more than just “serving your time” in a degree program, and counting up publications or other outputs. If you are a difficult or high-maintenance person, or can’t get along with your colleagues and peers, then you are going to have a hard time getting (and definitely a hard time keeping) a job. Show that you are a team player by emphasizing how you collaborated with your colleagues on a research project. Provide examples and evidence of how you helped or took the lead on a project either for school or as part of your work/internship outside of academia. Be able to describe or demonstrate why you are a good person to work with and contribute as much as or more than you take from a team or group that you work with. This is the least tangible part of preparing yourself for getting a job, but I guarantee you that when I or anyone else writes a recommendation or has a phone conversation with the recruiter about you – this is going to be one of the main questions they ask me to answer. So, be a good colleague, and be a respectful leader. Even if you disagree with someone (or a group of someones), learn how to disagree respectfully and intelligently. How you treat others still matters.

5. Be Mobile. It’s not called comparative and international education for nothing. The CIE professional who wants to live in one place all the time and never leave is doomed to have much trouble finding (and even more trouble keeping) a job. How do you compare internationally? By going out and being in often very poor and very different parts of the world. You may find a job where you crunch numbers that are collected by a large agency and are only required to travel to conference venues in large hotels, but if that’s all you wanted to do then why are you in this field? Get out there. Take a risk. Get used to traveling. Pick a frequent flyer program and stick with it (trust me, the points really do add up and get you stuff…I recommend Lufthansa). Learn or use your second and third language, and eat things that you thought would make you throw up a year ago. This is the adventure part of the career, and it’s totally worth it. If you can show recruiters that you already have lived or worked in more than one location worldwide (and haven’t just hopped from job-to-job), you will be even more marketable. If you’ve lived your whole life in one place and have never been anywhere before, my recommendation is simple. Get a passport, find a language or study program (Lehigh has one with the University of Tuebingen in Germany), short-term volunteer work, or funded research project that requires someone to go collect data (Lehigh has a partnership with Caring for Cambodia), and do it. You won’t know what CIE really is until you have personally been both comparative and international.

Finally, if you want even better advice on how to get a job and make a career in education, there are many other websites and sources of information you should check out. One of my favorites is the following blog (which I originally found through the Stanford University School of Education EdCareers newsletter):

There are more places to find great information about getting a job in CIE out there, so take a look, and remember that as John Dewey said, education is not preparation for future life, education IS life. So, start your life right now, while you are a CIE student, and get going on doing the four things I outlined above and whatever else it is that you have a passion for. That’s the real fun I’ve discovered about working in CIE…it’s not just my job or my career…it’s my LIFE.

How to choose a theory in comparative and international education

[cryout-pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]“Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.” [/cryout-pullquote]This quote has been attributed to the famous German philosopher and educational theorist, Immanuel Kant. And, although it may not be a direct quote, it is an extremely valuable pronouncement regarding the relationship between theory and practice (aka, experience). So, it is with Kant’s paraphrased sentiment that I begin a discussion of the importance and categories of theory in comparative and international education (CIE) and how to choose a theory to frame your research.

Just like I am often asked at the beginning and end of a student’s graduate program in CIE about how to get a job in comparative and international education, I am constantly asked about theories relevant to comparative and international education by those same students at every stage in between. The surprising fact is that most students don’t really understand the relevance or importance of theory intuitively; it often must be explained. As a result, this post is an attempt to summarize what I tell students about theory, experience, and what my reading recommendations often are.

I would like to note right at the beginning that theory in CIE is still a highly contested area, and mine aren’t the only or necessarily the best recommendations about theory in CIE. However, I have a few things going for me. I’ve spent two decades working in and with education both as an educator (at every level except primary), as a teacher trainer (both in the US and abroad), and as a research scholar (both of CIE and of education more broadly). I also have spent a significant amount of time living and working internationally as a classroom teacher (JET) and a frequent collaborator or consultant for governments, schools, and education institutes worldwide. Finally, I have been fortunate to have the chance to publish scholarly work on theoretical approaches to comparative and international education, which have enjoyed a relatively wide readership. So, I know these experiences don’t necessarily qualify me to be the final word on theory in CIE, but I think it gives me some credibility. Of course, you be the judge.

Don’t Work Blindly (AKA, Why Theory is Important)

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter. Experience without theory is blind. In other words, do more with your theories that fish around for some (any) match that you can find. Have a reason for using a particular theory. Pick a direction in which you want to head. Care about what you are doing with your theory/ies. In short, theory is important because (1) it eases and clarifies understanding, both of what is and is not supported by evidence.  (2) Theory means that you are doing more than guessing; you are using your senses, reasoning faculty, and experiences to ask and answer important questions. Using theory, by the way, doesn’t always mean you are right about something, but it does mean that you have some idea what is going on – or at least you think you do. (3) Theory helps to organize your own thinking and present your ideas about particular phenomena in a systematic and understandable way to your colleagues and peers. So, (4) theory increases the potential for meaningful communication. But, theories can be wrong. They can be wrong, just because they are blatantly wrong or silly (like my theory that the
sky is blue because it supports the Glasgow Rangers football club
). They can be wrong because they are used inappropriately (like trying to explain the answer to a micro-level phenomenon with a macro-level theory). But, most importantly, theories can be wrong because the evidence doesn’t support them. Frankly, this is the most frequently occurring and most important mistake CIE (and all) researchers make when they try to frame a phenomenon with some sort of theoretical explanation. But, it is also one of the easiest to avoid.

Do More Than Play Around (AKA, Why Experience is Important)

Theory without experience is mere intellectual play. In other words, tossing around theories without linking them to experience is childish – not because it is carefree and spontaneous, but because it is irresponsible and immature. These are harsh words, perhaps, and, yes, theories are tricky (partly because it is possible to be wrong), but it cannot be stressed enough that theories demand evidence. You have to provide evidence that supports a theory, and that can be independently verified by other researchers under the same conditions, or your theory may stink. This means that most reasonable theories are right some of the time, but also are wrong some of the time. Why? Because theories separate reality into consumable chunks. It is impossible to account for every experience, situation, phenomenon, etc., so theories are sometimes wrong. Hear me loud and clear…there is no ‘correct’ universal theory. ALL theories are subject to being wrong at some point. Anyone who doesn’t understand this ironic maxim is deluding themselves, in my opinion. The one universal principle is that there are no universal theories. Let that one sink in before you move on.
When you do move on, however, come back to the main point about how to choose a theory: THEORIES DEMAND EVIDENCE. Yes, I did just yell at you using all caps. Sorry, but this point is so important. The evidence can be quantitative (and since most CIE quantitative data is a product of scaling, you should be familiar with that concept), qualitative, indirect or secondary analysis, or a combination, but it must be reliable and valid. And, you must figure out how broadly you can generalize your findings. This brings us more to a discussion on methodology (which CIE also largely borrows from social science disciplines), so we’ll avoid that conversation for now, but you must have (or at least be trying to find) reliable and valid evidence to either support or not support your theory. So, if you are trying to choose a theory to use in comparative and international education, what are the “how-to” steps so far:

1. Recognize that theories are contestable, so not everyone is going to agree with you…and that’s okay.

2. Recognize why you are framing your research with a theory (e.g., clarify understanding of a phenomenon, ground thinking in experience, systematically organize your thoughts, meaningful communication with others).

3. Accept the fact that your theory might be wrong after you’ve looked at the evidence (and know you should have some alternative theories as well).

4. Articulate how your theory can be tested with real evidence. If it can’t be tested with evidence, then it is a philosophy or an ideology and not a theory.

Which Theories are for CIE?

Well, here we are presented with a dilemma. In short, there are too many to list them all here. There are some scholars, like Rolland G. Paulston, who have attempted to map all of the different theoretical perspectives and approaches to comparative and international education research. A copy of one such map is reproduced below from page 104 in Paulston, R. G. (1993). Mapping Discourse in Comparative Education Texts. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 23(2), 101-114.

I still vividly remember the day in class, when I was a master’s student in international comparative education, and our class was having a discussion about theories in CIE. Our professor handed out a copy of Paulston’s map for us to discuss, and I literally started laughing (quietly, of course). My response was definitely juvenile, but it was more out of frustration and a recognition of the absurdity of the many, many variations in theory rather than because I didn’t respect Paulston’s work. I certainly respect his effort, and you can find a thorough mapping of the social cartography of CIE theory/research here:

Others have followed in Paulston’s footsteps to try to broadly summarize theories in CIE that seem relevant or are used in published research. For example, some edited volumes are:

The problem is that none of these attempts have addressed all of the possible theories for explaining comparative and international education phenomena. Instead, more often, there is an attempt to summarize research in comparative and international education from specific theoretical perspectives. Some examples include,

Of course, I still haven’t answered the question about which theories are best for comparative and international education research and scholarship. That’s simply because there is no overall best theory or even a best theoretical family. Of course, social science theories are often more relevant to education than theories from other disciplines, and within the world of social science my personal preference is for classical macro-sociological theories – in other words, theories that build on the work of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber (full disclosure: I lean mostly toward Weber’s work). For a good summary of each there are MANY different sources you can turn to. One of my favorite, written in language that is readable, but that still covers all of the bases is this web essay (linked here).

So, in our quest to know “how-to” choose a theory in comparative and international education, we now have three more steps:

5. Read widely in the field of CIE, and examine the ways that theory is used. Note what you think is a theory (i.e., can be supported or examined using evidence) and what isn’t (i.e., is a philosophy or ideology instead), and among those that are theories decide which you think explain phenomena that you are interested in well and which don’t. Lean towards theories that work well for you and your research questions.

6. Once you’ve found a general trend in the kinds of theories that work well for you and your research questions, get to know the theoretical family tree. In other words, where did this theory (or group of theories start)? It is probably somewhere in the world of social science, so investigate. Look through review essays about the theories. Scan reference lists for the classic theoretical texts that seem to be cited more than others, find those, and read them.

7. Adopt a theoretical framework. This doesn’t mean it becomes your religion or dogma, and it doesn’t mean that you only limit yourself to that one framework. What it means is that you work through certain types of research questions or phenomena with a set of questions you consistently ask, or constructs you consistently consider. In other words, you adopt a theoretical framework so that you can be systematic. Maybe you go through your mental theoretical checklist and none of the boxes are ticked…okay, move on to another theory or another framework, or combine your current framework with some other complementary theory. The idea is, though, that you are specializing. If you try to be all things to all phenomena (or people), your research will suffer, your work will be sloppy, and your conclusions or finding will be weak. Adopt a theoretical framework, and be reasonable with it.

In my own experience, when I got to the stage when I was able to do these last three steps, I found a sociological theory that seemed to answer all of the questions that I wanted to ask. It isn’t perfect, and it is constantly being challenged and changed, but I would be remiss if I did not emphasize institutional and specifically neo-institutional theory and how it relates to comparative and international education.

Neo-institutional theory has been the target of some critiques in CIE lately, and I’ve been able to contribute some responses to these critiques – although obliquely so as not to “set fire to my own house” so to speak. Yet, for macro-level or cross-nationally-comparative research questions that involve slow change (i.e., isomorphism), modeling or scripting (i.e., policy borrowing), issues of legitimization (i.e., power issues), explaining cultural phenomena (i.e., world society), and mismatch between policy and practice (i.e., loose coupling), I personally find that neo-institutional theory is very useful. Of course, you remember that I said at the beginning that no theory is universal, and so there are many comparative and international education phenomena that neo-institutional theory can’t handle. That’s not a secret. But, reading something for yourself is probably the best way to learn if a theory really works for you or not. Rather than start with the work of sociologist, John W. Meyer, there are some more recent chapters and articles about neo-institutional theory that are a good start for the budding comparativist of education. I recommend starting with the following:

Once you read these three more recent overviews of the theory, comb through the reference lists and see which articles and books are cited across all three. Those are likely to be the classic works on neo-institutional theory. Write them down, find them and read them, too.  Use a highlighter; write comments in the margins (or on post-it notes, if you checked the book out from the library). Then start thinking about whether these are the kinds of frameworks and conceptualizations that would help you answer the research questions you like to ask about comparative and international education phenomena. If they do, then great. You’ve hit upon something. If they don’t, no worries. Go back to the summary/edited volumes I listed earlier in this post and look for the comparative and international education theorists who do make sense for your questions and your perspective. You may find that many work, or that some are better for some of your questions than others. That’s part of the beauty of theory. There is no right combination, and you will find that the possibilities that do work are many.

And, of course, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I would very much like for you to please read my work on the topic of neo-institutional theory and comparative and international education research:

  • Wiseman, A. W., Astiz, M. F., & Baker, D. P. (2013). Comparative Education Research Framed by Neo-Institutional Theory: A Review of Diverse Approaches and Conflicting Assumptions. Compare: A Journal of International and Comparative Education. Available online here:
  • Wiseman, A. W., Astiz, M. F., & Baker, D. P. (2013). Globalization and Comparative Education Research: Misconceptions and Applications of Neo-Institutional Theory. Journal of Supranational Policies of Education, 1, 31-52. Available online here:
  • Wiseman, A. W. (2010). The Institutionalization of a Global Educational Community: The Impact of Imposition, Invitation and Innovation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Orbis Scholae, 4(2), 21-40. Available online here:

So, don’t be afraid of theory and conflict among scholars about which theories are best or worst for CIE. The fact of the matter is that there is room for most theories. Education, especially comparative and international education, is diverse enough and integrated enough in society, politics, economics, psychology, history, biology, and just about everything else you can think of that you’ll find the best conceptual fit sooner or later. My last reminder to you is this: Don’t confuse theory with ideology. I know it is tempting, and there is a whole literature on institutions and ideology when you are ready, but for now just read, think, and use the theories that help you understand the phenomena. That’s really what it’s all about after all, isn’t it?