A Guide to Using Your Planning Skills Abroad

Interested in working abroad?

Narrow your search with these thoughtful questions from Ric Stephens, principal of Stephens Planning & Design LLC and immediate past president of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP).

Then, look at the question from the other side through the experiences of four foreign-born planners working in the U.S. who share what it took to find a job.

Questions for Your International Search

Who Would You Like to Work With/For?
  • Educational Institution: Join a university, institute, or college that has overseas programs.
  • Exchange Programs: Join an exchange program that matches planners between countries for extended periods. APA has organized exchange programs with the United Kingdom.
  • Grants: Obtain a grant for an international project or program.
  • International Contacts: Contract directly with an overseas organization to provide planning services.
  • NGO: Join a non-governmental organization that sends staff overseas.
  • Private Sector: Join a private firm that sends employees overseas. You will need to research companies that have overseas projects or offices.
  • Planning Organization: Join an international or multi-national organization that has international programs/events. ISOCARP, IFHP and INTA are some examples.
  • Public Sector: Join an agency that sends staff overseas. There are numerous agencies that have international staff: USAID, UNDP are some examples.
  • Independent Research: Study a topic overseas and publish or present findings and recommendations.
What Kind of Experience do You Wish to Have?
  • Do you wish to have a structured visit or full immersion?
  • Are your interests cultural or natural?
  • At what level do you wish to engage with international citizens?
Where Do You Wish to Work?
  • Do you wish to work in a developing or developed country?
  • Do you wish to work in a natural or urban environment?
  • Do you wish to work in a conflict or stable environment?
When Do You Want to Go and Return?
  • Select an approach that matches your commitment to stay in that country.
  • Determine visa and work permit requirements.
  • Balance overseas work with other commitments.
How Can You Prepare?
  • Refine and develop expertise/experience relevant to the overseas project/program.
  • Learn about the country/countries planning practices, culture, and language.
  • Network with your organization and overseas counterparts.
Why Do You Want to Go?

Your ability to make an international experience memorable and meaningful will be determined by how you answer these questions. If you are willing to invest the time, money and effort required, your experience can even be transforming.

Four Planners on Finding Work in the U.S.

Yuan Fang (Andy)

Senior Manager, CFLD (US) Inc.
Home country: China PR

First of all, it is definitely not easy to find a job remotely in a different country. My first suggestion will be not to look for the ultimate perfect job as your first step. A dream job takes time and effort to reach. So start with participating in international conventions/seminars/expos/projects to build up your network with the professionals in your destination country, then beg them to lead you into the door with an easy-to-enter job, or possibly a position as a fellow. Then gradually find your way towards your ideal career path.

Takafumi Inoue

Planner, Sasaki Associates, Inc
Home country: Japan

Think about what you can bring (= your leverage point), and differentiate yourself from other candidates

It is essential to differentiate yourself from other candidates when applying to the jobs. There are so many people with the same sort of skill sets in the market seeking the same position.

Think carefully about your strength including your personality/character with which you can leverage your professional career going forward. In my case, experiences at investment banking and real estate, and the real understanding of Japanese culture and society helped me to find an employment.

Concretely speaking, there are so many planners with experiences in policy making, community engagement, etc. However, I was one out of 40-50 classmates at Harvard GSD MUP program coming from a finance background. Every project needs money to be implemented, and it is important to have the understanding and capabilities to think about how to finance coordinating with a lot of stakeholders.

If you stand out by demonstrating your unique characteristics and strengths that other candidates neither have nor duplicate, the path to find employment in the U.S. would be much easier for you.

Please think about what each employer needs and pitch your added value to them.

Get an education in the U.S. and expand your network while studying

Ideally, it is strongly recommended to get higher education in the U.S. In my case, I attended the Master of Urban Planning program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

During my time at Harvard GSD, I had lots of opportunities not only to learn about urban planning but also to expand my network with professionals such as city officials, scholars, private companies, local communities, etc.

GSD's studio programs invite a lot of professionals as guest critics. Most of them are famous professionals leading the field of urban planning, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, real estate, and so forth.

This is one of the examples for you to demonstrate your capability as well as unique and innovative ideas. Additionally, physically living in the U.S. definitely helps you to understand the society in its local context. These understanding and experiences are critical. Even if it has become so easy to get information online, it is essential to understand what the problems are so that you can think of the real solutions.

I would not have been able to find employment if I had just stayed in Japan. The decision to come to the U.S. for my master degree and the network that I had established through my academic life really helped me to find the appropriate job. Needless to say, it was a fantastic two years, which provided me to make precious friends with aspirations to make a better world.

Thomas Nideroest

Landscape Designer, Sasaki
Home Country: Switzerland

Finding a job in the United States highly depends on the potential employer's overall philosophy, commitment to diversity and willingness to employ foreign talent. Generally, larger companies tend to have a higher willingness and need to attract talent from around the world, as their need for staff exceeds the U.S. market, or they are looking for staff with a specific language portfolio (depending on the company's market). Furthermore, larger companies tend to have a higher turnover and therefore are most likely always looking for talent. Being able to identify company's that have an international portfolio, a commitment to a diverse office culture, and are of a certain size will increase a candidates potential to land a job.

I have worked for three different companies during different levels of education here in the United States. What is crucial for a candidate to seek work in the United States is knowing the kind of visa he/she might be able to apply to. There are certain visa's that are easier to get as they are defined in time and role, and others require much more work. Here some examples from my past.

In 2009, I applied to work for Landscape Architect Peter Walker in Berkeley, California as a long-term intern. At the time, I was a 2nd year Bachelor Student at the HSR in Switzerland and wanted to expand my horizon by working for a distinguished landscape architect. At the time, my strategy was to take a one year break to increase my market value and potential to find a job once I return and graduate. Students have the advantage of obtaining a J1-Visa that is time-based. Meaning this particular visa will allow a foreign student to gain work experience in the U.S. via an exchange program and is usually sponsored by a local (in the students home country) organization in partnership with a U.S. organization.

Employing a long-term intern is quite profitable for a company, as their pay is lower and after 3-4 months, they get up to a professional level where they become true assets for a firm. Therefore, the potential to land a long-term internship position is quite high and the duration of the internship makes sense, as candidates will seamlessly continue their education upon returning to their home country.

Landing a full time job in the United States of America can be tricky, unless a candidates home country has favoring bilateral agreements such as the case of: Canada, Mexico (TN-Visa) and Australia (E3). In the other cases employing a foreign candidate can be difficult unless there is prove of need (work in the candidate's home country where he/she is needed as cultural and language expert), or prove of expertise.

After graduation, I worked in Switzerland as a Landscape Architect for 3 years, before deciding that I wanted to continue my academic career and do an advanced degree in Landscape Architecture. In the U.S., international students would mainly hold a J1 Visa or an F1 visa. These visas do allow you to work at the University and their affiliated institutions, but do not directly allow you to work for an office outside the academic circle. However, most universities have a summer class, that allows students to gain real-world experience and work for non-academic offices, with the premise to write an essay at the end of the summer. In my case, I was able to work for SurfaceDesign Inc. in San Francisco, California during the summer break of 2015.

After graduation from y master's program, students have the opportunity to gain work experience in the U.S. under the OPT-Visa. This visa is valid for 1 year and depending on the degree is eligible for "stem", which is valid for 3 years in total. Finding work right after graduation can be difficult as the market gets flooded with peers, competing for the same job. Again, a foreign candidate's best chances to land a job in which they might be sponsored to stay on are with a larger company with an international portfolio.

Smaller offices often welcome the talent for the one year being, as they do not have any additional paperwork or financial responsibilities, but often do not sponsor the following visas and if they do, they often seem to have less success in acquiring a visa as their need to employ a foreign candidate on paper may not be as solid in comparison to a larger company with international reputation.

In the fall of 2016, I started my job with Sasaki under the OPT visa. During this one year, it is important to establish a connection with the sponsoring office and make a case for why they should be sponsoring the next visa. After the first year, candidates typically apply for the H1B visa. This visa is capped in numbers and in recent years has most likely resulted in a lottery. Meaning a candidate's chances of receiving the H1B visa is as high as the number of people that apply for it. Unfortunately, Sasaki, that year did not get any visas in the field of Landscape Architecture and 6 people had to either find an alternative solution or leave the United States by the end of the OPT.

I was one of the candidates that did not receive the H1B visa and was required to stop working as of June 2017. Sasaki offered to sponsor an O-1 visa application process which otherwise would be quite a financial burden for a candidate itself. The O-1 visa is an Artist/ Specialist visa, valid for 3 years, requiring an in-depth application with no guarantee for approval. In my case, I teamed up with a New York City based lawyer (required for this stage of visa), who was able to make a very strong, 300-page application document, that after 6-8 months got approved. I re-joined Sasaki in February 2018 and continue to work under the O-1 visa until my 3-year visa is subject for renewal.

Working in the United States is a great experience and professional opportunities are exciting. I personally choose to stay in the U.S. as it would be very difficult to work on the kinds of projects I work now in Switzerland, or it would take a lot of personal effort to establish a similar practice there myself. As pointed out earlier, the relationship between being able to get a visa and finding an employer go hand-in-hand. Offices with a commitment to diversity and an international portfolio are often bigger in size and always in need of talent. However, working in the United States also comes with a sacrifice and many uncertainties that need to be evaluated on a very personal decision making level. Candidates need to question themselves on what their long-term strategy is. What they hope to gain from this work and living abroad experience. How long they may want to stay. And where they are in the career-path, before thinking about what the strategy of getting a job may be.

I hope my experience provides candidates with information on how to go about finding a job, and also about the duties and difficulties that may come with this experience. In either case, I encourage anyone eager to apply, as I believe this experience broadens one's mind and helps you to see the world in a slightly different way.

Ponnapa Prakkamakul

Associate, Sasaki
Home Country: Thailand

Currently, I am a landscape architect working at Sasaki in Watertown, Massachusetts. When I was a fresh graduate from Thailand, the process of sending my portfolio to multiple firms in the US to find an internship program intimidated me. The Thai cultural mindset dictates that you should apply to one job at a time and that you should not decline a job offer, simply because the design field in Thailand is very small. That, of course, is not a good strategy for finding jobs in the US.

I encourage anyone who is looking for job opportunities in the US to send your portfolio to many firms and to think of simply applying as an important stepping stone. You might not get an offer for your dream job in the first round of applying. However, the first job you land will provide critical professional training, an opportunity to practice interviewing and negotiating, and connections that later lead you to other jobs.

Learn More

Get tips on how international planners can find work in the U.S.

November 7, 2018

By Richard Stephens