Working In The UK: Strategies For International Readers

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You have secured your dream job in the UK, you have packed your suitcase, you have said goodbye to your loved ones, and once you have arrived (possibly on a rainy day) you ask yourself: “What am I doing? Have I made a mistake?”

Specifically in the UK, indications show escalating inflows of international academic staff, with the average number of academic vacancies being filled by non-UK citizens rising from 14% over the years of 2005/08 to 27.2% during 2013/14. If you are worried about the practicalities of moving and working in the UK, it is highly likely you are not the only one. It may be one of the hardest things you will ever have to do, so here is some advice to mentally prepare yourself before you step into the unknown UK workplace.

  1. Take a photo once you arrive. Research shows that international workers will vividly remember the first day of their arrival and will accept the new position with euphoric feelings (honeymoon stage). But the first few months are likely to be stressful. By capturing your first moments with your camera, you will have something to remind yourself; that you are experiencing something wonderful and unique. No matter how much it makes you want to cry, scream you are in that group of people with international work experience on their CVs!
  2. Join a social group. After the burst of initial excitement of arriving in the UK, loneliness and social/cultural differences may start to get to you. Sign up to your local (or workplace) gym, or find your new workplace’s social media and meet new people with common interests. People you meet in the first days of your arrival can have a major impact on your adjustment.
  3. Get rid of any stereotypes you imagine about the UK. We all grow up with certain preconceived notions about national stereotypes. Yes, Britons may love tea, pies and after-work drinks. But you may soon realise that your British colleagues are not always punctual, gentle and even that their accent is not always ‘posh’, so don’t rush to any conclusions.
  4. Language barriers. English may be one of the most popular languages in the world, but you may soon realise that British accents can be challenging to understand. Accents and dialects vary widely across the UK. The ‘Scouse’ accent, as spoken in Liverpool, may be tremendously different from ‘Geordie’, as spoken in Newcastle. It is important to understand the UK’s mannerisms. After all, you are the foreigner not them. Try to learn about the British way of life and their style of speaking and working. It will soon feel natural to you to start using ‘bloke’, ‘bloody’ and ‘quid’!
  5. Find a mentor. Or if you are not assigned to one, ask for one and ensure this is not just a name! Theoretically, the effectiveness of on-site mentoring for international people is attributed to the reduction of uncertainty about the new environment. Make sure you rely on your mentor to foreshadow some of the problems that you may encounter. Although the UK is a very cosmopolitan workplace, phenomena of hostility from xenophobic colleagues may occur. There may be times when you will be engaged in ‘worry work’ due to high workload demands or xenophobic attitudes and you will want to withdraw. Don’t worry! Research is again on your side, as despite challenges very few international people choose to give up at the end. International workers are characterised by strong resilience and determination. You are in the UK for a reason, and for you, there will always be ‘an escape route’. So, having a formal mentoring practice is essential in order to contribute to both your work-related and socio-cultural adjustment.
  6. Use your foreignness to become authentically involved in your workplace. Without trying to stop your efforts to ‘fit in’, you may also use your foreignness to feel more powerful and influential in guiding your professional lives. Being an international worker can provide your managers and colleagues with glimpses of different views and perspectives and can generate new ideas and ways of thinking. So instead of moaning about the workload pressure, try to use some distinctive elements of your culture to make your role unique and memorable. For example, Italians are loud, so why not create a shout-out campaign for your department. Or organise your department’s Christmas do, a la Italian, Scandinavian, Asian and so on?

*The article is based on a funded research by the Society of Research into Higher Education exploring experiences of international staff working in the UK.

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