This is not a tragic tale, though I should warn that some tears were shed along the way. This is the true story of trying to find a job in the US after having moved from a developing economy, with no previous experience working in English and, not surprisingly, no resident Visa. I will come back to that in a moment, but keep the Visa part in mind. I am in no position to lecture anyone about how to be successful, but I thought sharing the embarrassing, frustrating and funny moments might prevent others from making the same (sometimes stupid, I have to admit) mistakes. Stick around until the last paragraph and I promise it all ends well.
1- Reality is going to hit hard
First things first, let me say hi. I am an RC partner from Brazil. That is how I have gotten used to introducing myself since we arrived in August. Back home, though, I would never introduce myself as someone’s wife. I was a journalist, working at a magazine. It is weird when your job titles are gone. We kind of grow attached to them and feel lost without a description to fill the LinkedIn profile. Please, don’t get me wrong, moving to Cambridge was probably one of the most exciting things that I have ever experienced. As a partner, I felt very welcomed (love you section B!) and was lucky to join lectures, classes, and events that are open to everyone in the HBS community. But still… being unemployed was driving me crazy – the “Who am I? What am I doing with my life?” sort of paranoia. Here I was, meeting all these amazing people, and a voice in the back of my head kept whispering “they are all judging you”. Of course, no one was. Just me. And the craziest part of it- I didn’t even have my work permit yet.
Being a partner with a J2 Visa allows me to work in the US, as long as I pay a fee and request a work permit. The whole process took me less than two months, which meant that, by November, I was already looking for jobs.
2- HBS and Harvard offer many opportunities – however, there might be a “but”
Harvard has an amazing job search platform, if you are currently looking for a new position, you should try it. Whether you specialized in health or IT, had previous experience as a secretary or driver, you can find something there. In my case, I was excited about the idea of finding a position in communications, something quite challenging for a native-Portuguese-speaker in the US. It was a long-shot, but I figured I should give it a try, applying for journalistic and communications-related jobs before considering new areas. In two weeks, I got a reply and had an interview scheduled at HBS. I felt confident because the talk went really well (and I didn’t stammer, which is what happens when I am nervous and try to speak English). One week later, I got a phone call from my interviewer. She really liked me. She wanted to hire me, but… The head of the department where I would work was my husband’s professor and that, she explained, would create a conflict of interest. In my head, it made sense, but my heart broke anyway (this is the part with the big tears).
From this experience, though, came some very good insights. The first one is that, as a partner, I am vulnerable to those situations and that is no one’s fault. The second is that people at HBS are really understanding about your Visa status, which is not necessarily true for other companies…
3- The Visa issue is an issue
To go straight to the point: very few companies will even consider your application if you do not have a permanent/resident Visa or, for that matter, a Harvard MBA. There isn’t much you can do about it. At first, I thought all my applications were just ignored because maybe I lacked the necessary qualifications (the language barrier existed, and I knew). So I changed my strategy and applied for jobs that required minimum or no experience. Just as I was beginning to get discouraged again, I got a phone call that helped me realize what might be wrong. It was the head of HR at a company telling me they really liked my résumé, but wanted to clarify some details with a pre-interview. The first question: are you legally authorized to work in the US? (yeap! Next!). Second question: will you EVER need sponsorship for a work Visa? Oh … That is the million dollar question – and no matter how you try to sugarcoat your answer, if it is not a simple “no”, then its’ probably not good enough. (By the way, the interview ended after that question and I never heard back from the company).
4- LinkedIn – my BFF
I had never used LinkedIn for job searching. In fact, having worked in the same company since graduation, I had no job-searching experience whatsoever. Once I updated my LinkedIn profile and started using their search engine, I was impressed with the amount of opportunities. The algorithm, though, is not perfect, and you might have better results by tweaking some of the search terms every now and then. I now get a weekly email with job openings that match my profile much better than they did when I started. Most positions invite you to apply through the company’s website, but occasionally you get to apply through LinkedIn itself. After weeks of forms and cover letters, I felt relieved to be able to do it with one click. The problem is: I might have been a little naïve…
5- You can get scammed
This is the part where I sound really stupid. The job description mentioned a PR company, looking for people with little or no experience, to work in the Boston area. They had big clients in the sports and retail industry. Within two days of applying, I got an email telling me I had been chosen for a first round interview. The first strange sign- their address. “Boston area” was almost an overstatement. It was a two and a half hour public transit ride to get there in addition to a 30-minute walk. If I had a car, the commute would still have taken over 45 minutes with no traffic. A company in such a location could not do PR for the kind of clients it allegedly had – but, I told myself, perhaps they only dealt with some branches of those clients. I had seen that happen in Brazil before. Distance would not discourage me, I thought. On the day of the interview, I arrived at the address and got the first red flag – a nearly empty room, with little furniture and absolutely no sign that any kind of work was done there.
Things got even weirder when the manager called me in. He said I was really lucky to be considered for their program, as this was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to become “my own boss”. My face must have shown I had no idea what he was talking about, as at some point he asked what was wrong. When I mentioned having applied for a “communications position”, his answer was “everything we do here is communications”. Red flag number 2. He went on to explain how all their trainees would go through a series of interviews and, if approved, would start a program to help “communicate”(got it?) the message of their clients’ products to future customers. It’s what they called PR one-on-one: I would work at a large retail chain, approaching people and offering them good deals. He pointed to a large map of the US hanging on the wall and explained the company had over 10 000 offices (yes, thousand) over the country and that, if I completed the training, I could open my own office and work for myself as a “communicator”. I was so speechless that I just nodded at his questions for the next five minutes until he congratulated me for being approved for the next round of training. It took me a while to realize I had been scammed. Luckily, the meeting didn’t come to the point where he would tell me the cost of this “amazing opportunity”. Back at my apartment, I started thinking that I should really approach this whole job-searching thing in a different way.
6- At some point, you might have to rethink your priorities
Basically, I realized that if I kept trying the same thing over and over, time would fly (as it does at HBS…) and I could miss the opportunity of having any work experience here. Besides, if I was willing to take entry-level positions in communications, why not consider other areas where I would have to “start over” anyway? Why not use the time I had to improve my English talking to people in a different environment? With that in mind, I printed ten resumes and ten cover letters (stating that I was willing to work hard and learn) and walked around Harvard Square looking for “we need help” signs. Two days later, I got a phone call and started my training as hostess at a restaurant.
7- Take advantage of what you can do for yourself
Another thing I realized as soon as I moved to the US was that there was a lot I could do as a freelancer. For example, I’ve been writing as a Boston-correspondent for various media outlets in Brazil. As a journalist, this seems like an obvious option, but what most people do not realize is that you can freelance in many areas. One of my friends here, who used to work in the healthcare industry in her country, took a job as freelancer developing lecture materials for doctors at a large pharmaceutical company. Coming from a corporate position, we tend to limit our options, but there are many opportunities for applying your skills, and not all of them involve office work. I would also recommend trying Glassdoor, another job search platform. Their search engine is much better at displaying results when searching for a specific qualification. For example: if I look up for “Portuguese”, there are many more results related to positions that require Portuguese than there are on LinkedIn. I’ve seen many opportunities at hospitals, clinics, or even consumer goods companies, asking for fluent Portuguese speakers to deal with patients or customers. I believe that might be true for other languages as well.
As for me, working at the restaurant has been an eye opening experience. My colleague on the weekend shifts is an amazing girl who is majoring in both Japanese and English. She told me about all these classes that I have never heard of before and I decided to apply for a course. There is no guarantee I am going to be accepted, but I try to focus on what I have learned so far. Besides all the above, I now feel so much more confident communicating in English (less stammering, more understanding of jokes) that I have even written this piece for The Harbus. I guess that officially means I have been published in English. Maybe the next reasonable step should be to put that on my resume, highlighting Harvard in bold letters, to see what happens.
Paula Rothman could tell you how she is a 29-year-old journalist from Brazil and HBS Partner from Section B who loves traveling, dogs, sushi and meeting people. But her headshot displaying her love for cookies tells you more about her personality than anything else.
Established in 1937, The Harbus News Corporation is the independent student news publisher of Harvard Business School.