International work: the glamour and the reality

photo by Prayitno via Flickr

photo by Prayitno via Flickr

My first international assignment was in Damascus, Syria, in 2008. I went on behalf of Liverpool John Moores University and they made most of the arrangements. I was teaching qualitative research methods to postgraduate doctors. The journey and the first day were terrifying, but overall it was an amazing, worthwhile experience. I’m so glad I was able to experience a little of that beautiful country before it was torn apart by war. And by sheer luck my experience was quite glamorous. The Centre for Strategic Health Studies, where I was teaching, had a flat in Damascus where they accommodated international teachers. There were four single bedrooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen, a bit like student housing. And there was no air-conditioning, just a couple of sleepy fans. But when I arrived, all four bedrooms were full, so they had to put me up in a hotel, which turned out to be the Sheraton. Result! Aircon, swimming pool, room service… I’d never stayed anywhere so posh in my life, and I loved the luxury.

My second international assignment is this coming autumn in Calgary, Canada. Of course Canada is very different from Syria: politics, weather, level of freedom, food – pretty much everything. But this trip is also different because I am making the arrangements myself. I’ll be teaching postgrads at the University of Calgary and at Mount Royal University, and practitioners for the library service, as well as giving a keynote speech at a conference. That’s a whole lot of organising to do. I didn’t factor this in to my costs – a useful learning point for me!

I know another freelance writer and teacher who works internationally and charges £3,000 per day, with no discounts under any circumstances, not even for charity. I’m beginning to understand why. There is a huge amount of preparation, you lose days to jet lag, and there is also, inevitably, follow-up work. If you work independently, and don’t factor this into your costs, it all has to be done in your own time.

For each teaching assignment I need to know a whole bunch of stuff. How many people do you expect? What are their subjects/professions? What level are they? What is the teaching room like? Is this a stand-alone session or e.g. part of a wider module? If the latter, can I have details please?

I need to know these things so I can deliver a session which is appropriately pitched and focused. If I’m doing a half-day on creative research methods, the content may be similar, but the event will look very different if it’s a stand-alone session for 80 mid-career practitioners in a lecture theatre than if it’s part of a research methods module for 10 first-year doctoral students in a classroom.

Then there are all the bookings: flights, internal travel, accommodation, all of which needs to be reasonably priced as I’m being paid from public money. And there are the arrangements to meet up with people. PowerPoint presentations to create. And the emails! Oh, the emails!! Everything from ‘can you provide a reading for the students?’ (I expect so) to ‘can I take you out to dinner while you’re here?’ (yes indeedy!). These emails have been flying back and forth for weeks now, and it’s still three months till I go. And sometimes I need to speak to people; I had a 40-minute call with one woman last week, and I’m sure there will be other calls and Skype chats in the coming months.

I hope you don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m truly not. I’m excited about going to Calgary, it’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m looking forward to the trip. But I didn’t quite realise how much unpaid work I was taking on, alongside the paid work. As a result, I am going to need to rethink my charging structure for next time – though I won’t be charging anywhere near £3,000 per day.

Many people, I know, are envious of my luck in landing this Calgary gig. I feel lucky, and grateful for the opportunity. I’m sure there will be moments of glamour. But honestly, most of it is, and will be, hard graft.

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