How Backpacking And Volunteering Can Help Your Career.

volunteer nursing abroad

Volunteering on your gap year is a noble and amazing thing to do, providing it is done responsibly of course, but it can also do wonders for you CV too and have a positive effect on your career. So for anyone worrying that taking time out to travel will harm their future career, you may find the answer here.

It is no secret that the world’s economy is in serious trouble right now, and the recession has hit many of us really hard. Times are especially tough for new or recent graduates struggling to find or build a career in a decimated jobs market, where taking a year out to go backpacking around the world or taking an extended holiday and blowing all of your savings seems like the exact antithesis of common sense.

With few jobs available and plenty of highly qualified competition hungry for work and competing for the few jobs available, why would anyone hurt their prospects by backpacking and lazing around a bunch of islands in the Andaman Sea for a year? It sounds like career suicide, right?

Well not quite.

I get the fear, I do. The job market is tough. Whether you are a skilled or unskilled labourer or a qualified professional, it can be hard finding work.

Even for those who have found a job or are lucky enough to be in a dream career, the fear is still very real. There is a perception that they have worked hard to make what little career progress they have and they must cling to that dream job all costs.

There is often a general feeling that if they do anything to jeopardize it—including taking extended time off—they will stall their progress up the ladder, or maybe even fall off the ladder altogether.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

In reality, the recession is fueling the gap year travel sector, especially among young professionals. Over the past decade or so, long gap years—or serial, shorter “snap years”—have been on the rise. The recession seems to have shifted the momentum up a few gears and kicked it into hyperdrive, making students and young professionals one of the biggest contributors to the gap year industry.

Among those recession-era gap year travelers are many who, unfortunately, lost their jobs or careers as the recession hit. But instead of staying at home, struggling to find new jobs and praying for economic recovery, many have taken matters into their own hands and turned their stalled professional lives into positive experiences.

And travel is just about as positive as you can get.

So how exactly does taking a gap year or going on an extended backpacking trip around the world benefit you?

You may be finding it hard in a minimum wage job and are wanting to move up the ladder but can’t with a lack of opportunity or training. You may have just graduated from uni and are struggling to find work or get your foot onto the career ladder you have chosen, or your job may be gone or stagnant as your career sector crashes and burns.

Whatever struggles you are having with your job or career, a gap year can help you.

Remember that times will change. At some point the economy will recover and jobs will become available.

Everything in life is cyclical, and at some point you will want to return to your career and the world of work (reluctantly maybe, but still), and when that time arrives you will want to be in the best possible position to take advantage of your renewed career choices.

While you may not believe it, backpacking can actually be a huge boost to your CV—and your professional future—if you spin it right.

Some of the world’s biggest employers are increasingly viewing backpacking as a viable and useful pursuit. Some are even offering flexible working conditions to take into account employees dreams of travel, and many universities are now even offering course credit for time spent on a gap year.

Potential employers really are starting to come round to the common held truth that backpackers gain a range of tangible and intangible benefits on the road that make them more valuable employees.

Waxing lyrical on multiculturalism and travel-enhanced communication skills gained through years of travel is one thing, soft skills are all well and good after all, but backpacking can also result in tangible skills to list on a CV.

I’m talking about volunteering.

I want to make it clear here that I am not referring to the type of “voluntourism” that involves you paying vast sums of money to an irresponsible for-profit company and offers no measurable benefit to the local community. Paying thousands of pounds to dig a ditch in the middle of nowhere will benefit no one. Many of these voluntourism industries actually cause more harm than good, and benefit no one but their shareholders.

If, however, you do your homework thoroughly beforehand and are engaging in true volunteer work or helping out a real charity or NGO, then you can tailor that experience into a unique advantage when you apply for jobs back home.

If you had a forced career break or took a long sabbatical because the company was in financial trouble, then you will, inevitably, be asked in a future job interview what you did during that time. Explaining that you spent some time doing some volunteer work will never be considered a bad thing in an interview, but if you state very clearly what you learned, how you improve yourself or gained specific skills during that time volunteering then you will score serious brownie points, and if you can couple that experience with a great story about a rural village in remote Africa, or the time those damned macaques ran off with your sandals in Southeast Asia (Never happened to me honest! Ahem!) Then at the very least you will make yourself memorable. And that never hurts, right?

Just make sure you skip past the boasts that you spent a month sipping mango juice and lying in a hammock on a tropical beach or that you spent a few months island-hopping to the next party or festival!

The volunteering experience matters most if it relates to your chosen career field. This way you can list your time spent backpacking and volunteering as an actual position rather than leaving that time period blank. For example, if your field is animal conservation or veterinary medicine, time spent volunteering in an animal sanctuary or charity abroad looks great on a CV. How about a few cooking courses in Thailand or India if you want to be a chef or work as a cook? Are you a teacher or planning to retrain as one? Then getting your TEFL qualification and getting experience teaching English abroad counts as a big plus in any interview.

It may strike some as mercenary to use volunteer work in this way, but it’s really all about turning a negative into a positive. It’s about taking all of these tangible and intangible benefits backpacking can give you and using them to help yourself find a job or move up the career ladder when you return to the world of work. There is nothing wrong with that.

Jungle Trekking in Malaysian Borneo

My own volunteering experience hasn’t always related to my field. I am a charge nurse in my working life. I have spent periods of time volunteering as a medic on various expeditions through jungle, desert, mountain and volcanic terrain in numerous countries, gaining experience and knowledge in a range of travel, jungle and mountain medicine in the process. Career advancement wasn’t my primary motivation for volunteering of course. (My motivation was usually just limited to a simple question: Do I want to go into that jungle/desert/up that mountain? Erm, hell yes!) But listing “Expedition Medic” on my CV has certainly helped me move up the career ladder.

But volunteering has done much more than give me a memorable CV entry. It has also allowed me to indulge some of my passions, including animal protection and conservation, and do a lot of good in the process. While these interests don’t specifically relate to my chosen career, I can still list them on my CV as strong character pieces. I can also use them to attest to soft skills, such as communication, teaching and development, time management, and organizational skills that many employers prize.

Bemused Backpacker Website (2)

But what if you don’t want volunteering to drive your travel experience? What if you just want to travel? Well that is all good too, and you can still use it to help you get a good, or even better job than you would have done otherwise, when you get back home. Whether or not you offer your time to charitable organizations, 6 or 12 months spent travelling the world give you an opportunity to show your extensive international background and cultural fluency. Not to mention the vital communication skills most businesses require.

Time spent trying to learn a foreign language (however badly you may have mangled it) can always be spun as a big professional asset.

Management or administration skills? What do you think you were doing when you planned and organized a round-the-world trip, saving and budgeting, untangling visa issues, currency and other logistical challenges?

These are just some of the soft skills that backpacking gives you almost by osmosis.

Backpacking does change you: It makes you a better person, a more balanced person. Backpacking increases your knowledge and skill sets—and it boosts your wisdom and understanding. You will come back from your travels not only with more education, qualifications and work experience—but also with a wealth of world and life experience too.

Volunteering abroad can be an amazing experience. If you connect with people and organizations that are making a difference, you can make a lasting impact upon a community.

When you arrive back to the world of work and corporate ladder climbing, you will find that backpacking has helped your career prospects immeasurably. If you spin it right. And while you’re at it, you will enrich your own life beyond anything you ever expected.

What do you think? Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or please join in the discussion on my Facebook or Twitter pages on this important topic, and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons and spread the word.

If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Related Articldes

 Spotlight On BAWA, Volunteering In Bali.

Study, Work, Career And Gap Years, The Middle Way.

What Type Of Volunteer Are You?

What You Need To Consider Before Volunteering On Your Gap Year.

Why Employers Need To Be More Open Minded About Annual Leave.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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7 comments on “How Backpacking And Volunteering Can Help Your Career.
  1. The Blond travels says:

    Agree. Volunteering is really helpful and great way to gain experience. Backpacking itself gives you so much more than just extended holidays. You learn how to communicate with others, how to patient, how to navigate in unknown places. Everyone should go backpacking at least once in their lifetime.

  2. Tom Gosschalk says:

    totally agree… the challenge is tracking down these organisations who don’t want your $$$! Even established house hold name organisations ask for 3000$ for 1 week of community work in South Africa… incredible!

    • Exactly, it can be difficult. That is why I think it is so important to know exactly what to look for and what to watch out for. I often find that the best places I have worked with have been ones which I have found on the ground whilst travelling in a country.

  3. Roxanne says:

    I have a dream and a plan to start a voluntourism business that is affordable, beneficial to the traveller and the local community. Bemused backpackers articles are offering great guidance to me. Thank you

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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