You wanted to do something different and off the beaten path after college so you decided to teach English abroad. Your plan was to spend a year in South Korea working at a language school while paying off some debt. It sounded both fun and practical and would be a pleasant way to spend time until you returned to your home country for a “real” job. What surprised you several months into your contract is how much you liked teaching. Not only that, but you found that you were pretty good at it. You love language, have good organizational skills, are patient, and enjoy helping others. So you continue for another year, this time in Eastern Europe and then another year in Central America. There are numerous jobs open to you as a native English speaker with a degree and a TESOL certificate but you find that after teaching at language schools all over the world, university teaching and administrative jobs now beckon to you. You want to experience all that the ESL field has to offer. But then you also find that your degree and TESOL certificate are not quite enough.
While a Bachelor’s Degree and a TESOL certificate makes you qualified for countless ESL teaching positions in countries all over the world, higher paying university teaching and administrative positions often require advanced degrees such as a Master’s Degree or a PhD.
Teaching ESL overseas with a Master’s Degree or greater
In the field of education perhaps more than in many fields, advanced diplomas and certificates mean a great deal. In this day of quality control, educational institutions are pressured to hire highly qualified candidates and need proof that potential employees have a solid grounding in theoretical knowledge that will inform their teaching practices. The ESL field, which is becoming more popular by the day, is also getting more crowded and thus more competitive; more qualifications are needed to distinguish a teacher from the large pool of applicants. A decade or two of teaching experience will impress potential employers, but it may still be difficult to get the best jobs without at least a master’s degree.
Which graduate degree you should get depends somewhat on what area of the ESL field you want to pursue. To teach at a college or university, Applied Linguistics and TESOL are obvious choices but Education is also good, albeit less specialized for the ESL field. A degree in English literature is less desirable, as it will not equip you as well for the classroom. Degrees earned in a classroom setting also carry more clout than online degrees and are required for some positions. Nevertheless, returning home and enrolling in a residential graduate program is not always feasible, and I have known teachers with online graduate degrees who have never had trouble finding work.
In addition to college and university teaching jobs, a graduate degree can help you to move into other education-related jobs. If you want to go into administration, you can study Educational Administration and, for example, become the director of a college or university ESL program. A woman I know, after teaching middle school for many years, got a degree in educational administration and then became a principal at a school in Turkey. Another possibility is managing a private language school. The latter would be a natural move after having lived in a particular culture for a while; you would need to know the culture and some of the local language to advertise and deal effectively with customers. With a graduate degree you can also move into research. A PhD is not always necessary for a professorship but tenured positions for foreigners can be hard to come by. Finally, there are jobs in writing and publishing. I know a poet who, after teaching in South Korea for many years (and starting a family there with a Korean woman), got a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing through a low-residency MFA program in the US and now works as a translator of Korean poetry into English.
Travel and find your dream job
As you can see, the ESL field offers many possibilities for satisfying, long-term careers. Why, then, does Teaching English Abroad have a reputation for being less than a real job, as simply a fun (but temporary) opportunity to explore the world rather than a viable career option? This may be because so many teachers have only a college degree, or a degree plus a TESOL certificate. While a one-year contract at a language school can indeed afford you an amazing gap-year experience after you graduate from college, and while you can certainly explore the world with your Oxford Seminars TESOL certificate, you can also, with more advanced qualifications, become a professor, a director of studies, or a writer/translator. So consider pursuing an advanced education degree and in addition to exploring the world, you can have the job of your dreams as well.
Written by Catherine Kelley
Catherine Kelley taught overseas for a total of twelve years in five countries—South Korea, Thailand, China, Egypt and Oman. Although currently settled in California and teaching ESL at the Yasuda Center at CSUSB and teaching for Oxford Seminars, she hopes to travel to India and southern Africa someday. She has master’s degrees in creative writing and English composition/applied linguistics.