From University to Employment: Perfectionism in International Students Living in the United States

By Terah Davis & Thommi Lawson

Over the past few decades, much of the research focusing on international students and their matriculation through higher education (Lin & Scherz, 2014; Olivas & Li, 2006; Andrade, 2006; Lay & Safdar, 2003; Crockett & Hays, 2011; Pinder, 2012; Thurber & Walton, 2012; Cantwell, 2015; Musumba, Jin, & Mjelde, 2011; Yih-Jiun & Edwin, 2004) tends to focus on the following five areas:

  1. Acculturation and adjustment issues
  2. Lack of cultural knowledge and peer and faculty support
  3. Family and homesickness
  4. Financial issues
  5. Career concerns

No research has yet focused on the role of perfectionism in the lives of international students who study and have a desire to work in the United States.

The United States remains the leading host to international college students worldwide (Van Hook, 2012) with global enrollment in postsecondary education forecasted to reach 160 million by 2025. After earning post-secondary degrees and obtaining training in the U.S., many international students lack the opportunity to obtain temporary or permanent employment post-graduation in the same country in which they trained (Malos, 2012; The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2010). Davis (2017) conducted a study and asked students “how do you describe your most significant barrier?” to which some responses were:

“No job is willing to sponsor me…”
“Companies seem to not value my worth or potential, rather [see me as] an inconvenience…”
“I found that most potential employers do not want to move forward with an interview once they learned of my status as an international student…”

While the college experience in itself can contribute to the onset of depression and anxiety-related symptoms (Gall, Evans, & Bellerose, 2000) due to transitions and adaptations involving new social, academic, and financial demands, life after graduation may incite higher levels of anxiety for some international students. Many may feel pressure to establish successful careers in the U.S. to receive a return on their academic investments. Lack of job opportunities can lead to financial, emotional, and often physical burdens (Johnson, 2009; NAFSA, 2006; Saminathan, 2012; USCIS, 2016).

Examining Barriers to Employment Success for Internationals

Research has shown there is a dire need for mental health and career counselors to increase their understanding of the specific barriers to employment this population faces (Yang, Wong, Hwang, & Heppner, 2002). In the Barriers to Employment Success Inventory, Liptak (2011) outlines seven key barriers to employment, including:

  • Emotional and physical barriers
  • Career decision-making and planning barriers
  • Job-seeking knowledge barriers.

These three barriers closely align with areas in which international students may display perfectionistic characteristics. Those who have unrealistic expectations and are inflexible may have a hard time adopting valuable job-seeking practices.


Kearns et. al. (2008) define perfectionism as setting unreasonably high standards for one’s own performance. Adaptive perfectionism is characterized by setting high goals and personal standards and striving for the rewards associated with achievement while retaining the ability to be satisfied with one’s performance (Enns, Cox, & Clara, 2002). Maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by the setting of inflexible and/or unattainably high standards, the inability to take pleasure in one’s performance, and uncertainty or anxiety about one’s capabilities (Enns et al., 2002).

Substantial research has been conducted to determine how perfectionism contributes to depression and anxiety-related symptoms. Maladaptive perfectionism has been linked to negative psychological outcomes (Hewitt, Flett, Turnbull-Donovan, & Mikail, 1991; Kawamura, Hunt, Frost, & DiBartolo, 2001). Hewitt et al. (1991) found a positive relationship between perfectionism and depression. Kawamura et al. (2001) found an association between perfectionism and anxiety.

Considerations for Career Counselors

Overcoming emotional and physical barriers to achieve employment success can be highly stressful. Winegardner, Simonetti, and Nykodym (1984) emphasize five stages unemployed individuals go through that parallel experiences of severe emotional trauma, including denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When working with international students during this challenging phase, it is important to educate them on the impact of stress. Be sure to include psychoeducation that addresses depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-care, including appropriate referrals to other campus offices like the Counseling Center or Student Health.

Below are three key practice recommendations for career counselors to consider when working with international students:

Assess – While perfectionism may not be the obvious presenting concern, consider assessing for levels of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism at the onset of services. The stress of conducting a job search can negatively impact one’s mental and physical health. Including an assessment tool like the Almost Perfect Scale-R (Slaney, Rice, Mobley, Trippi, & Ashby, 2001) in initial assessments may help counselors predict what treatment modalities might be beneficial in the career counseling process.
Engage – Encourage active engagement in full-cycle recruitment strategies with corporations, building partnerships between the college career center, counseling center, and department chairs.
Advocate – Address the barriers to employment for international students by being their voice in meetings and influencing change where possible.

Landing a position after pursuing and earning a degree is the next step for most college graduates—including international students—who anticipate a return on their financial and emotional investment. For international students, it is more challenging. To help mitigate some of the physical and emotional barriers they may face approaching graduation; it is highly recommended to connect with international students at least 90-180 days before degree completion and well before the job application phase.



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Terah DavisTerah L. Davis, PhD, LPC, NCC is an Associate Professor and the Department Chair of Behavioral Sciences at Cincinnati Christian University. Her research agenda and publications focus on improving the academic and functional outcomes of international students within higher education. She aims to integrate multicultural experiences into higher education and ultimately the counseling experience. Terah was recently nominated for the 2017 Outstanding Adjunct Faculty Award by Mercer University. She has published and presented in the areas of multicultural education, millennial conflict resolution, and counseling immigrant and nonimmigrant students. Terah received her PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision from Mercer University- Atlanta. She has also studied in the Netherlands, Bahamas, Florida, and Georgia. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Georgia and a Nationally Certified Counselor. She is an active member of the National Career Development Association and North Central Association of Counselor Educators and Supervisors. Terah can be contacted at davis.terah@gmail.com.


Thommi LawsonThommi Odom Lawson, PhD, LPC, NCC, ACS, BC-TMH is a core faculty member at Webster University – Myrtle Beach. Her research agenda focuses on improving the academic and psychosocial outcomes of nontraditional post-secondary students and aims to reform service delivery models that attract, support, and retain nontraditional students to achieve academic success. Thommi was recently nominated for Kemper Excellence in Teaching Award at Webster University. In 2016, she was awarded the Outstanding Professional Contribution to Knowledge Award by the Georgia College Counseling Association. She has published and presented in the areas of multicultural counseling, career counseling, and online counseling and supervision. Thommi earned her doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision at Mercer University – Atlanta. Thommi can be contacted at thommilawson@gmail.com.


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1 Comment

Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 04/02/2019 at 11:42 AM

Thanks for the excellent article. Maladaptive perfectionism is dangerous and can lead to suicide. This is common place in some cultures. It is important for career counselors to recognize its symptoms and help people address this issue. As you mention, culturally aware mental health services can be very important in this process.

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