Stories Taking a career break

A legal researcher’s travel-inspired decision to move to Zambia

This interview series tells the life-changing stories of people who have taken travel career breaks.

After graduating with a law degree in the UK, Sarah Gibbons didn’t follow the usual path. She worked and saved for 18 months to travel around the world, an experience that has inspired her to move to Zambia with her partner, Spencer. In this interview, she talks about how travel has influenced her career, adjusting to life in a new environment, and what the future may hold.

You took an extended travel break in your early 20s after university. Where did you go on the trip?

I started in South Africa, then went on to India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. I was away for about 18 months in the end, including a short stint of work while I was in Sydney to replenish my travel fund.

Sarah Gibbons at the Taj Mahal
Sarah travelled to India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand on her round-the-world trip

Why did you choose to travel instead of going straight into a job?

I’d fallen out of love with law, which I’d studied at university, needed a break and had no idea what I wanted to do other than explore a bit of the world.

I didn’t feel a need to rush into finding my ‘dream job’, if there is even such a thing. I’d done short holidays and always loved to travel, so it seemed like a good time and excuse to go on an adventure.

How did you finance the trip?

A huge help was being able to move back and live with my parents after graduating, which massively cut down on my living costs and gave me a great opportunity to save. I joined a recruitment agency that found me a job in customer service, where I was eventually made permanent.

As well as that nine-to-five job I worked at a supermarket one evening a week and on Sundays. Sometimes it was pretty rubbish. I dreaded Wednesdays when I’d work 8am-4pm then 6pm-midnight, but I knew it was only going to be for a short time, and I made great friends in both jobs.

I had originally planned to start my trip after a year, but I didn’t want to give up my social life and didn’t cut back on spending entirely – so it took 18 months in the end to save the amount I’d aimed at.

What did you get from the experience in terms of personal development?

A huge sense of independence and self confidence, and an enduring love for travel. I have never described myself as shy and actually really love meeting new people, but the navigating of new places was still an adventure and sometimes a bit exhausting.

A lot of people asked me if I was scared to travel on my own as a woman, which I wasn’t, and though I wasn’t naive about the risks, that question made me want to prove even more that it was possible.

Sarah on Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand's South Island during her round-the-world trip
Sarah on Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island during her round-the-world trip

What did you learn on your travels that you found to be beneficial in your career afterwards?

I learnt that I wanted to make my career include working and living abroad in some capacity, and I realised that I did want it to include law, even if when I got back I didn’t know immediately what that would look like.

I learnt that you can build networks and friends and a home anywhere if you want to, but also that there would always be that bit of home that I could go back to.

The types of jobs that I have ended up applying for since then often ask about country experience in their person specifications, as well as adapting to new environments, working in diverse teams and dealing with culture shock. My travels gave me examples I could draw on. I’ve felt confident that I could prove I could be adaptable, learn quickly and be independent.

Have you travelled a lot since, and how have you balanced that with your career?

Yes! And I constantly feel very lucky to be able to do so. The trips have become shorter, mostly fitting in with annual leave like most people.

When I got back from travelling I started a MA in international development at Sussex, where I met my boyfriend Spencer. He’s Canadian and hadn’t been to the UK or mainland Europe before, so we did a few weekends away during our studies. I also got to see more of the UK than I would have done had he not been keen to see more of the country.

After finishing our studies we stuck around in the UK (Brighton) for two years, and went on some wonderful holidays together, as well as with family and friends. After a couple of years, though, we both had itchy feet to make a more permanent move.

You are now living and working in Zambia. What inspired you to make this move?

Brighton wasn’t offering us the types of jobs either of us wanted in the longer term. The cost of living was getting higher and more of a struggle with charity sector salaries, it was getting harder for Spencer to stay in the UK after he left the job he hated, and we were both keen to live outside of the UK. So a lot of inspiration!

We picked five countries each that we would like to live in, narrowed it down again to a final five, and started looking for jobs. Of course it would have been way too fairytale if I said we then both got offered jobs in Zambia and here we are, but it didn’t happen like that at all!

Zambia actually wasn’t on either of our lists, but after a LOT of job applications Spencer was offered a great job here. It seemed too good of an opportunity not to take.

We made a trip together to check it out and so I could look around and put feelers out for work. I felt confident enough that I’d be able to find something, so went back to the UK and handed in my notice!

Sarah and Spencer at Victoria Falls, Zambia
Sarah and Spencer at Victoria Falls, Zambia

What work are you doing in Zambia?

I work as a researcher for a policy and research institute, in their legal team. It’s turned out to be a really great way of mixing my undergraduate in law and my MA in international development.

I work as a consultant on a number of research projects, mostly around issues to do with access to justice, like investigating the efficiency of the court system, but also broader human rights work like the legal right to nutrition in Zambia.

How have you found adjusting to life in a different environment to your home country?

Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where we live, felt like home very quickly, and figuring out how everything works and where to go all felt very much like part of the adventure.

We were lucky to know a couple of people that either lived here or put us in touch with people who did (another benefit of travelling and studying with people from all over the world!), but we also worked hard to get out here to meet new people and build up a social network.

I miss my friends and family back in the UK of course, and sometimes feel like I’m missing out on big life events, but it makes the reunions all the more lovely, and the internet makes keeping in touch pretty easy!

People call Lusaka a ‘soft landing’, and I’d say that it’s different but it’s not difficult. Some things are a bit of an adjustment, but in a way that challenges us to reflect on the things we’d taken for granted and the way we had been living before, which I think is important.

How do you see your career developing in the future?

We’ll be here in Lusaka for a couple more years and I’m looking forward to being involved in some really exciting and innovative projects here. After that the plan is to move again to a new country.

For both of us it has to be a move that is right for our careers and not just for the novelty of a new place, but we also haven’t figured out where we want to be long term, and even if settling in one place will ever be something we do.

Hopping around still feels very appealing! Law and access to justice crosses most borders, and so I feel that my work here will give me skills transferable to new contexts.

Do you intend to travel more?

Yes! We spent Christmas and new year in Ethiopia and Djibouti, which was incredible, and now that we’re here in Zambia we are in a great position to travel to other countries on the continent that are much closer and easier to get to, as well as within Zambia itself.

Again, we’re fitting it in with annual leave and maximising on national holidays and long weekends. It’s all incredibly exciting and a wonderful privilege.

2019 seems to be the year of weddings. I’m trying to make it to the four weddings of some close friends, which will take us to Pakistan, France, Ireland and the UK. These are a great excuse to catch up with friends and family, and convince them to come out for a visit!

Sarah and Spencer at the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia on a recent trip
Sarah and Spencer at the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia on a recent trip

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a travel break or moving abroad?

Do it! Wherever you call home now will always be there. If you don’t like it you haven’t failed at anything and you can always go back, but you will always wonder ‘what if’ if you don’t. There will be a million reasons why it might feel like the wrong time, but there isn’t a perfect time for anything.

I think it was Lewis Carroll who said that in the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have, and the decisions we waited too long to make. So don’t wait too long.


Further reading

Fancy a trip to Zambia yourself? Check out these amazing waterfalls in Zambia to whet your travel appetite.

You can read more of our interview features with inspiring people who have taken travel career breaks:

Interested in finding out more about the career gapping trend? Check out our article on what is a career gap, and our guide to making your career break travel a reality.

Do you have a story to tell about a transformational travel career break? We’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch on alex@careergappers.com.

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After graduating in law, Sarah Gibbons didn't follow the usual path. She saved for a round-the-world trip, which led to her decision to move to Zambia. #travel #careerbreak #careerchange #moveabroad #liveoverseas

16 comments

  1. A very inspiring read. I was trying to figure what all I can use from their life experiences’ and choices that I can use in my life to love what I do as a job and travel more. Also, I kind of relate to their move to Zambia. When I left Spain, everyone was like WHY? And I was like just unhappy and sick of being treated unequally. Moving to the First World is not always the answer, sometimes moving out of it, is.

  2. Great read. So wonderful that her break from work led her to moving abroad and experiencing living in another country and culture and making it all work. I always dreamed of living in different countries (did when I was younger) and yet life has found me grounded. I love learning about others that make it happen, so refreshing to hear.

  3. I love reading these interviews! After I graduate with my masters and work for a couple of years, I’d like to take a career break and possibly end up moving abroad. I definitely feel like taking a career break to travel would be beneficial in potential future careers since I’m pursuing my degree in global health!

  4. I truly enjoyed reading Sarah’s interview. I think that she made the right decision to save and travel the world to clarify her future career’s path and getting to know what she really wanted. I didn’t know that Zambia had such a welcoming capital but I am with her in believing that the more you travel and study with international people, the higher chance you have to easily adapt to a new continent thanks to global connection you are able to make along the way.

  5. I read this in your newsletter this morning U.S. time lol. Lucky Sarah nabbing a job she loves in a warm, beautiful and friendly city. Great discipline she had to work and save to go on her world trip and scaling that glacier or whatever that is??? Who was the idiot that said women were the weaker sex? Lol.

  6. What an awesome and positive adventure for them! This was so refreshing to hear how smooth things worked out for them being flexible to go with the flow and try something they weren’t expecting! I also love how you are offering not only travel insights on your blog, but how we can transition to living in new places! Cheers!

  7. I seriously love your interviews with people who have taken career gaps or gap years. Makes me feel like it should be required for everyone! So much to be learned about life when we take some time to travel and see the world.

  8. This is such a great read. I love the message of your blog. I decided to take a year off after uni to figure out my life (and to have something positive in my life since I couldn’t get a job I liked). I travelled for a year and loved it so much I’m doing it again this year! Career breaks are so important. Funny that she studied law and fell out of love wit hit, because I did too while travelling.

  9. I can relate on so many different things about how I felt after finishing university and travel was something that helped me in more ways I choose to admit! Taking a gap year/career break is so important for those of us that have restless souls and want to experience the world. Great article Alex, I enjoyed the way you told Sarah’s story!

  10. These days I have severe mood fluctuations due to some severe personal issues and many a times I thought of dropping out of research and set out to sail the world. These are dreams, and she is literally living her dreams. Inspiring. Hoping to get to that benchmark someday.

  11. This is very inspiring! My fiance and I are planning to take the big leap next year. We are taking sailing lessons this year and in 2020, right after our wedding, we are going to leave to sail on the Mediterranean 🙂

  12. Such a good interview and inspiring story! I did something similat just after finishing my degree, and I’ve never regreted it!:)

  13. Loved reading this interview, and such an inspirational story – I plan to move back abroad too in the near future, back to Asia. Zambia looks like such an interesting destination to visit to.

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