Faculty Life Abroad in Unusual Places

The international academic job market for Ph.D.’s is bigger than just Britain, Australia, and Canada. Should you give it a shot?

Creative Commons

September 22, 2014

Fall is here, which means graduate students and early-career scholars are about to enter another brutal job-market cycle. Many of us are facing difficult financial and family choices. Where am I willing to move, and how far? Should I take more visiting positions? Can I afford another year or two of adjuncting? Some of us are even wondering whether academe is still a viable career option at all.

Given the tenure-track market, many Ph.D.’s are considering nonacademic careers more seriously than ever. However, there is another option, one that doesn’t involve leaving academe: Teach abroad, particularly in the developing world. The international academic job market is bigger than just Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, or the occasional postdoctoral fellowship in northern Europe or Japan.

Some Western universities—particularly British and American—have begun opening branch campuses, founding colleges, or licensing programs in places like China, Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. But anyone watching academic job listings in the usual places over the past several years will have observed a steadily increasing trickle of postdoctoral and permanent vacancies in those countries at local higher-education institutions rather than just at branch campuses of Western ones.

Despite the increased opportunities overseas, the possibility of working in such places has thus far been strikingly absent from most discussions of career options for American and British Ph.D.’s. As a result, job seekers willing to consider such moves have been left to their own devices with very little guidance available.

  • Careers in Academe

    In this issue, you'll find practical guidance on managing your digital identity as an academic, getting published, becoming an effective dean, and more.

With this piece, we hope to begin remedying that. As early-career academics who have spent time working outside North American and Western European universities, we come by this topic honestly. We hope to spark a discussion of the sort that might have been useful to us a few years back when we found ourselves accepting offers of full-time academic positions at prominent Russian universities after completing a Ph.D. in history and humanities at Stanford University (Christopher) and one in sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Sandy).

As a job seeker, you should, of course, try to make contact with people currently employed at the foreign university you want to apply to. All we can do here is focus on the big picture (such as we know it), laying out some of the opportunities that come with starting your post-Ph.D. career abroad along with some of the pitfalls. Perhaps this column will encourage other academic expats who have had experiences different from ours to come out of the woodwork. Every university, country, and city will have its own peculiarities, advantages, and disadvantages.

Working abroad may be an especially good choice for those who want a research-focused academic career. Teaching loads overseas can be relatively light, and salaries are substantially higher than typical adjunct pay here. Money for research projects or to attend conferences is often available to those who are willing to ask for it. The reason: Some institutions in developing countries, often prompted by their governments, are turning to international job markets as part of wider reform strategies in higher education. In addition to improving domestic education and scholarship, these universities’ ultimate goals include building their brands and increasing their standing in international rankings. Young Western-trained scholars are attractive hires for such institutions because we publish in scholarly journals indexed by databases like Scopus and Web of Science.

If you are a U.S.-trained humanities scholar who is only vaguely aware (if not wholly oblivious) to the existence of these databases (some academic fields in the United States are not subject to the same politics of publishing as those same fields are in Britain), there’s no need to worry. If you have published in a journal of any standing in your field, that journal is almost certainly indexed by Scopus. That matters quite a bit to foreign universities because such publications are key measures used in international university rankings.

An individual scholar acting alone, however, cannot drastically increase a university’s publication rate. That’s why another expectation you may face as a new Western-trained hire is to help local scholars master the process of publishing in prestigious international journals and in English. That service work can take various forms, including leading seminars, giving talks, and participating in university-sponsored events. A native English speaker will probably also receive many requests to correct the English in draft articles, sometimes on a freelance basis for extra income, so be ready for that.

Taking on some of those tasks can be useful, of course, as long as they don’t distract you too much from your own research. Being asked to read a draft, after all, offers opportunities to engage with new research and build your network of contacts and potential research partners.

Indeed, such networking opportunities can present themselves readily to go-getters who take full-time jobs abroad, although that may not be the case everywhere. For example, Christopher, after starting his senior-lecturer position at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow, found that he was able to receive money and administrative support to organize an international conference, which helped him expand his network and contribute to the development of research in his areas of interest. He was also sent—on his employer’s dime—to ASEEES, the major annual conference of Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies in the United States, an advantage that generally does not come with adjunct work at American institutions.

But not every international post comes with easy access to travel money for conferences, as Sandy experienced in her postdoc at the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics in Moscow. There are often complex application forms and long waits as well as strict documentation requirements.

Working abroad does have risks and costs. In moving to a foreign country, an early-career scholar frequently ends up far from friends, loved ones, and the social support that comes with having them near. In addition, a U.S. research library is something so easily taken for granted until one no longer has access to it. Along with the lack of world-class research libraries, you may also face pressures that conflict with established career norms in your field. If you are in a field (like history) in which reputations are built primarily on monographs, an overseas position may cause problems for you, since many elite universities in developing countries are relentlessly focused on the production of journal articles and may even impose quotas. While articles are not without value in book fields in the American academy, too long of a delay in producing a monograph will detract from your international reputation and your ability to land a tenure-track job back home (if that is your desire).

Some of the risks are financial. Christopher has been disadvantaged during his time working in Russia by the falling value of the ruble. Since he is still employed in Russia, he continues to face that problem, along with stress over a rapid decline in Russia’s relations with the West, as he attempts to pay down his student-loan debt in dollars. In Sandy’s case, wage payments from her university were occasionally delayed.

Culture shock can have a serious impact even on area-studies scholars with expertise in the country or region in which they’re now working, as the kind of integration into the culture that comes with full-time employment in a local university is something they are unlikely to have experienced before. And, ironically, while those with area-studies expertise are best prepared to face the kinds of turbulence described above and to derive maximum career benefit from the time spent in these countries, some foreign universities—this seems to be the case with Russian institutions, but not, for example, with East Asian universities—prefer not to hire Western specialists on their own regions or countries to full-time positions.

Thus, with the exception of an upcoming Great Books seminar on a text highly relevant to his research, Christopher teaches outside his specific field of modern Russian history, although he is able to teach within his broader areas of interest (modern Europe, intellectual history, the history of religion, and the humanities), and he integrates some Russian material into his courses.

Two questions are likely to weigh heavily on the minds of North American and British job seekers considering whether to apply to universities in the developing world:

  • Will I have to teach in a foreign language?
  • Will I eventually be able to get a tenure-track job back home?

In answer to the first question, many foreign universities are actually striving to increase their course offerings in English, although Christopher now does most of his teaching in Russian. As for the second question, we don’t have enough data to reach a precise conclusion, but we have seen some encouraging signs. One is Sandy’s own trajectory, as she now has a tenure-track job at Leeds Beckett University.

In addition, a list of U.S. hires in the Russian studies field posted on the Dissertation Reviews website shows that some returning scholars do land tenure-track jobs at U.S. institutions. We need much more such job data to make the hiring market more transparent for job seekers.

Ultimately, there is no guarantee that working abroad will translate into a tenure-track job "back home"—and certainly no guarantee that it will happen in X number of years. But these positions will provide employment and help you grow your CV and your contact network and begin to establish a reputation in your field.

It is possible that some who wish to return home may have to publish more than their peers to be seriously considered as candidates by American universities, or they may have to be willing to take temporary positions or postdocs closer to home, since search committees with limited budgets to fly in candidates for campus visits may prioritize those who are in the United States.

The risks and the downside associated with what Rebecca Schuman has called the "VAP trap" would apply to those who are certain they do not wish to settle down in the countries in which they are hired.

No one should go into a job in a foreign university without coming to terms with these concerns. And yet we have certainly found the experience enriching, if also challenging. We hope that by bringing the possibility into the public eye we might help some fellow early-career scholars determine whether such a move would be right for them.

Sandy Ross is a senior lecturer in marketing at Leeds Beckett University and an economic sociologist. She has recently returned to Britain after an almost-two-year postdoc at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. Christopher Stroop is a senior lecturer in the humanities department of the School of Public Policy at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow.