Advice

Why New Humanities Ph.D.s Should Leave the Country

For too long, the U.S. academic job market has compelled us to see our careers in black and white

Little Bit of Bhuddish, Wikimedia Commons

Universidad San Francisco de Quito, in Ecuador, where the author landed on his feet after enduring a frustrating faculty job search in the United States.
May 19, 2016

In December 2014, my wife and I took a fairly routine trip to visit her parents in Quito, Ecuador, for the winter holidays. It was our first trip back since I had finished my Ph.D. the previous summer. December, of course, is prime time in the academic hiring season, and my job search was already yielding better results than the previous year when I was still A.B.D. I had strong interest from a few colleges and hoped I might get at least one campus visit that spring. My plan was to return to the United States, prepare for my interviews, and hope to become one of the lucky few to land a tenure-track job.

Today, I am writing from Ecuador to offer this advice to new Ph.D.s in the humanities: Pack your bags.

When I learned that a university in Quito was in the midst of a hiring spree, I spent the first few days of winter vacation preparing my application, just to see what would happen. Two days later, I received a response from the university’s chancellor asking me to come in for an interview at noon on December 24. That’s right — Christmas Eve. My three-hour interview included everything from standard job-talk fare about my research agenda and teaching philosophy, to discussions about the Higgs boson and the Tao Te Ching (the chancellor is a physicist and studies Eastern philosophy). In the end, we shook hands and agreed to communicate by email about possible next steps, which included follow-up video interviews with a vice chancellor and a dean at the university.

If that sounds like a pleasantly unconventional experience for a faculty interview, that’s because it was. Even though my U.S. job search looked promising, I was also frustrated with some of its inherent absurdities: compiling bloated dossiers; being required to spend several hundred dollars (if not $1,000 or more) to attend a major convention just for a preliminary interview; and enduring the mutually uncomfortable campus-interview experience in which some departments seem to spend more time airing their dirty laundry than objectively evaluating job candidates.

In contrast, the application process in Ecuador was clean, simple, and direct. The university knew what it wanted from a new English professor, and I knew that I had what it wanted. So what if the chancellor wants to interview me on Christmas Eve and give me a personal tour of the campus? Great. I’ll bring the eggnog.

Less than a month later, I was offered the job. My new employer gave me another month’s time to decide if I really wanted to uproot my life to move to South America. By then, I’d already completed a second campus interview in the United States, and had my visiting assistant professorship (or VAP, as it is widely known) renewed for another year, too. I was fortunate to have several options and a window of time to decide. Ultimately, though, I would have been a fool to stay in the United States.

Here’s why.

First, I had to ask myself: Would moving to Ecuador pay off — literally? I wasn’t going to move to a new continent just to stay broke. I could do that at home.

In my case, the starting salary in Ecuador was actually a few thousand dollars higher than my VAP salary, and not much lower than I could have expected as a new assistant professor at many U.S. colleges. (Ecuador has used U.S. dollars since 2000, so currency conversion and exchange rates weren’t an issue.)

Raw salary, however, was only a starting point. Several other financial factors contributed to my decision to move abroad:

  • It was clear from cost-of-living differentials that even a comparatively modest salary in Ecuador would be worth more than a better-paying job in the United States. For my circumstances, I used several cost-of-living calculators and found that life in Quito costs roughly 60 percent to 70 percent of what it costs to live in Greensboro, N.C., where I had been living for the previous eight years. In short, I could earn a lower salary and still fare much better financially in Ecuador than at home.
  • Taxes in Ecuador and many other countries are much lower than in the States. The IRS requires U.S. citizens to file a federal tax return no matter where you live, but the tax code includes provisions that diminish the effects of double-taxation on foreign wage earners. For example, the "Foreign Earned Income Exclusion" exempts your salary up to a certain amount (currently set at $100,800) after you live abroad for a full tax year. You will pay taxes both here and in the country where you live during the first partial year, but your income will be exempt in the United States afterward. (Unless, of course, you earn more than $100,800. In that case, don’t complain. You’re doing fine.)
  • Student-loan repayment terms can also change when living overseas. Under the standard repayment plan, for example, I was paying around $980 a month. Once I adjusted to the "income-based repayment" plan on my VAP salary, my monthly payment dropped to around $480. However, my current repayment is $0, and will likely stay that way for up to three years because of a provision in the income-based repayment plan for situations in which your calculated monthly repayment amount is not enough to cover interest. Moving overseas maximizes the benefit because my taxable income in the United States will be virtually zero, even if I earn a substantial raise. In the meantime, I can take the money that would have been used on student loans to build financial assets.

Of course, I also worried about how taking an overseas job would affect the direction of my academic career. What happens to my research agenda? What if I ever decide to re-enter academe back home? The university does not have a tenure system akin to the U.S. version; the majority of faculty here are under permanent contract in one of two categories as either "professor docente" (teaching professor) or "professor investigador" (research professor). I hold the latter title. How would that lack of tenure affect my candidacy at a U.S. college? I do not yet have clear answers to these questions. But I realize now that those concerns were largely defined by my narrow vision of what an academic career should be.

As a scholar of African-American and U.S. multiethnic literature, I knew that I would have limited resources for my research if I moved overseas. How could I possibly be a productive scholar without instant access to the MLA database or a research library’s special collections?

The truth is: Aside from presenting papers at a few conferences, I hadn’t been all that productive anyway, research wise, since writing my dissertation. I was spending most of my time and energy trying to get a job rather than doing my job.

Even though I now teach a heavy load of four courses a semester, somehow I have found the time to write more than I have since completing my Ph.D. In just seven months, I have submitted a new article manuscript to a selective journal, I am drafting a second article, and I’ve started work on expanding my dissertation into a book manuscript. Any research I cannot do overseas can be done during trips home during the summer — the time when most of us get our research done, anyway.

I’ve also regained a sense of purpose in my teaching and research. In U.S. higher education, the job market for humanities Ph.D.s can feel demoralizing, and with good reason. It’s no secret that the humanities have been facing a deteriorating job market for decades and that the market in English and foreign languages, in particular, has been especially grim. Furthermore, humanities professors consistently get paid much less than faculty in other fields such as business and the hard sciences. It’s no wonder that many of us are so willing to accept lower salaries than our academic peers. The implicit message is that we should just be grateful to have jobs at all.

Don’t get me wrong: Competition for international jobs is stiff, too. But in my case, at least, it was a relief to feel that the job didn’t come served with a side of indebtedness. It also saved me from the possibility of facing years of rejection on the tenure-track market. Yes, rejection is an inevitable part of the job search, publishing, and life in general. But many young academics would do well to remember the lesson most teenagers learn in high school: You shouldn’t base your self-worth on whether the prom king or queen will go out with you. The same goes for hiring committees.

For too long, the academic job market has compelled new humanities Ph.D.s to see our careers in black and white — either "make it" into a tenure line at a U.S. institution, or leave academe. But there are more options beyond our borders. Ph.D.s in the sciences figured that out years ago, and humanities Ph.D.s are just now learning to follow that lead.

So is it time for you to apply for a visa, too? That all depends on what kinds of challenges you are willing to face.

Scott T. Gibson is a full-time research professor in the humanities at Universidad San Francisco de Quito.