When I read Michael O'Sullivan's recent piece for Irish Times Abroad on leaving Ireland to pursue an academic career in Asia, I recognised many parts of his story in my own.
Like Michael, I have a PhD in English Literature and had been contemplating moving abroad to find work since the early stages of my PhD. At the time I was based in London and although I knew a few people who’d been lucky enough to walk straight into academic posts, I knew far more who hadn’t.
Troubled by the bleak stories of post-PhD unemployment that my friends and colleagues shared with me, I toyed with the idea of emigrating, but it was only when I met my American husband midway through my PhD that I realised a move abroad to the US would be inevitable.
My colleagues warned me about the huge risks. “You’ll never work again,” one of them told me. Another pointed out that I’d find work but only if I were prepared to be based anywhere in the US.
With their caveats in mind, I was shocked and profoundly relieved when just four months after moving to Florida in early 2016, I successfully applied to a full-time lecturing post at a nearby university. It’s a 40-minute commute, my students are wonderful, and the starting salary was far better than I could ever have hoped for in the UK.
However, as much as getting a job quashed the eternal fear of unemployment that plagues any PhD student or early career researcher, my experience exposed some pitfalls and problems that any academic contemplating a move abroad needs to keep in mind.
Qualifications lost in translation
When I first applied for US jobs, I naively believed that my UK PhD would translate. It was only when I was informed by one institution that I “had no qualifications” I realised this wasn’t the case. “Well I’ve never heard of Oxford,” the HR assistant told me, when I desperately tried to explain that my qualifications were all perfectly legitimate.
This problem is linked to another issue of which foreign job applicants may not be aware. In Ireland and the UK, applications for academic posts tend to go straight to the relevant department. Here in the US, it’s often human resources who vet all of the applications and decide on the candidate shortlist, which means an added layer of bureaucracy that can be hard to get past, especially for international candidates.
Fortunately, there’s a way round these problems: a NACES-Certified Foreign Credentials Evaluation confirms that your international PhD is the equivalent of a US PhD, so this should be top of the priority list if you’re thinking about working abroad in higher education.
This one is perhaps the most obvious. Whilst I was lucky enough to have right-to-work status through my US-citizen husband, gaining a visa to work in the US as an international academic is no mean feat. There are a few success stories, especially as more universities are keen to employ an increasingly diverse, global workforce, but it remains to be seen whether freedom of movement between the US and other countries may be limited by future legislation.
Most contracts for higher education posts in the US are only nine or 10 months in duration, running from August until the following April or May. This means no pay for the summer months. Institutions often offer extra summer teaching to get around it, but this eats into research time, so the best option can be to save as much as possible from each pay cheque to cover the unpaid leave.
As the old song goes, “You say tom-a-to, I say tom-ah-to”. In the lecture theatre cultural differences range from the small-an alternative pronunciation of an author’s name, a lack of consensus on serial comma usage-to the seemingly overwhelming. During a recent debate I was shocked when my students argued, almost unanimously, that healthcare should not be free. Having lived in a country gifted with the NHS, publicly funded healthcare is something I cannot imagine being without (as a side note, almost all full-time US academic posts pay for full medical insurance, thankfully). Debates like these offer reminders that even as academics who are supposed to think “outside the box”, this thinking is often defined only by the norms of our own country and culture.
When building a career overseas, moving back to one’s country of origin will not always be an option. This is something I’m always mulling over: Will I be employable in the UK if I choose to return? Will my time in the US be frowned upon, or favoured? I try and combat this issue by keeping up my publications, continually networking with academics in both the US and the UK, and by reminding myself that tomorrow is guaranteed for no-one, but it can be daunting to imagine returning home after building a new life abroad.
These, for me at least, have been the most important points of consideration when it comes to understanding the realities of life as an academic expat in the US. There are some extra things to be conscious of-the distance between an institution and research libraries, the absolute necessity of having a driving license, the fact that PhDs in the Humanities are often only grudgingly respected compared to those in the STEM fields, the wildly different climate and weather, and general feelings of homesickness.
But, for the most part, these sticking points seem manageable compared with the seemingly narrower opportunities to find academic employment in either Ireland or the UK. I feel that the gamble has paid off for me, at least for now, but I’m not sure that a move abroad would be for everyone.