Issues in Graduate Education

Thinking of Moving Abroad? How to Begin Applying for Foreign Jobs

Brett Bennett, April 2010

There is little advice for PhD students who want to apply for jobs in foreign countries. Of course, the AHA, H-net.org, and the Chronicle of Higher Education all list jobs from around the world. But there is no single, dedicated web site and little advice can be found that details the hiring norms for different countries around the world.

This essay seeks to help redress the lack of information by explaining some basic information about the different countries and regions of the world. My information is gleaned from my own experiences and the multitude of PhD students, post-docs, and professors I’ve met in my travels. It is by no means a definitive essay, because few people, let alone a PhD student, have the knowledge to write comprehensively about the entire world. But perhaps with some general advice in mind, PhD students and job-seekers can better approach applying for foreign jobs.

All PhD students are anxious about finding a job. As a result, would-be job seekers often pursue a shotgun strategy of applying to any and every job that fits the description of their doctoral research and teaching interests. This often means looking at and applying for jobs posted on American sites from all around the world. By my count, there were foreign jobs posted this year on the various American listings from Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, China, Singapore, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Turkey, Swaziland, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Israel.

This smorgasbord of jobs presents a great opportunity for those who want to travel or live abroad. It also requires a great amount of time to understand different types of applications. As with job applications in the United States, the more you know about a foreign school or an application process, the better. The trick seems to be finding out more about how foreign job hiring processes work. This requires the ability to quickly and effectively find out information about a variety of countries and universities around the world.

People who are working on PhDs do not lack entrepreneurial energy. Writing a dissertation entails creating a new piece of scholarship. This means that PhD students are good at finding resources and making sense of data that is otherwise disparate. Yet the lack of knowledge that exists even with regard to the American job market is surprising. This is all the more true of foreign job markets, which are often shrouded in mystery for U.S. graduate students. A strategy for finding out more information is required.

The internet makes searching for information about foreign schools and countries easier than ever. Many countries have central job posting sites. These can often be found by simple key word searches, for example, by typing in the country in question and the phrase “job postings.” It will be useful to find these general sites and also to browse a variety of job listings and university pages describing jobs. While some countries, such as the UK, quite clearly define the hiring process, universities in countries like the UAE and China are often more opaque.

Yet even the internet cannot be a complete and reliable source. Accurate information can sometimes be hard to find about a specific country or university. If one cannot find the needed information about a specific country, it sometimes proves helpful to look at information for comparable countries. For example, while there are great differences in hiring norms in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, there are many similarities, such as the shorter interview process, or even the way in which human resource departments set job hiring requirements. Many Europeans countries also share similarities with each other. Canada has national restrictions on hiring foreigners, but its universities are structured more on the American model than on the British model.

Even though jobs in a particular university or foreign country may have their own unique requirements, there are some general points that can and should be remembered.

Applicants should remember, for instance, to use the spelling style of the country. Use ‘British’ quotes for British schools and remember to add the u’s in “labour” or “colour” that Noah Webster cut when he simplified the American dictionary. This can be done easily in Microsoft Word (and other wordprocessing programs) by changing the language under the tools drop-box. While this might seem basic, it is good to remember that most people, no matter how cosmopolitan or worldly they may be, tend to get used to a particular standard of writing and citation.

A basic grasp of the different types of jobs will also be helpful. Most jobs in the Anglophone world, excluding Canada, are permanent positions unless noted. There is no tenure-track process for much of the world. As such, lecturer jobs usually have higher publication requirements than those for an American assistant professor. This means that there are also more extensive postdoctoral opportunities in the Anglophone world; a three-year research fellowship is becoming an increasingly normal part of the career profile of most academics. American PhD students who publish as graduate students or who have excellent research projects can often get lecturer positions.

Continental Europe has its own publication requirements that differ from the British-style academic world. In the Netherlands it is often expected that PhD students will quickly publish their theses as books. Germany requires PhDs to publish their books to move on in their academic careers. It is difficult for American PhDs to get jobs in German universities because of the old system of doing two dissertations, although many universities are moving away from this model. Many of the major German research institutes, such as the Max Planck Institute, bring in many American PhDs each year.

Many PhDs will look to the Middle East, one of the regions of the world hiring foreign PhDs. This region elicits positive and negative comments from many scholars who have worked or visited there. Tenure is not particularly secure in this region due to political pressure and a different social system.

However, the pay packages in the Middle East, and particularly in the UAE, are quite attractive; there are usually no taxes, housing is provided, and universities offer plane tickets into and out of the country each academic year or term. One should always find out whether universities in the Middle East are based on the American model or the British model, as there are universities being set up under both systems.

China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore present an increasing amount of job opportunities. There are various types and qualities of universities in these countries. Some are hiring for an American styled system of tenure and the jobs will be described as an assistant professor. Some schools in the region still hire British-style lecturers, although the trend seems to be towards the Americanization of university organization. Like jobs in the Middle East, candidates who are not short-listed or interviewed are usually never contacted.

Applying for foreign jobs requires optimism and a thick skin. I’ve known people who interviewed for jobs in the UK, the UAE, and Australia multiple times before eventually moving to Australia or the UK. If one wants to move to a specific country, it is best to visit the country in question and to meet with professors there to see the ins and outs of hiring. One can never truly understand a place without having been there. In lieu of visiting, it is a good idea to ask around broadly and to send e-mails to people overseas to query them about specific processes.

As with anything in life, persistence pays off. Starting with the desire to move abroad and a reasonable knowledge of a foreign country, it is quite possible to teach and live around the world. For those seeking adventure and an academic career outside of America, this can be an enjoyable and life-changing process.

Brett Bennett is a PhD student in history at the University of Texas at Austin. He has traveled widely and has held discussions with students and faculty in various universities worldwide about job prospects in their countries.