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So you’re thinking about Professing Abroad…

August 4, 2021

If there’s one thing that American political scientists agree about, it’s that the U.S. “job market” is pretty brutal. It’s not uncommon for junior scholars to bounce between postdocs and visiting positions before getting a tenure-track job or a stable non-tenure-track position – or before throwing in the towel and leaving academia entirely. Still others join the ranks of contingent faculty.

With stagnation in the market for tenure-track positions and looming headwinds for U.S. higher education, we suspect that a growing number of political scientists with PhDs from American universities will look overseas for employment.

American graduate schools do almost nothing to prepare their students for a global job market. This post offers some practical guidance for scholars who have been trained in the United States but are considering academic positions in other countries.

There’s no shortage of advice for American PhDs seeking tenure-track jobs in the United States. Nilay Saiya, for example, published an article back in 2014 with great guidance for the application process. We focus on broader considerations. We primarily structure our advice around a series of questions that one might ask themselves, their employers, or potential colleagues during the application process.

We do so as two scholars who have had wonderful experiences working overseas – although one of us just relocated to a tenure-track position in the United States.

As should be clear by now, our advice is geared towards American citizens with U.S. degrees. We think that at least a few of the questions we pose are relevant to a broader audience. We’d love to hear about whether or not that’s right, as well as what kinds of considerations matter most for scholars outside of the United States looking at employment in other countries.

Practical Advice to Consider

Our first questions concern more obvious and important issues when considering foreign university employment. We start with a big one – money!

Money Matters

U.S. institutions have, over the years, become more transparent about salaries – and other forms of compensation – in their job listings. To the extent that they haven’t… well, intrepid political scientists have taken it upon themselves to collect and make publicly available information about initial offers, startup funds, and the like.

The degree of transparency at institutions outside of the United States varies considerably. Many foreign jobs will not advertise a salary range; some institutions pay much lower salaries than U.S. colleges and universities offer.

You may not know the salary range until you have gotten to the offer stage, and you should be prepared for the possibility that it won’t be great.

Payment Currency

The international currency market can be volatile. You’ll need some sense of your salary may fluctuate in order to plan for debt payments, savings, and the like.

This means you’ll want to know much more the what the job pays. What currency will your salary be in? Is the local currency an international reserve currency? If not, does it float or is it pegged to a more stable currency? Does the university itself peg salaries to an external currency? Can you negotiate payment in, say, dollar or euros?

Banking

How does the banking system work in the country where you are applying? Will funds be deposited into a foreign or local account?

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. Passed in 2010, this requires financial institutions to search their records and report on transactions by US persons. If you need a local bank, can you find one that meets FACTA requirements? Do local banks allow for the transfer of funds out of the country – and if they do, how easy are those transfers and what do they cost?

Taxes

Scholars interested in foreign jobs, wherever they hail from, will usually need to fully understand how local taxes interact with home-country tax obligations,

Americans working abroad, in particular, will tell you that US income taxes can be a major headache. There are rules that allows U.S. citizens to exclude money earned while living and working in a foreign country, but those rules can be tricky.

In general, you will need professional advice with respect to the tax you’re likely to face, and quite likely need specialized assistance when it comes to paying your taxes. The premium versions of online tax services like HR Block or TurboTax allow you to work through the different rules and scenarios. Some firms specialize in preparing taxes for expatriates. Some, such as Taxes for Expats (TFX), offer full-service tax advice and filing help.

Retirement

No matter how young you are, you will also need to pay close attention to issues connected with retirement.

In a lot of cases – and definitely for Americans who don’t become citizens – there’s a good chance you won’t have access to retirement benefits. Yes, Americans citizens get to pay income taxes but they don’t pay into Social Security and Medicare. So it’s possible you’ll hit the local retirement age without being eligible for any national pension arrangements.

Did we mention that Americans working abroad may also not be eligible to participate in certain kinds of individual retirement accounts in the US?

You’ll need to pay very close attention to matters related to retirement. It’s  quite likely you need to seek professional advice – including about how to fund your retirement entirely from savings.

Other Issues to Consider

Personal Temperament

Living and working abroad can be a terrific experience, but it can also introduce new and exciting sources of stress. Before you make a decision, you should be brutally honest with yourself about how well you can tolerate it.

Social and Family Life.

No matter your relationship status, you’ll need to get a good sense of what life outside of your job will be like.

If you have a partner – and if that partner is not taking a job at the same institution – things can get complicated fast. If your partner expects to take a local job, you’ll need to look closely at what’s involved in getting a work visa. The visa process can be complicated and expensive; it can make a big difference if your employer will help with the process.

For that matter, find out what financial and administrative assistance will they provide to you when it comes to securing employment eligibility.

Health Care

Would-be expatriates have a lot more to consider than basic health-care coverage. For example, some jobs offer health care for ‘free’ but it may turn out that you’ll have to pay taxes on the cost.

Americans are used to complicated health-insurance arrangements, but benefits are, overall, broadly similar across colleges and universities. Obviously, health-care systems and payment structures can be completely different in other countries, and your institution may or may not rely on government provided health care.

Some jobs will only provide catastrophic coverage, but won’t necessarily volunteer that fact. You may have access to a terrific national health system in your country of residence, but what about global coverage, including health-care costs when you’re visiting your country of origin?

There’s also the matter of coverage for friends and relatives when they visit you. The issue of the cost of, and access to, medical drugs can be quite complicated. Even if you’re not on maintenance drugs, you will probably want some sense of what’s available over the counter, what requires a prescription, and what’s not available at all.

You’ll need answers to a variety of other questions, including what the quality is care like, whether you’ll be able to communicate with local health professionals if you don’t speak the language, and whether you have access to free translators or will need to secure your own.

Housing

Rules, rights, and norms concerning renting and buying housing may well be very different than in your home country. They can also be different for foreigners than citizens.

Even your assumptions about how utilities work may not apply.

Transportation

Just like housing, if you don’t carefully research the matter you may be in for some unwelcome surprises.

Education

It’s quite common for American expatriates to send their children to private schools that teach in English. You’ll want to look into their availability, cost, and quality.

You may want to send your children to the local schools, but are they eligible?

From primary schools to higher education, there’s a lot to consider.

Travel

When you’re employed abroad, you need to know about a lot more than your travel allowance. How much time can you spend out of the country without losing your right to work? How complicated and frequent is the visa renewal process?

We had colleagues temporarily detained at the airport and fined because their travel plans had changed and, in consequence, their visas had lapsed. There have been some high-profile cases of expatriate academics running afoul of visa and passport requirements for, in effect, doing their jobs.

Professional Considerations Pre- and Post-Hire

Taking an international job can be a great career move, but it may set you on a very different pathway than the one you expected. It’s important not to let your old networks atrophy. If your new institution doesn’t have a global presence, it can be difficult to maintain a profile in the field. This can make it hard to move back if you decide that you’d like to go home.

Academic Freedom

Just because a college or university promises academic freedom doesn’t mean it can deliver. Government authorities may engage in overt censorship. Administrations might exert subtle – or not so subtle –pressure for you to alter your writing, teaching, or research.

The flip side is that the institution may be in a country that scores low in POLITY but still offer genuine academic freedom. That’s been our experience.

You’ll also want to get a good sense of the level of autonomy you’ll enjoy when it comes to designing your courses and setting your own schedule management. Some systems require much more managerial input into course content, design, and assessment You could have greater autonomy than you’re used to… or find yourself buried in bureaucratic procedures.

Academic Culture and Environment

Our advice here echoes what we’ve said before: assume nothing.

Ask questions about what the department values in terms of scholarship – frequency, outlets, public-facing versus peer-reviewed scholarship, and so on. Find out about the scope of faculty governance and the degree that administrative decisions are centralized or decentralized.

Some universities that aggressively hire foreign faculty are seeking to build an international reputation. That can mean a dynamic and exciting environment. It can also generate uncertainty and create frictions among staff.

Even if you’re looking at a more settled institutions that imports a good percentage of its faculty, it’s worth trying to find out if relations are cordial or tense between, for example, foreigners and nationals

Exit Strategies

It’s important to keep in mind that you won’t just be taking a post in another country, you’ll likely enter into a completely different academic system. Whether you really wanted a job abroad or not, there are any number of reasons you might decide to move back home or to another country: tenure (or tenure-like) job protection, the vagaries of politics, and the realities of living and working internationally.

It may feel premature, mercenary, or defeatist to start strategizing about leaving before you’ve even taken the job, but it would be foolish not to.

The exercise itself is valuable. If no exit strategy seems viable, and you still feel positive about the job, then that’s a good sign that you should take it. If it looks like accepting the job won’t hurt – or might even help – your academic prospects in your home country, then that’s also a good reason to accept the position.

The currency of academia is publishing. As we noted earlier, the department you are considering may have different expectations about publishing – both in terms of “where’ and “how much.” One important question, therefore, is whether you can meet those expectations without kneecapping your competitiveness elsewhere. If you are considering moving institutions then you are going to have to publish for the jobs you want, not the job you have.

(Our department and hiring committees often rejected quality candidates who had published numerous book chapters, but nothing else. The university wanted faculty that could publish globally in ranked journals, and book chapters didn’t provide a strong signal that applicants could do so. That’s fully compatible with returning to a research university in the US, but it may be a problem in other contexts.)

Working internationally may also give you opportunities – that you wouldn’t have had in your home country – to make contacts in the world of IGOs, NGOs, and diplomacy.

Depending on where you are in the world, you should also think aboout actual exit strategies. You may need to consider matters such as if you can exit the country freely, maintain your passport, access funds for flights, and get whatever else you’ll need if the government is overthrown or things otherwise go sideways.

Applying to Jobs Back Home

Here we can only speak to applying for jobs in the United States after being overseas. But we definitely have some suggestions:

  1. Make sure you keep an active network in the US. This includes letter writers and others who can advocate for you. If your network in five or six years only includes the people with whom you are working overseas, then it’s going to be harder to re-enter the US market.
  2. Publications and venues matter. The types of publications and venues you publish in should be familiar to, and valued by, the search committee.
  3. A surprising number of search committees will not know how to handle overseas travel for visits. You may need to address this in your cover letter; you can write that you’re willing to pay some or all of the cost of flights, and also that you’re happy to conduct your interview by teleconference.

Wrapping Up

We’ve both had great experiences working overseas. That’s one of the reasons we wrote this piece, to encourage other scholars – particularly Americans – to consider positions abroad. We know that it can be daunting, and that there’s a long list of considerations. But we hope that sharing that list will transform many unknown unknowns into known unknowns, and therefore make the process a bit easier for others.

We’ve already stressed, and it’s pretty obvious anyway, that we wrote this primarily as advice to American scholars trained in the United States. We want to reiterate that we are genuinely curious how such considerations play out in different contexts, as well as how faculty – whether in the US or elsewhere – think about hiring from abroad.

So if you have thoughts, leave a comment or get in touch with us.

Ed’s note: we’d be interesting in publishing pieces that explore how the job market – international, domestic, both – works differently in different national contexts. If this is something you’re feeling particularly reflective about, contact us.

Spencer Willardson is an Assistant Professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in the Department of Government. He teaches in the National Intelligence and Securities Studies program. He was previously an Assistant Professor at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, where he served as the first Department Chair of Political Science and International Relations from 2015-2017.  His primary research focus is on the ways that arms transfers are used to shape foreign policy in states and international relations more broadly.

Charles J. Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science & International Relations in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nazarbayev University.  Dr. Sullivan earned his PhD in Political Science from The George Washington University (2014) in Washington, DC. He is a comparativist who specializes in the politics of the countries of the former Soviet Union and Central Asia/Afghanistan.