The job market sucks for international students

26 September 2021, 1100 EDT

Tweets bemoaning the lack of jobs in IR and political science more broadly are hardly difficult to come by. But, for all of our skills in analyzing international politics, I haven’t seen much recognition of how borders and migration regimes affect international students’ experience of the academic job market in the US. Like many areas of the IR discipline in the US, such as the perennial problem of access to conferences or journals, student experiences show how the discipline in this country is international, but not truly global. 

I speak from personal experience: I was on an F1 student visa during my time in grad school and during a research fellowship afterwards. I am Australian and white, meaning I’m not treated with suspicion by USCIS. Unlike, say, someone from Haiti, there are several documented pathways for someone like me to migrate to the US. By very great good fortune, I obtained a green card because I married my partner, a US citizen. I was relieved from anxiety about whether an employer would sponsor me and allow me to stay in the country. However, this is a constant worry for many people.

Candidates on the market are often advised to stick it out for a couple of years, perhaps accepting visiting or adjunct roles until a TT opportunity comes along. This is difficult for many people because it requires the ability to move around, tolerate financial uncertainty, navigate new schools for children, or new health insurance and doctors for disabilities. It’s advice based both on outdated academic norms, where male scholars could rely on wives to do the heavy lifting of making home in new locations, as well as an oversupply of desperate people at the mercy of cost-cutting institutions. It overlooks how, for People of Color or LGBTIQ people, some states or cities are simply not safe places to live.  

As an F1 visa holder, the precarity of the job market is intensified because sticking it out to try to find a permanent position is often not an option. To stay lawfully in the US, the F1 visa holder has to land an opportunity that would count as ‘Optional Practical Training’, which allows one to stay a further year, or a full-time position at an institution that would sponsor the person on an H1-B employment visa. Adjunct or part-time positions do not come with visa sponsorship (to say the very least). An F1 student’s partner can’t help, either. F2 visa holders, who are the spouses of F1 holders, are barred from working or studying while in the US. Losing out on a job offer can mean the candidate and their family has to leave the country. In theory, candidates can still apply from overseas, but how many institutions are able to fly a candidate from overseas for a campus visit for an entry-level TT job? Moreover, the pandemic dramatically slowed visa processing, deferring many people’s hopes of taking up jobs in the US.

For me, going home was always an option, if still a difficult one. The US job market, as tough as it is, offered many more opportunities than the Australian one did. Going home would mean more insecurity and, probably, underemployment or unemployment. For others, going home could mean persecution. Turkey, for instance, sends many students to study in the US. Now, those students are under suspicion, harassed, or even detained by a regime that fears academic freedom. The stakes of the job market for these candidates are much more serious.

The IR job market also requires a level of commitment to being an immigrant, to being permanently away from home, that other industries don’t entail. The common expectation is that a TT job is, more or less, an entire career. Most of the jobs posted in my year were in the US or Europe. Securing a TT job means imagining a life, or at least a good chunk of one, in another country. Could I see myself, one day, as an American? Would I eventually lose my accent because I rarely speak with other Australians here? Viscerally, what would it mean to so rarely smell the dry tang of saltbush and eucalyptus? Could I make a home here? 

Steps forward

Speaking for myself, I would like to see our professional organizations take these issues more seriously. I was glad that the International Studies Association released a statement criticizing current travel bans. However, what about a broader concern with liberalizing migration in the US as a disciplinary issue?  

Moreover, while there are many efforts to prepare students for the job market, most advice I received never acknowledged the challenges for international students. Advisors, mentors and directors of graduate studies should educate themselves on these issues and help international students plan for contingencies early on in the degree. Sticking it out is often not an option, so advisors and mentors should be aware of how immigration status and country of origin affects the future plans of international students. 

Lastly, these issues will only get worse as the job market continues to shrink. We need to be bolder about reversing the damage that austerity and reactionary politics have done to higher education in the US (and elsewhere). I would like to see more concerted efforts to unionize faculty at all ranks and kinds of institutions, as well as fully funding higher education. For example, groups like the Higher Education Labor Union are advocating for language in the current reconciliation bill that would ensure that institutions that receive federal funding ensure the majority of their instructional positions are tenure-track, with a focus on converting existing NTT faculty to tenure lines. 

To sum up, I can’t and don’t propose to speak for all international students in the US IR job market, but I hope we can all be more aware of how restrictive migration regimes intensify the precarity and anxiety of job search.