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Professing Abroad: European Academia 101

November 22, 2021

Willardson and Sullivan’s recent article here provided numerous useful tips for Americans who want to “profess abroad.” They also asked scholars outside the United States to weigh in with thoughts. As a European, I thought I’m a good position to furnish relevant information for those who may be a considering an academic career in Europe.

I am from Austria, although my entire academic career has taken place outside my home country. I taught for ten years in Switzerland, held a visiting Professorship at Columbia University, and am currently part of the faculty at the University of Bergen in Norway.

A few caveats before I start. First, I should note that my Austrian (EU) citizenship made a lot of things much easier than scholars and students from the Global South. Also, scholars and students should not assume Europe is a land of academic plenty. European higher education faces many of the problems Willardson and Sullivan note are driving Americans to consider overseas jobs. This is particularly the case for precarious, contingent positions, which European Universities are increasingly relying on (for a good overview focused on German academia, see here). Finally, 49 countries constitute the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). There are dozens of national academic traditions shaping dozens of different job markets. In addition, language skills (other than English) play an outsized role.

Technicalities and Practicalities

Employment conditions (including salaries) vary widely across “Europe.” They more or less track the overall standard of living – ranging from median gross hourly earnings as high as € 19-27 in Luxembourg and Denmark to as little as € 2.40 in Bulgaria, according to Eurostat (data from 2018). That said, most European universities are public institutions. Their compensation schemes are fairly “transparent.” They typically relate to collective bargaining arrangements. There are a growing number of private universities, but their employment conditions often mirror those of public institutions. Generally, salaries for non-tenure track appointments are enough for a single household; this, however, doesn’t take into account parental leave and other family benefits in many places.

There are dozens of national academic traditions shaping dozens of different job markets.

A major divide in academic jobs is that between conventional faculty positions (the equivalent of tenured positions in America) and non-tenure track positions. Due to government budget cuts, universities are increasingly emphasizing the acquisition of “external” funding. Non-tenure track research positions are increasingly financed by either national research councils or E.U. funding schemes.  These externally-funded positions typically do not include teaching opportunities, which may make it harder to secure a permanent teaching-oriented job. There are other differences between the two types of positions, as non-tenure track positions often face more complicated paperwork when it comes to taxes and benefits. This can make it harder to get started after relocating, in terms of setting up bank accounts and the like.

Travel within Europe – at least before Covid-19 – was relatively easy as the Schengen Agreement allows for visa-free travel. This extends to Americans. Such ease of travel makes cross-border scholarly endeavors or conference attendance a regular feature. Mention must be made that this is not the case for those from the Global South who often face problems deriving from the sheer amount of official paperwork required by immigration authorities.

Speaking of scholarly meetings, these do work differently in Europe. While the establishment of organizations such as the European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) with its large, biannual conferences is comparable to the U.S. academic experience, more often than not, “European” academia works (and speaks) differently. Allowing, of course, for country and disciplinary specifics, the shorthand is: conferences and workshops are typically smaller, but more frequent. Scholars can get automatic reimbursement for smaller meetings but may have to fund their own participation in larger meetings, especially if they are overseas. Keep these aspects in mind before you send out a paper proposal and/or agree to participate, as associated costs can easily skyrocket.

The Quiet European Social Life

Beware of part-time positions, which are actually quite widespread below the tenure-track level throughout European academia. While those who have kids might appreciate such job opportunities for obvious reasons, more often than not part-time positions simply means part-time payment in exchange for (expected) full-time work. While it is true that these issues are mainly found in the Humanities, the reality is that this “attitude” is slowly making its way into the “other” fields as well.

What you may have heard about any one place (country, university) must not be assumed to hold true for virtually all other places.

On a related note, what about getting your loved ones to come along? Generally, associated administrative burdens (at least in Europe) are tolerable. In most cases, your prospective employer will expedite your paperwork to smoothen over the transition, albeit this is usually not the case for your immediate family. Be prepared to visit your nation’s consulate for getting new documents after you moved to a different country, and do seek advice from, e.g., your employer’s “International Center”, your prospective colleagues, fellow expats, numerous online groups, and the like. In some cases, you might consider adding a visit to the magistrate, your bank, or the like to your to-do list while on a family visit back home.

Speaking of advice for international scholars, by now virtually all (European) universities employ staff whose job is it to help you out a bit in the beginning. Do note that these university employees are administrative staff and that, however well-meaning, they do not offer case-specific advice. In my own experience, there are (many) limits to what they can, and what they won’t, help you with. Even so, if you move to a different country, they will go out of their way to help you obtain a temporary place to stay and provide some basic guidelines (have a look at my university’s version). In terms of financial support, it is quite unlikely that your prospective employer will offer relocation assistance below the level of a permanent faculty appointment.

As for housing and (public) transportation, keep in mind that the typical European university is located in a city, either close to the center or, somewhat less frequently, to have a dedicated campus near the outskirts, comparable to North American institutions. Housing opportunities therefore vary widely, but usually student associations, international centers, and future colleagues will be in a place to help you find a place to stay in the beginning; alternatives incl., as elsewhere, private companies, such as AirBnB. European cities also have decent, if not perfect, public transport systems in place, with the university typically being a major node in the network. If you’re used to driving cars, well, depending on your situation—part-time/temp. vs. full-time/permanent, family with/without kids—it might be better (read: much cheaper) to either bike or use public transport. Most European cities now have quite decent car-sharing offers, if you find yourself in need of motorized transportation to buy large furniture or simply want to go someplace for fun (the best car-sharing company I’ve encountered is “Mobility”, a subsidiary of the Swiss Federal Railways, which offers everything from the smallest vehicles to sports cars to vans, and their cars are found near virtually all train stations and dispersed widely throughout Switzerland).

Returning to childcare-related aspects, in particular education, I will turn to something relevant for those with kids (and here I speak from personal experience). As universities are typically located in major metropolitan areas, this means that “international” schools and kindergartens are available virtually everywhere one finds a university. One thing you should consider, however, is to refrain from putting your kid into these, if you’re in it for the long-term. The English-language “expat bubble” is considerable, and while you’ll get along with like-minded people without any problems whatsoever, integration into the host country and society is much, much easier once you (and/or your kids) speak the local language. In that case, I recommend checking out university-sponsored and/or university-affiliated childcare options, too, before searching for local English-language options, as the incidence of “international” parents/kids in such settings is typically very high, which means that there are lots of English-speaking academics to connect with.

Concluding Thoughts

European academia is quite different from North America: “international” over here means both certain levels of diversity and the co-existence of rather distinctly different academic cultures and traditions. What you may have heard about any one place (country, university) must not be assumed to hold true for virtually all other places. In other words: academic culture in, say, Germany differs markedly from Italy, France, or Scandinavia. Size does matter, too, as a larger population typically means larger academic communities, but not necessarily more funding, as the Swiss example with its comparatively high salaries (costs) vs. virtually everywhere outside Scandinavia shows. Speaking very generally, university salaries are typically enough for a single household; daycare and housing costs vary so widely, I think it would be best to compare the offered salary to individual country statistics (fortunately, Eurostat has a helpful interactive website for this).

Note, further, that given the above-mentioned varieties and multitudes of academic cultures, emphasis in European academia therefore rests much less on the institution where you were trained. Unlike in the U.S. with its rather clear-cut hierarchy, European departments vary widely in terms of needs, composition of the faculty, and their backgrounds. Keep in mind that different countries come with different competence requirements, as well as different qualification regimes. In many cases – in particular the smaller the country is – your network among prospective employers might supersede in importance your individual achievements, which constitutes a major difference from, say, the U.S. context.

As to hiring “practices”, keep in mind that selection criteria and procedures vary widely from country to country, from university to university, and from department to department, in particular on the faculty level. Things like “The Professor Is In” do not exist in Europe, and there are many additional layers of differences across national borders, languages, and academic cultures, etc. Yes, virtually everyone speaks and/or publishes in English, however, but that is not the same as acceptance-as-equal or an automatic increase in your chances.

Speaking about long-term perspectives – which will, inevitably, include personal considerations – keep in mind that two or more years “here” or “there” may look good on anyone’s C.V., but the longer your overseas stay, the more consequences there may be for returning to your home country.

One other thing to consider is publication differentials, which of course vary from field to field. Speaking very broadly, the European propensity to have more, if smaller, conferences, also means more, if less-visible, publications in conference proceedings, collective volumes, and the like. These are perfectly fine as long as your “target” job market is in Europe, but these may result in future complications with respect to applications to North American universities. There are so many differences that it’s hard to even start listing them, but I think that for European opportunities, really any peer-reviewed publication will more or less do; by contrast, Anglophone academia strongly favors fewer, but high-profile publications.

Last words

I’ve had a great experience building my career outside my home country, and in many (innumerable) ways, I’ve been very fortunate in that respect. At the same time, I’m quite certain that had I’ve known even a fraction of the above beforehand, I’d at least thought about this more deeply. I’m very much aware of just how challenging “professing abroad” might be. Still, I hope that these issues help you make an informed decision about such a momentous move.

Associate Professor at University of Bergen

Stephan Sander-Faes is Associate Professor in Early Modern History at the University of Bergen, Norway. He received my Ph.D. from the University of Graz, Austria, in 2011 and obtained the Habilitation in Early Modern and Modern History from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, in 2018. Before moving to Scandinavia in 2020, he taught for ten years at the history departments at the Universities of Zurich and Fribourg, as well as held the István Deák Visiting Professorship in East Central European Studies at Columbia University in 2018. His research focuses on post-medieval Central and Eastern Europe (c. 1350-1850), in particular on social and economic history, as well as on state transformation.

Personal website. Find me on LinkedIn, Academia.edu, and ORCID.