New PhDs: Going Overseas in Search of an Academic Career

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It may come as a shock; you have finally finished the PhD after years of working on your thesis, you have taught part-time, presented at several conferences and have contributed to a peer-reviewed journal or two, only to find there is no job waiting for you in academia.

The time lag between finishing a PhD and securing an academic position can be as unsettling as it is frustrating for those whose sole objective is to be an academic. This, however, may be the period to do soul-searching by asking yourself whether it is time you moved outside of your current place of abode.

Many new PhDs in Western Europe and North America are now being told to be prepared to move overseas if they want to improve their chances of securing an academic role.

Brett L. Shadle, an Associate Professor of history at Virginia Tech, USA, says the decision to move abroad would obviously depend on the person and what their ultimate goals are. “But, the way things are now, a new PhD needs to be open to many different kinds of jobs – both in and out of academe – and in and out of their home country,” he says.

Dr Shadle’s sentiment is shared by Anne Schumann who believes it is perhaps the best time to savour academic life overseas. Dr Schumann finished a PhD last year at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She moved to South Africa for an academic career and she is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

She says if you decide you want to stay in academia after your PhD and are willing to go overseas, it is important to factor in your personal circumstances.

If a new PhD has a partner and/or children, it is important that they will also be able to adjust – continue to work and/or find a good school – in the new environment,” she says. “Also consider the length of the post; to be sure it’s worth moving for. The AHRC, for example, has early career fellowships that last a maximum of nine months. If you have a family, it may not be worth moving to a new city for such a short fellowship.

Dr Schumann also advises that you should consider the type of position. She says postdoctoral fellowships usually have limited teaching, but it offers you the chance to publish your PhD research and to start a new research project. However, the postdoctoral pathway is often between one to three years duration, unlike a full-time teaching post that offers more stability. So, if like Dr Schumann you want to live abroad for a short while, the postdoctoral pathway might be ideal for you.

Dr Shadle points out that you should also consider institutional and cultural differences. He says it is important to remember that academia may work differently from one country to another, and that you should investigate carefully how academia operates in the country you want to go to. “For example, tenure in Britain is quite often different from tenure in the US – in the latter case, it is a much longer, stressful process. The British tutorial system is rare in America,” he says.

Dr Shadle suggests you track down a colleague working in the particular country under consideration.

It might not be someone you know,” he says. “But perhaps someone your adviser knows, or someone in your field. It might be an expat or a local. Ask that person some basics about how things work, such as job security, teaching expectations of students and administration, bureaucratic issues, and so on.

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