As academic jobs become highly competitive in Western Europe and North America, many entering the job market may not have a choice but to move overseas if they want to work in academia. Experts say one of the most important skills for academics moving abroad because of work is cross-cultural skills. You not only need to overcome the shock of living in what may be a totally new culture, you also need to negotiate how to work with new colleagues and people outside of academia. The ability to work with others from different cultures is a key skill for expatriate academics, but it is a kind of competence that is rarely well defined. Neither is the path to attaining it easy.
Why having cross-cultural skills can help your research
Ayesha Ahmad's research is in Medical Ethics and she is currently a tutor at University College London (UCL). She says having cross-cultural skills can prove a fertile ground for preparing a solid foundation for further academic opportunities. Ms Ahmad works with fellow researchers from across the world. Most recently in South Africa, where she says institutions are extremely research-driven and incentives such as financial reward for publications are provided for by the government. In addition, she says, you are much more likely to be working in more diverse environments with smaller departments that tend to network together more. This results in a fusion of research styles and a rich output of analysis.
“I most certainly have experienced an invaluable experience from being immersed in different learning environments, which are reflective of different values, beliefs, and cultural systems. Such experiences have infiltrated into my ability to perceive the nuances that often may be overlooked in the different discourses of medical practice and how they bear upon the treatment of the individual patient,” she says. “The necessity to develop skills to converse among a pluralistic language has greatly influenced how I structure a research question and the proceeding argument; a skill that is now being recognized in the work I am producing for publication as essential for being able to hold a dialogue between cultural values and medicine.”
Communication and cultural values
So what kinds of cross-cultural skills do you need?
Experts say personality is the foundation of an expatriate's success because it shapes how someone copes in different situations. You must be able to listen to, and respect your new colleagues as well as the local people outside of academia, while being sensitive to their cultural values.
Listen to people, even if what they are saying might initially seem incorrect,” says Dr Matthew Bates, a medical researcher currently working in Zambia. “Learn their language, as this leads to greater understanding, both literally, and culturally.”
Both Ms Ahmad and Dr Bates say academics, by virtue of our training and dedication for many years to our particular fields of interest, are vulnerable to developing very specialized subjects and methodologies of analysis. Thus, whilst working cross-culturally, one of the most important skills to develop is to learn where our individual research fits into a wider scope and context.
For example, Dr Bates says studying confounding viral infections in tuberculosis meningitis would be very difficult in western countries due to the small number of cases, whereas in a big hospital in Africa or Asia, you might see many cases within a month.
“Your research therefore has to be locally relevant and exploit the problems at hand,” he says.
Ms Ahmad believes cross-cultural skills are inherently more than merely respecting another person’s culture and way of practicing and theorizing knowledge. She thinks cross-cultural skills for an academic need to become engrained in the way we see ourselves and view ourselves in the world.
“In other words, a type of cross-cultural skill that academics would need to have in order to be successful in an academic post overseas is to understand why our culture is so much a part of who we are; and for this we need to learn about the social, political, religious, and historical communities that we are working in regardless of our area of expertise,” she says.