Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Job Hunting Overseas

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Question: I am thinking about expanding my faculty job search to include Europe, but I am not sure how to get started, or what to expect. Do you have any general advice on that front?

Perhaps more than ever before, American academics seem to be seriously considering pursuing appointments in Europe. Finding a faculty position is no easier in Europe, but if you are willing to include foreign countries in your scope of "go where the job is," your odds of finding one may be a bit better.

The interest in working at foreign institutions stems from a variety of trends: their improved scholarly reputation, the increased corporatization of U.S. institutions, the cuts in federal research support here. All of those trends have been amplified and hyperpoliticized under our current president. There is no shortage of reasons why academics whose research centers on topics that the Trump administration has defunded and censored — as well as anyone who feels horrified and unsafe in this political climate — might look for a job abroad.

Over the years, I have featured some guest posts on my blog about various aspects of working in academic environments beyond the United States (read this and this on Britain, and this on Germany), but I want to offer a consolidated and current overview of what to keep in mind if an overseas move is something you are thinking about right now.

Know where to look. Various European countries will have their own national job boards or participate in intra-European databases that list academic jobs. Some institutions, especially the more "globally oriented" universities, are likely to post job ads on U.S. sites like The Chronicle,but not always. Jobs.ac.uk, for instance, is the major website for academic jobs in Britain.

Pay attention to the news, too, as you look for career options. If you work on climate issues, for example, the president of France has said you may have a future there. It is unclear how many academic appointments will actually be produced by President Emmanuel Macron’s Make Our Planet Great Againinitiative, but he has said he hopes to recruit American researchers working on climate issues to come to France and do the work that appears to be no longer welcome under the Trump administration.

Understand the local search lingo. From country to country, you will find cross-cultural differences in the formal nomenclature and the bureaucracy of the faculty hiring process. The documents you might be asked to submit may be different or go under different names than are used stateside.

Faculty job applications in Britain, for example, are structured around a document called "The Job Description and Selection Criteria." It comes with a "person specification form," which — in a check-box format — enumerates essential and desirable skills required for the application. Some universities ask applicants to discuss the criteria in a cover letter, which may well be called a "supporting statement." Other institutions may ask for a separate document in which the applicant must, quite literally, respond to each and every criteria in short narrative form. In either case, it is essential to mirror the language of the selection criteria and to explicitly relate your background and skills to the position requirements set out in those documents.

All of that will be a new and somewhat rigid way of doing things for most American Ph.D.s, who are used to a relatively free-form approach to cover letters — responding to vague prompts like "address your interest and qualification in the position." But in drafting your application, it is essential, not just desirable, to use the lingo and to master the relevant bureaucratic format.

Learn the research funding model in your target country. By and large, European academia operates through "mega-grants" from national research foundations and organizations like the European Research Council. In the United States, mega-grants — money for a researcher to buy release time from teaching duties and to pay for lab assistants — are common in lab sciences, but are not as common in social sciences and humanities. In Europe, despite the attenuation of public funding (nowhere is safe from the neoliberalization of academia), that model is still applicable across all fields, including the humanities.

To be a successful applicant in the country of your choice, you have to know what specific grants you will be expected to get as a junior faculty member. In addition, you have to outline specific plans for how you intend to go about getting that funding. You can find a list (not necessarily exhaustive) of foreign grant agencies here.

Similarly you must understand the country’s system for valuing scholarly output. The most well-known example of that is the British REF (Research Excellence Framework). Read more about the REF here and here. It’s basically a national audit system that assesses the research productivity of various departments, with an ensuing system of rankings that is tethered to receiving block grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

British universities have devised all kinds of strategies to "game" the REF (like hiring highly productive researchers for temporary fractional appointments). Search committees — under pressure, like everyone, to prioritize output — will pay attention to your phrasing about the "impact" (both existing and projected) of your work. They want to know things like: How many articles have you published? What are the impact factors of the journals you’ve published in? What, exactly, is going to be in your research pipeline once you’re hired?

Of course, you should spell out those things when you apply to U.S. institutions, too. But with British applications, imagine the added dimension of the specter of a university administrator with cartoon pound signs in their pupils animating that particular part of the selection process.

Know the culture of the reference letter. European academics often find American letters of reference useless as they are seen as far too superlative and insincere. When applying overseas, ask your letter writers to: (a) Dial it down a notch in terms of affect, and (b) emphasize your fit with a work collective a bit more than your individual accomplishments.

Be prepared for the different cultures and timelines around campus visits. In Britain, searches might move very fast, and your entire interview might last 20 minutes to an hour. All the interviews may be held on the same day, so you will probably get to meet the other finalists (and maybe even go to lunch with them). In Scandinavian countries, the hiring process might be veeeery slooow, and involve international panels of experts convening and voting on university appointments.

Applying overseas can be a very, very odd experience for American academics, who are used to a certain system — one in which they don’t meet the competition or even know the names of the other finalists.

So be prepared for a different process. Don’t be thrown. Act unflustered and gracious to the best of your ability. Try and be chill, much more than you might be at home. I’m sorry to say this, but evidence suggests it’s really true: Americans come across as pushy to much of the rest of the world. So tone it down. Try to treat this as a networking opportunity (without being over the top about it).

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