Is the grass really greener on the other side of the ocean? Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece advising new Ph.D.s to seek employment overseas. I made that choice a few years ago, and while I don’t regret it, I can tell you that it isn’t right for everyone, and the Chronicle piece elides the very real challenges of taking work overseas.
Travel is costly and time-consuming. International airfare costs more than domestic airfare and travel takes more time. Going back to the U.S., for me, starts with a five-hour flight to Hawai’i that arrives at 3 am, so onward travel has to wait a while. I’m planning to attend a few conferences in the U.K. this summer, which is going to mean a couple days of travel each way. Unless there are conferences on your subject in the region where you are going to work, you will not be able to attend any conferences during the academic year. You won’t be visiting your family on long weekends. Scott T. Gibson, the author of the Chronicle article, points out that, in areas with a lower cost of living than the US, you can live a comfortable life on a modest salary—but that doesn’t help pay for long-haul plane tickets.
You will experience culture shock in the classroom. Even after three years in the Marshall Islands, I can’t always predict what ideas or examples my students here will be familiar with. Finding new ways to explain concepts can be a stimulating intellectual challenge, but it can also be stressful, especially during busy times of the semester when you don’t have the time to conduct extra research.
In many cases, you will also have to adapt your pedagogy to suit the needs of students who speak English as a later language, though this has not been especially challenging for me, as I taught ESL and EFL prior to returning to school for the Ph.D.
The one-body and two-body problems can be exacerbated. It depends where you go and who you are, but moving overseas can mean a smaller dating pool. For those already coupled, the odds of a spouse finding work can be greatly reduced, assuming their visa allows employment at all.
You may not be able to get the healthcare you need. In some countries, healthcare is better and more affordable than in the U.S. Where I live now, it is certainly less expensive, but the hospital regularly runs out of basic medications. Machines break and aren’t fixed for months. If I had any kind of condition that required ongoing treatment, I wouldn’t be here.
Despite these challenges, I am happy here. I work with students who are capable of tremendous growth and who have as much to teach me as I have to teach them. They have whole worlds that, as yet, I have only glimpsed—and I have worlds to offer them. I’ve also learned to SCUBA dive, which I don’t think I’d have done at home.
My point here is not to advocate against Ph.D.s seeking work in other countries. Rather, I want to present a more balanced look than the Chronicle does and to argue against the idea of seeking overseas work as a solution to the abysmal academic jobs market. Emigration can bring rewards, but the challenges are enough that no one should be driven to it by the increasing casualization of labor within higher education. The only real solutions to the crisis of academic poverty are systemic ones.