Four things to know before starting your European academic job hunt

Postdoc Boukje Cnossen shares some tips to navigate the subtle cultural differences between European countries that can loom large when you’re looking for a job 

May 22, 2018
Map of Europe
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Finishing a PhD is tough, but the dazzling array of options that await you in the academic job market thereafter are no cakewalk either. As a doctoral student in the Netherlands, I quickly learned that my field (management/organisation studies) is very international, and that postdoctoral experience abroad is highly valued.  

Being able to complete my doctorate felt like a huge opportunity. Sure, it was stressful, but being paid to contribute to scientific research felt like an immense privilege. (In Dutch academia, most PhD students enjoy the benefit of full-time paid employment). When the chance to embark on an academic career presented itself, the only question I had was “where do I sign up?”.

Despite my enthusiasm, I soon found that my job search was outside the traditional UK or US job arenas, and thus came with its own set of unique challenges. I focused only on jobs in Europe because I did not want to move too far away from the Netherlands. I applied on the basis of the job adverts that I found online on various national and international job boards and mailing lists. I also participated in a workshop for soon-to-be PhDs, that was part of a large international conference taking place in the US – but found the advice referring to a “European job market” as if it was one homogenous place that called for one continental approach. 

I ended up having job interviews with universities and business schools in several countries and in the end I had the luxury (and the accompanying stress) of being able to weigh up two job offers in two countries. I finally chose the job I have now, a five-year postdoc (or Qualifikationsstelle zur Habilitation in German) at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. But now, having gone through the daunting process of finding work on the “European job market”, there are several cultural differences that would have made my experience smoother had I known them from the start.  

Styles of communication vary wildly

There were a few months in which I was balancing interviews with attending the main conferences in my field. This sometimes meant conflicting appointments, and I often had to ask if the proposed date and time slot for an interview could be altered. Most universities were very accommodating except one French business school that had given me a time slot on the day that one of the major conferences in our field took place. When I asked them whether the interview could be rescheduled, given my clashing engagement, they simply did not respond. Even when I sent several reminders, I heard nothing.

When I shared this experience with other jobseekers, they reported similar experiences. While universities and business schools in the UK, Netherlands, and Nordic countries keep you informed every step of the way, even informing those who do not make it to the interview stage, it seems that the French application process is much more of a black box that you simply throw your application into and hope for the best.  

Awareness of inclusive language is not universal

Another difference in communication style between European universities and business schools can be found in the use of inclusive language and diversity statements. Job ads from the UK often include a statement about the wish of the hiring department to employ a more diverse staff. French universities and business schools often describe their ideal candidate using only male pronouns. Likewise, in job interviews, the awareness that discourse shapes reality, has not landed everywhere. During a job interview, two men told me without blinking that they were looking to hire “an entrepreneurship guy and a strategy guy”. This happened at the main US conference in my field. I wondered whether my ears had still not popped after the flight, and simply repeated “a guy?” They looked puzzled for a moment, then answered quickly: “Well, no, it could also be a girl, of course”. Their choice of words may simply have been colloquial, but it does not help in making female candidates feel like they fit the bill.

Language barriers still exist

Although there is no doubt that English is the lingua franca of academia, language barriers are still in place. Jobs are often advertised in English, and the hiring committee will contact and interview you in English too, but that does not mean you should not think about speaking (or learning) the language of the country where the institution is based. In my current job, being able to publish and teach in English is a plus, but the internal correspondence and departmental or faculty-wide meetings happen in German. At another job interview, at a business school in France, the people who interviewed me clearly expressed that it was a plus that I spoke French, even though this was by no means an official requirement. If you have some understanding of the language spoken locally this will definitely help you, even if your hiring university insists that it is not a prerequisite.

The social capital of scholars is invaluable

The most important realisation I have had is that, in the end, contacts and social networks matter. A lot. Especially in the postdoc market, jobs are often not widely advertised, or sometimes even not at all. The interconnectivity of academics is what can make the job market truly international because professors or teams wanting to hire postdocs just ask around in their global network to see if any colleagues can recommend recent PhDs. Consider where the network of your advisors, senior collaborators or mentors is, and ask them if they can reach out on your behalf to find out whether their colleagues at other schools are looking to hire.

Boukje Cnossen is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher in cultural organisation at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany.





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