In it for the long haul? Reflections on international relocation

Moving overseas is often the best way to further an academic career, but the transition to a new system and culture can be painful. Six academics recount their experiences and offer their tips

February 27, 2020
people pull plane along runway

‘The instability and marginalisation kept me reading, listening and thinking’

Being a woman in higher education feels about as comfortable as being a bishop in Lucifer’s Late Night Dive Bar. Our bodies don’t fit. Our voices are too shrill. Our disciplines are not hard, quantitative or industry-ready.

An array of vapidities spill from the lips of men in power to justify the extraordinary inequality between men and women granted permanent positions, professorships, research funding and leadership roles. Women are underqualified in comparison with men. Women have caring responsibilities. Women are not prepared to move from “home” to take up an academic post overseas.

Nonsense. I have lived my academic life without excuses. I have worked in nine universities in four countries. I have achieved the qualifications, teaching awards and published papers. Never completing the academic gap year of a postdoc, I was thrown into a full-time university lectureship in a “foreign” country at the age of 25. Since then, like Tallahassee, Woody Harrelson’s character in Zombieland, I have wandered the post-apocalyptic university landscape with no expectations for tomorrow, delighting whenever I find a Twinkie.

I have worked in post-industrial wastelands, rural locations undermined by the vagaries of food capitalism, and urban universities drunk dry by vampiric vice-chancellors, and watched as senior colleagues were crushed by inexperienced and narcissistic deans. I have been spat on in the streets of Liverpool. A rowdy group of commuters at a train station on the south coast of England instructed me to “go back where you came from”. My qualifications were questioned by a US academic living in Canada, who was so fuelled by impostor syndrome that it is remarkable that she ever left the house.

I have witnessed everything that can happen in a university: every vision statement, strategic plan, key performance indicator and restructure. I have heard the celebration of multiple risk registers, rebrandings and “revolutionary” learning management systems – all of which failed. It is like playing a chess game where I already know the next 20 moves to checkmate.

All these toxic and tremulous places have left their fingerprints on me. While I remain amazed by the pompous security of a white, tenured male in the country of his birth, the instability and marginalisation that I experienced kept me reading, listening and thinking. They shaped me into a better scholar.

Appropriately, I conclude with a story of travel. I moved from a British professorship and head of department job in a gritty post-industrial city to a professorship and head of school role in a sleepy regional town in Australia. The previous head had found strife – or strife had found her – and when I arrived, it was clear that the staff were wary. But by remembering everything I had learned, heard and seen, I helped us to create a culture of decency, integrity and hope. My then office manager a few weeks later told me: “We were so nervous when you arrived, you know. By lunchtime, none of us could remember any other head of school but you.”

That is the gift of academic mobility. Like cats, we can land on our feet, assess the scene and create movement in the weirdest of locations. There have been tears. There have been shocks, and occasional moments of horror. I don’t expect a happy ending; I don’t expect kindness, honesty, respect or integrity. Agendas are summoned and meetings are run while our intellectual culture is burning.

But the friendships and diverse learning cultures provide a reminder that when we move, we change. For the colleagues and students in my care, everything that I have experienced enables me to nurture pockets of passionate responsibility.

Tara Brabazon is dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies at Flinders University.


‘Transaction costs are high when you run meetings and teach classes in your second language’

It felt like a movie. We were out on the tarmac at Edinburgh airport, boarding a small plane in the driving December rain, bound for Dublin, then Boston, then Charlotte, North Carolina, and then a new life in Mexico City. Interminable months of preparation and planning had finally come to an end.

I had just finished a stint as head of department at the University of Edinburgh. My wife had received her PhD from the University of St Andrews a few months before. Together with our eight-month-old daughter, we were leaving Scotland for my sabbatical and then two more years of unpaid leave.

From the start, the question was “should we stay, or should we go?” (back to Scotland).

We were lucky in the transition. For one thing, my wife is Mexican. We had her house as a base and her extended family as contacts and support. A prestigious institute in Mexico City, the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), offered me a visiting position and, later, a full-time post as we debated whether to stay. Edinburgh was generous with its leave policy, so our toes could test the water for a very long time.

Eventually, we made the change permanent. For me, it was easy. The CIDE job was and is good, and I wanted to support my wife’s career. Her PhD had been funded by a scholarship from Conacyt, Mexico’s national science foundation, and she was obliged to return to Mexico. And who could complain about waking up to warm sunshine and palm trees, or fantastic restaurants and cafes with very affordable prices?

We did not face the adjustment challenges of many in this position. Aside from the family connections, both my wife and I had been living outside our home countries for years before this move. She moved to Scotland for graduate work and lived there for more than six years. I moved from Washington DC to London in 1990, also to study, so our lives were already international.

Yet there are challenges. I arrived with so-so Spanish. It’s better now, but transaction costs are high when you run meetings and teach classes in your second language. Language learning may help retard Alzheimer’s, but productivity certainly declines (although a tough administrative job is a bigger brake on productivity in my opinion). And if there are language challenges in a staid academic setting, imagine being in a family fiesta with boisterous in-laws simultaneously shouting stories in very colloquial and colourful terms.

The academic culture in Mexico is also very different from that of the UK. Academic publishing is a high priority in both, but – like other Mexican public institutions – CIDE is regimented and hierarchical. That can be good and bad. A lot of the dreadful admin chores are in the hands of the higher-ups or the army of assistants that I have as head of the international studies department. At the same time, our departmental choices on hiring and other initiatives are overseen and influenced by our bosses.

The financial situation is different too. In Edinburgh, when I became head of department in 2010, Scotland was simultaneously introducing fees for non-Scottish UK students and also reeling from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. We were worried, but needn’t have been. The department has doubled in size since then. Here in CIDE, funding was cut by 30 per cent from 2016 to 2019, with profound consequences for services, library resources and maintenance (though not, so far, for salaries).

Rewards for research and teaching are different too. Pay cheques here in CIDE depend on output. Teach a class, get paid for it. Publish a paper, get paid for it. In Mexico, the equivalent of the research excellence framework is a personal review of research and publications, which, depending on the findings, also supplements salary. And I get paid extra as head of department.

I like this focus on productivity and incentives – in the best-case scenario, we can rely on colleagues to pull their weight. But anyone who has run a department will know that reality can be different. And that’s the same everywhere.

Mark Aspinwall is a research professor in the Division of International Studies at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), Mexico City, and honorary professorial fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

Australia/Durham 

‘The anticipated hit to my scientific reputation and productivity never materialised’

Very little about my move Down Under went to plan. I thought I would go to New Zealand, not Australia. Then I thought I would go to Sydney, not Melbourne. And I was definitely, 110 per cent, only going temporarily, to get a few years’ experience.

I had been really excited to get my first lectureship post at Durham University in 2010, but it was fixed term and, far too quickly, my time was up. Many, many unsuccessful interviews later I was demoralised and seriously considering leaving academia.

Then somebody suggested looking abroad. I didn’t like the idea. It would mean leaving family and close friends, but I needed work, and I was still youngish, free and single. So, in January 2012, after a fairly painless visa application, I found myself starting a new job more than 10,000 miles from home.

Step one was finding a place to live. Melbournians are somewhat fixated on suburbs, and I had no idea which were good and which weren’t. It was also surprisingly difficult to rent, even having a respectable job, without an Australian rental history. But my new boss kindly let me stay at his property until I was able to get a lease on a great beachside apartment – on what I later found out was the “wrong” (west) side of Port Philip bay.

Moving as an established academic is not quite the same as for PhD students or postdocs, who know how long they will be away and don’t necessarily worry about applying for grants or doing teaching. I knew that I would have to learn new funding and education systems and build new contacts.

What I hadn’t considered is that January and February are prime grant-writing time in the southern hemisphere, where the long summer holiday coincides with the Christmas-New Year period. Hence, I spent a lot of time in the first few months meeting people to find out who was in the area, who knew whom, and what advice they might have about the Australian research funding system. The grant applications that resulted were, sadly, not successful, but the networks I developed proved invaluable further down the line, as did the support of my university and new friends.

Before I left the UK, I had contented myself with the thought that although I was moving far away, in cultural terms I would remain close to home. However, I soon discovered that Australia is far more culturally diverse than one might assume from watching British TV, and there are real and distinct differences between rural Australia and the large metropolitan cities on the coast. Aussies have little time for British reserve or formalities, and anyone deemed too big for their boots is quickly called out. I sometimes found this challenging but I got over it and now I enjoy the plain-speaking ways of my adopted home.

In the medium term, I had to build a reputation on the other side of the planet from where I came from. Fortunately, science – certainly anglophone science – is a global enterprise, and it turned out that many of my new countrymen and women were already aware of my work and I was able to maintain my existing links through email and conferences. By making an effort to contribute to the academic community, the anticipated hit to my scientific reputation and productivity never materialised.

Oz is not without its downsides, of course. There are bushfires and I will never get used to 40°C Christmas days on the beach. I also never stop missing my UK-based family, and I wish I could be there more for the early years of my nieces and nephews.

But Australia has given me a lot: a career, a wonderful wife, a home, an extended family and more. The lifestyle is great, not everything is poisonous and drop bears are only imaginary. I don’t regret my decision to move here.

Oliver Jones is associate dean for biosciences and food tech at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Hong Kong/Dublin

‘Am I ready to give up the experience of difference and the expat academic identity?’

Moving country as an academic is presumably not too different from moving country for many other professionals. The job is your entry-point, and you are introduced to many aspects of your new homeland’s culture by work colleagues.

When I moved to a university in Japan after spending a year with the Open University in the UK, I didn’t know anyone there. It had been the same when I moved to the US from Ireland on exchange as a graduate student. And it was like that again when I moved from Japan to a university in Hong Kong. However, starting a new life from my cold, unfurnished apartment in Nagoya on my first trip to Asia was perhaps my most difficult international challenge. New colleagues were vital to helping me find my feet.

Since I spoke neither Japanese nor Cantonese, fellow gaijin (non-Japanese) or gweilo (Western) academics who could speak English were particularly helpful. But for the generosity of expat colleagues in Japan and Hong Kong, I may never have got through the initial feelings of alienation. However, one can also rely too much on expat groups, perhaps.

In both cases, I was moving as a single person, so I did not have to worry about resettling a family. The Hong Kong move was also essential for my research as I did not have access to key databases at my Japanese university. Moreover, Hong Kong's UK-style research assessment exercise seemed to offer the recognition for my publications that, as an early career academic, I perhaps foolishly craved. I also have fewer teaching hours in Hong Kong and am able to confine my teaching to my own area of expertise.

Moving to Asia, I quickly became aware of a change in status. I went from struggling financially as an assistant lecturer in the UK, and from often being described as overqualified by teaching and recruitment agencies, to territories where academics with doctorates are employed as “professors” and generally accorded great public respect. This comes at a cost, though – I had to wear a blazer, shirt and tie while teaching in Japan!

However, as a white man in Asia working in literature and the humanities, I quickly became aware of important gaps in my understanding of global culture. I was introduced to East-West studies and began to take classes in Asian languages. I learned too that universities in cities like Hong Kong can sometimes work to preserve a spirit of colonialism. The move then informed my research as it became a personal research interest of mine to explore comparatively anglophone Western culture alongside local and Asian writing.

Overall, moving to a new country and a new culture as an academic – but as a person, first and foremost – is a hugely enriching experience. And now, as I contemplate moving back to my home country, I ask myself whether I am ready to give up the experience of difference and the expat academic identity that has come to be part of how I see myself and also of how others see me.

I am also conscious that I will never look at my native culture in the same way as I did before. And I ask myself whether I will be content to fit back into a culture that may now feel all too familiar, and to lose that first-hand connection with an expatriate culture that has also become a field of research.

Michael O’Sullivan is associate professor in the department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


‘We have spent many long evenings together wondering if we made the right choice’

It is taken for granted that successful modern academics must be flexible and mobile enough to seize opportunities wherever they may be. But uprooting yourself not just from the town or city but from the country in which you live comes with short- and medium-term challenges – logistical, cultural, social and emotional – that impact on all aspects of our lives but are, typically, little discussed.

In March 2018, I took up an academic post at Durham University. This meant relocating from Munich, Germany, seven years after I had moved there from the UK. I think many people who know me expected me to feel that I was moving back home. But seven years is long enough to put down roots, and I actually regarded Munich and Germany as my adopted home.

An important challenge that comes with the international mobility inherent in academic life is that of adapting to new cultures. We are often required to do this many times over in a career, yet it is a process that can take years. And it turns out that culture shock can occur even when you return to a country in which you have lived previously.

We are all expected to be resilient and to relish the chance to explore new places. And, of course, I am very grateful for such opportunities. But I also think that it is important to recognise that people can find adjustment difficult and that it inevitably takes some time to find your feet in a new country.

The easiest remedy to culture shock may be to surround ourselves with people. But moving somewhere new usually comes with isolation from a social network. It takes time to establish a new one and make new friends. I was lucky to move with my partner – a teammate I could tackle this with – and to a place where, through my new job, I had already got to know some supportive people. Nevertheless, we have spent many long evenings together wondering if we made the right choice to leave our many friends in Munich.

We chose to do so because it allowed me to move from a non-permanent job to a permanent one. That was and is a huge opportunity to take a longer-term view of my career and work: it is what aspiring academics aim for. The significant difficulties associated with the short-termism of early career academia are discussed widely, and rightly so – it’s hard to plan a life when you are on a succession of short-term contracts.

Yet the challenges don’t stop when we get the permanent job we aim for. Impostor syndrome only gets worse. Metrics of assessment only bear on us more directly. And workload and responsibility only increase – often in areas for which we are not well prepared. Social and cultural isolation only adds to the difficulty, and its medium-term impacts on young academics need acknowledging.

My mental health is generally robust, but I am not immune to these strains. Uprooting myself from Munich turned out to be one of the hardest things I have done. My productivity and motivation have suffered. It is only now, two years on, that I feel that I am finding myself again. The County Durham hills, Hadrian’s Wall and nearby Northumberland coast have become sanctuaries of meditative calm – places I can go walking or running that help me reidentify with this England home. This spring, I hope to feel for the first time that I have arrived.

Fabian Wadsworth is an assistant professor in the department of Earth sciences at Durham University.

Turkey/Suzhou

'I relished the prospect of an academic community with shared research interests'

In 2017, I moved to Suzhou, near Shanghai, with my partner. It was not my first time living in China. I had spent more than three years there as a graduate student, as I am an area studies scholar with a focus on contemporary urban China.

I had done fieldwork in various parts of the country, but I had never worked professionally in Chinese academia except for a short-term teaching assistantship. I had always wanted to do so in order to gain deeper insight into the country, but I thought I would have to wait until I was due a sabbatical.

Hence, when I saw a job advertised at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, I was very interested. The Turkish university I was working at was bigger and older, but it had a much smaller Asian studies programme. I relished the prospect of an academic community with shared research interests to collaborate with. I was also attracted by the autonomy from domestic political contexts offered by employment at an international university.

In short, my relocation was mostly motivated by professional interests – and I have not been disappointed. My Anglo-Chinese university provides me with time, funds and logistical support to launch new research projects and I have been involved in multiple collaborative projects since I arrived. I’m also teaching courses that are directly situated in my research area for the first time in my career.

Yet while my linguistic skills – I’m literate in written Chinese and fluent in Mandarin – and familiarity with Chinese life have helped a great deal, there are things I have had to adjust to. During my graduate studies, I was mostly based in Beijing, in northern China. Suzhou was my first experience of living and working in the south, in a relatively quiet city with much less diversity and fewer opportunities for cultural stimulation than a cosmopolitan mega-city such as Beijing offers.

On the other hand, public services such as traffic and bureaucracy are well organised and more efficient, so the Suzhou environment is conducive to productive work. Indeed, our university provides a self-sufficient campus life, which the faculty appreciate – although it may allow colleagues whose research interests are not related to China and who have no prior experience of living in China to remain relatively isolated from local life.

My partner, too, had never even visited China before we relocated, and this is common among the “trailing spouses” of our colleagues and friends. But he is able to continue his line of work from a distance. He has developed local professional networks and started new projects in China, but also travels for fieldwork throughout the year.

Indeed, frequent travel is a part of our new life in China. As well as trips to other places in the region, we often visit our families, even though they live in two different countries.

Relocating to China has allowed me to return to a place I was familiar with but also to discover new dimensions of a vast and fascinating country.

Ceren Ergenc is an associate professor in the department of China studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The long haul

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