Wealth of opportunity

August 14, 1998

Commonwealth universities offer just the jobs for academics at both ends of the career ladder. Natasha Loder reports

Fancy a university post that takes you to the Zambian Rift Valley or the palm-strewn shores of the West Indies? If so, you could do well to consider packing your bags and heading for a position at a Commonwealth university. Whether you are 55 and looking for five years of sunshine, or 25 and finding it hard to get started on the academic ladder, there may be something that is just the job for you.

The lack of growth in United Kingdom academia means openings are scarce and hotly contested. But elsewhere, new universities are springing up, creating new jobs. This is especially true in developing countries which have too few nationals to fill all the academic posts.

Dorothy Garland, of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, explains that a lecturing position can be an "ideal jumping post" for people straight out of a PhD. You may find yourself with responsibilities that would just not have been possible in the UK, in administration, student supervision and encouragement. "This is a very marketable skill," says Ms Garland. At Commonwealth universities the common language is English, and their system is based around the British structure - so you can have pretty much the same expectations of how it will work."

This is far from meaning that a post at a Commonwealth university is a ticket to a career in UK academia. Early teaching and administrative responsibilities can be a drawback if your ambition is in research. Straight after his PhD, Nick Colegrave did a year's research at McGill University in Canada, returning to Britain in 1996.

Dr Colegrave says: "Early on in your career, when you are not the most efficient researcher in the world, you need as much time for research as possible. If you get too bogged down with teaching too early you may find yourself stuck on that course for the rest of your life. That's not necessarily a bad thing but it's a decision, or possibility, you would have to be aware of."

It is possible to do interesting and exciting research if you choose your Commonwealth university carefully. "If you are a plasma physicist there are rather few chances to do exciting research somewhere like Papua New Guinea, whereas if you are a botanist it will be wonderful," says Ms Garland. Here the ACU can help academics choose the right post. With a remit to encourage the movement of academic staff between its nearly 500 member universities, it can supply more information about posts, the university and its research.

From next year, the ACU is introducing a section into its Commonwealth Universities Yearbook on the key research strengths of departments.

But within some subject areas there are unparalleled opportunities for research abroad. If you are working in zoology, botany, ecology, archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography or tropical medicine, work abroad offers the chance to gain access to unique life forms, environments and landscapes. This kind of experience is likely to be a valuable part of a research career, but you still need a good publication record if you want to move back into academic life in the UK. This may be difficult if you had a wide range of academic responsibilities and your department was not supportive of your research.

Douglas Harris, an electrical engineer with many years' experience in Commonwealth universities around the globe, says: "It is not an obvious career advancement step unless you are thinking of a career overseas, or are looking for personal development, widening horizons, seeing interesting things and doing a worthwhile job." For older academics at the end of their careers it can be the "highlight of their academic experience", says Dr Harris. "You come back with a fair sense of satisfaction, having done a job which is appreciated and which has made a clear contribution. "

A suitable person should be able to communicate well, is self-sufficient and has patience with bureaucratic differences. "It is quite important not to expect things to work the same way as they do at home," says Ms Garland.Although there can be the chance of a job being renewed, academics must move on when their post has expired, but movement from Commonwealth post to post is not unusual.

Ms Garland says: "Sometimes having worked in a tropical country it gets in the blood, perhaps literally."

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