In Belgium, the beer is warmer than the academy

Belgian academia looks enticing and accommodating to UK postgraduates, but Kate Macdonald found that it was for locals only

August 6, 2015
Man drowning in glass of beer (illustration)
Source: iStock montage

Belgium is, on the face of it, a very attractive place for British graduates when they’re thinking of doing a PhD, especially if it can be done in English. Belgian beer and chocolate are deservedly legendary, and for those with a Daily Mail-related phobia of Brussels, the biggest universities are outside the capital: in Leuven, Liège, Louvain-la-Neuve and Ghent. Research funding is distributed via personal grants or through projects supervised by professors. Your PhD defence is a public event during which you deliver a 20-minute paper and are then grilled by five ferocious examiners for two hours, in front of your family and all your friends. If you have a thoughtful supervisor, they will have arranged champagne at the catered reception afterwards.

But what happens after that? Your former supervisor, with whom you were expected to have a feudal relationship, has promised to find something for you but disappears on sabbatical and doesn’t reply to emails. You start writing an application for postdoctoral funding but can’t find a professor to sponsor it: they have a limited number of funding opportunities and their own students to take care of. When the community college in a nearby town advertises temporary teaching assistantships, you realise that you should have made more time for Dutch classes – because the administration and the teaching are in Dutch, and you’re in competition with trilingual Belgians. This happens several times.

A postdoctoral post comes up in a Belgian city across the language divide and you begin writing your online application, thankful that you learned French at school. You need five referees: you email madly to restore contact with any professor you met in the departmental corridor or at the two conferences you were allowed to attend (project money was tight). You receive a polite acknowledgement that your application has arrived. Seven months later, you are told that you were not successful. You have already heard through the grapevine that the successful candidate was the most recent PhD in that department.

In the meantime, your former postgraduate colleagues (all Belgian) have managed to pick up a 20 per cent teaching post here, and a 35 per cent research administration job there. They’re happy because they can stay in their home city, where they grew up, went to school and attended university.

Back in your old department, where you hope to hear rumours of temporary teaching or impending maternity-leave opportunities, another foreigner is raising merry hell because he’s just found out that his PhD is too old for funding. He took early retirement from his previous job and planned to begin postdoctoral research. With a PhD from the 1980s, however, he’s barred from applying to the Belgian funding body for a postdoc grant, and none of the professors is interested in using their precious allocation to put their name to the application.

Belgian academia is ultimately for the locals.

Kate Macdonald is former assistant professor in the department of literary studies, Ghent University.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The beer’s great for drowning your inevitable sorrows

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

As the pay of BBC on-air talent is revealed, one academic comes clean about his salary

Senior academics at Teesside University put at risk of redundancy as summer break gets under way

Capsized woman and boat

Early career academics can be left to sink or swim when navigating the choppy waters of learning scholarly writing. Helen Sword says a more formal, communal approach can help everyone, especially women

Thorns and butterflies

Conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation – relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy – can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit, says Ruth Barcan