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.

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POSTSCRIPT:

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

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