Viewpoint: Expand your career horizons with a position abroad

By Steven S. Harrod

It’s job market season again. Are you sticking your toe in the water? Looking for a new challenge? A change of weather? Why not make a big splash and consider a position beyond your country’s borders? Of course, for decades institutions in English-speaking nations have filled their ranks with recruits from around the world, but rarely does an academic from an English-speaking nation make the move abroad.

Steven Harrod at the Technical University of Denmark.

Four years ago I found myself, an American, interviewing with a foreign university, and the interviewer posed the most provocative question: “Why would you want to take a position where you work twice as hard for half the pay?” I had to confess that I did not know the answer to the interviewer’s question, because I did not know the details about the job to which I was applying. In retrospect, I realize now that the interviewer was just as guilty of not knowing anything about the academic work environment in the United States as I was about their university.

I did not let that encounter dissuade me. In 2014, I moved from the University of Dayton in Ohio to the Technical University of Denmark in suburban Copenhagen. It has been an enriching, life-changing experience. It was the most significant decision in my life since leaving home for college. Why wouldn’t it be? Like many of my colleagues, I chose an academic life for the freedom to learn and explore, for the adventure of “going where no man has gone before,” and, like many of you, my research can at times be very narrow and specialized. My move to Denmark has offered me research opportunities that fundamentally do not exist in the United States and given me a whole new fresh outlook on life. Why wouldn’t you consider expanding your research to a different point of view and set of cultural values?

English has long been the standard language of business and research. More and more universities in non-English nations are offering education programs in English, and these universities are increasingly open to hiring faculty and researchers from abroad. Further, many of the host nations are improving their services to ease the transition for professional recruits from abroad. But the biggest obstacles to making a move abroad are often fear, and the fact that the systems are so different it is hard to make a direct comparison.

Do’s and Don’ts

It is very easy to become fixated on the differences between your home and destination countries, and find reasons not to make the move. Don’t do that. There are more similarities between countries, especially in this connected, digital world, than you may fully appreciate. There is very little difference between McDonald’s in Chicago and McDonald’s in Copenhagen, and if Walmart is your passion, you’ll find something similar to that everywhere you go too.

It’s important not to focus too much on specific numerical comparisons, like salary. Tax structures and benefits can vary enormously from one country to another. Benefits that you may pay for separately today, such as child care, health insurance and copays, are included (or heavily subsidized) in the taxes you pay in many countries. Another problem is the rate of exchange. When valued as U.S. dollars, my salary lost 20 percent of its value over two years due to currency value alone! But its purchasing power in my community did not change. Focus on qualitative measures when evaluating job offers. Do colleagues in similar positions appear happy? Do they have nice homes? Do they take nice vacations to interesting places? Are they productive in their research? Do they attend interesting conferences?

Of course, you still would like to know some hard facts about your foreign job offer, but it can be difficult to find all the information. Very often your colleagues and human resources staff “don’t know what you don’t know.” They can also be guilty of just assuming you know things, or not realizing that some local practice is different from your home country. It took us a long time to fully understand the employment benefits in Denmark, because they are standard across the whole country, and there are no human resources information packages that are typical in the United States. Many of my benefits are also vested in the employee union I belong to, so information about those benefits is found with the union representative, not with the university human resources department.

This information gap extends also to the work environment and practices and procedures for research and education, so be careful to ask questions often and early. For example, the course delivery process is completely different in Denmark than in the United States. Oral final exams, which form the majority of the course grade, are the norm. However, no one thought to tell me, until 24 hours before my first exam, that we assess the exam immediately in the five minutes after the student presentation, and then announce the course grade to the student before he or she leaves! The management structure may also surprise you. In my institution, management of education is a completely separate, parallel structure to the management of the departments and research, and many education rules and policies are actually set by Danish law.

Try to learn as much as you can about citizen benefits when evaluating a job offer. You may be faced with the choice of whether to be classified as “contract” or “permanent.” A time limited or contract classification may save you some taxes and simplify your departure from the country in the future, but it may also prohibit you from receiving some benefits, and if you really like your new job, it may make staying in the country more difficult later. In many countries, your children qualify for free education either immediately or within a few years of arrival, and this can be an enormous financial benefit, but this only applies to permanent employment status. If you are starting a family, many countries also have valuable benefits for new parents. In Denmark, new parents are entitled to a year of leave with pay, which can either be taken entirely by the mother or divided between mother and father. Permanent employment is also the starting point for citizenship, and increasingly governments are permitting dual citizenship.

Learn the Language

If you take a job abroad, I strongly recommend that you start learning the language of your new home immediately, and make it a priority in your first year of employment. English is very common in most metropolitan areas, and your workgroup at the university will most likely conduct business in English, but this also leads to a dangerous procrastination with respect to learning your new home’s language. After a few years, it can become embarrassing to have large meetings in English only because you are attending.

It is also important to be sensitive to your use of language in the classroom. I am very conscious when lecturing to repeat important points often and with alternate phrasing, because almost always I am the only native English speaker in the room. Be cautious; just because someone is speaking English to you in a familiar accent does not mean that they really understand you. My wife came home from the doctor one day very disappointed. She had requested a drug that she previously had been prescribed in America, and the doctor said, “We don’t have that drug in Denmark.” Two months later, she went back to the doctor in pain, and the doctor said, “Take this drug.” Huge misunderstanding! They did not have that drug in Denmark, but they did have other drugs in Denmark.

Be aware that the hiring process can differ significantly in other countries. Some practices that are discouraged or flat out illegal in the United States may be the norm in other countries. Examples of this include putting one’s photo, marital status and age on a CV. The selection process can also be surprising. In Denmark, the selection process has two steps. In the first step, candidates are assessed for minimum qualifications by a committee of external judges. Then two to three of the top candidates that pass this evaluation are assessed in a more familiar onsite research presentation and interview of a day’s length. The United Kingdom has the strangest selection process I have ever experienced. As many as six candidates are invited for onsite interviews on the same day. They may all be invited to dinner together the night before (which I find very uncomfortable). The interviews will then consist of a research presentation and perhaps a half-hour panel interview. The selection will often be made immediately afterward, and candidates often know their status on the flight home.

I have to admit I had quite a euphoric rush when I received my job offer by email as I entered my taxi to the Copenhagen airport. It won’t be long before life in your new country seems perfectly normal, and you are complaining about the traffic just like you did back home. But you will feel distinctly different, taller than you were before, with a completely different perspective on your research and on your global neighbors. It is a feeling of accomplishment that I warmly recommend. So, as you look into the job market this season, why not look a little further?

Steven S. Harrod (stehar@dtu.dk) is an associate professor at the Technical University of Denmark.