Cautions and caveats for academics who want to work abroad (opinion)

In the West, it’s common to view globalization through an inbound lens: international students and scholars come to North America or Europe for study or work, with some returning home and others perhaps choosing to remain. But the outbound movement of Western scholars to non-Western settings has always been present, although less visible.

In my own case, I came onto the academic job market in the early 1980s, a time of severe global recession, when jobs in many fields, including higher education, were scarce. When I broke with all expectations and accepted a faculty position at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1982, I figured I would probably teach there two or three years before returning to more familiar territory in the United States. Those initial few years ended up stretching to more than 38 before I retired in March 2021, covering six countries and territories and incorporating a move from faculty to academic administration—including stints as CEO at Emirates College of Technology and MENA College of Management, both in the United Arab Emirates.

In my time outside America, I’ve known hundreds of expatriates in similar situations to my own, some as close friends and colleagues, others as more casual acquaintances. The motivations to pursue an expatriate career are as varied as the individuals themselves. The intangible value of immersion in diverse cultures, different from one’s own, is often cited as a benefit for residing abroad. This benefit is real, and I value it greatly. It was equally significant for my wife and me to pass on a multicultural worldview, not from books or YouTube videos but lived experiences, to our children. For other people, the opportunity for world travel is an incentive or the chance to reinvent oneself by surmounting new challenges. And still other scholars find academic benefits to living and working in a locality or culture where their research is centered.

But although an expatriate career can be rewarding, it comes with its own set of cautions and caveats. I’ve distilled some of the most common ones that I and other expats I’ve known well have experienced in hopes they’re useful to readers considering a career change or redirection that involves an international relocation.

Research priorities may need to shift. To some extent, that’s inevitable when, say, a faculty member assumes administrative responsibilities. But in an international setting, other factors come to bear on your ability as a scholar to sustain a research agenda. Funding opportunities and grant support can be harder to come by or mainly restricted to nationals of the country. Graduate assistants and postdoctoral researchers are scarce in many localities without robust traditions of graduate education of their own. Importing laboratory equipment is costly.

The local context may also indicate a particular slant that you must give to a research program to address decision makers’ concerns. Different places look differently on even a research subject that would seem universally applicable, like the impacts of climate change. Sea-level rise may be the main concern in one country, desertification in another, intensification of weather patterns in a third.

I faced more resistance as a CEO, in fact, than I’d anticipated trying to persuade other expatriates and some local colleagues to take on administrative responsibilities in areas where faculty involvement is crucial, like strategic planning and academic quality assurance. The sticking point? Almost without exception, it was less time for research. (It didn’t help, of course, that budget constraints in those institutions necessitated a four-course-per-semester teaching load.)

Flexibility is valued. I ended up as the secretary to five university committees in my second administrative position, only two of which are closely related to my job description. The justification was that the working language of the university administration was English, and the specialist art of recording minutes for committee meetings was out of the comfort zone for many of the institution’s managers—even those who spoke the language fluently. As a native speaker, I was perceived to be more capable of rendering the nuances of language for inclusion in the permanent record of the committees’ proceedings.

Other expatriates I knew volunteered different skills. In one case, an administrator agreed to coach an American football team that local students without much knowledge of the sport had organized. Once an expatriate’s particular skills and competencies become known, they can expect to be offered the chance to use them—even in ways that were unanticipated when starting the job.

Networks are valuable. In my experience, career expatriates are mobile, and it’s unusual to spend one’s entire career at one institution. Even within the same country, you can often find ample opportunities to move between institutions. Twice in my career, when I needed to make a change, I leveraged connections I had made in earlier positions to land my next one. What’s more, in some places, tenure is nonexistent, due process can’t be relied upon and owners or senior managers can be capricious in their decision making. A professional network represents the best social safety net for an expatriate, and cultivating one is time well spent in those conditions.

Every society is fractured. Every nation or culture has its social divisions, which may run along very different lines than an expatriate is used to. Geographical divides, linguistic divides, caste or social class divides, native versus foreigner divides—any of those can set groups within the community apart from each other. You need to be aware of the basis for social fractures that, left unaddressed, can disrupt the life of your institution. Concepts such as diversity and inclusion will take on new meanings in the local context depending on the nature of the gap to be bridged and the willingness of the institution’s leadership to take actions in that direction.

Local politics can be challenging. In all of my time outside the United States, I never held a position in a Western-style democracy. Two of the places where I worked were colonies, two were monarchies and two were one-party states. Co-workers who are local to the country may have different levels of political involvement, from government apologists to dissidents to the wholly apathetic.

Although expatriates are not expected to insert themselves into political controversies, you may be tempted from time to time to comment—say, in response to an action on the local or national government’s part that you feel strongly about. My suggestion is to resist doing so—at least in public, like on social media. The reputational risks, not to mention the risks of alienating co-workers with other views, are too high.

Retirement planning will look different. In many countries, participation in a public retirement scheme is limited to citizens of that country. You might receive instead an end-of-contract lump-sum gratuity payment, the size of which may vary depending on final salary and years of service. A move to different countries in the course of your career might result in several of those one-off payments coming in at different times.

It is on your shoulders to convert such irregular lump sums, together with any accumulated regular savings, into an adequate income stream for retirement. Doing so is doubly essential for expats intending to ultimately retire in their home country but who haven’t had the chance to contribute to its Social Security or pension system while working elsewhere.

Family buy-in makes all the difference. If you are an expatriate with a family, you should research living conditions that will impact the household’s quality of life before accepting a position. Some countries don’t allow trailing spouses to work locally (although virtually may be a different story). Schooling opportunities for children may be nonexistent in some locations, apart from international schools, ranging from merely pricey to eye-wateringly expensive. Housing options may seem very costly in relation to the units’ size or quality. The days of expat packages such as I first enjoyed in Hong Kong, where family budgets were cushioned with allowances for housing or schooling or home leave that were part of the overall compensation scheme, are long gone in most parts of the world.

Such difficulties are usually surmountable, but the spouse and children may need to accept some disruption and dislocation in the short term. A sense of adventure might motivate many expatriates, but it needs to be a shared sense of adventure.

Going back to the home country may be daunting. I’m not only thinking about those who have fallen in love with and married a partner from the host country, which indeed happens. But also, less challenges— prolonged over time, and with more exposure to the host country’s culture, society and the residents face—an expatriate’s teaching inevitably skews toward local relevance, focusing on host country nationals and traditions.

You will very likely find yourself, for instance, supplementing Western textbooks with examples that students can relate to. Assignments, examinations, internships, project supervision, thesis and dissertation supervision if teaching at the graduate level—all may look quite different after a few years as an expatriate faculty member. After a point, it may seem too troublesome to reinvent your teaching, yet again, to conditions back in your home country. Staying put, or perhaps taking another expatriate position in the same country or one that is culturally similar, becomes the path of least resistance.

A related issue, and one that’s well-known in respect of corporate relocations, is whether hiring committees, deans or boards will value your accumulated experience outside the home country if you’re seeking to return. I never had to find out, but anecdotal evidence often suggests otherwise, especially for administrators. For example, the listings of new presidents or provosts in Inside Higher Ed seldom include appointmentees—even Americans—who were based in a non-Western country before their move.

All things considered, I’d certainly do it again, and I think my family would, too. I’ve enjoyed many small rewards, seemingly insignificant in isolation but adding up to an immeasurably satisfying working life. Some of my most cherished moments were the evenings in my office when I signed a batch of student diplomas by hand, giving official validation to the personal time invested and the individual and familial sacrifices each of the students had made in pursuit of their degrees. It also commemorated the labors of the faculty and staff members whose support was essential to get them to that milestone. In the end, I can’t think of any tribute or award that could ever be more meaningful or leave me with greater satisfaction, wherever in the world I might be working.

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