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Being Foreign on the U.S. Academic Market

International graduate students are faced with an added challenge on the U.S. job market -- get a job or go home -- but it's possible to turn their foreignness to their advantage, Christopher Garland writes.

November 7, 2014
 

About this time last year, I celebrated my seventh year of living in the United States. To be clear, “celebrated” is probably much too generous a term for that particular moment, in part because it was also the fifth year of my Ph.D. and my first year on the job market. As much as I have come to think of the United States as my permanent residence, I was facing a reality that I preferred to ignore if at all possible. I was a Ph.D. student, in English, in 2013. While I had attempted to tick all the boxes that I could in order to be the best possible candidate, the statistics weren’t exactly encouraging. And if I didn’t get a permanent position at an institution of higher education, I was going to have to leave this country which, right or wrong, I have come to think of as my own.

In that milieu of pressure and determination to find a job, I wrote an article about the “job search and the foreign dilemma.” It was about those of us who came to the United States to engage in study and chase a very particular strand of the American Dream: the tenure-track job. In one section of the article, I wrote about the kinship I felt with other “aliens” — from South Africa, the Bahamas, Holland, Germany, Denmark, India — and in particular those of us trying to find life on that increasingly barren planet, the humanities. After the article was published, I received emails from numerous foreign graduate students in various disciplines at universities around the country, and we commiserated and shared advice and wondered about our collective career fates. Most of all, we talked about staying here and how much we’d invested in that outcome.

What else has happened between now and then? Red-eye nights of revising cover letters and rereading job advertisements; mock interviews with professors who played the parts of people we didn’t yet know; maxed-out credit cards due to an underestimation of the job search costs (the financial burden of Interfolio and elite postdoc application materials has rapid growth); a slow boil of anxiety in the stomach when checking my phone for calls, emails, and voicemails; an unhealthy interest in the slightest changes to the Academic Job Wiki; and of course, that one night, a few months into the process, when I woke up sweating with only bad outcomes rattling around in my head.

Where I lived, the weather was out of whack, giving us dense little shards of summer in the midst of a winter that was especially cold for nearly everyone around the country. I knew that I had caught the same virus that had sickened a half dozen of my students, but I blamed my illness instead on the upcoming Modern Language Association (MLA) conference in Chicago. I’d read so much about the conference that I’d even started dreaming about it, turning up in my sleep as some kind of heavy, weirdly shaped blanket I couldn’t throw off.

Of course, my American brethren have no doubt suffered their share of job market traumas, but there’s a clear distinction. International graduate students on the job market who’ve made the United States their home bear an added burden: get a job, or go home.

In saying this, I do not mean to too broadly generalize the international graduate student. Bright minds from all over the world come here with the intention of returning to the countries of their birth to continue their teaching and research. This is an understandably popular route, but many of the people with whom I connected after writing my original article made clear that with each passing year in the United States returning “home” became less of a goal and more of a disappointing Plan B.

While we have been attempting to settle in, staying within the bounds of our respective J-1 and F-1 visas (working only for the university and keeping “in status” by renewing the relevant documents), keeping in contact with friends and family on the other side of the world, there was always the thought of, quite simply, “Where in the world will I end up?” For better or worse, the next year could settle that for you.

In the end, for me, I got a job. And one of the reasons I got a job, I believe, is that I took time to think about how “being foreign” shaped my teaching and research in this country. Of course, the experiences of “aliens” in the U.S. are wildly different, and I know that being a New Zealander of European descent with English as my first language helped my transition into this country in many, many ways.

For one, my experience with the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t been hampered by stereotypes about my birth country and its citizens -- I’ve faced less red tape than others. Also, unlike some of my foreign peers, my “Kiwi” accent is more of a point of curiosity than a reason to question my fluency in English (as was the case for one friend whose first language is English).

Moreover, I believe it directly aided in the minutiae of the job search. New Zealand is on many travelers' bucket lists, so it provided a conversation piece during those unavoidable, potentially awkward moments on the campus visit: for example, that lengthy drive with a graduate student from the airport to the hotel, or that very long breakfast with a senior professor. Admittedly, I’ve lived in the United States long enough that talking specifically about my “other” home in the South Pacific is sometimes strange. But as a foreigner there’s still culture shock that, while somewhat diminished today, informs the way that I approach both the classroom and my own writing.

Thus, in various documents for the job search -- specifically, the cover letter and teaching philosophy -- I argued that an instructor’s foreign identity offers a valuable and compelling avenue for teaching and learning in the U.S. university classroom. The foreign teacher is a conduit to a world outside the American educational experience, synthesizing his or her own background in classrooms abroad with a distinctive set of pedagogical approaches influenced by the U.S. tertiary system. This is just part of what we foreigners can bring to our students. If I were to offer advice, this would be a starting point: you should embrace being an alien. Think about how that makes you different, how it works as a point of tension that can invigorate your teaching and research.

There are other, less positive realities that foreigners on the U.S. academic job market will face. For example, there are postdoctoral fellowships -- generous postdocs at prestigious universities with a strong commitment to cosmopolitan education -- that exclude those who aren’t American citizens or permanent residents. You’ll see those, but it’s definitely not worth worrying about.

Also, some job advertisements will state that they will only employ U.S. citizens or those who are able to work legally in this country. I’d advise you to email the contact person listed in the job ad to clarify what that means; for one of the jobs I applied for last year, it turned out that it was meant to include the fact that they will sponsor successful candidates with the appropriate visas. Some schools will state that they don’t sponsor visas for foreign nationals; don’t worry about it and move on to the next application.

Another thing: as I mentioned before, a large-scale job search can be expensive. Unlike our native-born compatriots, loans just aren’t readily available to be able to cover those extra costs. So you’ve got to be ready for that. But, for the most part, it’s good to be foreign on the job market. You’ve got a story to tell about how and why you come to this country; you’ve got the opportunity to add diversity to the faculty at any given university; you’ve got the confidence of having made a life in another country.  

My first day on campus for my new job, I had my required meeting at the international center. I had to make sure I had all the appropriate paperwork in order as the stakes were higher now than they’re ever been. On getting there, I sat down next to a guy in his early to mid-20s wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the school’s nickname.

He was flipping his passport around in his hand; the cover was adorned with both the insignia of a far-away monarch and the specific local iconography of a distant, former European colony. We were both hoping to see someone who would try to help us through the next stage: the opportunity to stay at this mid-sized regional university in the American South. In the center’s reception area, the chatter of those with many different accents filled the air; however, my neighbor wasn’t talking much. He told me he was a new graduate teaching assistant, so it was easy for me to wonder if this was his first time getting those valuable signatures that would allow him to stay in the United States.

I didn’t ask that question, but I did notice on the side table next to him there was a small stack of familiar, newly printed documents. Issued by the Department of Homeland Security, these stapled-together pages are a throwback to a time when the physical trumped the digital, which, as of August 2014, was still the case with the DHS. (Another thing we foreigners know: If you don’t have the papers in your hand, forget about passing through the borders, let alone getting or keeping the authorization to work and/or study in the country.)

He seemed nervous, understandably, because moving across the globe to study is no small thing.

And I couldn’t tell him that it would always go smoothly (it didn’t for me), or that he wouldn't question his decision (at times I did). But if it all comes together, he won’t regret the journey.

Bio

Christopher Garland is an assistant professor of professional writing and public discourse at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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