Christopher Garland is a guest author who is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. He begins his job search in Fall 2013. Visit his website  for more information.
Two months ago, on a particularly sweltering afternoon at a large, southern R1 university, I bumped into Arun, a fellow PhD student in the humanities. Facing a job market that is at best “uncertain” (seemingly one of the most popular euphemisms), we chatted about the general trials and tribulations that face all graduate students: getting specific application materials  together, finishing the dissertation , and trying to "move on ." Apart from the shared experience of anxiety about cover letters , CVs , and job postings , we discussed another aspect of the job search that affects a significant segment of this country's higher education workforce. If we "foreigners" want to stay in this country and in the field in which we’ve worked so hard to make our mark, we have to find an academic job.
These are the clear stakes for us so-called "international" PhD students who wish to continue our academic careers in this country. While empathizing about the state of the job market with our embattled American peers in doctoral programs across the country, this is the reality of the job search for a great deal of us without green cards or citizenship: no job equals no visa. And the lack of a visa or other appropriate documents means having thirty days to leave the country.
For the international PhD candidate, the year on the job market could be our one chance of securing a future in a country where we have lived, worked, and taught for many, many years. Either we find a job at a university offering visa sponsorship, or we make a forced return to our birth country.
American through Training and Experience
While staying here is certainly not every international graduate student's intention, it can be a natural progression to further our careers. Yet it's not purely a career-oriented mindset. Having spent a large chunk (or perhaps even the majority) of our adult lives residing and teaching in the United States, the idea of "home" becomes fuzzy. This is more than merely a byproduct of living, studying, and teaching surrounded by Americans. We have consciously built networks of friends and colleagues while also putting down roots in other ways: through long-term partners, local community involvement, and a commitment to all aspects of the American higher educational system. Many of us have gone "all in" to a system that sustains us in the short-term but offers no long-term promises.
Furthermore, for many of us, the desire to stay is also a matter of training. The first time I ever taught within my field was in an American classroom. Ninety percent of my academic publications, conference presentations, and professional affiliations occurred in the United States. I’ve been shaped by these experiences, and the academic I am today has much more to do with the U.S. (and the Caribbean, which is the subject of my research) than the country where I was born and raised. This is true for many of my fellow foreigners.
Always lurking at the edges of my conversations with fellow international graduate students is that unspoken condition: our place in this country and as members of the American academy is predicated on a very precarious position. If we don't have the paperwork, we have to go ("home," presumably). An American being turned down by a university for a much-coveted position is one thing. Being denied a visa extension by the Department of Homeland Security due to lack of institutional affiliation is another thing altogether.
The Fiscal-Foreign Connection
By talking about the experience of the international PhD student, I do not mean to downplay the difficulty of graduate school life for American citizens. For every graduate student, the years spent living with limited income, eyes fixed on a dim horizon, can rapidly pass by, drawing attention away from the other roles in one's life: namely, parent, partner, sibling, friend. The reasons for the inability to "be there" are often associated with a distinct lack of two things: time and money. All graduate students are acutely aware of what restrictions graduate school places on both, particularly the latter.
For international graduate students, however, these "being there" costs are exacerbated by distance. A flight home for a number of my fellow foreigners can cost thousands of dollars. Weddings, funerals, and special holidays? Chances are we've missed many of those. A graduate stipend or fellowship may cover a trip to Michigan for an important conference, but it might not stretch to a flight to Johannesburg to attend one’s favorite uncle’s funeral. It breeds a disconnection that can simultaneously make the U.S. feel like an island upon which we are stranded, while also making it feel more like home: my closest friends are the Americans I have met when I moved to a college town in the first half of my twenties. The disconnection can be measured in simple ways: Arun is from Nepal, and he has not been home in the five years I’ve known him. I have visited my family, who live in New Zealand, once since 2007. For us foreigners, the job market is not only the opportunity to potentially stay in the U.S., but to attain an income level that allows us to visit friends and family.
At the end of my conversation with Arun, we did the only thing we could: I wished Arun luck, and he did the same for me. In the fall we may pass in the hallways of the department or at a regional conference. No doubt, our conversation will turn from the job search to other related and pressing concerns—visit to a sick relative, the international conference we wish we could attend if only the visa in our passport matched up with the paperwork from the university, the blurry identity that comes with being an international graduate student in the United States. But there's one thing that links us through the whole process: the worry about whether all the years we’ve spent here will give us the chance to stay longer. My greatest hope at this moment is that it will.
What has been your personal experience as a foreigner navigating the job market in academia? How do alternative jobs outside the field or in your home country “stack up” against the possibility of a tenure-track job here in the United States?
[Image taken by Flickr user stormwarning  and used under the Creative Commons License]