Academia and travel/living abroad
September 20, 2013 5:44 PM   Subscribe

I would like to become a professor but I'm a little worried about picking a spot in the U.S. to live for the rest of my life...

I have a few questions:

1) Is it possible to spend the early part of one's academic career at a foreign university -- especially in Asia -- and then get tenure and develop a reputation in the United States?

2) Sometimes professors divide their time between two universities in different countries. How does one get to do this?

3) Generally, how and when does a professor take a sabbatical?

4) If one has an academic position and then leaves for a few years to do something else, how hard is it to get back in?

Thanks in advance ^_^
posted by myitkyina to Work & Money (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
but I'm a little worried about picking a spot in the U.S. to live for the rest of my life

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but most professors have very, very little "picking" to do. They try and try to get a tenure-track position, and if (not when) they do, they hold on to it for dear life, because a tenure track job is rare and worth its weight in gold.
posted by The Michael The at 5:58 PM on September 20, 2013 [44 favorites]

Regarding Question#2:

Are you planning to specialize in a foreign language or culture? If so, you could work in a U.S. university yet lead semester-abroad programs, or do your own research in other countries.
posted by bearette at 6:11 PM on September 20, 2013

I'm guessing by the beginning of your question that you are in the US now?

Generally speaking, academe is a tournament economy, as Tim Burke has pointed out. A few people luck out and get tenure-track jobs at good institutions. Others get tenure-track jobs at OK places. A lot wind up at institutions with poorly prepared students, low salaries, and a heavy workload. Still more wind up as part-time, contract teachers--adjuncts--with no job security, low wages, and often, no benefits. It's not unlike trying to succeed as an actor, a musician, or a professional athlete.

Picking a spot to live? The job market in the US is national; if you want to decide where to live, you are going to seriously limit your options. Take a look at the H-Net job guide and look at how positions are advertised. I applied for jobs all across the country, from Alaska to Florida. I was lucky to get two on-campus interviews my first year, one in California, the other in Massachusetts. I had one offer. No picking involved, unless I didn't want a job.

As for your questions:

1. Yes, it's possible, but it's very hard. It would be somewhat easier if your discipline was one where experience in Asia was relevant to your specialization, such as Asian languages and literatures, anthropology, business, political science, etc. (obviously, in those fields, you'd specialize in something having to do with the part of Asia you were in). But basically, you'd have to develop an international reputation before looking for a job in the US.

2. Professors who regularly divide their time between two universities are at the top of their fields and get invited to do so. Their original university doesn't want to lose them, so they work out a deal.

Note that there are opportunities to spend time as a visiting professor at another institution. These are sometimes funded by national governments (e.g., the Fulbright program) or by the host universities; sometimes there are exchange agreements between universities. These are easier to get than a dual appointment, but it depends on your institution and your field.

3. Sabbatical policies vary from institution to institution. Some have no regular sabbaticals. It's common to have a sabbatical after six years of teaching. My university's policy is complicated, but it boils down to this: after six years, I'm entitled to a one-semester sabbatical at full pay, or a one-year sabbatical at 50% of my pay.

4. Depends on the discipline and your reputation. In some fields, such as economics and many of the sciences (especially those like polymer science with clear practical applications), moving between academe and either government or industry is fairly common. In others—most of the social sciences and the humanities—it's likely only if your reputation is so good that you're fairly sure of being able to find a job, which means that you regularly get asked to apply for other jobs. Trust me, this does not happen to most professors, even those with solid reputations.

Tl;dr: you need to learn more about how the profession works before considering an academic career. The career section of the Chronicle of Higher Education can sometimes be sensationalist or alarmist, but it's worth perusing. Burke's blog post, to which I linked above, is a good place to start.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:16 PM on September 20, 2013 [11 favorites]

Believe everything that The Michael The and brianogilvie said, and also talk with tenure-track faculty at your institution, please. A lot.
posted by SMPA at 6:21 PM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would like to become a professor but I'm a little worried about picking a spot in the U.S. to live for the rest of my life

You are not in college yet so you have about sixteen thousand things to worry about on the road to becoming a professor before you worry about that.

What you should concentrate on now, if you want to be a professor, is reading a ton about things you're interested in. Then, when you're in college, you should concentrate on being a spectacular student.

Your questions don't have answers without further knowledge of what field you'd be in, what your reputation would be, etc. I will answer them anyway:

1. It's not a very typical path, but if your scholarly record is strong enough, I don't know why not.
2. You get job offers in two different countries and negotiate. More common is professors from country X other than the US who work in the US during the academic year and in country X in the summer.
3. The classical format is every seven years but there's lots of variation among schools. My university works much like brianogilvie's above.
4. Not impossible but in general it would be pretty hard, and hardly anyone does it. But I think a big part of that is that, when an academic career goes well, it's a pretty great gig and people don't want to leave, while if it goes poorly, people don't want to come back.
posted by escabeche at 6:22 PM on September 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry to thread-sit -- just a couple of things. I am living in the US right now. I plan on studying theoretical physics. I realize that it would make more sense to specialize in foreign languages if I'm looking for an academic position abroad, but I have heard of it happening in STEM (e.g. Stephen Smale). Also, I understand that I will have to move to the private sector if I want better job prospects and more ability to live abroad, and I am open to this if academia doesn't work out.
posted by myitkyina at 6:36 PM on September 20, 2013

and also talk with tenure-track faculty at your institution, please. A lot.

That's not necessarily going to be representative of the real world, though: those tenure-track faculty are the ones that have made it.

Also, be very, very careful of deriving any sort of conclusions from a sample of one of a professor who was in his prime academic years between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Also also, a quick search on the American Institute of Physics jobs board shows currently 28 openings for at 4-year American colleges and universities that have "tenure", "theoretical", and "physics" in the job description. Twenty-eight. Nation-wide. There were just under 1600 physics PhDs conferred in the US in 2010.
posted by The Michael The at 6:51 PM on September 20, 2013 [12 favorites]

A "correction:" for STEM fields, English, (American English, even) is the language everyone uses to communicate. So if you go into theoretical physics, focus on the physics. Learning a second language will do very little to advance your career.
posted by u2604ab at 6:52 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

but I'm a little worried about picking a spot in the U.S. to live for the rest of my life

Yeah, this is a red flag for me. I'm in the (fingers crossed) last year of a PhD. I'm not looking for an academic job. What made me start thinking that maybe I should start looking outside academia? The list of places I wasn't willing to move was pretty long. I was thinking a lot of things like "I'm going on the job market twice. If I don't get a job the second time round, that's it, I'm done." or "I'm not moving to the middle of nowhere."

That Stephen Smale has done something is really not something to base your career aspirations on. Most of us are not going to win the Fields Medal. That said, my particular (soon to be former) subject has good jobs available outside the US, mostly in Canada and a couple European countries. (My friend has just taken a really good postdoc outside the US, for example.) In some other subspeciality, there might be a bunch of activity in, say, Japan. But, for example, I doubt there were any positions relevant to my friend's research available in Japan last year.
posted by hoyland at 6:54 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Physics is a field where the majority of new Ph.D.'s do postdoctoral fellowships before entering tenure-track jobs. I don't know the physics job market very well, but in math there are certainly many postdoctoral options outside the US. So that makes it more reasonable that you could spend some years away before moving back.

I will also cosign the remarks of others in this thread that one special feature of the academic job market is that you really don't get to choose where you live. Whether this bothers you really depends on your personality (and I don't mean your personality now, I mean your personality, and perhaps your spouse's personality, at the time these decisions get made.)

And finally I'll just say again that the ONLY thing you need to think about right now to pursue this goal is to get really, really good at physics and math. I doubt that's something you'll regret, even if you decide not to take the academic science route.
posted by escabeche at 7:21 PM on September 20, 2013

The Michael The stated it concisely and quite accurately. Here's a longer version based on my own situation.

You plan to study in theoretical physics; this is what I did during the 90s. I'm a Canadian, not an American, so you can multiply numbers by 10 for comparison. The last couple of years of my Ph.D. I started paying attention to the number of jobs in Academia in Physics compared with the numbers of people graduating with a Ph.D. (published yearly in Physics in Canada). I saw between 5 to 10 tenure-track position a year and there were roughly 100 people graduating with a Ph.D. per year in Canada. For people that go into Academia, the normal career path is to complete one two year postdoc (if you can find one), get a second one and land (if you are lucky) a tenure-track position during that second postdoc.

As I did some work related to biophysics during my postdoc (but it was clearly not my specialty), I applied for a biophysics-related tenure track position at one university. I thought that, due to the nature of the position, there would be comparatively few candidates. I got a later stating that they had 161 candidates, 89 of which were Canadian (due to immigration rules, preference had to be given to Canadian candidates first). Needless to say, I did not get the job.

I got extremely lucky by landing a position at a small university which, while located in English Canada, was looking for someone to teach in French. As most Francophones Ph.D.s were not looking outside of Quebec, the competition turned out to be quite reduced compared to the average and I got lucky.

Of all the people in my graduate cohort (30 or so) from one of the top Physics Department in Canada, I only know one other graduate who got a tenure track position.

While this does not answer directly your questions, it might give you an idea of what the situation is like.
posted by aroberge at 7:23 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a theoretical physicist working at a R1 university in the US. Memail me and we can talk.
posted by physicsmatt at 7:44 PM on September 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

My wife did exactly this (but not asia). So it is possible. It took her 10 years - a second post-doc and eight years in England to get back to where she wanted to be with tenure.
posted by srboisvert at 7:52 PM on September 20, 2013

I think your entire question is going to depend on what you want to be a professor in. I was an anthropology major and almost all my professors spent significant portions of the year overseas, or at least not in the city where our school was located. But if you're thinking about becoming a physics professor, your options for living abroad are probably less.

That said, I know people who've had Fullbrights, done parts of their studies at foreign universities, etc. This sort of thing, again, might depend more on what you specialize in. The London School Of Economics is probably not in the cards if you want to teach nursing.
posted by Sara C. at 7:53 PM on September 20, 2013

*Definitely* memail physicsmatt. And if you don't, memail me. (I'm also a theoretical physicist, currently postdocing at yet another R1 in the US. and desperately applying to jobs all over Europe and North America hoping someone, somewhere, will take me.)
posted by nat at 7:54 PM on September 20, 2013

I am going to reiterate what everyone has said about not picking a place to live. IAAP (albeit not a physicist) born in Los Angeles. I am living in a small village in upstate NY, which is where I happened to get a job. Now, I like my job, I like my village, and I like that I can afford enough real estate in my village to hold my books, but I had certainly not planned on ending up somewhere with quite this much snow. Moreover, as I'm also tenured, it will be virtually impossible for me to leave--senior positions in my field being extremely difficult to come by.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:42 PM on September 20, 2013

I know a number of American (by nationality) astronomers with faculty positions abroad (in the UK, Netherlands, China, etc.) -- in every case, their work is conducted in English. Foreign languages should be low on your priority list.

I share the sentiment of others here that if you're aiming for an academic position, you need to go into this with your eyes open. I interviewed for a dozen jobs before I had an offer (I feel a little less bad about that given that I have a friend who had a similar track record but now has tenure at Harvard). If you get a Physics Ph.D., odds are not great that you'll get your dream job at a top institution (if you do turn out to be a superstar, though, colleges across the country and around the world will compete to hire you).

On the other hand, odds are extremely low that you'll end up on the streets -- unemployment amongst Physics Ph.D.'s is very low, as many end up in (generally reasonably well-paid) jobs outside academia (there just aren't enough academic jobs to go around, as others have noted). The American Institute of Physics has a lot of info on where Ph.D.'s have ended up at this page.

You never know how things work out, though. When I was visiting grad schools one graduating student made a concerted effort to warn us of the limited job prospects in the field and to think seriously about whether to go to graduate school or not. He was clearly worried about his own future as well.

Today, he's known as the guy who killed Pluto. OK, maybe that's not so inspiring an ending after all :)
posted by janewman at 10:08 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

28 openings for at 4-year American colleges and universities that have "tenure", "theoretical", and "physics" in the job description.

This is unnecessarily limiting. A person who specializes in theoretical physics will be qualified for many tenure-track jobs that don't say "theoretical physics" in the job description. This is not to minimize the difficulty of a) getting a PhD in physics, b) finding a tenure-track job, and c) finding a sweet position where you can spend some or all of your year abroad. I agree that you have miles to go before you get there, and you may discover along the way that theoretical physics / academic life / your own talents and capacities aren't what you imagine them to be.

If you'd like one more anecdote/data point, a colleague in my department spends quite a bit of time in Asia collaborating with colleagues, doing various types of research on physics education and topics of interest that he can bring back to his courses, and working for an international physics organization. He works crazy hard to swing all this, hustles very effectively for the grant money and support from our institution to do it, and has a very strong facility for and background in languages. MeMail me if you'd like more details.

You also might be interested in the American Physical Society physics career pages.
posted by BrashTech at 6:55 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't worry about picking a place to live for the rest of your life. You do undergrad one place, maybe two if you transfer. Maybe in undergrad, you do an internship someplace else. You go to grad school another place. Maybe you do research someplace else. You do a post-doc someplace else. So by the time you look for a job, you may have spent time in several different places. Odds are that you'll like some and dislike others. That will help you with some of the other things.

Also, "the rest of your life" kind of sneaks up on you. When I finished undergrad, my plan was to work in DC for a few years, then go to grad school. That was nine years ago. I got a job here that I liked, as did my husband. Then I quit that job to take a different job that I liked. Maybe I'll be here in nine years, maybe not. I like living here now. That's what matters.

If you're outstanding in your field, you'll have opportunities to work in one part if the world, then move to the US or teach at two different universities or move easily from academia to the private sector and back. If you're not outstanding, you might still have opportunities but fewer. And very few things in any sector are guaranteed.

I thought that roughly, from getting a tenure track position to getting tenure is about seven years. And then seven years later, you might be able to go on sabbatical. That said, my father has been a professor for 31 years and has never taken one.

My cousin is a professor who studied Russian politics and history. She teaches political science and gender studies at a small private college. She's relatively early career but she had an opportunity to teach about Russia at an Israeli university for six weeks during a winter intercession. Naturally, that was when rockets from Lebanon started coming a little too frequently. But that's another story.

Study abroad in undergrad and look into the Fulbright program.
posted by kat518 at 8:42 AM on September 21, 2013

IANAPhysicist (anymore), nor am I in the tenure track in the academia. I am studying toward a Masters degree in Europe, after completing a bachelors in physics from an outstanding university, working full time in a high-paying job in the private sector for a few years, and I'm now considering staying in academia for a PhD. I'm late 20s, my perspective is a bit different from those of the tenured professors responding here. My friends who stayed in physics are completing their Masters or beginning their PhDs right now. Obviously, my perspective is not American.

It will be possible for you to do a Masters, PhD or a Postdoc abroad (at least in Europe) without too many difficulties. A lot of research in Europe is done in English anyway. There are people doing research here from all over the world, although North America, Australia and Britain are rather under-represented. However, this might affect your academic job prospects in USA later on. Maybe someone American can elaborate further on this.

Keep in mind that being a professor is not the only possible outcome when entering the academic path. It is a long process, with many difficulties on the way. You sound kinda clueless about what academia entails. Studying theoretical physics is hard enough during your undergrads, but that was just a warm up toward the work my friends in grad school are doing. Then you have to survive five years of low income and high stress in grad school, at the end of which you might be tempted to leave academia for a higher-paying, lower stress job, rather than be a post-doc in a random place for a year or two before moving again.

You will see people around you getting married, buying cars, starting families and buying houses while you are survive on marginal income and having no clue as to where you might live in a year or two (happening to me right now, and I'm planning to leave academia in three years max). In Europe I feel the problem is even worse - in order to find a postdoc or an academic job, you might have to move to a different country where you don't know the language, culture and live as an alien, moving around every two to three years.

I'm not trying to deter you from studying physics or getting a PhD - go for it! However, being a professor is not what it looks like on TV - you have teaching duties, you have to manage a lab of 5-15 people, sit on committees and review papers for journals and conferences. The only time you get to do carefree research is during your PhD (if you're lucky and can avoid teaching duties) and as a postdoc. The rest of your career, you will spend most of your time managing younger scientists with their research, reviewing their work and teaching.

If the only reason you're interested in physics is to become a professor, you really should reevaluate your decision. It's the Best Possible Outcome in your scenario, but there are many challenges on the way. You will need a very strong and deep motivation when you go to grad school for five years, otherwise you will burn out. You will have to work on excelling in everything you do for the next ten-fifteen years of your life. Around here, young researchers who have their own labs have a page full of excellency awards, best-paper awards and promising young scientists awards on their resumes.

Anyway, sorry I'm not answering directly any of your questions, but from my perspective it looks like you're asking stuff like: "once I'm a rock star, how can I get my label to get me to tour somewhere specific?" while you should be focusing on the work you will have do in the ten years so you can maybe, one day, become a rock star.
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 8:44 AM on September 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Just wanted to add - I'm writing all of this because I'm seeing around me people who want to get PhDs so they be professors or because they want to have a Ph.D. Many of them are failing, depressed and lack the focus necessary to do the excellent research required to attaining such a position.

You should also read and google "don't get phd" so you can make some informed decisions about the process you're about to enter in order to maybe, someday, become a professor.
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 8:54 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

IANAPhysicist, but I'm married to a TT professor in theoretical physics at an R1 university. We've been together since he was in grad school, so I actually have a pretty good idea of what this career track entails. I think everyone else has been pretty accurate by pointing out that you just don't get a lot of choice in academia; you move to wherever you happen to get a job or you leave the field for something else. This is pretty much true across the board in academia and isn't just physics, but to answer your specific questions:

1. It's possible, but this is going to depend heavily on a couple of things. Exactly where you're spending time and in what capacity is going to matter a lot. A 3-year postdoc at a top-flight Japanese university? Totally fine. Going to grad school at some unknown program in Thailand? Definitely not going to do you any favors. Getting your undergraduate degree outside of the U.S. is no big deal, but obviously you're going to have to have really good GREs if you want to get into a good U.S. grad program. Pretty much all high level physics research is conducted in English, and most graduate teaching reflects this, but there are some programs which will be looking for undergraduate teaching in the native language.

2. Departments may allow for joint appointments, but it's not generally the norm, particularly for theorists. Teaching and committee duties are considerable and generally require a fairly rigid schedule, so splitting time between countries on a long term basis is difficult and includes the headache of trying to maintain two separate households. It's the kind of arrangement that generally irritates department heads, frustrates your colleagues, and screws over your poor grad students. That said, there can be a fair amount of short-term travel, say, a week visit here and there, while you give talks or attend conferences and workshops. This is totally normal, and it's not super unusual for professors to spend their entire summers abroad. Of course, this assumes they have managed to secure the funding for this, and academic funding is often very tight and getting tighter. If you're in demand, you'll get invitations to places, but your travel budget frequently comes out of your grants, so once you're out of money, you're done.

3. Sabbatical policies are dictated by the department, and they're usually automatic; you just put in the request for time when it is available to you. Some policies are more generous than others, but the terms are determined by your specific appointment, and they're usually only available to tenure track positions. One thing to note, pre-tenure sabbaticals are usually just a lot of hard work, because it's precious time away from teaching for getting serious research done, not a year-long vacation.

4. Leaving academia mid-stream and trying to come back later is really hard and not recommended. The average academic career track is absurdly competitive. You can graduate from an excellent PhD program, have a prestigious postdoc, and still not get a tenure-track job because there's only a handful of those and hundreds of other imminently qualified candidates just like you.

I don't want to discourage you from studying physics if its something you truly love, but I would definitely consider the bigger picture before committing to an academic track. Being a professor is not just sitting around doing research. You'll spend huge, huge amounts of your time preparing for classes, doing committee work, writing grant proposals, networking with your colleagues, and interfacing with students of varying ability.

And it will be years before you're even at that level. Grad school is hard enough. I know lots of folks who loved being undergrads, but quickly discovered that they hated research once they were in grad school. I know still others who made it to the postdoc level and then just couldn't find a tenure track job, despite being excellent scholars. Landing a TT position requires way more than academic achievement. It also needs a ton of hustle and sheer, dumb luck, so I would proceed cautiously with eyes open before pinning your hopes on a relatively rare career outcome.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:28 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Phew. The first time I was job searching, I sent out 110 applications and got one interview and one adjuncting position. The second time I sent out 40 applications and got 2 interviews and one full time instructor position.

So, so, so many of these questions are out of your hands. I am not very happy with where I live right now but it is a full time job and I like my colleagues. I liked my past location ok but I had no security and I hated my colleagues - and no benefits and not enough money. But it was a job.

I don't ever expect to have tons of choice in where I live and work but I love academia too much to quit now. :-D
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:52 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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