Pros and cons for an American taking a postdoc in Europe?
June 12, 2007 2:31 PM   Subscribe

What are the pros and cons, professionally and personally, for an American taking an academic postdoc in Europe?

I am currently a candidate for a postdoctoral position in Amsterdam. My interview is coming up soon, but due to external circumstances I may need to make a decision within a few days afterwards so I'm trying to figure out as much in advance as I can. I'm of course seeking detailed field-specific advice from my advisors and other members of my current department, but I'm interested in a few more general things.

Professionally, since I plan to apply for faculty positions in a few years, I'm interested in the impact that this move might have on the perceptions of a faculty hiring committee. Is going to Europe going to hurt my chances in the U.S.? Will it open up more opportunities in Europe later on (and how hard is it to get faculty positions in Europe anyway)?

Personally, what do I need to think about? One big question I have concerns my wife, who will be staying in the States for at least six months but who will eventually join me wherever I end up. How difficult would it be for her to get a work permit, etc.?

I'm not looking for anyone to convince me one way or the other, since my decision will involve a lot of things I haven't discussed here. But, beyond these two specific issues, I'm interested in literally every possible angle on this, because there are surely a lot of things I haven't thought of. What kinds of things to I need to think about and plan for, what questions do I need to ask, etc.?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Since you are posting anon and cannot clarify which academic field you are in, I will respond assuming you are in physical sciences. What I say may or may not apply elsewhere.

In Europe, almost throughout, you will have little chance to get a faculty position afterwards. Simply put, there are already too many candidates and too few positions. These positions are usually state-funded and they tend to be filled by national rather than international candidates due to the high competition. Quality of scientist and personal connections not withstanding.

You may be able to get research positions --not faculty-- on soft money, but again it will not be very easy, and promotion is not automatic every so-so years. You might want to inquire into that too. In this case, funding will come either from large EU projects --I mean 10-50 research institutes-- or from individual governments. Each government funds projects of limited scope and very well-defined social impact. You might also want to find out what research projects are typically funded.

If you are interested in faculty positions in the US, one postdoc in Europe might not hurt. It could even prove beneficial if collaboration between US-EU is tight (in some fields it is, in some not so much). You will have to keep close contact and probably working collaboration with colleagues in the US, hopefully the ones you want to continue working with later or those in the Universities you will be applying. A lot of people (including myself) consider(ed) postdoc(s) as a hang-out (or *cough* an adventure) but now I am thinking it should be viewed as a spring-board that will land you at the place you want. Fast and clean. I am saying this not because I look down on adventures (I'd probably do it exactly the same way) but because you seem anxious about a good job afterwards.

I would like to point out to you though, that scientific research is conducted very differently in the US from most European countries (with the exception of Britain, perhaps). This is not to say that there is not good science done there, it is to say that the method/approach/attitude are different. You may (or may not, of course) find yourself frustrated by lack of rhythm, slow pace, insufficient resources (computers, software, support staff), very target/funding-oriented research topics.

About your wife: it depends where she wants to work, how soon etc. You need to talk to the American Embassy in Netherlands/elsewhere and to your contacts there, as they might be able to help her get a job or something.

I happen to be looking into what is going on in some countries and in Brussels, so if your field is applied physics or math, and want to ask something specific, well, you know, email is in profile.
posted by carmina at 4:33 PM on June 12, 2007

Professionally, since I plan to apply for faculty positions in a few years, I'm interested in the impact that this move might have on the perceptions of a faculty hiring committee.

There is no possible way to solidly answer this without knowing what field and subfield you work in, the relative standing of the institution in Amsterdam, your alternative possibilities, and so on. You need to talk to your advisors.

Is going to Europe going to hurt my chances in the U.S.?

It depends.

It depends on who you work with and what your alternatives are. If you're faced with the choice between a 4-4 load as a VAP at Directional State University of City and a postdoc with the top minds in the field, duh. If you have a choice between a T/T job at an R1 and this postdoc, duh the other way. I assume your position is somewhere in the middle.

I do political science. For me, I would be less interested in your file, even if you studied western Europe. If you were an Americanist or Asian-studies person or other not-Europe-related person doing a postdoc in Europe, I would think that you were a dingbat and/or that you just wanted to spend a year in Amsterdam getting high. Neither of these impresses.

Unless this place is really top flight and its staff well-known on both sides of the pond already, you're probably going to have letters from people I don't see at conferences, from schools whose quality I can't immediately know, and who compare you to other people I don't know. On the one hand, I could spend a bunch of time becoming familiar with the institution and your letter-writers. Or, I could give a thumbs-up to the guy from Ohio State instead, whose letter-writers I see at every conference, and whose letter-writers can tell me that you're almost as good as my one-time colleague whom I admire.

Ditto with publications. Publish something in a second-tier journal that I read or know of, and I can think that at least you're publishing in second-tier journals, which is fine in this day of 75%+ rejection rates. Publish something in a journal I don't know of, and that my R1 library might not take, and whose authors I don't recognize, and, well, why should I think it's anything other than the local version of the Journal of Last Resort? At least in the first round of eliminations, my due diligence stops at the edge of your file, so I'm not going to research the quality of your publication outlets myself.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:56 PM on June 12, 2007

If you have a choice between a T/T job at an R1 and this postdoc

Blast and damnation. I meant to write:

If you have a choice between a T/T job at an R1 and a postdoc at a subpar Dutch school who's already had their offer turned down nine times, duh the other way.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:58 PM on June 12, 2007

A couple of points:

Most EU jobs have 'must be an EU citizen' strings attached to them. There are rare exceptions but don't hold your breath. The UK, for example is a little better, but I sometimes get the feeling that in continental Europe research positions are regarded by the government more as a kind of political jobs program than a chance to give your economy a boost, so questions of merit are less important than in the US.

As far as getting a job in the US, one big hurdle is money. Unless you are a world beater, it will be easier to take the next person who has a roughly equal CV if you only have to fly them in from Chicago rather than the other side of the planet. I have had two friends with very good credentials (one was a Rhodes Scholar) who didn't get a single interview while in Europe. But both came back, did good, short second postdocs in the states, and found jobs. So that's another route.

Good luck, whatever you decide.
posted by overhauser at 5:49 PM on June 12, 2007

If the people you'd be working with in Amsterdam are known to the people you work with in the US, I see no professional problem.

Western Europe is more expensive to live in, as a rule, than pretty much any US city. Nonetheless, if the Amsterdam postdoc and a US postdoc seem to be equally reasonable choices, I'd go for the former.
posted by lukemeister at 6:36 AM on June 13, 2007

I'm in social sciences, and while I don't know the specifics of a postdoc in Europe per se, being hired back in Canada (where I'm from) would be a challenge, but not necessarily insurmountable. I would make a point of communicating in several ways to committee members when applying for a job that you are 'often in the US' because of previous ties or whatever. As noted above, you don't want to be discounted just because you'd have to fly to interview. If you were applying at my institution, you'd have to be 'worth bringing over'.

Another question (which again is highly field and geography dependent) is why bother getting a postdoc at all? I'm seeing academics being hired without a postdoc frequently. Depending on the postdoc specifics, it might give you just what you need, or overburden you with busy work that you specifically don't need. Basically I'm with ROU_Xenophobe.
posted by kch at 8:02 AM on June 13, 2007

T/T, R1? Qu'est-ce que c'est?
posted by lukemeister at 3:19 PM on June 13, 2007

Another question (which again is highly field and geography dependent) is why bother getting a postdoc at all? I'm seeing academics being hired without a postdoc frequently.

Yes, it is strongly field dependent. In my field (biomedicine) at least one is a prereq, in part because you are expected to use your postdoctoral project as preliminary data for your new, slightly different project. 2 postdocs isn't at all unusual.
posted by overhauser at 6:23 PM on June 13, 2007

T/T: Tenure track, as opposed to visiting or adjunct.

R1: A "Research 1" school as the Carnegie Institute used to rate them. Basically, big research-oriented schools; flagship state schools and big privates (fnarr). They've changed their classification scheme slightly in the past few years, but people still use the old terms.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:57 PM on June 13, 2007

Another question (which again is highly field and geography dependent) is why bother getting a postdoc at all?

Yeah, this is field dependent.

You and I both do social sciences. We're cheap. We cost the school our salaries + benefits, and maybe a few thousand in research and travel money.

Lab science people cost lots more. Their startup costs include setting up a lab and initial salaries for lab workers, IIRC. ISTR the dean of the college around here saying that new assistants in bio cost about $250K in startup, and this school is very far from Harvard. If a school is going to shell out $BIGNUM for a new prof, they're going to want some assurance that their new hire knows how to run a lab. Responsible postdoc positions can show this.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:01 PM on June 13, 2007

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