Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Expat Scholar’s View from the Gulf

Since I wrote a post about the topic of finding a job after the PhD, I've been receiving a lot of feedback from you guys (thanks so much!). One of the people who approached me to discuss the employment debate a little further is John Laprise, a Visiting Professor in Residence at Northwestern University in Qatar. He's about as interdisciplinary as you can get with degrees in Media, Technology and Society; War Studies; History; Religion; and Interdisciplinary Studies. He has also worked as a consultant in the private sector for a decade in the logistics, telecommunications and higher education sectors. John contacted me and told me about his story. Since I'm now a professor at a young university in a country that might be considered as "off the beaten path" as well, my curiosity was triggered, and I asked John to share his story on PhD Talk.

I recently re-entered the job market for the first time in ten years from Doha, Qatar. In 2003, I began my PhD at Northwestern. Five years later, they approached me and asked me to join the faculty of their new campus following my graduation. I was fortunate. I was the right person at the right place at the right time. I could teach needed courses, my research was portable, I had lived previously in the Middle East, I did not have a family to complicate relocation, and I had a solid reputation as a graduate student. I was also an older graduate student having spent ten years in the private sector consulting before returning to university.

In 2009 I arrived in Doha and for the past four years, I have been part of an amazing project. There have been many challenges. Starting a university campus is no small feat but the faculty, staff, and students have produced a truly remarkable program over the intervening years. Along the way, my faculty position has afforded me amazing opportunities. Northwestern supports active global scholarship at international conferences which has enabled me to stay connected with disciplinary colleagues and build new international networks of contacts and collaborators. Moreover, I have had truly unique opportunities for interaction ranging from a serendipitous coffee with Vint Cerf to chatting with cast members from Kevin Spacey’s touring production of Richard III. I have had the incredible good fortune to work with ictQatar, the government council that regulates and sets policy for information and communication technology. Many if not most of the amazing interactions I have had here are unthinkably improbable if I were a junior faculty member in the United States.

It is thus with some regret that I confront the end of my time in Doha and look forward to new challenges and opportunities. Unlike many colleagues who have written about the dismal state of the academic job market, I have a decidedly rosier if broader point of view.

I will never be unemployed unless I choose to be.

As an international academic, I quickly realized that as a holder of a US PhD, I would always be able to find a job if I did not limit myself to US academia. Start-up universities are eager to fill newly created faculty positions while existing universities are always interested in improving the prestige of their departments. While US universities receive significant criticism within the US, they have a strong global brand and a US PhD is prestige. PhD holders from US universities are globally rare and sought after, regardless of discipline. A PhD can be a credential for non-academic employment. International organizations and governments are eager to hire PhDs.

PhD holders are trained to be creators of new knowledge and in an information society that skill set is highly valuable.

Our information society thrives on the creation of new knowledge and PhD holders are an important part of that ecology. A PhD announces expertise at creating and sharing new knowledge in a critical and intellectually rigorous way. Disciplinarity is in some ways less important than the skill set that comes with the discipline. These skills are also very valuable outside of academia. I am a historian of computers and the same skills I use to sift through archives and construct narratives is equally useful when I consult on trends in technology policy.

I want to be paid for doing intellectually challenging work with people I like.

My happiness is important to me and I value it highly. Crucially, I do not define who or what or where my employer might be. I think of myself as a renaissance artisan or condottiere whose work is supported by a patron. When the funding runs out, the contract ends, or the interests of patron and scholar diverge, I must find a new patron. This does not diminish the quality of my work or my professionalism. This is the situation I find myself in currently. Northwestern has established itself in Qatar and is now developing a strong regional research program while I study White House computerization. “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”

Non-tenure track faculty are underpaid academic consultants.

Post-docs, visiting and adjunct faculty tread academic water hoping for a tenure track line, but most will drown without ever landing that position. If these academic consultants decided to ply their trade in the private sector, they would almost certainly command equal if not better compensation and work-life balance but this is not an easy choice because:

Academics tend to identify with their knowledge rather than their skills.

Academic position are frequently advertised by looking for scholars with knowledge in particular areas. The private sector is interested in what skills you have. For many academics, setting aside their knowledge in a subject and identifying with the skills of an archival researcher for instance can be difficult. One big exception are scholars who are methods pioneers. They tend to make the jump without a problem. This is compounded by the fact that:

Academia does not encourage taking risks.

Graduate students spend five or more years at the mercy of their committees. In some cases, this is a benevolent tyranny but in others it’s more like the Terror. Tenure-track faculty are no less ruled by tenure review committees. So for ten or more years, academics are encouraged to take some risks but only within circumscribed bounds. It’s no wonder that many academics fear a private sector job search.

It has never been easier to search for a job.

Internet ubiquity and the global hunger to fill challenging positions means that employment and networking opportunities abound. Spread your wings and move a little outside your comfort zone. Odds are your comfort zone is actually bigger than you thought it was.

12 comments:

  1. Wow... Wonderful post! Gives a clear view of a PhD scholars mental struggle! Of course, academia does not encourage taking risks. In fact, academia moves up with calculated risks, i.e following the golden words "Think before you leap". :)
    I am still struggling to applying for PhD... I have chosen my area of research, but selection of university is still under process... Any advice for this???

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    1. The most important thing IMO about a graduate program is finding a faculty that you will enjoy working with for the next 4+ years of your life.

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    2. I agree - look for a place where you'll be challenged to grow in your field as well as personally

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  2. Oh that's cool... Finding such a faculty is a challenging job... I am afraid after hearing my senior professors story... They were forced to do guide's personal work etc. Some even took 8 years to complete because of guide's unapproved status!

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    1. I think a lot comes down to having an open conversation with your supervisor from the beginning about your mutual expectations.

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    2. Or better yet, have conversations with prospective faculty before you apply to a graduate program.

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    3. Sure! Thank you both... Looking for ways to crackdown the Indian mentality of prospective faculty :)

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  3. Can you give us some idea as to where to find listings of overseas faculty positions?

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    1. A lot goes through contacts at conferences, but you can also check professional publications (IABSE newsletter for structural engineering, for example), or ResearchGate

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