Blog > /2016/11/different-here/

It's Different Over Here, and Here, and Here...

Chris Blattman has put together a really useful list of advice for PhD students on the political science and economic job markets. It’s a fantastic compilation of myriad resources and informal nuggets of wisdom. It also showcases the regularity of academic hiring processes in the United States. Given that I’ve now worked in two European countries, I thought I would throw in some quick caveats about how things work over here.

The most important of these is that there is no European academic job market. While people sometimes talk about “American political science” versus “European political science” to highlight differences in research paradigms, it is really important to recognize that Europe does not have a unified market in the way that the US does. Every country more or less operates independently, with completely different norms about academic training, whether or not postdoctoral work is expected or required, when hiring occurs, whether positions carry American-style “tenure”, what kind of teaching and research expectations are in place, and how interviews work. (Aside from the below, you may consider looking at the current issue of PS for some insight into disciplinary norms in Europe.)

The biggest issue, by far, in European academia is language. If you’ve met with, visited, or collaborated with European scholars and are coming from an American tradition, you inevitably worked in English because it is the operating language of most contemporary political science. While English is also the dominant operating language in European academia, national or local languages almost universally dominate teaching and administrative structures at European universities. Places that have English-language courses or degree programs inevitably teach in a local language at the undergraduate level. This has the consequence that some European universities and academic environments can appear inward facing or uninterested in hiring PhD students trained abroad. If you are interested in moving to a country where English is not the predominant language and you do not speak the local language, seeking employment in such a place will inevitably require learning a new language. This has obvious advantages (like making your life in that place more enjoyable and less isolating) but comes at the cost of other things you may be expected to do post-PhD (like research). If you offered an interview (or even a job) at a university that does not operate in a language you currently speak - regardless of what anyone tells you - you need to operate on the assumption that you will be expected to learn the local language in the near-term. Some places will put this explicitly in a job contract (e.g., permanent staff being required to teach in the native language after 1-2 years) but at other places it may be only an informal expectation. If you’re considering applying to a European school, keep this in mind. It’s one of the few universals across country contexts.

European PhD programs tend to be shorter than American programs. Typically they are 3-4 years, with a prerequisite masters degree. This means that those with European PhDs have been trained in an entirely different way from how American PhD students are trained. This carries with it expectations about what a newly minted PhD will have done. In many places, it means that a PhD student will not have published more than perhaps one paper. Non-permanent postdoctoral positions are therefore common in many countries. Many national research councils also fund postdoctoral positions independently of universities. Both countries I’ve worked in (Denmark and the UK) operate these schemes, as does the European Union under the Marie Curie banner. This means that if you are interested in moving to a European university for a postdoc, you will often either (1) be tied to a specific, council-funded research project or (2) need to apply directly to a national research council or the EU to obtain an “independent” postdoc. The advantage of the latter is that almost any university will gladly host a postdoc, due to the overhead that such positions provide. In many countries a postdoc is required before applying for a more permanent position, meaning as a new PhD from the US a European school may not even consider you for an Assistant Professor position.

However, given the diversity of institutional structures, there are exceptions and ambiguities. For example, in Denmark there is no distinction between a “Postdoc” and an Assistant Professor (“Adjunkt”). Both are three-year, temporary positions. Universities typically have no discretion to hire at this level; they can only accept positions awarded centrally by the Danish Research Council. This means there is no “market” per se; there are only periodic calls for positions from the council and periodically from projects that have been funded and include postdoc positions.

The “German system” is also an exception. If you’re not familiar, German academia operates on an old-school hierarchy wherein “Professors” are essentially the equivalent of US-style endowed chairs, typically with substantial budgets, teaching responsibilities, and oversight of other staff. If you are a professor, you will have numerous temporary staff and PhD students that work for you. Junior positions are typically offered by specific professors rather than by departments or universities and there is no job security. A six-year junior position in the German system has a near-zero guarantee of translating into a permanent position. Professorships are rare and upward mobility is unlikely. Contrast that with the Danish system, where a postdoctoral position is three-years, tenure-track, and in many cases will translate into an Associate Professorship (a permanent position).

These two examples highlight why there is no European market per se and often no national market either. Because junior positions are not necessarily offered by universities and are not necessarily tied to specific teaching needs, hiring occurs in a largely ad-hoc fashion. That also reflects the fact that PhD programs do not necessarily have “cohorts” in the US sense; students may begin and end their degrees throughout the year. If you are considering a move to Europe, you need to know that calls can occur at any time, with quick deadlines, and seemingly arbitrary start dates. The LSE and some US-focused universities attempt to hire during the US job market cycle, but not always.

A further consideration closely related to this complexity of hiring processes is the diversity of position types. In my experience, most European universities do not have American-style tenure. Labor market policies, however, mean that in many countries provide a general labor market protection in the form of a “permanent” contract. Social Science Space has an article on how this works in Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. Permanent, open-ended, or indefinite contracts are akin to tenure but without the same degree of protection. Similarly, fixed, short-term, or temporary-contracts often provide no “tenure track” through which promotion might occur. In the German and Danish systems, for example, hiring of permanent positions works by open call rather than by assessing the merits of internal candidates. The lack of tenure does not necessarily mean insecurity; in a permanent position, you would have the same kind of labor market protections of any other worker with a similar contract. It’s just not “tenure” per se.

Hiring, then, can take many forms and can vary between position types. I have encountered postdoc hiring procedures that vary the full spectrum from an American-style, two-day interview with a job talk (LSE uses this for some temporary positions) to completely paper-based involving review of applications and a research statement. Similarly, these processes will vary in their formality from an individual researcher having individual discretion to hire a postdoc, to a committee-style decision, to a process involving external peer review and formal ranking of all applicants (see, for example, Scandinavia). For more permanent positions, there is the same degree of variation in procedures, and processes vary considerably across countries and across universities within countries and even across departments in the same university.

The “British” hiring process for any kind of position typically involves two core components: (1) a very brief (perhaps 20-min) research presentation wherein a candidate describes their general research profile and trajectory and possibly provides details on one ongoing project, and (2) a “panel interview” where the candidate is interviewed by a hiring committee. Somewhat awkardly, these interviews will tend to take place back-to-back on the same day as other candidates. Presentations, lunch, or informal conversation may be in the presence of other candidates for the same position. LSE traditionally has relied on this system and some departments still use it; ours has adapted to a more US-style approach (longer form job talks and one-on-ones) but retains features of the traditional system.

If you are offered an interview at a European university, it is really important that you ask about what precisely is expected for each portion of the interview and, if possibly, consult with academics based in that country to learn about how the process works. Some universities involve the broader department in discussions about hiring, while in many cases hiring decisions are at the discretion of a single project, department section, the hiring committe, or even solely the head of department. Again, there are no consistencies across universities or across countries, so it is vital to know what is expected of the specific place you are visiting.

While all of this can be rather daunting, it’s important to know that many European universities offer excellent conditions. There is of course considerable variation across richer and poorer universities and across countries, but many European countries impose moderately strict and typically generous (by American standards) rules about holiday and time-off, about parental leave, health and childcare benefits. The variation here is from essentially no benefits (e.g., in Southern European universities) to one-year parent leave and six-weeks of mandatory holiday (e.g., in Scandinavia). My experience is that the dual layers of federalism provided by the EU also mean that there are more (though possibly more competitive) opportunities for research funding from national and EU-level research councils, and many countries dedicate research funds specifically for junior researchers, for international researchers moving to the country, and for international collaborations. While teaching loads can vary enormously, they can in some cases be extremely low (e.g, a two-year, EU-funded postdoc will typically require no teaching). LSE has a moderate teaching load, but only two ten-week teaching terms, meaning teaching can be intense for short periods but much of the year is set aside for service responsibilities and research. The cost of all of this is that most countries have relatively constrained salary scales; it would be rare to make more as a professor at a European university than at a US R1. Whether that is worth it depends on your own preferences among fringe benefits, responsibilities, geography, and other considerations.

As a final, and probably the most important, point. If you are coming from the United States and decide to pursue an academic career in Europe, do not forget to consider your close and extended family and broader social circle. Moving abroad can be challenging, particularly to a country where you do not already speak the language. While European countries typically provide generous benefits for families and work permits for spouses, there is no guarantee that your partner (if you have one) will be able to find employment comparable to what they would in their home country nor that your social environment will be comparable to what you are used to. Everything can work out great, but it can also be challenging. I would encourage every American-trained PhD to consider spending time in Europe - I think it’s a great place to start and continue an academic career - but to do so only it’s something that will work professionally and personally.


Published: 2016-11-08
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