Some advice on how to find a U.S. faculty job with a foreign Ph.D.

Alien Job Hunting: Finding a U.S. Faculty Job from Overseas

By Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

Earlier this week as I was catching up on my Twitter feed, I came across a thread by Laura De Ruiter, a European Ph.D. and research assistant professor at Tufts outlining the challenges in applying for U.S. tenure-track jobs as an outsider. This made me reflect on my now decade-old job search that eventually landed me my first tenure-track gig at Purdue University, so obviously I wrote a (long) multi-tweet reply, and then felt a little sheepish at my profsplaining response. Regardless, this is an interesting topic that I like to think I have some insight into, so I decided to expand my thoughts into a proper blog post.

To add some context, my field is in human-computer interaction (HCI) and visualization, and my Ph.D. is in computer science. I am also research active, so the target for my job search was exclusively research universities (what used to be called R1 universities in the U.S.). Finally, given my background, with a Ph.D. from Sweden, this article is skewed towards a European applying to the U.S. I am sure many of these observations are still true for different fields, different types of universities, and different backgrounds.

So, if you are a non-U.S. Ph.D. who is applying to tenure-track positions in the United States, are you hopelessly disadvantaged compared to people with a U.S. Ph.D.? Are there things you can do to position yourself better in preparation for a U.S. tenure-track search? And why would you want to do this in the first place, i.e., look for a job in a U.S. university?

Why Academia in the U.S.?

Let’s start with the last question first. It’s a complex question and I cannot answer it for everyone (it probably varies with your individual views on your profession), but the reason I personally chose to pursue a career in the U.S. is that I felt U.S. academia has a unique mix of opportunity and motivation (a nicer word than “pressure”) that fit my own working style well. In terms of opportunity, an assistant professor in the U.S. is immediately thrust into a leadership role with a responsibility to build a lab and a corps of students to an extent that few other places provide (note that this can both be daunting and exhilarating at the same time). Also, salaries are actually quite good for faculty (again, depending on your field). Furthermore, there are ample funding opportunities (at least in my field) to support this enterprise, and typically a wealth of talented prospective students to help you. In terms of motivation, I personally thrive under a certain amount of pressure, and the tenure-track system provided an excellent environment for me. I have no doubt I would have done well in other environments as well, but I also think that the tenure track helped push me to do better than I would have without this extra motivation.

There are many additional facets to this question which I cannot even hope to begin to answer here. One of them is quality of life, and this is where living in the U.S. may be challenging if you come from a different country. As a European, at least, there is a certain amount of culture shock in moving to the States, and it is also far from clear that the quality of life is better here than in your home country. This quality-of-life arithmetic may be different depending on where you come from, but it is particularly problematic under the current political landscape in the U.S., which is not very friendly to immigrants (among many other things). For example, I’m from Sweden, and it gets particularly hard at times when progressive politicians here in the U.S. keep quoting Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden as shining beacons of liberal values that everyone should adopt. Remind me again why I live here?

Important U.S. Specific Factors

Anyway, provided you have made peace with your decision to come to the United States, now comes the burning question: how disadvantaged are you compared to people inside the U.S. with Ph.D.s from U.S. universities? This is a question I had myself when embarking on my first tenure-track job search in 2006-2007, and it is worth noting that I did not successfully find a job until the second time, during the 2007-2008 interview season. While I can have no direct insight into search committee deliberations for my own applications (not for lack of trying; I must have spent hours brooding on this by trying to read search committee minds across a distance of thousands miles), I have by now served on many faculty searches and been on countless interview lunches and one-on-one meetings with candidates, so I feel I have some insight into this question. Obviously, every search committee member is different, so this is by necessity a reflection of my own opinions. Your mileage may vary.

First of all, let me console you with the fact that of the two most important U.S.-specific factors, one is the same for everyone regardless of nationality, and the second is too late to change now. More specifically, the first factor, for me, is always your publications: both quantity and quality alike (there is no specific formula here, but I want to see that you can publish high-quality papers in a reasonably regular fashion, and that you don’t “devalue” your CV too much with low-quality publication venues). Like I said, this aspect is the same for everyone (bar opportunity restrictions, such as someone having to focus on journal publications due to lack of funds for conference travel; see below). And the second, which is of less importance to me but I feel many of my colleagues through the years have put much stock into, is the ranking of your Ph.D.-granting university. Like I said, this is something that is too late to change by now, and I am not even sure you would want to.

Let me add an important caveat on opportunity and inclusion before I go any further: hiring is a sensitive affair that requires a fair and unbiased approach. Every faculty search I have been on has included training on understanding implicit bias and how to conduct an equitable hiring process. As a result, most faculty searches invariably include a session prior to receiving applications, often prior even to the writing of the job advertisement, where the whole committee agrees on a unified picture of what constitutes a good candidate. This is a very useful exercise, because it establishes a common baseline for what is, strictly speaking, necessary for the position, saving you from a pure numbers game and allowing qualitative aspects to play a bigger role. This means, for example, that a person who has had a “gap” in their publications (possibly due to having a child, although the reasons shouldn’t matter) can more easily be selected to receive an offer even if there exists candidates with a theoretically stronger record (grants, publications, students, etc). As long as a particular candidate fulfills the common baseline, it doesn’t matter if someone else in the pool with a better record if the original candidate is a better fit.

Let me also speak to the Ph.D.-granting university thing, because it was something I fretted a lot about as a European applicant to positions in the U.S. The truth of the matter is that, in having a foreign Ph.D., the faculty search committee is unlikely to be familiar with your university unless it happens to be one of a handful of “famous” universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, ETH Zurich, etc. Even if your university is the top school in your country, it will likely not register on the radar of most search committee members. In practice, this typically means that your university, as an unknown entity, will likely rank somewhere between a first-tier and a third-tier U.S. university in the minds of the search committee. In other words, regardless of whether this is fair or not, your university will likely be regarded as less prestigious than top-5 U.S. universities such as MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and Berkeley, but certainly stronger than a perceived top 50, or even top 20, U.S. university. Will search committee members be deterred by your foreign degree? It is certainly possible, but I like to think that most faculty members are open-minded enough not to immediately discard your application due to this simple fact. However, like everything, this could depend on the university you are applying to, where I could easily see a small liberal arts college or teaching-oriented school be more wary of international Ph.D.s than a research university (such as mine).

Additional U.S.-Specific Factors

Other factors may appear to have an impact on your job search beyond your publications and the color of your Ph.D. diploma, such as grants, awards, and teaching evaluations. These factors can be worrying for the international applicant, because standards and practices may be different back home compared to the U.S. I tend to think that worrying about this is unnecessary, because they don’t tend to have significant influence.

Instead, for all of these factors, the answer is simple: the relative impact of these factors depend on the candidate pool applying to the position. In other words, you should take a look at other people who are competing for the same jobs you are applying to. If the position is for a tenure-track assistant professor, as a rule I will not care too much about grants since that is mostly something we expect you to learn while on the job. The same is true for teaching evaluations. I personally don’t care too much about awards (unless they are extraordinary). Yes, many times there will be people who already have faculty jobs who apply for positions at the same level (to get to a better location, better salary, or better ranking), which can make competing difficult if you are fresh out of graduate school or a postdoc (in particular if you are applying from outside the U.S.). However, if the search committee has established a common baseline, they should be able to still pick you if you are the best choice even if there are other candidates with stronger records on paper.

Teaching experience is an interesting case. In Sweden, many universities will employ their Ph.D. students in technical disciplines in paid positions, and the duties often include teaching. In my case, I even got to design and teach an advanced undergraduate course as instructor as part of my Ph.D. studies. U.S. graduate students, on the other hand, do not generally teach as part of their duties unless they take a teaching assistantship, and few ever serve as instructors of record. This can provide a leg up for many European Ph.D.s, who may already have significant experience in the classroom compared to their U.S. counterparts.

The Magic of the Cover Letter

How do you handle all these complexities and differences between your background and a more traditional U.S. Ph.D.? Why, in the cover letter, of course! You should think of the cover letter as the “glue” that binds together the other pieces of your application—the CV, the research statement, and the teaching statement. This is the place where you not only summarize your application, but where you also put the pieces in context and educate your search committees. If no one looks for grants as a Ph.D. student or postdoc back home, then say so and explain why. If fellowships are not a thing ever, let your search committees know. If you served as an instructor as part of your Ph.D. studies, then be sure to mention this in your cover letter. If you only published in journals, explain why.

Obviously, you can’t change your Ph.D. university. (And, like I said, why would you want to? I, for one, am proud of my alma mater.) But if your university is unknown to most Americans even if it is the top one in your country, the cover letter is the place to say so (and include a helpful reference to back it up).

Preparing for a U.S. Academic Job Search

Finally, I promised to talk about how someone with a foreign Ph.D. can position themselves optimally for job hunting in U.S. academia. A discussion of the entire U.S. faculty search process is outside the scope of this article, but I encourage you to carefully read the existing guides on the internet (even if they are from outside your field; the broad strokes tend to be the same). Familiarize yourself with the process, and, in particular, the timing. U.S. faculty searches tend to be very seasonal in nature, with applications in the fall, interviews in winter or early spring, and offers in the latter half of the spring semester. If you miss the boat for applications, you are going to have to wait until the next fall semester to apply again. This can be frustrating if you did not plan ahead.

The other peculiarity that really differentiates the U.S. job hunting process from many international ones is the format of the campus interview: one, sometimes one and a half or two, full days dedicated to your interview. Whereas I have gone on European interviews that consisted merely of a couple of hours of informal discussions with the search committee (and, on one memorable occasion, my interview was exactly 12 minutes long), U.S. (and Canadian) campus interviews are intense and exhausting affairs that typically start with breakfast meetings in the morning and go on until dinner, and then often continues for all or part of the following day.

There are three aspects in particular about this interview format that I would highlight for foreign candidates. The first is that these interviews are truly exhausting, and that you should plan accordingly. Try to arrive a day earlier if you can, set aside time to rest up before the interview, and don’t plan to finish your job talk slides on the plane traveling to your interview. Second, remember that interviews in the U.S. are formal affairs, and you will be expected to wear at least business casual attire (some kind of suit or semi-formal jacket, at the very least). And third, you need to prepare yourself for a series of one-on-one meetings with individual faculty members, many of which are not in your area and don’t have an inkling of what you do. It is an art in itself to speak intelligently to such a variety of people for almost an entire day. My best advice is to project enthusiasm even if your interviewer works in an area you know nothing about, and to always, always try to come up with a common ground for how you could collaborate with the other person if you were to be given an offer. It is a good exercise in general.

In discussing this blog article on Twitter, my colleague Alex Lex (assistant professor at University of Utah with an Austrian Ph.D. from Graz University of Technology) pointed out that it is important to also educate your letter writers on the conventions in American letters of reference. This is a very good point, as American letter writers not only tend to be very enthusiastic with praise, but also write long and detailed letters (often several pages), where a European letter may only be less than a page and very clinical in its wording. Many American letters even explicitly compare a candidate to other people on the job market, whereas a European would not dream of being so crass. A U.S. search committee receiving such a concise letter may think that the referee is trying to diplomatically convey that they either do not know the applicant well, or is not enthusiastic about the person. To avoid this from affecting your candidacy, be open about this with your referees and make sure they calibrate accordingly!

One final way to position yourself for a career in the U.S. is to physically relocate to the U.S. While this may sound drastic, depending on your discipline, there may be postdoc and visiting opportunities that would enable you to spend some time in North America while you conduct your search. The benefit of this is twofold: first of all, you get some valuable experience, both in terms of your record as well as for your personal growth on what it’s like to live and work here. The former may actually help by adding a familiar university to your CV. And second, by already being present in the U.S., you will be eliminating any budget constraints on behalf of the inviting department. While most research universities will likely not care about this, regional campuses, teaching-oriented schools, and small liberal arts colleges may. I actually had one of my campus interview invitations rescinded from such a university when they found out I needed international airfare to come to campus.

Of course, U.S. immigration laws were always Byzantine, and the situation is hundred times worse now, so be careful when exercising this option. For example, J-1 visas often have a “two-year rule” that requires you to spend two years back home before you can move back to the United States on a new visa. Don’t make an immigration mistake that will cost you later.

Closing Words

In summary, I would say that while you may worry incessantly about differences between your candidacy and that of candidates with a U.S. Ph.D., I think most of these differences have little practical impact. At least for a research university, your research and publications is going to count the most, and any local differences in your track record will likely only have a small effect. By the time you are applying, the most important factors—your publications and your Ph.D. diploma—are out of your hands anyway. Good luck!