Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why I work in Africa and not the US

Russell Arben Fox has a recent post up on the path he has travelled since getting his PhD. My own path has also required a lot of physical moving. On the perennial question of whether one should get a PhD especially in a field like history, my own personal view is that you should not expect to work in the US as an academic. But, if you are willing to work in a place like Ghana then it is possible to get a good academic job.

Teaching university students is great. However, the job market has been bad in the US for a long time and it does not look like it is getting better any time soon. So if you want to work as a history lecturer then go ahead and get the PhD. But, be prepared to work in Africa or someplace outside of North America or Europe. It will definitely be a number of years before you get back to the US permanently. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that you need to consider. I did not initially intend to work first in Kyrgyzstan and then Ghana. However, during the first three years after I received my PhD I found it impossible to find an academic job even as an adjunct in the US. Below I speculate on the reasons for this failure.

My experience is probably different than other peoples, but a lot of the common wisdom is bunk. Publications do not seem to help at all  in applying for jobs in the US. What American universities are looking for is teaching experience not published monographs or peer reviewed journal articles. I had two scholarly books and several journal articles published at the time I started looking for a university of job and applied to hundreds of jobs without receiving any interviews. I was told on a number of occasions that they would not even consider me because I had no teaching experience. On a number of occasions these institutions ended up hiring people who not only had no publications, but were ABD. One would think that having a PhD, not being a TA was the minimal requirement for being an assistant professor, but one would be wrong. It was only after teaching in Central Asia that any US universities even suggested that they were interested in interviewing me. So the claim that publications are the most important element in hiring at US universities is largely a lie. Publications are of little importance when applying to the vast majority of university positions in the US compared to teaching experience and where you did your degree. I did my PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Having a British degree from any place other than Oxford, Cambridge or LSE is a serious disadvantage in the US job market. So I had two strikes against me in the US. On the other hand having a degree from SOAS helped me get my present job. The institution is as respected here as it is unknown in the US.

That said, working abroad has advantages. The students here at the University of Ghana appear to be much better than what I read about on American academic blogs. They work hard and are respectful. I am also in a much better position in every respect than I would be working as an adjunct in the US. I work less for more than appears to be the case with American adjuncts. My compensation and benefits are actually quite good here.

My feeling is that my own path will become more common in the future. Academia will increasingly become more migratory. In many ways this is good. I think Americans including academics are far too isolated from the rest of the world. But, the dream of being able to work as an academic in your home country is going to be increasingly difficult for newly minted American PhDs to obtain. The options may very well be working abroad in places like Ghana or working outside of academia.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Excellent thoughts, Otto! Thanks for sharing them. I wonder about your firm line against the emphasis on publications for grad students; I've no doubt of the legitimacy of your observations and experiences, but I also wonder if the situation had been reversed--that is, if you'd had lots of teaching experience, but no publications--that that wouldn't have been an excuse to pass over you as well. In other words, the job market is so damned difficult to succeed at, perhaps you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

That said, to the degree your point is that someone shouldn't come out of graduate school thinking they would specialize, become an expert in their obscure field, and then publish their way to glory, then I completely agree. And as for your observation that the academy becoming "increasingly migratory"...well, with all these adjuncts, picking up classes wherever they can find them, isn't it already? But you're saying that in the context of globalization. And in that sense, yes, I agree that there may be an upside to it all.

J. Otto Pohl said...


What a pleasant surprise! Thank you for stopping by. I mention the publications, because most of the literature at the time stressed its importance ueber alles. For some positions at R1s publications are important. But, for the vast majority of entry level positions at state and liberal arts colleges, I think they are definitely a secondary consideration at best for hiring committees. Since I had no teaching experience my plan was to publish my way to an entry level job, not glory. Needless to say the plan was flawed.

There is an excess supply of PhDs in the US compared to demand especially in the humanities and social sciences. Some countries have the opposite problem. I know that the University of Ghana is on a hiring binge. There are supposed to be three new foreign faculty in the history deparmtent here in August. So the global market is dictating a reverse brain drain here at least on a microlevel. I expect it to spread.

Walt Richmond said...

Thanks for these great observations, Otto. I've shared this on my Facebook page for my students and ex-students.