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Transitioning Abroad? Insight on Working Overseas from an Academic Rolling Stone. By Christopher Hill
January 4, 2017

c-2-metroDr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the first of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

In this age of adjunct academic positions and relentless competition for jobs, the temptation to cast off for exotic shores and low-tax salaries is an alluring one for many young academics. Before taking that leap consider this testimony on the trials and tribulations of transitioning between academic jobs in different countries.

In 2005, fresh from my master’s degree, I decided to leave my hometown of Auckland and take my OE (Overseas Experience). The OE is a mandatory rite of passage for those of us who grow up closer to Antarctica than the rest of the world. At the time I was convinced that London did not need another Australasian, so I headed in the direction of Shanghai convinced that it was destined to be the New York of the 21st century. As so often happens with adventures I never made it, and still haven’t ever been to Shanghai. Nonetheless, I also haven’t returned home either. Instead, I have lived and worked in universities across Asia.

People often ask me “Why did you choose to live abroad?” There is often a subtext to this question: “You grew up in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet so why the hell leave?” It can be difficult to offer an honest answer. In such situations I am reminded of a quote from The Odyssey which roughly paraphrased goes something like this: “A person who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his or her own sufferings after a time.” I will admit that living abroad has been hard for me, but in the end worth it. And I have managed to get by focusing on one challenge at a time.

So what kind of problems can you encounter working overseas? There are a number of professional challenges involved in transitioning between academic jobs. However, academics that make the move often overlook the injuries to their health and happiness that such new environments can present.

As an example, I consider myself a person who lives reasonably healthy, avoids excess for the most part, and grew up without any significant health issues or allergies. Yet each time I have moved country my body has been dealt a brutal blow. In Indonesia, within a 3 month period, I suffered dysentery and 3 separate bouts of food poisoning that left me 12kg lighter and with a chronically irritable bowel that took several years to recover. In Hong Kong the pollution brought on a lengthy bout of bronchial asthma. I recently moved to Singapore and my first semester of teaching has coincided with an extended battle with pneumonia inspired, my doctor tells me, not by age but by allergies and the climate.

Matters of the heart can also be difficult for academics transitioning to new countries. Trailing spouses of academics often learn too late that finding work can be difficult and even impossible in certain places. Life is not necessarily easier for singletons either. For every tale of cross-cultural love you might hear there are several other stories of souls left lonely and distraught by the enigmatic dating scenes of foreign shores. While these matters are not limited to academics they merit mention because even when your health and sense of wellbeing are tested you are still expected to bare the intense intellectual demands of our profession.

There are a number of often hidden professional challenges you can face working in a new country. Job interviews and university tours often don’t reveal the nuance of a foreign university’s culture, which can quickly leave newly hired academics perplexed and estranged from their employers. In Asia, for example, the bureaucratic nature of many universities can make you feel like you are trapped in a scene out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

In the UK, North America and Australasia your specialisation and research are respected to a certain extent. You expect to be hired to do research and teach on subjects related to your own field. In overseas universities this is not always the case. Academics are frequently expected to be more flexible: “Literary theorist you say? This makes you a perfect candidate for developing our English for business communication course. By the way, what do you know about social science?”

While living in a foreign country, social, cultural and language differences can impact your everyday interactions with students and colleagues, and this can take a toll over an extended period of months or years. Some find these experiences engaging and invigorating, while others feel as if their souls are being sapped of vitality.

Whether you see working overseas as a short jaunt or a long term move, consider carefully your exit strategy. My career outside New Zealand has involved living and working in three different countries and developing a specialisation in an area that is not in particularly high demand back home. I may find it difficult to get work should I ever decide I want to return to New Zealand one day. However, I have other friends and colleagues who carefully managed the development of their research, bided their time and leveraged their overseas experience for better positions on their return home.

For all the laments and sufferings described above, there are many advantages to moving overseas. In places like Asia and the Middle East salaries are often higher and taxes low. Universities may have more money for conferences and grants which can provide you more opportunities to develop your research. Living in a new country offers the chance for you to establish new perspectives and insights into the world and your own work. And, if there is anything that I am truly grateful for it is the friends I have made along the way—a network of people that now spans the globe. A group who have helped shape me into a better human being than the one that left home.

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