In 2005, during his cognitive psychology postdoc at Rutgers University, Michael Patterson, PhD, heard that Nanyang Technological University in Singapore had created a psychology department and was recruiting faculty.
In the United States, Patterson would have needed several more years of postdoctoral work to qualify for most academic jobs in his field. So the idea of getting in on the ground floor of a new department seemed appealing. Added to that was the opportunity to live in an English-speaking country in the heart of Asia.
Two years in, Patterson has no regrets. "It's been a very interesting opportunity," he says. "I knew that once I was an assistant professor I'd be very busy, and I figured I'd rather be very busy in an interesting place."
Plus the university is internationally ranked—not a bad school to start out an academic career.
Taking posts abroad is an attractive option for American citizens as well as foreign-born students who want to return home. Some countries, such as Singapore, South Korea and China, are actively recruiting U.S.-trained psychologists to fill a growing number of academic slots. Others, including Australia and the United Kingdom, have a long tradition of hiring from the United States.
"Overseas, our U.S. training is quite valued," says Nancy Pachana, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia. "So there is a chance—if you work hard and are motivated—to advance rapidly with respect to responsibilities and promotions."
But before jumping in, research the countries and schools you're applying to.
"It's unwise to assume that universities will work the same way as they do in the United States," adds Merry Bullock, PhD, the director of APA's international affairs division. "Different countries have different academic systems."
One way to get to know another country is to start as a postdoc or visiting lecturer, says Bullock, who worked in Germany after doing a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.
"Once you're there, you can meet people, and you'll be in a better position to apply for something if it comes along," she says.
It also gives you a chance to learn the language. Although many countries use English for academics and research, it's easier to develop rapport with colleagues in their mother tongues, says Bullock.
Language and culture were even an issue for counseling psychologist Alvin Leung, PhD, who returned home to Hong Kong after years of schooling and work at U.S. universities.
"It took me a long time to switch comfortably back to my mother language in my teaching," he says.
To gear up for his job search, Leung talked to Hong Kong teachers, counselors and school principals. "I read as much as possible to understand the mental heath system as well as education system," he recalls.
In the end, the decision to work overseas should hinge on the kind of work you want to do, says developmental psychologist Jessica Horst, PhD, who landed a job at Sussex University in England last year.
"The job should be a fit academically first and foremost. Location should come second," she says.
Horst found her fit after realizing she wanted to be in a department with other developmental researchers. Patterson, on the other hand, sought a department that he could help build. His department is hiring three or four new faculty members each year, and he's on committees that are shaping how research is conducted at the school.
"I've got a lot more responsibility than I'd have in the same position back home," he says.
And the travel isn't bad either. Patterson was off for a month's vacation in Mongolia over the summer. Americans working in Australia, for example, get large chunks of time to travel for both vacation and work.
Overseas faculty may want to use that time to stay in touch and attend conferences with stateside colleagues, says Bullock. That way, you can always return to the American university system if you'd like. "As long as you keep active and engaged, you should be able to move anywhere," she says.
After all, universities around the world have similar expectations for professors, valuing those who bring in grants, get published in top journals and teach well, says Horst. Academics who can complete that hat trick can work almost anywhere in the world.
By Beth Azar
Beth Azar is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.