Response to “German Academics at Swiss Universities”

Fabian Klaber’s post about international professors prompted me to do a bit of reading into US university hiring.  I am woefully uneducated about the restrictions on international hiring, being a US citizen, and as a grad student I have little experience with those restrictions at a professor level.  Most of the international profs I know personally have become US citizens for a very important reason: NIH.

As a general rule, only US citizens can apply for grants from NIH (National Institutes of Health), and these competitive grants typically form the backbone of funding for biomedical research labs in academia.  I don’t know if similar restrictions apply to NSF or the Department of Defense grants, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.  Since in the US system most biomedical science professors must come up with funds to support their research programs (and often their own salaries), one needs to be able to apply for grants.  It would be irresponsible to hire an international individual with the expectation that they support their labs with grants when the major granting agencies won’t even allow them to apply.

The international hiring question is further complicated by immigration restrictions.  While I’m even less familiar with German-Swiss immigration matters, I’d be surprised if they were more complicated than the US.  I realize travel is very easy between countries in Europe, but what about working visas and obtaining citizenship for employment?  A quick Google search showed many large US universities have an entire department devoted to handling international students, staff and faculty.  That should be an indication of the complexity of US international hiring!

I realize Fabian’s post (and question about the US) was less about the administrative difficulties and more about the social implications of preferentially hiring native citizens versus internationals.  However one can’t ignore the contribution that administrative red-tape can play in decision making!  I have heard the complaints about waiting for visa applications and paperwork hassles for international hires, and major complications can occur when a position is for a limited amount of time and a visa is delayed.  For a more social perspective on US international professor hiring, I found this article interesting, but the comments even more so.  The example of requiring more documented justification for international hires over American hires appears to be common in many US universities, but not necessarily required by law.

I’m personally on the fence.  I agree that the goal for most professor hiring should be to get the best person for the job regardless of citizenship – but that means many things.  Not only should that person be an expert in their field with experience and a track-record that demonstrates their commitment, but they should also integrate into the culture of the particular institution and be in agreement with the overall goals of that institution.  However I can also understand why people support favoring native citizen hires over internationals from a standpoint of investing in one’s own country.  If you are a citizen of a particular country, that means that you have lived in that country for some time, have paid taxes and presumably contributed to your country in some manner.  Thus the “country” should give back to you by investing in your career and future, versus someone who is not a citizen and may not be invested (socially and financially) in the country long term.

I think the issue may be overly simplified into the question “is favoring a resident nationality over other nations is an act of bias or an act of patriotism?”  In reality, search committees are rarely faced with “apples to apples” comparisons between international and native citizen applicants, greatly complicating the role nationality can play in selection.

From my very brief research, it appears hiring international professors is as fraught a topic in the US as it is in Switzerland, and is unlikely to be resolved in the current environment where global exchange is increasing and PhDs continue to be over-produced.

PS-  I would like to acknowledge that this post is a big oversimplification itself…after only a couple of hours reading on the web, I realized I could probably do an entire PhD dissertation on this topic to answer Fabian’s question!


About Cat Cowan

2nd year DVM/PhD student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Studying immunology, vet medicine and aiming to stay in academia.
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