18 March 2011

Academic life in the Netherlands

Life in the Netherlands has not only cemented my identity as an expat. Since 2001, I have been a part of the Dutch academic system. My journey has taken me from a bright-eyed, enthusiastic master's student, to a determined and sometimes desperate PhD student, and finally into the grown-up world of employment as an assistant professor.

I am often asked how I have managed to stay here - rooted in a very Dutch sector - with such a pathetic understanding of the language. I try to gloss over my own laziness when it comes to language courses. But I can honestly answer that it's mainly because English is my native language. Universities in the Netherlands are touting a new buzz word: Internationalisering. Whether one agrees with this or not, the race is on to internationalize. The process is resulting in more hiring of international staff, more recruiting of students from abroad, and more programs and courses in English. This means that one can maneuver through the entire university system - from a bachelor's degree to a PhD - entirely in English. And if a PhD graduate wants to continue on as academic staff, there are more and more Dutch and international students to teach...in English.

Another part of this experience is exposure to a very diverse group of students. From the University of Amsterdam to Erasmus University Rotterdam, I've taught small and large groups of international students, mainly who have incredibly interesting backgrounds, speak multiple languages and have lived in several different countries. I've also taught Dutch students who have never left the Netherlands and US students who had never left California until their four-month study abroad trip. With such variety comes new challenges. Imagine teaching a group where some are incredibly deferential to authority (they call me "Professor Ward") mixed with those who view our relationship as more of a professional negotiation between fee-paying student and salary-receiving faculty. Believe me, there are some days where I'm relieved that Rate my Professors hasn't made it to the Netherlands.

Overall, being a part of Dutch academia has been a very interesting way to experience expat life. At home I can retreat to an expat group of friends, but at work, the debates that grip the country - immigration, budget cuts, social benefits - all play out.

Am I in it for the long haul? Perhaps. But so much time has gone by that I can already reflect on the growing number of students attending class with their laptops. It will be interesting to see how things evolve in the coming years, and whether the Dutch university will continue its drive towards the ultimate international experience.


  1. Anonymous15:30

    I am also navigating the Dutch Academic system. This September I will begin a PhD as an external researcher. As a native Californian, I do agree that much of my academic success here in Leiden is due to English as my primary language.

  2. Thanks for the comment, and best of luck with your PhD research!