Life on a work visa

This year, like the two that preceded it and at least the next to follow, I will be unable to make summer plans. As someone with a non-permanent position, I am constantly chasing opportunities and gearing up to take the next step, move on to the next position. I expect to live in a different location from one year to the next. As a non-permanent resident, my journey is compounded by visa complications that make me unable to travel for anywhere from 2-4 months around the summer months.

This means a not insignificant amount of lost opportunities for me. I never accept invitations to teach at summer schools or speak at conferences or workshops. I don’t even apply for summer conferences, I just don’t know where I’ll be over the summer and in the following year. In fact, right now, as I worry about a commitment I foolishly made two years ago to attend an event this July, I am unable to make travel plans because the one thing I do know is that I will not live in the same place in July as I do now. But where I will live – and more relevantly, where I should book a flight from/to – that is at the moment a mystery. These difficulties, and the anxieties that they give rise to, are shared between all of us who have temporary jobs.

Being born a citizen of the “wrong” country brings with it an additional layer of complexity, beyond that experienced by other transient academics. If I want to be an academic in my field (which I do), I am bound to look for work outside my home country, where I have very low chances of ever finding a job. I have accepted this as a part of my journey, and have done my best to learn everything I can about the country where I expect to make my future home. I am happy that my personal life circumstances and education even make this possible, and I appreciate this opportunity. Nonetheless, I share with other migrants the difficulties that arise from living and working in a non-native language, with little support from family members, who are generally far away.

I do not mean these as complaints; I embrace these difficulties and am fully prepared to face them. As a writer on a blog about those with more privilege and those with less, I am writing this as a reminder to those of you who were born to the right parents and in the right country, that you are lucky in ways that you don’t even see: You don’t have to apply for work visas to be able to continue living in your home. You don’t have to pay for said visas, either.* You don’t depend on having continuous employment and not even a single day without a contract, or you will have to immediately leave the country. You don’t worry about being deported, having to quickly sell everything you own, or reading up on fees at nearby storage facilities, in case you do have to leave for a month or two. You don’t worry about paying for a flight to leave, come back, get your stuff together, and move to the next location. You don’t worry that the process will take too long and you will not be able to accept a job or start it on time.**

The anxiety of even a single day of unemployment, of not getting my documents in order in time, of deportation, of losing all my belongings, added to the more “mundane” worries of the transient academic about their next job, weigh heavy on my heart for months of the year, year after year. It’s not something that I, and others in my position, talk about. But it builds up, and sometimes feels like more than I can handle. I so wish more of my colleagues knew and understood, and supported me through it.


* Likewise, you don’t have to apply for visas to attend conferences, or pay the processing fees for said visas. You have never cancelled your participation in a conference because the visa would take too long to be issued, be too complicated, or cost too much.

** So when you tell me that something might come up even in August, I hold my tongue and thank you, but secretly know that that’s entirely unrealistic for me. It’ll just be too late.


9 thoughts on “Life on a work visa

  1. I’m a migrant myself -not in the US, but a migrant. Lived 10 years in Europe in a very similar situation described here. It exhausted me emotionally and ended up nearly depressed. So, I decided to leave to another part of the planet. I still have to apply for visas, etc., but the job is a lot more stable and I feel I can carry out my personal and professional projects. I miss my life in Europe, and at times, I want to go back. I suppose this is normal. I’m glad the decision I made.
    Thanks for this post. No, sometimes it’s not easy being a migrant.

  2. Also a migrant (from the US), I was incredibly fortunate to get a job directly after my post doc that came with permanent residency.

    In addition to physically having to turn down opportunities, there is a huge productivity cost that comes with knowing that in X months you will have to leave a place you have made your home, immediately after your last day of work. No time to tie up loose ends, no opportunity to wait for a better job, not even to say goodbye to friends…

    There has been a lot of talk about ‘stapling visas to PhDs for foreign students’. Would love to see the discussion extended to include flexible work visas with 1-2 years of leeway for PhD holders who have been employed at universities, national labs, etc.

  3. Also an immigrant here, living now in the US. I was a post-doc in Canada for a year before coming to the US, and having to deal with two visas in two consecutive years was horrible for productivity.
    I totally agree that there is an added layer of difficulty when doing this job as foreigners, from language (being able of giving the exact nuance can be challenging), to cultural stuff, and being on your own away from your family means a extra isolation (especially if there is a huge time difference to schedule calls). When I mention this to some American born citizens, they kind of wave it as if it wasn’t a big deal, which pisses me off. In my head I am thinking…would like to see you do this, my friend and see if you have the courage to push through!!

  4. I was also an immigrant until I got my first tenure-track job that eventually got me a permanent residence in Canada. Permanent residence improved the situation a lot, but real freedom to travel only came many years later with Canadian citizenship. I still remember the visa days in pain. I sympathize with students and postdocs (and some professors) about visas and work permits and I try to help or at least lean my hear to the occasional ranting.

  5. Oh dear, I so hear you! Not about the visa bit, admittedly – I work in the country I was born in – oh no, wait, I’m not working at all, technically at least, for at the moment I am unemployed again! Not that this changes anything: I am told it’s completely normal for postdocs to do research all the time that they only get paid for sometimes. The next job I will have will be a 6months contract. I’ll only have a job for longer if I obtain research funding. Me and my husband who is also a postdoc and in exactly the same position cannot make plans for our future. We find it really difficult to talk to others about our life, too. All the vagueness, all the different opportunities we try to make for ourselves and none of which might work out in the end, really confuse people when they listen to us. It is really an uphill struggle. How do we make it? How do you make it through such tough times?

  6. hear, hear! Whenever I hear my colleagues complain about the precarious situation and time-limited contracts, I have to bite my tongue not to say that they don’t know the half of it. I tried talking about it a few times in the past but I get waved off with remarks about how they understand, but we are all in the same boat. No, we are not! You can always go live with your mother a train ride away and apply for unemployment money, while I will end up deported to the country where I haven’t been paying into the pension fund and which has no employment opportunities for me that would cover food, let alone rent.

  7. Thanks for writing this important piece. My partner worked on three continents, across 4 countries, in the span of 6 years. Even eventually in allegedly stable jobs, it was somewhat terrifying to buy a house and have a child while we waited for him to be eligible for permanent residency. What if he lost his job and his work visa and I ended up single parenting two kids? Other than the days my children were born healthy, I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved as the day we got his green card in the mail.

    Best of luck that stability and permanency – both professionally and residency-wise – will come to you soon.

    • Thank you!

      You’re right, immigration issues also affect personal decisions like when to get married or start a family, I didn’t even begin to talk about that, it would be way too much to cover in one post. I think a lot of that is shared with everyone else who is in temporary positions, citizen or not, although it is often more complicated for non-citizens. A friend of mine who was working in a country where she is not a citizen recently had a child, and her husband (who had a job in yet another country!) couldn’t come visit to help with the baby because he’d already been in his wife’s country for too long while she was pregnant, because she had some complications and he came to be with her. Eventually she had to leave her job and move to be with him, because being alone with a baby in a foreign country and not being able to see her husband was just too much.

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