Making a transcontinen­tal career move to Derby

Gerhard Kemp reflects on his career move that took him from South Africa to the University of Derby.

In February of this year I made the journey from South Africa to the UK to take up the position of professor of international criminal law in the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences of the University of Derby.

Of course, that British Airways flight from Cape Town to London Heathrow that delivered me to the UK shores was only part of the journey; a journey that started months earlier. The journey still continues, in a sense, and even in lockdown I am still learning more about my new workplace, colleagues and the student community. 

A career change in the time of coronavirus

A bit more than two decades in higher education has taught me that academia is a complex environment, with many challenges, but also many rewards. It is a sector where one can truly help to construct the foundations of society; where even abstract theories and ideas can impact concrete situations and contexts.

Few contemporary challenges impacting higher education has been more dramatic and acute than the current covid-19 pandemic. But what I have seen and experienced thus far in terms of the University of Derby’s response to this, only serves to underline the fact that I have made the right choice when I made the decision to move from South Africa to the UK to take up this new position.

A career change is not always easy; and emigrating is even more difficult (logistically, culturally, emotionally), but with the few brief observations to follow I want to say that the move to Derby has been the kind of positive experience that one can hope for. 

Why Derby, and why the move from South Africa?

My wife – who is also a law academic – accepted a position in the UK in 2019, and we consequently decided to settle as a family in the UK. When I started to look for opportunities, the UK legal academic market presented several possibilities that would fit my academic profile, but I was immediately drawn to Derby.

The location in the heart of England and Derby’s connectedness, but, more importantly, the profile of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences and in particular the Law School, convinced me to apply for the position of professor of law at the University.

I was intrigued by the leadership’s vision to build on Derby Law School’s excellent reputation in terms of teaching and training, by fostering and expanding research that have positive impact in the community, the region, the UK and internationally.

Job offer accepted; visa application process ensued

Foreign nationals (like myself) who want to settle in the UK must apply for an applicable work visa. I will not go into all the detail here, suffice to say that the prospective employer in the UK (in my case, the University of Derby) plays a crucial role, not only in terms of the provision of relevant documentation, but also in terms of effective and continuous communication with the prospective employee.

I must say that I have throughout the visa application process – which lasted approximately two months from the acceptance of the job offer to the issuance of the visa by the Home Office – received the most wonderful and efficient support from the (future) colleagues at Derby University’s Human Resources department. “Efficient” is the appropriate term, because HR obviously knew what they were doing in terms of all the relevant processes and documentation. But it was also more than just “efficient” support that I have received: They made me feel genuinely welcome even though I have at that stage not yet arrived in Derby.

In short: What many people would normally experience as a daunting process was made so much easier with the help of HR’s efficient and empathetic support. And HR’s support did not end with my arrival in Derby. There was, of course, a change in status after my arrival in Derby. I was now no longer a prospective and incoming employee; I was now a new staff member.

Gerhard Kemp

What many people would normally experience as a daunting process was made so much easier with the help of HR’s efficient and empathetic support. And HR’s support did not end with my arrival in Derby.

Gerhard Kemp
on starting a new job and settling in during the coronavirus pandemic

Reporting for duty and settling in

Given the academic calendar, it is usual for new academic staff at UK universities to start in August or September. I started in February because of certain duties and projects that needed to be finalised at my previous university. Derby was very gracious to accommodate me like this. It also meant that there was no soft landing, in a manner of speaking. I reported for duty at Kedleston Road two days after my arrival in the UK. After a few formalities I was shown my new academic home at One Friar Gate Square – the distinctive copperplated building where the Law School is based.

Although I have twenty years of experience in higher education (having spent time at universities and research institutes in South Africa, Belgium and Germany), it is still daunting to start at a new workplace, let alone a new workplace in a new country.

Once again, as was the case with Human Resources, the support that I have received from my new colleagues at the Law School was just incredible. It takes a while to really get to know people, and my settling-in at Derby was somewhat disrupted by the Covid-19 lockdown.

While the lockdown certainly deprived me of the opportunity to interact with my colleagues in the regular sense of the word, the pandemic and associated challenges gave me insight into how my new colleagues operate in unprecedented times. What I can say is that I am both impressed and encouraged. From the regular virtual Teams meetings and drop-ins, to more informal email exchanges and support, it became clear to me that my new academic home is a place that puts great emphasis on teamwork, support, and solidarity. 

I am looking forward to work with my new colleagues – and I am really looking forward to my first English summer!

Gerhard standing and smiling in front of a bookcase

Professor Gerhard Kemp
Professor of International and Transnational Criminal Justice, FRSA

Gerhard Kemp, FRSA, is a professor of law and specialises in international and transnational criminal justice, comparative criminal law, international humanitarian law, and transitional justice. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts, London, an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow, Germany, and a former Senior Research Fellow of the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin, Germany.

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