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Young researchers in motion

On the occasion of the event held in Paris on 29-30 June 2004, five young researchers were interviewed on their experience of mobility and answered to the same questions.

Eleanna Galanaki / Fabienne Goldfarb / Marius Linguraru / Dagmar Meyer / Augusto Palombini

 

Eleanna GalanakiEleanna Galanaki

Eleanna is doing doctoral research at the Athens University of Economics into the factors affecting the decision to outsource human resource management services. She is president of the Hellenic Association of Doctoral Researchers and a member of the Executive Board of Eurodoc
(http://www.eurodoc.net).

1. What are, for you, the main benefits that a young researcher can expect from career mobility – geographical or otherwise?

While abroad, you learn to question some fundamental assumptions of your own culture – a practice that has repeatedly proven to have some merit in research as well. Other benefits include development of professional competencies, proving one's own flexibility, experience of other cultures, creation of international research networks and more collaborations, and having to ‘think out of the box’.

2. What still remains to be done on a European level to make the experience of mobility a really positive one for young researchers?

There is really a need for common or at least compatible ways to handle social security benefits; uniformity of research contracts, with standardised flexibility for performance-related remuneration; existence of services (for example, within universities, research centres, etc.) to assist the mobility researchers in many practical aspects, such as finding accommodation and getting administrative paperwork done. We also need more favourable visa regulations, not only for longer-term stays but also for shorter ones and more family-friendly policies –easing the search for a job for the partner, or of a school for the kids, etc.

3. Do you have a favourite personal anecdote from your own experience which illustrates the problems or pleasures of mobility?

When organising a conference in Greece for young researchers I had to speak to the Greek consul himself on the phone in order to get a visa for a participant from Moldova, although I had already faxed him a signed letter explaining the aims and the conditions of the trip. Even if participation in conferences does not exactly pertain to mobility, this incident is indicative of the problems of mobility.

4. Is an experience in a good foreign laboratory an important factor in clinching a permanent position back in Europe or, on the contrary, does being away for a year or two reduce your chances of being employed again in your home country?

In Greece, on which I can express my opinion, both things happen. It depends on the policy and the people in the institutions of the home country, as well as on the reputation of the foreign laboratory or institution.

5. The time when researchers are most likely to want to experience mobility often coincides with a time when they are also thinking about starting a family. How does mobility affect personal relationships and family life?

In a negative way in both directions, if we refer to geographic mobility. Having a family and wanting to be mobile are not really compatible. I have been married for a year now. Having a kid has been postponed for a while since the uncertainties connected to mobility, in terms of finding a post or having a regular income, has greatly affected my decision. On the other hand, having a family also complicates the decision to move around. My having to move would also mean that my spouse, for example, would need to find a post abroad, too, which may negatively affect his own career.

6. In many European countries there seems to be a penury of permanent positions for young researchers, making it very difficult for expatriate researchers to come back to their country of origin or another European country. What initiatives need to be put in place to help expatriate researchers come back to Europe?

On a policy level, more money is needed in research, not necessarily in terms of salaries for researchers, but also in terms of more money for conducting and financing research, and certainly not necessarily on very strict and constrained sectors. Also, recruitment procedures should be made more transparent!

7. Is there enough incentive for researchers to try out other forms of mobility, such as moving from the public to the private sector, from basic and applied research, or from research and teaching, for example?

I believe not, at least in Greece. Even the few programmes that favour the collaboration between universities and industry, and which may assist the mobility of a researcher from the public to the private sector, do not act intentionally as incentives for this, and they certainly cannot help mobility in the other way, that is from the private (industry) to the public (university). There are many different aptitudes that are demanded in the two sectors, and employers on both sides tend to forget the common qualifications they could build on.

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Fabienne GoldfarbFabienne Goldfarb

Fabienne finished a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Paris XI in 2003 and is currently doing a postdoc in Austria at the Institute for Experimental Physics in Vienna. She was vice-president of the French Confederation of Young Researchers in 2003 and is a member of the Collectif des Chercheurs Expatriés (CCE), founded in February 2004 by a group of French expatriate researchers.

1. What are, for you, the main benefits that a young researcher can expect from career mobility – geographical or otherwise?

First, I would like to say that mobility is interesting only if it is linked to a reflection on the possible benefits for science. It is not a goal in itself, and can be bad at some moments of your scientific life, if you need to finish some work, for example, or if it is hard from a personal point of view. But it can be wonderful for seeing other organisations’ labs, talking to other scientists who have a different view of your subject, speaking with other scientists who work in other fields that can be linked to yours, learning new methods or techniques that can be useful as science needs to use the latest invented tools, and for developing long-term collaborations.

Scientists should move to confront other researchers, but this can be at different periods of their lives, depending on the topic, the people, and the opportunities.

2. What still remains to be done on a European level to make the experience of mobility a really positive one for young researchers?

We need to think of mobility as a tool and not a goal. This means that it shouldn't be an obligation at a given period of your career (presently, after the Ph.D.), but should be ‘negotiated’ with the teams that are and will be hosting you. If you know where you will be, you can look for a group whose work will be useful for your future research. And if it is not immediately possible to go there – because of a lack of money or because there are too many people, for example – you can wait for a better moment.

Apart from this, one has to remember that researchers are human beings and need some help with moving (flat, plane tickets, social care, schools for children when it is expensive, etc.); mobility has a cost.

3. Do you have a favourite personal anecdote from your own experience which illustrates the problems or pleasures of mobility?

I have one anecdote, from the French unemployment system. If you have been living in another European country and come back to France without finding a job, you need to work again in France before you are entitled to unemployment benefit – and you can't have the money from the country where you were living if you decided to come back. Is the solution to work one week at McDonalds? It is not exactly my own experience as I wasn't unemployed in France.

As for the pleasures, I don't have any anecdotes, just the fact that I learnt (and I am learning) a lot in this new environment.

4. Is an experience in a good foreign laboratory an important factor in clinching a permanent position back in Europe or, on the contrary, does being away for a year or two reduce your chances of being employed again in your home country?

In France, your chances are reduced if you couldn't keep in touch with French laboratories. But if you have links with labs for preparing your return, mobility is appreciated. The point is that it is difficult to have contacts with labs when you have to pay your plane tickets and take half of your holidays for visiting them. That means you need luck: it is easier if open positions are available in the lab where you did you Ph.D. If you want to apply elsewhere, and didn't have good contacts before doing so, this is a real drawback.

5. The time when researchers are most likely to want to experience mobility often coincides with a time when they are also thinking about starting a family. How does mobility affect personal relationships and family life?

I can say nothing but "badly". This is linked to the fact that the period which is good for mobility is not the same for everybody. Moreover, the salaries of researchers are not so high: if you have children, it is difficult to ask your spouse to stop working – finding a job in a foreign country is not easy, especially if you don't speak the language. One must also remember that it is even more difficult for women, as men agree to sacrifice their careers less easily. Mobility could be the occasion to meet new people, experience a new culture, and can be very interesting, but only if you have time to benefit from this – work in labs is often hard and time consuming. So, jumping from one country to another is scarcely good for developing relationships outside of the scientist community. I would like to add that people who don't have good health also face another problem: when they need to see a physician regularly, it is not easy to be abroad, especially when the language is different.

6. In many European countries there seems to be a penury of permanent positions for young researchers, making it very difficult for expatriate researchers to come back to their country of origin or another European country. What initiatives need to be put in place to help expatriate researchers come back to Europe?

As I said before, I think we should change our point of view and think of mobility as a tool. This means that you could be employed in your own country (with a permanent position) and go abroad. Then, you don't have this problem of ‘keeping links’ with labs when you come back. Another question is: "Do we need so many researchers?” I think so, but then why is there such a penury? Aren't we employed in positions that should be permanent ones? The problem is that after some experience abroad in research labs it gets more and more difficult to find a job in
industry. If there are no career opportunities for young researchers, it should be made known so that they can find another job. The answer is also to develop research in industry by a coherent policy of support for R&D.

7. Is there enough incentive for researchers to try out other forms of mobility, such as moving from the public to the private sector, from basic and applied research, or from research and teaching, for example?

Probably not, because researchers don't feel valued when doing such jobs. Research lacks human resource management: scientists are supposed to do it for themselves, by themselves and without anybody to speak to about it.

It is true that people have to make the decisions by themselves about moving from one job to another. But it is impossible to do it correctly if you have no connections with the environment you can go to, and if you can't speak about advantages and drawbacks with someone, such as a human resources manager. Moreover, it is hard to have a global vision of all the opportunities you can look for. Then the solution is just to stay where you are: you know what you have but you don't know what you could get. This is not good and should be changed, but requires a real change in the way research is organised.

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Marius Linguraru

Marius is doing postdoctoral research on medical imaging at the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA) in Sophia Antipolis. Previously he studied for a BSc and MSc in computer science, as well as an MA in British cultural studies, at the University of Sibiu in his native Romania, before leaving to do a Ph.D. in medical image analysis at the Oxford University.

1. What are, for you, the main benefits that a young researcher can expect from career mobility – geographical or otherwise?

I could think of an entire list of benefits that younger or older researchers could get from working in different institutes or enterprises around the world. Geographically, it is wonderful to try living in different places, but that is a personal point of view which is hardly the most important issue in research mobility. What I find much more enriching is the experience one can accumulate from different working environments, various research advisors and collaborators, and diverse local backgrounds in pursuing common goals in research. Open-mindedness is essential in achieving great results and knowledge must be sought after following the model of our travelling ancestors. Anyone would agree that in research there is no place for ignorance, and keeping updated with the advances around the world is crucial. First-hand collaborations with experienced people from other institutes provide tremendous opportunities for building a strong background in any field of research, and help create successful researchers.

2. What still remains to be done on a European level to make the experience of mobility a really positive one for young researchers?

The newly launched mobility centres all over Europe are a fantastic step at European level to facilitate mobility and help make the best of it. The foundations and institutions dealing with mobility are again a great support for researchers. But when it comes down to helping individual young researchers, things become slightly complicated, as different individuals have different needs. I have noticed over the years problems related to the integration and then reintegration of mobile researchers. Language problems occur often and hamper communication. Mobility is sometimes restricted by visa requirements, when researchers must travel from one European country to another, whether for a longer term or just for a short conference or seminar. This even applies to researchers coming from European countries, if one looks at Europe in terms of its geographical boundaries.

3. Do you have a favourite personal anecdote from your own experience which illustrates the problems or pleasures of mobility?

It is a small world, I must say, (although David Lodge seems to have said that long before me!). I say that with two little stories in my mind, both relating to people I met during my studies in Oxford, UK. When I was a new arrival in Oxford, one of my lab mates, Miguel (as Spanish as his name sounds) was finishing his thesis there and moving to Japan. Three years later, we became lab mates again, this time in France. The time to move has arrived yet again for both of us – for him to Switzerland, for me to the USA – but we are planning to keep working together on projects we will start in the near future. On the funnier side, a few months ago I participated in a Franco-British seminar organised by the British Council in Paris. I represented the French side of the seminar, while on the British side I found my good friend Maud from Oxford, definitely more French than me… A Romanian for the French and a French for the British – that is what I call cosmopolitan!

4. Is an experience in a good foreign laboratory an important factor in clinching a permanent position back in Europe, or, on the contrary, does being away for a year or two reduce your chances of being employed again in your home country?

There seems to be a general understanding all over Europe that foreign experiences are desirable before taking a permanent position in your own country. It is certainly not compulsory, but there are more and more regulations encouraging young researchers to spend some time abroad or at least in different institutes within the same country. As nowadays it is hardly conceivable to have a permanent position in research without a postdoc, it is difficult to imagine that anyone could do his/her Ph.D. and postdoc in the same institute where he/she would secure a permanent position.

5. The time when researchers are most likely to want to experience mobility often coincides with a time when they are also thinking about starting a family. How does mobility affect personal relationships and family life?

The question is not trivial, as it is neither trivial being a researcher nor building a family. Contemporary society is extremely ambitious and challenging, and careers have more weight in people’s lives than 30 years ago. It is common to have both members of a couple willing to follow their careers, so mobility may bring major disruptions in a relationship. Moreover, researchers seem to ‘settle down’ in permanent positions later and later, and very few get to do it before the age of 30. Having a stable job also brings some notion of social security, an essential element in the life of a family. Although I know of many examples to the contrary, I think that mobility, with all its benefits, may act against personal relationships and, in my opinion, researchers tend to build the foundation of a family later in life.

6. In many European countries there seems to be a penury of permanent positions for young researchers, making it very difficult for researchers to come back to their country of origin or another European country. What initiatives need to be put in place to help expatriate researchers come back to Europe?

The major problem is the lack of permanent positions for research in Europe. Although it is strongly acknowledged that Europe needs to increase substantially the number of researchers for economic progress, of late, many European governments have reduced the funds allocated to research. Furthermore, the recent economic instability has shaken and diminished the number of research positions in the private sector, which obviously increased the number of demands from newly trained unemployed researchers. Low pay and frequently poor working facilities contribute to the unattractiveness of the European researcher career. As research has a very theoretical basis, it requires large financial provisions before it can start being profitable. European countries have a duty to keep research active, and the European Commission is pushing for an increase in public research funding. But researchers also need to look for industrial and commercial applications, to help ensure extra sources of finances for their institutes. While theory must not be overlooked, this is quite often the only active interest in some research institutes. More practical applications must be encouraged within institutes and through the formation of spin-off companies, which will create more jobs and bring more funding. Moreover, research must be encouraged in the poorer European countries which are fruitful cradles of research but risk ‘brain drain’ in the future. This would create major discrepancies in European research uniformity.

7. Is there enough incentive for researchers to try out other forms of mobility, such as moving from the public to the private sector, from basic and applied research, or from research and teaching, for example?

Doing research has several facets and public sector research is one of the best known. Within public research there are many variations from one country to another. While some European countries have pure research institutes, leaving teaching to universities, others embrace hybrid approaches where both research and teaching make up the researcher’s duties. Then there are institutes funded entirely by the state and institutes that must ensure part of their funding through industrial collaborations. And, of course, there is private sector research which is extremely attractive for some young Ph.D.s, as well as for more experienced researchers who decide to try out this new form of research. Some of the evident incentives to adopt private research come from better salaries, more applied sciences and sometimes even a more active working environment (although there are no general rules).

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Dagmar Meyer

Dagmar studied mathematics at the universities of Heidelberg, Germany and Cambridge, UK. Her Ph.D. studies in algebraic topology were split between the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the Max-Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn. She spent two years doing postdoctoral research at the University of Paris XIII, funded by an EU Marie Curie fellowship. In 2001, she returned to her native Germany to take up a position as assistant professor at the University of Göttingen. She is currently Chair of the Marie Curie Fellowship Association
(http://www.mariecurie.org).

1. What are, for you, the main benefits that a young researcher can expect from career mobility – geographical or otherwise?

Usually when you decide to be mobile you have scientific (and possibly economic) reasons to do so – better equipment at the host institution, the opportunity to work with world experts in your field, better working conditions in general (depending where you come from). If it then turns out that these expectations are not fulfilled, it can be quite a let-down! Being mobile inevitably means that you will enlarge your network of scientific and personal contacts, and this is an extremely important factor for your career development. However, there is another benefit that is probably at least as important: moving to another environment (be it another country or moving between sectors) always implies quite a challenge and thereby an opportunity for personal growth. If you master it then you can be sure that you have learned something for life, regardless of what kind of career you decide to follow later on.

2. What still remains to be done on a European level to make the experience of mobility a really positive one for young researchers?

Mobile researchers are still losing way too much time on unnecessary paperwork related to their mobility. Social security systems across Europe need to be harmonised before we can speak of a system that truly encourages people to move in order to fully realise their potential. Much work also remains to be done regarding entry conditions for researchers from non-EU Member States, and their families. In this respect, a number of initiatives have been launched at European level, but they can only be effective if they are put into action by all the players involved – all the way down to the level of individual institutions.

3. Do you have a favourite personal anecdote from your own experience which illustrates the problems or pleasures of mobility?

I first came to France with a postdoctoral grant from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As soon as I arrived I went to the Préfecture to apply for my residence permit. I showed them the lettre de présentation from the French Embassy in Bonn and was treated very well – the whole procedure took barely ten minutes. I then told the lady who was helping me that my partner would also need a residence permit. We were not married, and when she heard that I was going to support him until he found a job her attitude changed completely. The smile disappeared from her face and she told him in a pretty rough manner: “You have three months. If you don’t have a job by then you go back to where you came from.” At this moment I realised that even in a country like France not all men are equal…

4. Is an experience in a good foreign laboratory an important factor in clinching a permanent position back in Europe or, on the contrary, does being away for a year or two reduce your chances of being employed again in your home country?

Unfortunately, in some countries it is very hard for researchers to reintegrate after a stay abroad, due to a culture of nepotism and highly opaque recruitment procedures. The ‘Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers’ the Commission is currently developing might help to change this, provided that institutions can be convinced about subscribing to it. Changing mentalities is a very slow process that needs more than declarations of political will at European level – in the end, only economic incentives or sanctions will produce the desired changes. What the individual researcher can do to facilitate her or his move back is to keep in contact with the scientific community at home at all times. Host institutions should support the participation of long-term visiting researchers in conferences in the home country and research visits to the home institution, appreciating that they could also greatly benefit from the lasting collaborations that could grow out of this.

5. The time when researchers are most likely to want to experience mobility often coincides with a time when they are also thinking about starting a family. How does mobility affect personal relationships and family life?

Mobility can imply a real challenge for your partnership. Quite often the scientific and professional advancement of one partner means a period of unemployment for the other, or a job that doesn’t correspond to her or his qualifications, with detrimental effects on their careers. In some places special offices now exist that help foreign researchers to find adequate employment for their partners, but such services are the exception rather than the rule. Mobile researchers with children have to face even more problems: if the family stays behind, the long separation can be very hard psychologically for both parents and children; if the family comes along they have to worry about childcare and schooling in a foreign country, which can be quite difficult if they don’t receive any local support. Host institutions often overlook this dimension of mobility, seeing only the researcher they employ without worrying about her or his personal circumstances.

6. In many European countries there seems to be a penury of permanent positions for young researchers, making it very difficult for expatriate researchers to come back to their country of origin or another European country. What initiatives need to be put in place to help expatriate researchers come back to Europe?

Re-attracting expatriate researchers who have left Europe is one thing – making Europe an attractive place to work so that (young) researchers don’t permanently emigrate is another. Recruitment procedures should take into account the mobility of an applicant in an appropriate way: while the simple fact that somebody has spent time abroad should not be treated as a plus in itself, the qualifications acquired through such an experience (which are often subtle and intangible) should be given the value that they deserve. On the other hand, the best way to avoid a permanent ‘brain drain’ is to create real opportunities and long-term career perspectives for young researchers within Europe. More permanent or long-term positions are needed, and an appropriate balance between security and flexibility must be found. Research careers need to become more compatible with the personal life-planning of the individuals concerned, allowing for a healthy family and social life. Oversimplifying this slightly, you could say: “Only a happy researcher is a good researcher”.

7. Is there enough incentive for researchers to try out other forms of mobility, such as moving from the public to the private sector, from basic and applied research, or from research and teaching, for example?

As with geographical mobility, mobility between sectors or disciplines should not be a goal in itself but should always be motivated by a real desire to move in order to acquire new competencies, learn new techniques and find new ways of applying knowledge. The real problem lies in the lack of information about the variety of opportunities that exist ‘off the beaten track’, and a certain lack of willingness to take on risk. Moving to a new research environment is always connected to risk, and people would like to keep an escape route open so they can move back if the experiment fails. However, the structures that are currently in place make it very difficult to move back to academia once you have moved out of it for a certain time. Improving the dialogue between academia and the commercial sector in general would also facilitate the mobility of researchers between them.

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Augusto PalombiniAugusto Palombini

Augusto studied for an undergraduate degree in humanities at the La Sapienza University in Rome before moving to Naples to do a Ph.D. in African Studies at the L’Orientale University. He is currently national secretary of the Italian Doctoral Association (http://www.dottorato.it) and was responsible for producing the association’s report on the Italian brain drain (“Brains on the Run”).

1. What are, for you, the main benefits that a young researcher can expect from career mobility – geographical or otherwise?

Geographical mobility can enrich a young researcher both from a scientific and a human point of view, but the main benefit lies somewhere in the middle. Working with different staff and research groups can give a young man or woman a clear perception of their scientific identity without being "a part of" somebody's project, but as a skilled individual ready to become an independent scholar.

2. What still remains to be done at a European level to make the experience of mobility a really positive one for young researchers?

There's still a lot of hard work to do in terms of a European integrated system of temporary employment which allows people to move under similar conditions of social security and rights. Scholars normally like to leave when they are young, and it is important that they can start to build a life. It is a necessary condition to improve scientific development under similar conditions all over Europe.

3. Do you have a favourite personal anecdote from your own experience which illustrates the problems or pleasures of mobility?

During a study journey through Europe and, afterwards, in the USA, I met some Italian scholars working there. I was surprised to find two different kinds of behaviour with respect to their original country. Some people felt a little homesick, but a few of them really hated their country, continuously speaking about Italian problems, defeats and so on. Afterwards I realised that such behaviour was a logical consequence of two ways of leaving: the first one through a choice of mobility, the second way forced by the lack of opportunities to carry out

4. Is an experience in a good foreign laboratory an important factor in clinching a permanent position back in Europe or, on the contrary, does being away for a year or two reduce your chances of being employed again in your home country?

It depends strongly on the field of study and on the country. Different countries and disciplines currently have very different levels of quality procedures to evaluate researchers’ skills. Where such systems exist, it is a natural consequence for those who have had experience in a good laboratory, wherever it is, to take advantage. Mobility improves researchers’ independence. It may or may not be an advantage according to their reference institutions.

5. The time when researchers are most likely to want to experience mobility often coincides with a time when they are also thinking about starting a family. How does mobility affect personal relationships and family life?

From my experience (having collected dozens of stories for the "Brains on the run" report) I believe that it affects such aspects of life very strongly, both in positive and negative ways.

On the one hand, many close relationships are broken by couples living long distances apart. But, on the other hand, mobility stimulates ‘mixed marriages’, as people often meet and marry abroad. A third situation is one in which a couple moves together. Statistically, it is very difficult to find people able to maintain relationships over a long distance for more than one year.

6. In many European countries there seems to be a penury of permanent positions for young researchers, making it very difficult for expatriate researchers to come back to their country of origin or to another European country. What initiatives need to be put in place to help expatriate researchers come back to Europe?

The problem is not "how to bring the brains back", but how to create conditions in which people could move by choice instead of being forced to by bad employment conditions, and each country could have a two-way flow both in and out.

I see a dangerous trend in many European countries towards the limitation of permanent positions. It is both a discouraging perspective for a young researcher and a way to abandon the struggle for research evaluation as it is easier to employ somebody for shorter periods than to constantly evaluate the quality of permanent employees’ work.

Maybe we should imitate the USA’s structure for its power of evaluation and fund redistribution on the basis of research quality, while working to improve both the number of permanent positions and the social features of temporary ones.

7. Is there enough incentive for researchers to try out other forms of mobility such as moving from the public to the private sector, from basic and applied research, or from research and teaching, for example?

We should dispose of an effective integrated structure for temporary employment, but that is currently not true for all European countries. Apart from such a fundamental gap, there's also a cultural problem that must be overcome to achieve real mobility in different working sectors. Over the next few years, European countries will be forced to have a common work policy which could allow people to experience many employment changes during their life, preserving welfare benefits and stimulating mobility.

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last update: 31-01-2005