Independent, adaptable and often highly talented, internationally mobile researchers are a prized commodity in academia.
Equipped with doctorates, new ideas and a steely work ethic, these go-anywhere academics are integral parts of laboratories at most top universities, with institutions vying to attract top talent to their campuses.
In return, these academic nomads enjoy the chance to work with other top-level researchers, and in many cases, to use better equipment and receive a better salary than in their home country.
The result is usually better science, with huge benefits accruing to individuals, institutions and the wider knowledge economy. One in four Nobel prizes awarded to Americans between 1990 and 2000 went to a migrant researcher, while half of Silicon Valley start-ups include a foreign-born national as a founder.
But does this pleasing narrative of international mobility – a win-win for individuals and institutions – tell the full story?
Many are starting to ask whether mobility is an unalloyed good for researchers, whatever the obvious advantages for employers.
“In many countries it is actually detrimental to your career if you have been abroad because [then] you do not have time to move up [the career ladder in your home country],” explained Miguel Jorge, lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Strathclyde.
Dr Jorge, who has also held full-time research positions in the US and his native Portugal, has been involved in the Voice of Researchers initiative, which seeks to capture the views and experiences of the estimated 2.2 million researchers working in the European Union.
Many of those who have spoken at the initiative’s conferences feel their careers have been harmed, rather than enhanced, by moving abroad, said Dr Jorge, who was speaking at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference, held in Manchester on 8 and 9 September.
“These researchers are often those from countries where academic inbreeding is common and staying within the system is highly valued,” he said.
This anecdotal evidence is backed up by the finding of several major studies, such as the EU-commissioned More 2 survey, which polled more than 14,000 researchers in 2013, Dr Jorge said.
That report found that 54 per cent of researchers had worked abroad, but 31 per cent felt that their overseas stay had harmed their career progression. Some 55 per cent said it had improved it and 14 per cent said it had no impact, indicating that the majority still viewed it favourably.
But 48 per cent also said that international work had decreased their job options in academia (33 per cent said it increased them) and 43 per cent said it had lowered their salary, in contrast to the 17 per cent who had enjoyed a pay increase. A quarter said it had actually hindered their academic output.
Throw in the obvious social and emotional toll of uprooting to a different country, and some scholars have started to ask whether academic mobility has much to offer researchers beyond satisfying the immediate economic necessity of a job.
But Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education at VU University Amsterdam, argued that studies had conclusively shown the economic and career benefits for internationally mobile scholars.
“There are some systems with very high levels of inbreeding that do not accept people who come back,” said Professor van der Wende, who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University.
“That is the case in Japan and has happened in France and Germany, but they have worked hard to overcome this,” she added.
Many countries insist on academic staff having overseas experience, said Professor van der Wende, citing China’s “sea turtle” policy in which students are encouraged to pursue PhDs and postdoctoral positions abroad before returning home.
“You are very unlikely to gain a chair in the Netherlands unless you have some international experience,” she added.
With renewed efforts to promote movement within the European Research Area and greater economic imbalances within the EU itself, more researchers will work internationally over the next few years, she added.
Many universities have excellent policies to welcome and support incoming and returning scholars, but others could do much better, particularly when advising staff on what to expect, she said.
“Things will never be perfect, but institutions must be aware of their responsibilities as international employers,” she said.
- There were 610,000 foreign-born PhD holders in the US between 2005 and 2009, representing 27 per cent of all doctorates in the country
- During the same period, 100,000 doctorate holders in the US were born in China, of whom 40 per cent had obtained US citizenship
- More than 60,000 Indian PhD holders were living in the US between 2005 and 2009, an increase of 54 per cent on 2000
- A third of all engineers and 50 per cent of PhD holders in this sector in the US were foreign-born, compared with only 15 per cent of the US workforce as a whole
- At the top 10 US universities, 76 per cent of all patents awarded had at least one foreign-born submitter
- Currently, 73 per cent of individuals leaving Greece have a postgraduate degree and 51 per cent a PhD, with 31 per cent of Greek emigrants coming to the UK.
Figures taken from “International academic mobility: towards a concentration of the minds in Europe” by Marijk van der Wende, published in European Review in May 2015, initially published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley.