Study reveals misery of overseas scholars ‘living the dream’

Many of the Italian researchers interviewed said they were unhappy working abroad

May 21, 2015

Problems faced by overseas scholars have been largely ignored in favour of promoting an idealised notion of “internationally mobile academics”, a study says.

Drawing on interviews with almost 100 Italian social science scholars working outside their homeland, the study claims that universities and governments fetishise the idea of academic mobility and overlook its many downsides.

Keep on Movin’? Research Mobility’s Meanings for Italian Early-Stage Researchers”, published in the journal Higher Education Policy, found that many interviewees felt that there was a “stylised description of the mobile academic” who is “socially independent, emotionally intelligent and rational, engaged in research that is independent from place, flexible and adaptable”.

But this did not match reality and many working outside Italy were not happy, according to the study by Chiara Carrozza, a postdoctoral fellow in social sciences at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and Sara Minucci, from the Torino World Affairs Institute.

Many staff viewed themselves as “economic migrants” forced to take precarious fixed-term posts owing to limited opportunities in their home country, it found. “The only difference compared to other kinds of migrants is my privileged passport that allows me to move without any problem,” said one Italian research fellow based in France.

Few interviewees saw their time abroad as a “strategy”, with the words “randomness” and “circumstances” frequently used in relation to their decision to leave Italy.

Some saw it as a way to “procrastinate while waiting…for the opening of a position at the ‘home’ university [in Italy]”, the study said.

Of 19 people interviewed in depth, five had partners living in a different country and two women said they had delayed having children to move abroad, leading to a sense of lives being “frozen”, the study found. The majority of interviewees said they had no friends outside their workplace or expat communities, while many had difficulties accessing welfare or health services.

The researchers say they hope the study will add “flesh and blood” to the notion of the mobile researcher and the “reductionist approach” that fails to consider the emotional toll of Italy’s continued “brain drain”.

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