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Academic mobility in a globalised world: Science without borders?

Whether via telephone, email or live chat, our networked world allows us to talk to each other at any time, from anywhere. Yet despite all the advantages of electronic data transmission, most projects are still the result of personal meetings. So academic mobility is important, because a research stay abroad and collaboration with colleagues at the guest university are often the first steps towards developing and strengthening long-term cooperation in the academic field.

For the research institute, the advantages of having foreign guest scientists are obvious: the mobile researchers bring a fresh approach to the team with their different working methods and their cultural backgrounds. But they themselves also add to their own knowledge with many new professional and personal experiences. Diversity encourages creativity and innovation in a team – something that is becoming increasingly important for a research centre in our globalised world. Several academic institutes and state-funded support programmes are therefore interested in promoting academic mobility. However, for a research stay to be a success, not only for the institutes in the guest and home countries, but also for the mobile scientists themselves, there are a few things that one must pay attention to.

Infographics: Scientists on the move

Today scientists are more mobile than ever. But why do they go abroad? Which countries do they mainly come from? Which are their preferred destinations? The infographics ‘Scientists on the move’ has answers to these and other questions on the topic.

Infographics: Scientists on the move

Academic mobility with cultural stumbling blocks

‘Has my research experience abroad met my expectations? Professionally, yes. Personally, my family and I have had a much more difficult time integrating than we expected,’ says Dr Matthew Jorgensen from Utah, USA. He has lived with his wife and two children for some time in Dresden where he has worked as a team leader for rolled-up photonics at the Institute of Integrative Nanosciences IFW Dresden. ‘The main problems we have faced were with cultural differences and with the language.’ Even though Jorgensen, who has had a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation, could converse with his colleagues in English, he and his family have faced language and cultural barriers, for instance, when dealing with the administration and the people. Dr Jorgensen therefore thinks it important for scientists to check on the language levels required, including those outside the immediate work environment, before setting out to participate in a researcher-in-residence programme abroad.

A research stay abroad: on the move with the family

Even when mobile researchers have familiarised themselves with the language and customs of the guest country, other questions arise: How will the family live for the duration of the research residency? Where can one find suitable accommodation? Are there any work opportunities for the partner? Which school will the children attend? Having support in these areas is important, particularly for young guest researchers, as their career opportunities, after all, also depend on whether they are able to live a fulfilling personal life. The European Union has responded to these issues of academic mobility and in EURAXESS has established a Europe-wide network of mobility centres that provides mobile researchers and their families with extensive information and support services in all areas of their professional and private lives in the guest country.

Video: The European Research Area

Visiting scientists: the homecoming safety net

For guest researchers who return to their home countries after their stay abroad, there are new challenges in store. Even though researchers may be attractive candidates for several universities because of their experiences abroad, the job market at home does not necessarily offer suitable positions. They need more security:

  • An ongoing exchange with the academic community at home,
  • social safeguards, 
  • and a transparent labour market policy

make it easier for mobile researchers to return home.

Denise Margaret Matias from the Philippines, a former climate protection fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, also talks about her private experiences following her first research residency in Germany: ‘It was difficult to reconnect with friends because they have moved on and lived their lives without me. It was also difficult to leave behind the friendships and connections I have forged during my research stay.’

An exchange platform for mobile researchers?

Like Denise and Matthew, many guest researchers do not know what to expect until they are in the guest country or when they return home. Matthew advocates the idea of an online exchange platform for guest researchers. Professor Ya-Hong Xie of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who was planning a six-week research stay in Berlin in August 2013, also has a similar idea. ‘Not speaking German, I found it very difficult to find an apartment for rent, even though I have signed up with the company ‘coming home’. The suggestion I could provide is that an online network designed to help foreign researchers with their daily lives would be a great thing to have.’

Even if mobile researchers face language barriers in the guest country and have to deal with many new impressions, for most of them a research residency abroad enriches their professional and personal lives. This is why Denise was looking forward to her second stay in Germany: ‘I was not worried too much about my return to Bonn because I already had a rough idea of what it can or cannot offer, especially in terms of basic needs. I hoped Bonners would be still as friendly as before and I was looking forward to another interesting and fulfilling professional stay in the former capital city of Germany.’ Since September 2013, Denise is a PhD student at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Bonn.

Your experiences as a mobile researcher

What have been your experiences as a mobile researcher? What tips could you give your colleagues who are planning a research residency abroad? Do you think an online exchange platform for guest academics is a good solution? How should this platform be designed? Share your experiences on academic mobility in a comment below.


Author: Sabine Müller

Update: November 2016

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