International research mobility: beneficial for an academic career?

International research mobility


Academic careers are extremely competitive. Many researchers are confident that international research experience will enhance their chances of career promotion. But things are not always what they seem, which is important for both individual researchers and institutional policymakers to understand and respond to.

The benefits and pitfalls of international research careers

International mobility positively affects scientific productivity, the transmission and circulation of knowledge. Quite often, international research experience is also promoted as the best fast-track route towards excellence, exposure and sustainable career opportunities – whether this takes the form of a few weeks abroad, doing a full PhD in a different country or taking on a salaried position across borders.

The careers of researchers are increasingly international, but international mobility comes at a cost

The careers of researchers are increasingly international, but international mobility comes at a cost: early-career researchers leave their home, their professional and social network, sometimes even their families, in the hope that an international research stay will increase their career chances. However, while international mobility clearly benefits scientific development, its effect on careers seems to depend on the context in which a researcher moves.

In a recent paper, we demonstrated that in Flemish universities, international and mobile researchers have far fewer chances of being promoted than non-mobile, local researchers. This applies to all career stages, and especially to postdocs: our research found that only 1.2% of internationally-mobile foreign postdocs will become assistant professor, compared to 21.9% of non-mobile national postdocs. For an innovative region such as Flanders, with an excellent research system and a highly international research community, this may come as a surprise. There is a big difference, however, between access to temporary, research-focused positions, which have a high share of international researchers, and access to long-term professorships.

Mechanisms that can hinder the progression of international researchers

In our paper, we found evidence that several factors can hinder the career progression of internationally-mobile researchers.

First, while local language proficiency has a limited impact on research-only positions like postdocs, it is instead important for professorial positions (which have extensive teaching duties) in countries where teaching is mostly in the local language. This discourages the appointment to professorial position of foreigners that are not native speakers. Indeed, we found that in Flanders – where teaching is to a considerable degree in Dutch – foreign non-Dutch nationals have significantly less chances of promotion compared to their Belgian and Dutch counterparts.

Second, research performance is very important for career progression, yet the criteria defining the quality of research are affected both by national and organisational evaluation practices and traditions. Given the relevance of such national and local elements, researchers coming from other systems are disadvantaged compared to staff from within the system and within a given university. We found indeed that both internationally and nationally mobile researchers had fewer chances of promotion.

Make sure the institution you are leaving behind rewards international experience; if not, consider staying

Third, the capability to collaborate with colleagues is a key criterion for promotion and hiring, yet people often prefer to collaborate with others perceived to be similar — a mechanism known as ‘homophily’. This mechanism is particularly relevant to reach the most powerful academic positions. It has been shown that groups holding decision-making power (ie oligarchies) tend to preserve internal homogeneity as a means of harnessing loyalty and cooperation. Indeed, we found that the chances of promotion for mobile and international staff were smaller, especially when accessing full professor positions and in environments with a larger share of non-mobile local staff.

Should we stop promoting international mobility?

The insights from our article do not suggest that international mobility should be constrained. On the contrary: better policies and choices should be designed to safeguard mobility and avoid the potential loss of talent.

With a better understanding of these factors, researchers, policymakers and universities have tools at hand to ensure that international research mobility remains beneficial to researchers’ careers.

Raising awareness of the systemic bias of internal career progression could help universities not only to attract but also to retain international talent. Steps institutions can take to achieve this include the following:

  1. Assess language policies and be open about them to candidates, as language policies can be a more significant barrier than is often thought. In addition, provide language courses for international postdocs and PhD students, because this also increases their chances to pursue a career in the host country abroad, even outside the university.
  2. Communicate performance criteria more transparently to early-career researchers and external applicants, so that they have the same insight into their chances of being recruited or promoted as homegrown researchers. And obviously, assess candidates according to merit.
  3. Introduce norms or rules that limit ‘academic inbreeding’ and offer incentives to stimulate mobility. This also implies engaging with HE policy makers to assess whether rules or norms that prevent universities from hiring their own graduates could be an effective tool for limiting ‘inbreeding’ and assess whether national language policies might be in need of revision.

Early-career researchers should be aware of some important aspects when taking the decision to move or not. Most importantly, we advise researchers to travel with a good map. This means:

  1. If going abroad long-term but with a possible interest in returning, make sure the institution you are leaving behind rewards international experience; if not, consider staying. In any case, preserving strong links with your home institution and system is important.
  2. Check the hiring and advancement profile of the university you are moving to. If most of the permanent staff are internal hires, there could be few chances for you to move up the career ladder at the host institution.
  3. Read up on local language policies for teaching in higher education, and what share of courses is taught in a language you feel comfortable teaching in, since most permanent research jobs are only available at professorial level and usually have a significant teaching component.
  4. Be aware that the concept of ‘research quality’ is not universal. The criteria for rewarding research and for establishing an academic career differ across countries.

Final advice for researchers considering international careers

If you are an early-career researcher, it is crucial to be well-informed before making important decisions – whether it is a career decision on international job opportunities, or a decision to change your research focus. Look at your career in the same way you approach a research challenge: gather the evidence, check your hypothesis and analyse your findings. Your career, too, deserves to be handled with care.

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