Academic mobility: The long and the short of it

Is it essential to move research groups, institutions and even countries in order to achieve an academic career? This is a question sometimes posed to me by PhD students and postdocs whose career plans are to secure a permanent academic position. In particular, it comes up during my academic mobility courses in which participants ponder their career aims vs their personal situation, weighing up what kinds of compromises they’re prepared to make in the short and longer term. Even those without family or partner obligations can sometimes struggle with the prospect of uprooting themselves for the sake of their career, with the accompanying challenges of having to find new accommodation, adapt to a different culture and foster new relationships.

So, my answer to the question, “Is it essential to move?”, generally speaking, is: “No, it’s not essential, but If you look at the evidence, it sure does help!” Consider this: When you read or hear the career histories of current academics, the majority will chart a career path from their PhD full of stories of travelling from one lab to another, working alongside well-known figures in their field, either via postdoctoral positions or, more favourably, having secured competitive funding for one or more research fellowships. These ‘mentoring’ encounters serve many purposes – experiencing a new research environment, being exposed to new perspectives and ideas, as well as demonstrating genuine curiosity for discovering novel mechanisms. Applied to scientific research, ‘mobility’ serves as a metaphor for open-mindedness, novelty and exploration, and confirms your ambitions for independence and the possibility to lead your own research group.

However, for many researchers awareness of these advantages comes too late, as explained by Ioannis Legouras (Vice Head, Department Strategic Cooperations and Research Funding; Head of International Programs, Max Delbrück Centre) in a recent EMBL Careers Blog (22 August 2019), “In my experience as a grants manager there are many limitations in the eligibility for postdocs applying for fellowships. So there is a very favourable period 1-4 years after the PhD; when this is combined with field change or international mobility, a postdoc has a multitude of opportunities. Without international mobility, without change of field and after a few years after PhD completion, the fellowship opportunities for postdocs are virtually zero. Perhaps it will change at some point in future, but at the moment that is the reality. In my experience, postdocs are not always aware of this at the right time. Quite often postdocs are then in the position that they are too old in terms of years after PhD for the postdoc funding but too young in terms of papers for PI positions. This is a very uncomfortable situation for postdocs.”

Research is an international endeavour so it’s not so much a case of “Should I be mobile?”, rather “Which research groups, departments and institutions are doing the kind of research that complements my interests (and will employ me as a postdoc or be a host for my fellowship)?” In the main, it’s very likely they will not be in your own department, institution or even your country, hence the need to move to be exposed to, and stimulated by, those who share your interests. Research and surveys on academic mobility demonstrate the positive impact of mobility to researcher’s careers and long-term academic prospects, including the likelihood of securing an academic post, number of citations and improved networking opportunities. And, of course, for many people they also represent an exciting scientific and life adventure!

So, what if you want an academic career, but long-term periods spent living away from your current location/country, family etc are not attractive or even feasible? In these cases, I suggest that you try to build a strong and focussed network of leaders/future leaders in your field and actively participate in short-term research experiences. Whilst this may not supplant the advantages experienced by those who commit to more ‘full-on’ mobility, it may be enough to help you to gain the research independence you need to realise your academic career ambitions. Here are six tips to get you started:

  1. Choose your postdoctoral position carefully ensuring that your supervisor will be supportive of your career aims, i.e. giving you a level of autonomy to pursue your own research interests through side projects; allowing you to actively engage with other researchers through collaborations, conference attendance (ideally as a speaker), lab visits and making funding applications.
  2. Seek out and apply for smaller grants, e.g. for equipment, travel, conference attendance, etc. This will help to enhance your research and academic profile and show evidence of a proactive and independent attitude.
  3. Join learned societies that reflect your research interests – they are full of academics and researchers with whom you can network at their conferences and symposia. There are usually opportunities to get more involved by applying to organise a session or join a committee, with the prospect of other advantages such as patronage, mentoring and sponsorship.
  4. Network and connect with research group leaders or senior postdocs in potential ‘host’ labs to ask if you can spend time in their lab to learn from them and to offer the benefit of your expertise.
  5. Apply to take part in professional and personal development activities such as Summer schools or field trips – these events represent very useful networking opportunities where you spend a limited but intensive period of time with like-minded and possibly influential researchers in your field. Courses in your own institution that help you to improve your academic skills, such as writing, leadership, teaching and mentoring are also a bonus.
  6. For those looking for academic posts in more student-centred institutions, mobility may not be as important as evidence of teaching, in which case getting involved in undergraduate teaching programmes, ideally including curriculum design, delivery and assessment, as well as gaining formalised qualifications or enhancing your professional status through fellowship of bodies such as the Higher Education Academy will be an advantage.

Finally, bear in mind that academic mobility in the early part of your research career can be advantageous when you apply for academic positions or research fellowships, giving you a greater breadth of choice later on when you are targeting posts in your preferred location. Some fellowship schemes, such as the Human Frontier Science Program, even build in a return element in the final year to bring you back to your home country.

For more information on research and resources, pros and cons of academic mobility go to my blog page.

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