If you have already experienced the transition from one university to another in the course of your career, you have most probably asked yourselves with some degree of anxiety: ‘If I could make it here, can I make it anwhere?’ When this simple question is set in an international context, additional challenges need to be considered.
Following on a workshop held at the University of Warwick (18 March 2011), this article builds on the experience of over fifteen PhDs and postdoctoral researchers to signal some pros and cons of international mobility at an early stage in your career. I’ll start with the benefits.
Cutting edge research
Carrying out your doctoral or postdoctoral research abroad means that you can choose to work with world leading scholars in your field and be part of a vibrant research community. If, for example, your specialism concerns a culture other than your own, direct experience of that culture would expand your understanding of the subject. For a student of contemporary British literature and culture like myself, coming to the UK seemed not so much an option as a prerequisite for quality research.
Worldwide university and departmental rankings may help you make an informed choice of institutional venue; as the assessment criteria used by these systems have different relevance for different disciplines, checking alternative classifications is always a good idea. Note however that not all countries have their own university ranking systems, and that this kind of information should be balanced by your own knowledge of what represents new and exciting research in your field.
In the current economic recession, research funding has become the main trigger of international mobility in the academia. Countries like the United States and Canada have built a strong reputation of providing early career opportunities for international researchers. In recent years, these opportunities have dwindled, however new players have emerged on the market, such as Australia, New Zealand and China.
International funding schemes, such as the Fulbright doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships for the USA or the Marie Curie Intra-European Postdoctoral Fellowships, favour applications justified by the need to access specific resources, such as archives, testing equipment or laboratories.
Further benefits may include:
- Developing your understanding of different research agendas within your discipline
- Addressing a broader range of audiences in your teaching and research
- Becoming acquainted with different institutional policies
- A direct experience of multiculturalism
It’s not all sunshine and roses
Doctoral students and early career researchers pursuing one to five years of research outside their home countries have noted that some of these benefits may become disadvantages upon return. You need to be aware, for example, that targeting the UK job market implies some choices that may affect your career prospects in another country.
Here are some issues that you need to consider:
- Your PhD may weigh more in one country and less in another. For instance, American universities require doctoral candidates to pursue a complex programme of taught studies, examinations and research that can take up to ten years.
- Different countries have different entry requirements for academics, for example appointments may be conditioned by language competence or nationality.
- Choice of language While in sciences, English has become the lingua franca of research and publication, the situation is different in some humanistic disciplines, where the choice of language for your doctoral thesis and subsequent publications narrows down your audience.
- Networks It is desirable, but in practice very difficult to maintain your academic connections across countries; this is detrimental to your career prospects, especially in countries where networking plays a key role in academic appointments.