Considering going abroad for work? Recent research can help you weigh the pros and cons

It was her first day in the field, and it was no picnic. The sharp stones and spiky bushes that covered the dry ground of South Africa’s Goegap Nature Reserve made it feel “like a very hostile environment,” recalls French environmental physiologist Karine Salin. She had moved nearly halfway across the globe to do a postdoc studying how striped mice survive the region’s extremely dry summer season. Salin hoped that the experience would help her improve her English and expand her network while she enjoyed the adventure of seeing a new part of the world. But as she listened to her colleague’s instructions for catching the mice, she couldn’t understand a word. Her self-esteem sank and doubt crept in. If she didn’t know how to find her specimens, “how is my postdoc going to happen?” she recalls asking herself.

Being surrounded by other early-career nonnative English speakers helped her through the initial challenges, and over time Salin came to see Goegap as one of the most beautiful places in the world. And during her subsequent 4-year postdoc at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom, she started to feel confident delivering talks in the lingua franca of science. Salin, who is now a permanent researcher back in France at the ocean research institute IFREMER in Brest, also appreciates the other benefits she gained from her experience abroad, including seeing different ways of doing research and working with people from a variety of backgrounds.

European early-career researchers like Salin have many incentives to be internationally mobile. Crossing borders not only broadens their job options but also often serves as a mark of excellence and commitment for funding bodies and hiring institutions.

Meanwhile, barriers to relocation—particularly within the European Union—tend to be lower than in other parts of the world. Europe has progressively harmonized its degree structures and created a pan-European pension fund for researchers to promote international careers. The European Commission runs a range of funding programs to encourage mobility among students and postdocs. Most national funding bodies also offer support for experiences abroad or for visiting researchers. Universities and research institutions commonly have services to welcome and support international students and researchers, such as dedicated international student offices. Pan-European services like Euraxess make identifying job and funding opportunities or settling down in a new country easier.

But not every move is a good move, and some European scientists are questioning whether there may be too much pressure for mobility. Early-career researchers are often expected to hop from one country to another at a time when they may be thinking about settling down or starting a family. Not everyone is inclined to uproot oneself, and starting life over in a foreign place can come with a personal and emotional toll.

A handful of recent surveys and studies speak to the pros and cons of relocating. Each comes with caveats, but all together they point to broader trends that provide food for thought for early-career researchers trying to figure out how far from home their next move should be.

Making good moves

A recent survey of approximately 2500 researchers across the world—conducted by RAND Europe on behalf of Together Science Can, an international campaign led by the Wellcome Trust and partner organizations (including AAAS, the publisher of Science Careers)—found that more than 80% of researchers of European nationality had lived and worked abroad at some point in their careers. More than 80% of European researchers who had gone abroad for work—including short trips for conferences, moving to a new country for several years, and everything in between—felt that their foreign exposure allowed them to develop new collaborations, research ideas, and technical skills, although some voiced concerns about the impact of recent political developments like the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. Approximately two-thirds said they published papers that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. More than half discovered something new that they wanted to pursue. Just under 40% found a new job thanks to their expanded network.

The survey adds to a growing body of evidence pointing toward mobility’s beneficial effects, says Aldo Geuna, a professor of economic policy at the University of Turin in Italy who studies researcher mobility. For example, another recent survey of more than 26,000 physicists—predominantly senior scientists—found that within 5 years of moving to a new continent, these scientists developed more diverse research interests and collaboration networks and saw a 17% bonus in citations as compared with nonmobile physicists with similar credentials. However, Geuna points out, so far none of these results definitively pin down whether spending time abroad truly brings research benefits or whether researchers who are inclined to be mobile are intrinsically more productive.

The potential benefits of going abroad could extend beyond the academic realm into entrepreneurship. A recent survey of 364 Spanish scientists found that almost a third of current expats—predominantly postdocs and Ph.D. students working in Italy, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States—had recently engaged in entrepreneurial activities. For scientists who had worked abroad and come back to Spain, the number was approximately a quarter; for those who had never worked outside the country, a fifth (although these scientists tended to be earlier in their careers, which may be a confounding factor).

Beyond the data, one sure benefit of mobility is exposure to a new working culture and getting to know new people, Geuna says. Alexander M. Petersen, a researcher at the University of California, Merced, who conducted the physicists study, agrees. Mobility often helps “expand one’s worldview across a more diverse set of methods and solutions—whether it’s how to solve a particular problem or how to run a lab,” he says. Geuna strongly encourages European early-career researchers to spend at least 1 year abroad so that they can “tap into and develop different relationships.”

But, he warns, don’t relocate just for the sake of it. Look for places that are at least as good as your current institution, and for jobs that will give you the opportunity to interact with and learn from senior people, he advises.

Not all a path of roses

The benefits of mobility are only one side of the coin, as relocating scientists are typically confronted with a plethora of practical and personal challenges. Upon Salin’s arrival in South Africa, for example, she faced Kafkaesque visa issues that left her unable to access her bank account for 2 months. Leaving all her friends behind and making new ones was also difficult initially, Salin adds.

Such experiences were echoed in the Together Science Can survey. “While moving for research can be highly beneficial, it can also be an incredibly stressful time,” says lead author of the survey report Gordon McInroy, who until recently was an analyst at RAND Europe in Cambridge, U.K. “Moving to a new country can be a lonely and overwhelming experience at first.”

Another recent study of 20 foreign academics in the United Kingdom—conducted before the country’s decision to leave the European Union—reveals just how much of an emotional roller coaster relocating can be. After the initial excitement, the academics went through weeks or months of grappling with issues such as finding a house and getting accustomed to the local culture while also trying to conduct their research. Enduring optimism and determination eventually saw the respondents through, but on the way, frustration and homesickness were common.

“Moving countries to pursue one's academic career is a big decision that carries both significant personal costs and the potential for tremendous professional benefits,” the study authors write in an email to Science Careers. In addition to the results of their study, both of the authors have experienced it personally: Marilena Antoniadou, an organizational psychology researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, is from Cyprus, and Kathleen Quinlan is a U.S.-born higher education researcher at the University of Kent.

To help adapt and reap the maximum benefits, they recommend seeking social support from fellow expatriates, friends, and colleagues. “Focusing attention on the positive aspects of the situation, building new skills and knowledge, and avoiding judging the host nation’s culture and professional practices are helpful coping mechanisms,” they tell Science Careers.

Choosing to stay

Increasingly, European scientists are raising concerns that too much emphasis on international mobility may restrict freedom and put some early-career researchers at a disadvantage. Many respondents to the Together Science Can survey noted that family commitments can clash with expectations of international mobility at a critical life and career stage, and women tend to be impacted more. Many called for mobility to be encouraged, not required. “Family oriented people who choose to stay in the same place can also be outstanding scientists, and should not feel forced to move,” a Portuguese early-career researcher working in Germany commented. 

There’s at least anecdotal evidence that researchers can be successful while choosing to stay close to home. French astrophysicist Sarah Antier, for one, decided early on that a move was not in the cards. When her Ph.D. work at CEA Saclay near Paris led to an unexpected opportunity to do a postdoc in the United States at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, most of her colleagues encouraged her to seize it, she says. But she was not convinced that the experience would boost her career. The project offered no longer-term research prospects. She feared that increased competition among postdocs would make it more difficult for her to gain visibility. She also felt that the move would hamper her husband’s career and postpone their plans to start a family in France.

Rather than changing country, she reckoned “that it was better to change discipline and create some joint work with a different community in which I could bring my own expertise,” Antier says. So, she joined a research team spanning gravitational physics and astronomy, a 10-minute drive away from her Ph.D. lab. Her work there contributed to last year’s breakthrough discovery of the coalescence of two neutron stars. Since then, she has become the principal coordinator of the international GRANDMA consortium for observing optical signals associated with gravitational events. Her work involves frequent travel to visit her colleagues, but this was a compromise she was willing to make to live in the place she wants. “I physically stayed in the same region, but I am constantly in interaction with fantastic researchers all over the world,” says Antier, who recently received a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science postdoctoral fellowship.

Several respondents to the Together Science Can survey also highlighted how electronic communication tools such as Skype and email can go a long way in building relationships and collaborations. McInroy notes that some respondents felt that “in some countries, it is possible to be an ‘armchair traveler’”—that is, to benefit from interactions with foreign researchers coming to visit or working in your home research environment.

A true substitute for living and working in a foreign country may be hard to come by, however, Geuna warns. He encourages early-career scientists wanting to stay in their home country to at least consider moving to another city or arranging short stays abroad. They should also make the most of national and international conferences, he adds.

The key to success, Antier says, is to “be patient for the real opportunities” to come along to advance your research and career within your mobility restrictions. “Not being able to go abroad is not a definitive disadvantage,” Petersen agrees. “It will just require additional personal effort into diversifying one’s intellectual and professional perspective.”

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