Moving country is rewarding; but you don’t have to do it to have a successful research career


Early career researchers are often bombarded with career advice, solicited or unsolicited, from supervisors, peers, senior colleagues, family members, journals, random people on social media; sometimes this advice is helpful, sometimes it’s so ambiguous or outdated it can be potentially damaging.

This article in Nature’s Careers section covers a recently published study in the Royal Society’s journal Interface. The study considers the careers of physics researchers, based on this dataset of authors that have published in the American Physical Society’s three Physical Review journals. The study also looks at Nobel Prize winners in physics. So already, we have two very narrow subsets of ‘researchers’ within a single discipline.

The study found that the focal researchers (i.e. physics researchers who published in APS journals or who won a Nobel Prize) who moved overseas had more citations & therefore greater ‘impact’ on their field. In contrast to the media coverage, the author discusses the results by framing them within contemporary political discussions about immigration, cleverly highlighting that supporting migration from other countries boosts the host country’s social and intellectual capital. This is a completely valid point.

However, the converse is rarely true: you, an individual researcher, don’t have to move overseas to have an impact on your field.

Yet this is exactly how Nature framed their coverage of this study:

Why you should move country

Researchers who are mobile get more citations and build broader teams of collaborators than those who aren’t, study finds.

Researchers who move around the world have greater scientific impact than their non-mobile counterparts, a study reports.

This generalisation is utterly flawed. And it’s potentially damaging to the early career researchers looking for career advice and unsure of their next move.

Moving for academia is not like other jobs. Every researcher should aim to move institutions at least once in their early career stage (undergrad/Masters/PhD/Postdocs/first tenured lecturer position). But (and it’s a big but), moving overseas is A HUGE DEAL. This option is not available to many researchers. Being able to move overseas for work often depends on financial security, family support, visa availability, health security, language skills, and personal connections. Politically and economically, the world is a very different place than it was, even just 10 years ago. If your supervisor experienced a ‘successful’ relatively easy overseas move in the past, it may not be so easy to make the same move today.

So, media, editors, supervisors: please retire the ‘move overseas to have a great research career’ advice. It’s not globally relevant. More importantly, it sends a message to the broader research community that researchers who have not moved overseas are ‘not that great’, regardless of their track record or quality of research. How does this affect grant and job applications?

The main benefit of moving overseas is more collaborative connections, a broader-reaching profile, and more citations for your research…all of this collectively leading to a ‘greater impact’ on your field.

But researchers can reap similar benefits without physically moving overseas. Here are a few ways that institutions and supervisors can support this:

Technology. This goes without saying. With email, online collaboration platforms (e.g. Skype, Zoom, Adobe Connect, Google Docs, F1000), and much more, there are so many opportunities to build productive external collaborations across timezones and political boundaries.

Online presence. Times have changed. Society is influenced by online content, so individual researchers should take communication seriously if they want their voice to be heard. Popular media is dominated by misinformation and disinformation, and an individual’s connectance ultimately affects their impact. Any supervisor who doesn’t encourage their students and postdocs to find an online niche (whatever platforms: Twitter, Facebook, blog, Instagram, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, news media channels etc.) is doing them a disservice. Every published researcher should have a Google Scholar profile; it is one of the first places potential supervisors, employers and collaborators will look for you online. Beyond that, it’s your choice, but find a platform you can engage comfortably with your target audience. Don’t try and be across all platforms, just choose the one/few that you can engage with most efficiently.

Funding. Post-PhD early career researchers have access to a lot less funding opportunities compared to enrolled students. There are plenty of options for students to apply to institutions and societies for funding/financial prizes, either for doing research or to attend conferences; this is wonderful. And research students (Honours, Masters, PhD) are more likely to have access to operating funds via their institution or supervisor. In contrast, postdocs (and other early career post-PhD researchers) are often employed with limited/no access to independent funds. Yet this is the career stage where researchers need funding to have a career future, e.g. to run pilot studies that lead to bigger grants, attend conferences to build collaborations etc..

National/regional connections. While moving across international borders is not an option for many researchers, moving regionally or nationally is totally doable. Supervisors and colleagues can help early career researchers who can’t move overseas by connecting them with nationally-based colleagues, e.g. including them on grant applications, inviting them to workshops, including them on relevant papers. This is one reason why conferences are so important – they may be the only opportunity for early career researchers to meet and greet potential employers face to face. Once upon a time, supervisors were often able to fund conference travel for most of their students to attend conferences and meet potential colleagues/employers. These days, it depends on the grant. Some grants specify (implicitly or explicitly) that conference travel is unfunded, which disadvantages any postdocs who are subsequently employed on that grant.

Local knowledge. There’s so much capital in local knowledge and place-based research. Institutions and supervisors acting as brokers between relevant local connections and new researchers can help build this capital. And don’t forget, local also means within-institution. One of the biggest hurdles for a newly-appointed early career researcher is overcoming the departmental politics hurdles; supervisors can be critical to this goal, regardless of how ‘independent’ the new researcher is.

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© Manu Saunders 2018

2 thoughts on “Moving country is rewarding; but you don’t have to do it to have a successful research career

  1. cinnabarreflections December 8, 2018 / 7:07 AM

    As someone who moved country, I find it somewhat strange to recommend international movement as a way to further a career. I do recommend to students to spend time in other countries, but not to increase their career prospects, but simply for the educational value that comes with encountering cultures that may seem strange. I spent a year as a high school exchange student in my late teens, and that experience molded me into the person I am today. It did not make me a better researcher. It did give me the confidence to pursue my dreams when what I wanted was not available in my native Sweden.
    As you state, the selection of high achievers completely biases the sample. It isn’t unlikely that they were high profile researchers before moving country, because large (≈rich) institutions tend to recruit the most successful individuals. If like me, you move and end up staying, you may end up in a small institution with high teaching load and sparse resources, which hardly enhances your research career.
    Anyway, thanks for writing this! Another great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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