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Dominika Bulska
Equality, diversity and inclusion, Physical Disabilities, Teaching and learning

Should I stay or should I go?

Dominika Bulska with a few words about doing research abroad.

03 January 2023

It is a mid-April morning. I wake up in the city that never sleeps, as I have done for the past three-and-a-half months. As I gather the strength and the motivation to get out of bed, I think of another slightly overused statement about New York and I wonder if I am, in fact, capable of “making it there”. I am terribly lonely. I miss my family, my friends, my partner. I am stressed about my finances. I do not feel part of any larger social network. I have a couple of friends, mostly fellow scholarship recipients, but the ‘hustle’ culture of New York, combined with the huge distances between places, does not make it easy to stay in regular contact. Besides, I am here to finish a complex project, so work must be my main focus.

The thought lingers that I am lucky to have the opportunity to do research in a city that so many dream of. My New York University email address, combined with the proximity of the New York Public Library, give me access to essentially any and all materials about the topic I am studying – the Civil Rights Movement. Looking forward, I can see that the effects of my scholarship abroad will be long-lasting, both in terms of the project outcomes, as well as the skills and connections I am developing. But in this moment, I do not feel happy. And it is getting harder every day to be productive.

The inevitability of international mobility

International mobility is an important asset for ECR’s career development. It is one of the main mechanisms in academia for the international communication of ideas. It is also a tool for driving individual productivity and research specialisation, as well as a way of making international connections. According to human capital theory, international mobility represents an investment in human capital, which helps individuals to use their talents more productively, and, in turn, generates more income.

According to human capital theory, international mobility represents an investment in human capital, which helps individuals to use their talents more productively.

So, it should not come as a surprise that researchers in the early stages of their careers seek out opportunities for international mobility. Data from MORE3, a large, international survey on researchers in European higher education institutions, show that one third of ECRs in the European Union are mobile during their PhDs. Most were motivated by working with leading scientists, international networking, or more general ideas about career progression.

How positive are the positives?

Empirical studies only partially support the theoretical assumptions that being mobile has such positive consequences. According to a recently published systematic review concerning the effects of international mobility on scientists’ careers (Netz et al., 2020), most studies show that spending time abroad does indeed have a positive effect on the size of researchers’ international networks, but this effect is not necessarily maintained over time. The results concerning the effects of mobility on productivity are less clear. Out of the 34 studies analysed in the review, only 56 per cent show a positive impact of international mobility on scientific productivity, and this is largely dependent on the length and context of the researcher’s stay. International mobility seems to be most beneficial for productivity 2-7 years after completion of the PhD, or even after obtaining tenure, and not when forced by the expiration of a contract or the end of a graduate program.

We need structural solutions that will remove ECRs from the impossible position of having to choose between their personal lives and their careers.

Meanwhile, MORE3 results show that a quarter of ECRs who were mobile did so because they felt forced – some because there were no options for a research career in their home country, others because international mobility is a requirement for career progression in their home country. And of those who were not mobile during the early stages of their research careers, 58 per cent listed personal issues as a main barrier to gaining experience. It seems, then, that there is a gap between what is expected of ECRs in terms of international mobility, and what is truly beneficial, or even feasible.

The data gap around the lived experience

Data concerning the effects of international mobility on mental health and personal development are scarce. Only 13 studies in the systematic review by Netz et al. (2020) were identified as measuring the impact of international mobility on individual competencies and personal development, and most of these were only descriptive. None of the studies looked at the effects of international mobility on mental health or wellbeing more broadly. It is therefore impossible to say from available research whether my personal experience of loneliness is unique, or whether it is a more widespread phenomenon that warrants more awareness and discussion. Organisational psychology research clearly indicates that social support at work is related to lower levels of burnout, greater work satisfaction and productivity. It is hard to be satisfied when feeling socially disconnected – and without satisfaction, what motivates us to keep going when research gets tough?

I do not aim to argue against international mobility during the early stages of a research career. Undoubtedly it is an enriching, interesting and fruitful experience. However, I do believe that we need to take a more balanced approach to assessing both the positive and negative aspects of doing research abroad. We need to fill the data gap concerning the impact of international mobility on personal wellbeing, and develop ideas as to how potential threats to individual wellbeing could be overcome. We need structural solutions that will remove ECRs from the impossible position of having to choose between their personal lives and their careers. And lastly, we need to acknowledge that for some, the challenges of international mobility might outweigh the benefits– and this does not mean they are any worse of a scientist.

About the author

Dominika Bulska is a PhD student at the Centre for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, and a Fulbright scholarship holder for the 2021-2022 academic year, with a project dedicated to studying the effects of the Civil Rights Movement on the language used to describe the Black community in the media.

Key sources

Consult, I. D. E. A. (2017). MORE3. Support data collection and analysis concerning mobility patterns and career paths of researchers. Final report for European Commission.

Geuna, A. (Ed.). (2015). Global mobility of research scientists: The economics of who goes where and why. Academic Press.

Netz, N., Hampel, S. & Aman, V. (2020). What effects does international mobility have on scientists’ careers? A systematic review. Research evaluation, 29(3), 327-351.

Ryazanova, O. & McNamara, P. (2019). Choices and consequences: Impact of mobility on research-career capital and promotion in business schools. Academy of Management learning & education, 18(2), 186-212.