This is a response to a Twitter exchange you can find starting here and is about whether spending time abroad helps progression in an academic career. The discussion involves a number of academics involved with the Society for General Microbiology, who amongst other things, support career development of microbiologists in the UK.
The opinion seemed to be that working abroad does help career progression. My concern is that this is only one side of the story, that benefits are anecdotal and unproven. I believe it can also be detrimental, both to the individual and to employment equality in universities in the UK, but that this is something seldom spoken about.
I’m currently on my third postdoc, the first was in Liverpool, the second University of California San Francisco and now I’m at Imperial College London.
The end of my Liverpool postdoc coincided with the RAE in 2008, and postdoc positions for microbial ecologists were scarce. From postdocs job-hunting currently, it seems that REF has had a similar impact, though it’s hard to separate from the economic situation.
I was unable to limit my job search to the UK as the jobs simply weren’t available. I was lucky in that I didn’t have kids or a mortgage and that my wife was supportive, feeling adventurous and didn’t like her job much.
When I was offered a position at UCSF in San Francisco I was again lucky in that we could just about afford to go, wiping out our savings, supported in part by some relocation expenses from my new boss and in part by redundancy pay from the University of Liverpool (many universities are reluctant to pay these to contract research staff or pay less than the going rate – challenge this postdocs, you are entitled).
My wife was unable to work whilst we were there. There is a work permit available, but it cost money to obtain and had to be annually renewed. She doesn’t work in science and jobs for her were hard to come by, so we had one salary coming in whilst we were there. I also took a pay cut, relative to my Liverpool postdoc salary. Many US universities don’t pay postdocs particularly well relative to the UK, though this will vary. The National Lab system seems to pay better and individual PIs may pay better depending on their funding sources.
SF is an expensive city in terms of rent, but we were lucky again in that there are lots of ways to live cheaply, so that’s what we did for almost two years. The postdoc ended badly, for a number of reasons I only talk about when drunk. I quit and because I had a J1 visa, this was terminated too, so we moved back to the UK. No relocation expenses this time and no job to go to. I was unemployed for 6 months and we lived with my wife’s mum whilst she temped and I job hunted, again all over the world, but this time not knowing whether we would actually be able to afford to go even if I was offered the job. I was on the verge of giving up on science jobs altogether and retraining as a [no idea], when I was lucky again and I got a position at Imperial.
I think the ability to postdoc abroad relies on a number of factors, none of which have anything to do with ability as a researcher:
- Family circumstance – if you’ve got kids, a mortgage, disabilities, other family dependents it will be difficult or impossible.
- Local laws – we had to get married (we were already engaged, so no hardship!) in order for my wife to get a visa, what about LGBT couples? Your relationship may or may not be recognized in different countries and different states within that country.
- Money – it is expensive and can be very expensive. You may or may not be able to afford to go. Remember health insurance, impact on pension and UK NI too.
If as an employer you favour individuals, simply because they have worked abroad, then I believe that this is in fact discrimination against those who are unable to go and limits diversity in UK universities. Employment of postdocs and academics has got to be based on scientific ability, irrespective of where this experience was obtained. Advice to work abroad in order to progress your career is also exclusionary and reminds me of advice I once heard a senior female academic give a female postdoc with regards their career: “don’t have kids”.
I would like to see data comparing postdocs who have spent time abroad with those who haven’t, particularly with respect to:
- Gender ratio – I’m expecting more male than female postdocs have spent time abroad
- Equality act protected characteristics – likewise, I’m expecting more single people, without children, without disabilities
- Socio-economic status
- Future employment – does it actually benefit or is this anecdotal?
It’s not clear to me the proportion of current permanent academics in UK universities that have actually done it. Postdocs that have left science since spending time abroad do not contribute equally to perceptions of the impact of these career paths. Where is the evidence that working abroad is an advantage for an academic career? If it is an advantage, is this simply an extension of employment biases already embedded in UK academia?