Australian Researchers’ Mobility Portal

Saturday 18th October 2003

Paul Moran likes a challenge. So after finishing his degree at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Moran, who is Scottish, decided to go abroad to study for his PhD. He went to the Technical University of Berlin, and despite hardly being able to speak the language at the start, he chose to write his thesis in German. “There was no point in struggling for nearly four years to master the language then not to use it,” he says.

But Moran is the exception. When it comes to work and study, most of us in Europe are stay-at-home types, not taking the opportunities that our neighbours have to offer. The European Commission estimates that less than 0.4% of the population of any European country is working in another, despite the fact that 17% of Europeans express a desire to work in another country in the next five years. In the US things are more fluid, with about 2.5% of people moving to a new state each year. We could be missing out on a big chance to boost our careers by staying put.

For a start, with so many well-qualified graduates chasing the top jobs, candidates who can speak another language and have experienced living in another culture stand out from the crowd. “One of the reasons why I went to study in Germany was to make myself different from the current crop of graduates,” says Moran. And in an increasingly global world, people who are prepared to move between countries are in demand, especially for senior positions. A survey of leading European-based corporations, “Managing mobility matters — a European perspective”, carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers last year, showed that half thought it was important to recruit individuals who were prepared to move across Europe, in senior managerial or professional levels.

But how do you go about getting this much-desired “euromobility”? Luckily, it is getting easier. At all levels, from undergraduate to postdoctoral, the wheels are being oiled to ease movements between countries. Many universities are settling on the internationally recognised system of bachelor’s, master’s and PhD qualifications. This, coupled with a huge increase in funding for more senior researchers, makes moving countries more straightforward.

Undergraduate openings

In recent years, a plethora of opportunities for studying in other European countries has opened up. A quick search on the internet reveals a bewildering range of courses on offer: you could enrol on an international degree in information technology from the Espoo-Vantaa Institute of Technology in Finland or an international BSc in environmental biology at the University of Applied Sciences in Bremen, Germany. You could even take a Swedish/French bi-national degree in materials science.

It is also possible to get two degrees at the same time. The National Institute for the Applied Sciences (INSA) in Rennes, France, and the University of Strathclyde have joined forces to award two different qualifications to students on certain courses. The best students from the two institutions are grouped together for two years—one in France and one in the UK—and emerge with double the qualifications: a Diplôme d’Ingénieur and an MEng.

Language barrier?

These are just a small selection of the opportunities out there for undergraduates in Europe. Many are taught in the local language, but some depend on being fluent enough in English to attend courses.

English has become the international language of science, and like it or not, a good grasp of the language will help ease the transfer between countries. And, as universities become more internationally orientated, the use of English as a teaching medium is becoming more common. For example, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), Switzerland, physics master’s degrees are taught entirely in English and undergraduate courses are taught in a mixture of English and German. The institute also dropped the old diploma degree and adopted the BSc/MSc course structure in an attempt to encourage students from abroad.

PhD progress

Changes are being seen at a higher level too. PhD students all over Europe are often allowed to submit their thesis in English. But for many students, such as Moran, the chance to learn another language is one of the key attractions of studying abroad. Moran had been to school then university all within a short distance from home in Paisley, near Glasgow, apart from time spent on an industrial placement for an American company in Germany, where he didn’t get a chance to speak German. So when it came to taking a PhD in chemistry, he was keen to immerse himself fully in another culture. “I didn’t want to come out of a PhD having learned nothing other than chemistry,” he says. He was attracted to Germany because of the lifestyle there, as well as its excellent reputation in his field — organometallic chemistry.

Securing a PhD placement at a German university was tough, says Moran, because students from the UK usually need a master’s degree to match the level of a graduate from the German university system. But he secured his own funding, from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, and got top marks for his chemistry degree, which was enough to get him the place.

“Working abroad has shaped me into a more determined person,” says Moran, who now works for the Dowpharma Business Unit in Cambridge, UK, part of the Dow Chemical Company. “I think my employability has increased and the life lessons I have learned are invaluable. Three to five years studying or working abroad is a relatively short time in your life, but the education you receive lasts a lifetime.”

Moran’s PhD place was not specifically designed for a foreign student, but some universities have developed PhD courses with an international blend of candidates in mind. The Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, for instance, offers a European PhD in biology. This Eurobio scheme involves partnerships with many European universities and students must spend at least six months abroad and submit a detailed summary of their thesis in three languages: their mother tongue, another European language and in English. The scheme arose from the fact that even the best equipped universities cannot cover all the biological subdisciplines. Through cooperation between different universities, students get the chance to study a huge variety of subjects, from botany to zoology, physiology to ecology.

In a similar vein, Germany’s Max Planck Society, together with other German partner universities, has set up the International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRSs) to attract young researchers from all over the world to Germany. Aimed at PhD students, the research schools offer a huge range of subjects including molecular biology, neuroscience, computer science, physics and polymer research. The students have the choice of doing their PhD examination in Germany or at their home university. Twenty-nine IMPRSs are already up and running.

Schemes like these are still fairly new, but as Europe becomes more integrated, no doubt more of them will be set up.

Postdoc paradox

On the next rung of the academic ladder—the postdoctoral level—it is historically very common for young researchers to work abroad. Young scientists looking for a career in research often need to go away to get ahead in their own country. A New Scientist survey of the key ingredients for a successful research career showed that research experience abroad is highly valued (New Scientist, 29 March 2003, p 58). At the postdoctoral level, many European researchers automatically think of heading to the USA — but there are hundreds of opportunities closer to home.

Gavin Lancaster is one of those who chose to stay in Europe. After taking a physics PhD at the University of St Andrew’s, he decided that he wanted to experience a foreign country properly, not just for a couple of weeks travelling through. Finding a position was straightforward — he sent enquiries to several groups in his field (quantum physics) and was asked to attend an interview for a position at the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Innsbruck. He was offered the job and, even better, funding was already in place.

Like Moran, Lancaster found that learning a new language at the same time as exploring his field was a great experience, and he thinks his job prospects will be better as a result. Now that his two-year post is coming to an end he has his eye on a job in industry. “My German will come in useful because there are many interesting companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland,” he says.

Lancaster was luckier than most — his post came ready-funded. But many researchers find this is the biggest hurdle when it comes to working abroad, with many national funding schemes only open to citizens of that country. But the European Commission plans to change this.

Research in Europe is a fragmented business, with little coordination between national research agendas. So, rather like the move towards a single currency, the commission wants to create a single European Research Area (ERA) in which nations coordinate their research programmes according to Europe-wide goals. A key task is to encourage the mobility of people, and huge amounts of money have been invested to make this happen.

The European Commission’s latest round of funding for science and technology, the Sixth Framework Programme, which runs from 2002 to 2006, has allocated €1.58 billion — a tenth of the overall budget — into a human resources and mobility programme. The goal is to widen researchers’ career prospects, to encourage excellence in European science and to make the ERA a reality. The lion’s share of the money will go a scheme called the Marie Curie Actions, designed to encourage young researchers to work with research teams in other EU countries.

Special grants called Marie Curie Fellowships are a major part of these actions. They are mainly targeted at postdocs, although there is some PhD funding available, but the applicant must carry out their research in a country that is not their home nation. Virginie Leroux, for example, is French, and got her PhD from the University of Rennes, but thanks to a Marie Curie Fellowship she is now working in the department of engineering geology at Lund University of Technology, Sweden.

Leroux was attracted to Lund by the excellent reputation of the group she now works in, plus the state-of-the-art equipment there. “My supervisor had been wanting to expand the knowledge and experience of his team and I would not have been able to work here without the fellowship,” says Leroux, whose funding includes a travel allowance for international conferences and relevant lab visits all over Europe.

“Applying for the grant takes time — about one year,” she says. “But it is not too complicated. I think it is one of the best ways of enabling young scientists to travel abroad and I would encourage anyone to do as I did.”