By Dr Claire McNulty

29 November 2013 - 12:43

Studies have shown that international mobility dramatically improves young scientists' careers. Photo (c)  David Spinks, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Studies have shown that international mobility dramatically improves young scientists' careers. Photo ©

David Spinks, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Following her appearance at the World Science Forum in Rio de Janeiro this week, the British Council's Head of Science Dr Claire McNulty answers what young scientists can do to sustain their careers.

Many young PhD holders find themselves in a precarious situation, with supply outstripping demand in some areas. So, what are the options for young scientists to improve their career prospects?

A career-saver: international mobility

Studies such as the Royal Society's Knowledge Networks and Nations have shown that international collaboration between researchers increases the impact and reach of their research, as measured by citations per article. It’s also been shown that internationally mobile researchers are more productive than those that stay in one place. For example, in Europe, the field-weighted citation impact for researchers that move from one European country to another is 1.90, compared to 1.25 for sedentary researchers [Editor's note, 25 November 2016: link to source no longer available]. This could be due to a number of factors: exposure to different ideas and expertise; access to improved facilities, as well as a simple broadening of horizons.

But it’s not always easy to be internationally mobile, and it often needs to be done at a particular point in a career when the upheaval of moving to another country has less of an impact than when ties and roots have been firmly laid down. However, even short-term mobility can have a beneficial impact, especially in these days of relatively easy digital communication across continents, where collaborations established over the course of a month can be carried on for years remotely.

Four things a researcher needs

I believe there are four main things necessary for researchers to connect internationally: information, funding, practical support and skills. They need information about where the best research in their field is occurring, and where the opportunities for them lie. They need funding to support their mobility, whether it’s for a short period or a longer fellowship. They need practical support to help them move to another country, and they need the skills to enable them to get the most out of the experience.

What opportunities there are

We have recently renewed our focus on early-career researchers and, although on a relatively small scale, we are working in all four areas to support internationally mobile researchers. One example of funding is the Researcher Links programme, which we run together with partners in 19 countries around the world (including FAPESP in Brazil). This provides funding for workshops and travel grants for short research visits (up to three months) and is designed to be the first step on the ladder towards longer-term collaborations.

We also provide information and practical support through the Euraxess and AmbEr projects in the UK. These are European initiatives to promote international mobility of researchers, with an EU-wide database of research job opportunities, and with country websites giving practical support and information to mobile researchers.

One other way for young scientists to connect on a global level is to join WAYS, the World Association for Young Scientist, which connects, supports and provides a voice for young scientists around the globe.

The question about the number of PhDs

Several times during the World Science Forum, the question was raised as to whether some countries produce too many PhDs, as many young scientists are unable to follow an academic research career. In the UK, for example, a study from Vitae [Editor's note, 25 November 2016: link to source no longer available] showed that only 54 per cent of doctorate holders were still in research or academia three years after they achieved their PhD. Sometimes there just aren’t the positions available to scientists who want to carry on their research careers, and this can be a real problem, particularly in developing economies where there is a need to build up the national scientific capacity.

That said, in the UK, many of those no longer in research felt that their PhD had been valuable to them in their current career. A solid research training can be very useful in a variety of different occupations, and it can also be beneficial for society at large to have scientifically literate individuals in non-science sectors, from politics to industry, to international development and especially communication, as was demonstrated at the forum by Javier Santaolalla, one of our FameLabbers and founder of the phenomenal Big Van Theory, who gave us his tour of particle physics in just three minutes.

Skilled scientists and engineers are essential for tackling societal challenges, but being a scientist doesn’t stop when you leave the lab, and science can only be one part of the solution. We need more scientists making connections with, or even taking the jump to policy, industry, social and development work, so that science can inform, contribute to and learn from other sectors of society, for the benefit of all.

Dr McNulty was part of a World Science Forum panel organised by WAYS (World Association of Young Scientists) and ICoRSA (International Consortium of Research Staff Associations), which discussed DIY science, science in developing countries, and the issue above.

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