Posted on behalf of Hywel Curtis
What would it take for your research to go global? At Vitae’s international researcher development conference, held in Manchester in the United Kingdom last week, several speakers offered advice on how to boost your international profile. It’s an expanding area of interest: Emma Gillaspy, Vitae’s north-west hub manager, explains that institutions throughout academia are looking at how they can support the development of truly global researchers, and half of respondents to a recent Naturejobs poll said it was ‘very important’ for young researchers to work abroad early in their careers.
Furthermore, an increasing focus on international collaboration in funding calls and the development of new platforms and technologies mean it is easier than ever before for researchers to operate internationally. Adopting a global outlook is also highly beneficial for careers in a growing number of fields — not solely in disciplines that traditionally expect it, such as astrophysics. So how do you take those first steps towards gaining international credentials?
Work on ‘international’ research
Most fields of research offer scope for you to gain international experience. “Research is inherently a global endeavour,” says Claire McNulty, adviser on life sciences and science policy at the British Council. To start with, find out which areas of research your current institution recognises as being of international significance, as you are likely to receive more support in these areas. “International ties lend greater prestige to institutions,” explains Julie Reeves, the early career researcher (ECR) training coordinator at the UK’s University of Southampton. Quite simply, if you aren’t working in an area that offers international opportunities, you’ll need to consider moving into one that does.
Make connections, seize opportunities
Your network of contacts is potentially the best source of international opportunities. Lynn Clark of the graduate skills team at the UK’s University of Liverpool says that making connections with those who have a “global mindset” and value international collaboration could be the catalyst for your global experience. As with all aspects of your research career it is vital to identify and develop meaningful relationships with those in your field — whether they are someone you met at a conference, a previous collaborator or a personal connection. In addition, opportunities may arise in calls for funding, research partners or collaborations that have international elements, so be aware of these. Also watch out for industry research and development projects and exchanges.
Explore working abroad
If you’re considering working in another country, be sure this is really the right choice for you. Seek advice from those with experience and consider your family, financial situation and career prospects when evaluating options. “It is about your physical mobility to some degree,” says Clark.
You need to be willing and able to travel and live in a foreign culture for extended periods. Employers “are looking for someone who can cope with diversity”, explains Reeves. Consider whether you will really be able to thrive in a new environment despite professional or cultural differences. For example, “one particular problem for UK researchers is the language barrier,” says McNulty of the British Council, which is why many choose to gain international experience in the US.
To prepare for an international move, find out what support your home institution offers and query the internationalisation strategy it has in place. Additional help may be available at national and international levels; in Europe, for example, a scientific visa programme, coordinated by EURAXESS, helps researchers from non-European countries to work in the region. As part of the programme, research organizations sign hosting agreements with individual researchers. “The hosting agreement is fast-track immigration for researchers,” says Magdalena Wislocka, hosting agreement scheme manager at the Irish Universities Association. Support such as this can simplify your relocation significantly.
Once you have acquired a position, there are many ways to make your international experience a success. One area to focus on is preserving the same standards and professional integrity that you maintained previously. Cross-cultural supervision issues are a key concern for those managing researchers internationally, says Vitae’s Gillaspy, so it’s important to foster self-management skills. These can also benefit your career in general (see ‘Getting a pay rise in academia’).
In addition, operating effectively abroad will require you to develop global awareness and think beyond literature reviews to the people, institutions and cultures that those citations represent. This approach is used in Japan to improve graduate education, helping to foster researchers with a “comprehensive and panoramic” view of their field, particularly in the natural sciences, says Mutsuhiro Arinobu, comptroller of the University of Tokyo.
Finally, an important aspect of an effective global research experience is the new relationships you develop while abroad. Working alongside successful researchers in other countries will enhance your own international standing and benefit your career both during and after the placement.
If you have any other advice for researchers looking to gain international experience please feel free to share it below.