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Internationalisation and Equality

The Contribution of Short Stay Mobility to Progression in Science Careers*
Louise Ackers
p. 83-103


This paper examines the “tension” in the debate around human resources in science between the promotion of internationalisation and mobility, on the one hand, and the promotion of equality and work-life balance, on the other. In an attempt to move away from the current polarity of mobility-immobility and understand the importance of viewing mobility as a continuum, the paper emphasises the contribution of new forms of mobility and particularly of short stays to the internationalisation process that has become so critical to career progression. It illustrates the specific opportunities that certain forms of short-stay mobility present both in terms of optimizing knowledge exchange processes and “internationalisation” but also to “potentially mobile” women and men with personal and caring obligations. Attention to the “far end” of the continuum draws attention to the role that “business visits” and on-going “travel” play in career enhancement. Migration research has rather neglected these forms of movement. Recent research on business travel would suggest that these forms of movement are highly gendered and present unique challenges to people with personal and caring responsibilities.

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I. Mobilities, Relationships and Knowledge Transfer Processes

  • *  The author would like to thank the referees for their comments on a draft of this paper.

1 Recent years have witnessed significant changes in academic research on highly skilled migration, especially in an intra-EU context. Until the 1980s most people talked about migration as a discrete and usually permanent act. Since the 1990s researchers have talked more extensively about a “mobility continuum” challenging exclusive use of the term “migration” and pointing towards spatially and temporally complex forms of mobility (Ackers/Gill, 2008; Findlay, 1995; Piracha/Vickerman, 2002; Okolski, 2001; Salt, 1997; Urry, 2007; Wallace, 2002). King emphasises the need to address forms of mobility that are « multiple and spatially capricious » (2002:98) rather than focusing on permanent international migration. And, in the context of EU enlargement, Favell suggests that migrants « are more likely to engage in temporary, circular and transnational mobility […] than long-term permanent immigration » (2008:703). Increasing attention is also being paid to the neglected area of shorter assignments and business visits which are tending to substitute for or augment longer-term moves, particularly for the highly skilled (Beaverstock, 2004; Meyer, 2001; Morgan, 2001; Salt/Ford, 1993; Tani, 2008). Research is beginning to recognise the increasing importance of short term, circulatory and shuttle moves and to study the relationship between these and emergent forms of transnationalism recently captured by concepts such as “partial” (Golynker, 2006), “incomplete” (Okolski, 2001; Ferro, 2006) or “transnational” (Williams/Balatz, 2008) migrations. These new “mobilities” fundamentally challenge traditional theoretical, legal, policy and statistical approaches which continue to conceptualise (and measure) mobility according to “border-crossings” involving longer term changes in either residence and/or employment (Ackers/Balch, 2009).

2 Not only has the literature begun to consider the extent to which more circulatory, shorter term moves constitute an effective substitution for longer term stays, recent work has probed more deeply into the quality of these experiences and how they shape the exchange of knowledge and internationalisation processes. Williams and Balatz argue that migration research has generally neglected the literature on skills and the important differences between different kinds of knowledge - focusing on the transfer element with insufficient attention to the “knowledge” component (2008). This neglect is to some extent evident in the important debates surrounding the concept of “motility” or “mobility potential” which focus attention on the impact of information technology on network building and maintenance (Flamm/Kaufmann, 2006; Kaufmann/Bergman/Joye, 2004; Kesselring, 2006). Certainly many forms of knowledge can now be transferred in the absence of co-presence. And these forms of exchange may become increasingly common as a means of transferring “explicit” knowledge in the natural sciences (techniques, formulas and data for example).

3 Transfers of other forms of tacit knowledge, and particularly what Williams and Balatz term “embedded” and “encultured” knowledge, demand a degree of co-presence to support the effective “translation” of more contextualised knowledge. According to these authors, « some types of knowledge are best or only transmitted via corporeal transfer » (2008:43).

4 So, geographical mobility continues to play a critical role in the relationship-building and knowledge exchange processes so important to scientific development and careers. Having said that, and to reiterate the points made above, this does not imply any direct relationship with length of stay (temporality) as is often assumed. Williams and Balatz, echoing the views of other authors argue that defining time limits is a « futile exercise » (2008:11).

  • 1

5 Indeed certain forms of more circulatory and transnational mobility may be more effective in promoting knowledge exchange and meaningful internationalisation than one-off long term stays. A practical example of this can be seen in a current project to support knowledge exchange within the framework of a North-South Healthcare Partnership. The Liverpool-Mulago Partnership1 supports the regular reciprocal exchange of obstetric and midwifery staff between Kampala and Liverpool. Although each exchange is quite short (2 weeks) the on-going and reciprocal nature of the programme supports more sustainable relationship-building processes enabling both parties to accumulate the kinds of embedded and encultured knowledge that prove so critical to the success of medical interventions. They help the relationship-building process through the development of trust and more contextualised understanding so that socially situated knowledge can be “translated” in appropriate ways rather than “transferred” as Williams and Balatz suggest (2008:40).

II. Mobility and Internationalisation in the Knowledge Economy: The Case of Researcher Mobility

6 Flamm and Kaufmann describe the increasing emphasis placed on mobility in careers, arguing that, « mobility is quickly becoming a formative element of existence » or an « established ideology » (2006:267). The authors point to the role of flexible employment and fixed term contracts in this process (Ackers/Oliver, 2007).

7 Mobility has been associated with progression in academic research careers for many years, particularly in the natural sciences. In some disciplines and institutes it is more or less obligatory with access to positions at home dependent on applicants spending a period (of employment) abroad. More commonly, such as in the UK, for example, it takes the form of a more implicit « expectation of mobility » (Ackers, 2003; Rothwell, 2002).

8 The evolution of the European Research Area (ERA) and the European Area of Higher Education (EHEA) via the Bologna Process, have together increased the emphasis on researcher mobility (Kuhn/Remøe, 2005). In 2005, the European Commission adopted the “European Charter for Researchers” and the “Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers”. The Charter and Code together describe a series of general principles specifying the roles, responsibilities and entitlements of researchers and the employers and funders of researchers. The Charter and Code identify mobility, as « an important means of enhancing scientific knowledge and professional development at any stage of a researcher’s career » (EC, 2005:19). Furthermore, « any mobility experience [should be] fully valued within their career progression/appraisal system » (EC, 2005:19). In 2007, the European Commission launched a major consultation exercise with the publication of a Green Paper on the ERA. The Green Paper similarly champions mobility, identifying it as the first critical “feature” of the ERA which seeks to promote, « high levels of mobility between institutions, disciplines, sectors and countries » (EC, 2007a:5). A later report by the Bologna Working Group highlights the importance of mobility to the entire Bologna action; « most of the commitments made within the Bologna process aim at promoting mobility » (EC, 2008:5).

9 A European Parliament Report on the “Cross-Border Mobility of Young Researchers” first extols the virtues of mobility as « important not only for the career development of researchers, but also for scientific and economic performance (in the EU) as a whole » before identifying a range of “barriers” including quality of life issues such as the, « costs of accommodation, related moving costs, employment of partners and spouses » (EP, 2009:11). Although the report opens with a discussion of the different forms that mobility can take – ranging from longer term moves through short stay to virtual mobility, it does not attempt to define mobility explicitly in temporal terms. The data presented on « levels of researcher mobility » is confined to the « presence of foreign researchers in host countries » (a proxy indicator of long stays). In practice this data will reflect employment patterns and the registration or award of doctorates abroad and does not begin to capture the forms of mobility encompassed within its own definition. This kind of data will, as the report suggests, tell us more about “employment opportunities” (and international recruitment) than mobility and internationalisation.

10 Given the central role “mobility” plays in these important policy processes, it is surprising that little attempt is made to specify it. Even where the diversity of mobility forms is recognised in the narrative (as above), the association with more traditional concepts (of long stays involving residence and employment) is reinforced through the presentation of statistical data on foreign recruitment.

11 Traditionally researcher mobility (as with migration generally) has been implicitly characterised as involving an extended period of residence abroad (often 2-3 years), usually implying a period of employment (or a scholarship) at doctoral/post-doctoral level. Recent years have seen a subtle shift in the rationale for this form of mobility with more explicit focus on its relationship with “internationalisation” or sometimes, “Europeanisation”. This has in turn led to increased interest in the relationship between short term mobility and internationalisation. A recent study on factors inhibiting researcher mobility illustrates the increasing complexity of researcher mobility:

Labour mobility has many dimensions in the context of globalised knowledge flows […] and new forms of mobility are taking shape. Mobility can be international, trans-national, cross-border or within national borders, cross-sectoral and increasingly virtual. It can be motivated by employers and by individuals. Periods of mobility can last for a few months or a few years (Cox, 2008:18).

12 A survey conducted by the European Commission as part of the Green Paper consultation exercise invited respondents to detail their own mobility (EC, 2008). Although 74.6% of respondents reported a mobility experience, « most of them did not spend more than 3 months in another EU country to do some research work ». The survey also drew attention to large numbers (around a third of mobile respondents) who may be defined as “posted” workers in that they retained an employment contract in their home country (Ibidem: 35).

13 In 2008, the European Commission commissioned a second impact assessment of the flag-ship mobility scheme. The “Marie Curie Fellowship Programme” requires the fellowship-holder to locate to another country during the fellowship. The findings echo the results of the previous impact assessment (Van de Sande/Ackers/Gill, 2005) indicating a very high perceived impact of the fellowships on researchers’ international experience (Figure 1).

  • 2  Source: Adapted from Ackers L. et al., 2010b. The term “former” fellows refers to those respondent (...)

Figure 1: The Perceived Impact of Marie Curie Fellowships on International Experience2

Level of impact

Former FP6

Current FP6

No Impact

1.6 %

0.6 %

Little Impact

2.7 %

2.0 %

Some impact

11.7 %

8.8 %

Significant impact

40.3 %

37.4 %

Very significant

43.7 %

51.2 %

Response count



14 It would be easy to interpret these findings as implying that this form of “long stay” mobility is associated with high levels of internationalisation. However, the follow-up study (Ackers et al., 2010b) introduced a new question designed to capture forms of on-going, “within-fellowship”, mobility. Only a very small minority of respondents had been immobile or undertaken no foreign travel during their Fellowship, with over half of them spending periods of over a month in another location (Figure 2).

15 It is interesting to reflect whether the “international experience” arising from the Fellowship derives in any simple and direct way from the initial outward move (or principal longer term mobility episode) or from the international opportunities that attach to that reflecting the international environment in which they are working and/or the access to resources for on-going short-stay mobility, network-building and the travel the scheme provides.

  • 3  Source: Adapted from Ackers L. et al., 2010b, p.33.

Figure 2: Within Fellowship Mobility in the Marie Curie Fellowship Scheme3

Category of Fellow

Stays abroad of
3 months
or more

Stays abroad of 1 to 3 months

Short stays abroad, academic visits


No national or foreign travel/stays

Former FP6 Fellows


38.8 %


15.2 %


41.8 %


63.4 %


3.8 %

Current FP6 Fellows


35.7 %


22.7 %


58.0 %


78.9 %


2.6 %

III. Mobility, Internationalisation and Sustainable Employment

16 In many respects the concept of academic mobility has become constitutive of or synonymous with internationalisation. Mobility has, as a respondents suggested, « become a metric of internationalisation’ which is ascribed some inherent value indicative of excellence and competitiveness » (Ackers, 2008: 412).

17 However, capacity-building does not just focus on immigration as a policy tool. A separate policy impetus focuses on solving skills shortages and improving competitiveness through measures designed to improve the attractiveness of science careers and retain women in science (shoring up the “leaky pipeline”). The potential tensions between these two key policy areas has been largely neglected until very recently (Ackers, 2008; Kidd/Green, 2006). The European Code and Charter not only actively encourages mobility. It also requires that employers and research funders, « will not discriminate against researchers in any way on the basis of gender, age, ethnic, national or social origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation, language, disability, political opinion, social or economic condition » (EC, 2005:16). Furthermore, they « should aim to provide working conditions which allow both men and women researchers to combine family and work, children and career » (EC, 2005:17).

18 The Consultation Exercise began to hint at some emerging policy tensions: « Working conditions which enable a better work/life balance are considered important for increasing the recruitment and retention rates of women in research careers […] Attention is also drawn to the pressure on researchers to demonstrate mobility as a factor in the underrepresentation of women scientists » (EC, 2008:41).

19 The UK response to the Charter and Code drew attention to the potentially discriminatory effect of the “expectation of mobility” and proposed a more conditional approach:

In university practice, it is often accepted that more experienced researchers would have been internationally mobile. However, where it has not been possible for a researcher to gain any mobility experience, for example, due to a disability-related reason, or experience has been limited due to pregnancy, maternity leave and subsequent child care responsibilities, it should not prejudice the application (EC, 2007b:34).

20 A recent document on researcher mobility (Universities UK, 2009) goes a step further to explicitly acknowledging the role that the pressure to be mobile can play in encouraging women to leave research. Although the UK approach does not question the implicit value of mobility or contemplate the possibility that shorter circulatory moves (for example) may be more effective in promoting internationalisation, it recognises that not all researchers are equally footloose and that institutionalising mobility may give rise to discriminatory outcomes.

21 The discussion above raises questions about the compatibility of mobility with more general concerns to achieve a work-life balance and combine “work” with other responsibilities and social pursuits. It is not so much that mobility is not possible in such circumstances but rather that the circumstances might lead to different approaches to mobility (and internationalisation).

22 It also raises concerns about the implicit relationship between concepts of internationalisation and “quality”. There is a kind of received wisdom implicit in the debate around highly skilled migration that mobility is a selective process, capable of sifting out the “the best and the brightest” (Ferro, 2006). Recognition of barriers to mobility or at least the factors that shape the forms that mobility and international relationships may take, will begin to resolve the tension between gender equality (and sustainability in that context) and internationalisation. This implies a more explicit and evidence-based approach to policy-making capable of grasping the potential for policy externalities (unintended outcomes).

23 The Cox report identified a number of key barriers to mobility. Figure 3 focuses on three of these; personal relationships, childcare and “other caring responsibilities”.

24 The results illustrate the perceived effect of relationships on mobility, with over half of those researchers who are “currently mobile” and those who are “not interested in being mobile” citing personal relationships which Cox identifies as a « fundamental determinant » of mobility:

There was a view among some of the highly mobile researchers profiled that mobility makes family life extremely difficult. The increasing necessity for dual income families, the difficulties in maintaining two careers and the problems encountered in moving families and partners abroad have emerged as clear inhibiting factors. The problem of having to “choose” between a research career and family or relationship was frequently mentioned (Cox, 2008:38).

  • 4  Source: Adapted from Cox D., 2008, p.37.

Figure 3: Researcher’s Mobility Status by Experienced or Anticipated Difficulties4

Figure 3: Researcher’s Mobility Status by Experienced or Anticipated Difficulties4

25 Interestingly, Cox’s work supports the finding of earlier work by Ackers (2003) which suggests that parenting and child care may be less of a barrier compared to personal relationships (Cox, 2008:8). Although dual career concerns affect both men and women, figures on the prevalence and impact of such situations indicate highly gendered effects (Ackers/Gill, 2008; Ackers/Balch, 2009). Very recent work by Boyle et al. on the influence of family migration on women concludes that: « studies continue to demonstrate that women’s employment, wages and hours of work do still suffer from family migration » (2009:19). Citing their own previous research (Boyle et al., 1999) they argue that the improved educational standards and labour market position of women has not increased the propensity of male employees to “trail” female partners:

Indeed, it is increasingly likely (although still less common) that the woman will have a more prestigious and financially more rewarding job than her partner and one might therefore expect more households to move on behalf of the woman’s, rather than the man’s, job; the trailing spouse could be a man. In fact, this seems to remain a relatively uncommon practice even when the female partner has a higher-ranking occupation than the male partner (Boyle et al., 2009:19).

26 Over a third (36%) of those researchers in the Cox study (above) who are “not interested in mobility” and around a quarter of those who are “currently mobile” cite childcare as a barrier to mobility. The data on the impact of “other caring relationships” evidences the impact of wider caring responsibilities which are so often forgotten amongst this group of “migrants”: 36% of those not interested in mobility express concern at the difficulties that mobility presents in terms of their “other caring” responsibilities.

27 Given the prevalence of these concerns, it is curious that the European Parliament report on cross-border mobility concludes that « gender issues appear less important than originally thought » and fails to make any proposals for the augmentation of mobility over and above « international advertising for research positions » and help for partners in finding a job (EP, 2009:21). A more obvious approach to the facilitation of mobility, in the context of the findings cited, might be to assess the concept itself and the benefits of targeting forms of mobility that do not require the upheaval associated with longer term residential moves and employment changes.

28 Recent work in the discipline of sociology (primarily focusing on within country moves including commuting) has explored this relationship between mobility and equality. Larsen et al. (2006:263) argue that distinctions between “mobile” and “immobile” are, « too simple and ‘non-relational’ […] Mobility biographies are relational – tied up with caring, guilt, responsibility and negotiation as much as individual choice ». As such they say little if anything about excellence, ability or even individual choice.

29 Kaufmann et al. (2004) refer to the relationship between spatial mobility and social mobility and the challenges this poses to fair employment and meritocratic principles. Kesselring similarly points to the importance of coping strategies enabling people to “manage” their mobility. The author gives an example of what he terms “virtual mobility management” practices – in this case a mother who uses « virtual mobility management as an intelligent solution to the problem of unintended immobility » (Kesselring, 2006:276). This mother manages to achieve the requisite level of internationalisation in her career without physical moves. Kesselring suggests that these kinds of motility may be inaccurately defined at face value in terms of immobility: « she seems to be immobile [because] she is a non-mover and does not travel » (Ibidem:274).

30 In many other situations, and perhaps more commonly in research careers, a level of co-presence forms a necessary or valuable part of the network-building and research dissemination process. A recent study on Eastern European scientific mobility (Ackers/Gill, 2008) adopted a relatively flexible approach to the concept of (physical) mobility requiring respondents to have been mobile for a period of at least 3 months in order to fall within sampling criteria. This approach, combined with the use of qualitative interviews, provided the authors with a more detailed understanding of the kinds of mobility researchers were engaged in and the challenges they faced in negotiating them. Just two examples are given below. Traditional approaches, defining mobility as a period of living abroad for at least 12 months, would fail to capture the complexity and quality of international experience in examples such as these:


Dessislava is a Bulgarian researcher in her early 40’s. At the time of interview she was living in Bulgaria with her partner and two children.
Dessislava had not spent time abroad during her undergraduate degree or doctorate.

However, in 1993 she spent 12 months in Italy on a fellowship.
She then returned to Bulgaria for 2 years.
During the period from 1996 – 1999 she has experienced four annual stays each of six months duration in Italy as “invited lecturer”. It was during this time that she had her second child.
Since then she has spent 3 months in France on a fellowship in 1999, followed by 12 months in Germany in 2000 and a further 3 month fellowship in Germany in 2003.
In total, since 1993, she has spent 44 months (nearly 4 years) working in another country. It is also important to point out that she has experienced stays in 3 countries with repeat stays in Italy and Germany.



Agnieska is a Polish researcher also in her early 40’s, and with a partner and two young children.
She did not spend time abroad during her undergraduate degree or doctorate.

Her first mobility experience took place in 1992 and involved a 3 month fellowship in Germany.
After that she returned to Poland. She was then offered a longer term (2 years) position in Brazil. At that time her children remained in Poland. In the end, she cut the fellowship short, returning after 6 months.
In the period from 1994 – 2004 she experienced ten annual stays each for 3 months in Germany with repeat returns.
In total she has spent 39 months abroad.

31 Agnieszka recounts her experience of trying to develop her career and use the opportunities for mobility to enable her to work effectively –as a young mother. For the first thirteen years of her career she was unable to move at all:

  • 5  The “habilitation” can best be described as a second doctorate and is a pre-requisite for progress (...)

I had children and maternity leaves so that was not a very intensive time in my job. So I didn’t travel. Then I got this proposition to go for two years. I didn’t know Brazil so for me it was too far away. The children were too small. The younger one was three and I really couldn’t find a solution for two years. Then we decided that I will go there at first for half a year and we would see… My friends who have habilitation usually did it after longer stays abroad. My stay was only 6 months so it was too short to make habilitation5.

32 In practice, Agnieszka cut short her stay, returning after only six months partly because of her children (who remained at home with their father) and partly because of concerns about professional re-integration. She reflects on the impact of that decision, which meant that she could not make optimal use of the opportunity (and complete work for her habilitation). This would no doubt have limited her ability to progress in Poland.

33 Of course this situation does not only affect women. When asked why he had only spent short (that is, less than 3 month) stints abroad, Boris, a senior Bulgarian scientist replied:

I have family here. I have children. It was impossible for me, now it’s possible because my sons are married. I was free [to be mobile] but not to emigrate.

34 In practice, as this study revealed, scientists are exercising a degree of choice within diverse frameworks of constraint and are attempting to balance their desire for optimum scientific productivity with their family and personal lives. In each of these examples the presence of children made a significant difference to the duration of mobility episodes permitting short stays only and this was achieved through tolerance of family separation. In these cases, children were left with the other parent. In many other cases, respondents “managed” the demands of a mobile career by leaving their children with parents in the home country and, on occasion, bringing their parents over to care for their grandchildren, yet this was more problematic for non-EU nationals who had more restrictive legal rights (Ackers/Dwyer, 2002). In such cases the mother or father tolerates a degree of separation. Zofia recalls the time when she had to leave her daughter with her mother in order to spend short stays abroad during vacations:

It was very tough for me but it was possible because my mother took care of my daughter. So, after finishing teaching I went abroad. I spent summer holidays and all the winter holidays and Easter time in such so called “free” periods I went to Norway to work.

35 Zofia’s ability to rely on informal, family support in the home country enabled her to achieve a degree of mobility and progress in her career but the conditions under which the mobility was made possible implied serious restrictions on the timing and length of her stays abroad.

36 The study of doctoral mobility took the relatively unusual step of including within the sample a cohort of “immobile” researchers (Ackers et al., 2008). In practice these people are often not “immobile” but often exercising forms of mobility that fail to trigger data capture processes. In common with other respondents in this study, the following mother argues that she has achieved a level of international engagement through short stays and conferences:

I am the mother of a two-year old and therefore have family responsibilities in Denmark. I seek my international network through short term trips such as visiting other universities and attending conferences. Despite not working abroad I see myself as very international and already have a broad international network.

37 The study also identified a whole range of ways in which doctoral researchers were managing to exercise mobility and develop international connections without making longer stays. In some cases this was achieved through fluid and flexible approaches to co-supervision. In one example, a Portuguese researcher, who had not otherwise spent time abroad, was co-supervised by a UK-based expert who she saw on a regular basis for stays of 1 or 2 weeks at a time. Another researcher also used the “co-supervision” strategy with great success:

I was registered here in Portugal. The university here accepted him as a co-supervisor and they paid him. I think we arranged 2 meetings per year and those were paid for but of course we had other meetings that were not paid for.

38 She spent various periods in the UK but usually for no longer than a week at a time (when she left her children at home or on one occasion the whole family accompanied her). She described the short visits as,

quite enough – quite Ok for what I needed. I went there to discuss my findings, the progress of my work and to have access to the library to older publications that I didn’t have access to here.

39 Where research on mobility adopts this broader approach encompassing those researchers who have not spent an extensive period living or employed abroad the findings are quite interesting. A recent study (Ackers et al., 2010a) evaluated the impact of the European Commission’s Framework Programmes on the social sciences and humanities across a range of indicators. One area of interest to the sponsoring body (the Directorate General for Research) concerned the impact on “Mobility and Internationalisation”. Interestingly, relatively few of the participants in the interviews had experienced forms of long-stay mobility. Where long stays had taken place this tended to reflect what one respondent referred to as the “international opportunity structure” (in other words moving to get any or a better position in research). This factor was a greater concern, unsurprisingly, amongst researchers in less resource rich environments (and in this study in the new Member States). However even for this group, the opportunities to access positions which may not be available in their own country (usually on insecure contracts) was described by one senior researcher as a “life-trap”:

You just have to apply if you are a young person. But it is temporary and they are not very free in their personal arrangements. They are in a tense situation, some life trap I would say.

40 However, nearly all of the interview respondents (n=30) referred to the importance that short stays and visits played in their engagement with the Framework Projects. Although the number of stays varied depending on the type of project and the specific role of the individual concerned, it was most common for people to have made at least 5 project-related visits during the life-span of the project. These opportunities for international engagement were generally highly valued and played an important role in building international relationships.

41 The work with early career researchers in particular suggested that they were engaged in high levels of short-stay mobility, often to multiple locations and involving meeting with multi-national teams. This impact was not only evident amongst researchers from less resource-rich environments but in all cases. Participants in a Norwegian focus group for early career researchers were asked to estimate the volume of travel they had engaged in as a direct result of the project. They referred to frequent, often short, trips to attend meetings:

Ten trips abroad - yearly meetings and other kinds of meetings and forums.

We had the project meetings, 25, 30 or so. Lots of short trips to England [of] two or three days. Short trips and meetings at Schiphol Airport.

42 Later in the focus group the same (male) respondent spoke of the difficulties of engaging in longer term forms of mobility for personal and family reasons:

[I cannot move abroad for a position]. The possibilities are there obviously but there are family reasons that alters that. I accompanied my wife a couple of years ago. She was also a researcher… in England for six months, so then we have to be home for a period.

43 These concerns about the impact that personal and family circumstances can have on mobility behaviour were quite common both amongst women and men and three of these respondents specifically suggested that spending periods of less than a month abroad was possible whilst longer periods were not.

44 Many other respondents spoke of the importance of mobility to their international experience but suggested that longer stays were not possible. The following Polish mid career male researcher expresses a fairly typical perspective:

I am very mobile […] but in my case it's always very short term mobility. This is not because of lack of opportunities but because I have 10 year old twins and they go to school. Maybe when they grow up a little we will make a one year break but for now I'm not extending the visits for more than one month. One month is probably the maximum.

45 In the cases outlined above individuals were effectively substituting short stays for longer stays at least at that point in their life-course. The kind of “inter-leaving” that King refers to is also evident in the mobility patterns of people who have made longer moves, not only in a consecutive sense (as we saw in the case of Agnieska and Dessislava) but also during the same time period.

IV. From Short Stay Mobility to International Travel

46 Although Williams and Balatz are careful to recognise the potential value of circulatory and transnational mobility to knowledge exchange, they distinguish between temporary migrations and business visits suggesting that, « temporary migration [..] excludes business trips and visits but includes short term work assignments » (2008:12). Nevertheless they cite Koser and Salt’s assertion that, « if physical mobility is required to make [...] expertise mobile, it may range from a few hours in a workshop to a few months on placement, to a longer term migration » (Williams/Balatz, 2008:45).

47 The examples of successful short stay mobility outlined above generally relate to forms of mobility that can be carefully planned in advanced and timed to suit the needs of the individuals and their families. Cox identified the pressure to move “frequently” as « extremely detrimental to quality of life » (2008:47). It is more common for researchers to use the concept of “travel” to describe this form of mobility. Little if any research explicitly addresses this issue of very short term, on-going and responsive mobility and its implications for career progression. A study on the relationship between gender, mobility and career (Ackers, 2005), although once again sampling only those people who had experienced a significant international move (of 1 year or more), included a series of questions about working time and patterns. In the course of this study respondents raised issues about the practice of using vacations and weekends for the purpose of research-related travel and its significance to CV-building and career progression. In some instances respondents talked of how they used their vacations to complete fieldwork or attend international conferences, perhaps combining this with a holiday:

Vacation Travel

When I want to go to the country to make some observations I take my regular leave. So, almost all the time is dedicated to work…
We had to go to Colombia to work there for 1 month in June, which was considered half that holiday… So basically my holidays are already half gone.
When I go to Edinburgh to work in August, other people go to the beach. I mix a lot work, work with pleasure, for example I may say ‘well I’m going on an expedition collecting plants’ but for me, that’s the best that you can give me.

48 The following man also talks of how he “mixes” work with pleasure during vacations. Of course this form of reconciliation of work and social life/travel constitutes a significant occupational benefit to researchers. On the other hand, precisely this form of “mixing” presents serious challenges to people with children:

Of course you can combine both aspects of your life, because you set priorities. Apart from that, many things in the academic area can be seen as entertainment. For example, a trip abroad for a symposium, can be considered as a holiday trip as well, can’t it? Of course there is a lack of time.

49 Many researchers in this study spoke of the importance of travel to their work and career progression. Travel is crucial in terms of obtaining necessary data, presenting papers at conferences and networking. The latter two are also crucial to achieving publication. The connection between working time and travel arose in the interviews when scientists were talking about the work they had to do in remote locations, perhaps at partner labs abroad or for attending conferences and symposia. This form of on-going mobility is often under-estimated and yet constitutes an important component of research, and one that is critical to progression. It is also a form of work that is hard to predict and manage, particularly for people with families. Whereas “regular” anti-social hours might offer the opportunity for forms of “shared care” by parents, such unpredictable and sometimes extended periods away from home are less easy to plan around. When scientists are away from “home” on research visits and conferences they report working very long hours in order to make best use of the time available:

We go [to the Sainsbury laboratory in Great Britain] just for one experiment of 10 days, and then we come back. So we use the facilities. But when we go there, we work day and night on experiments.

We had another place that belongs to our department in Italy. There, it's like 24 hours working. So whenever we are there, we work 24 hours per day.

50 It was clear from the interviews that this aspect of scientific research posed some of the most serious problems for people with partners and children. On a very practical point, one respondent noted the impact of airfares and the availability of economy tickets on the scheduling of meetings. This is an important issue as most funding bodies will only underwrite travel on the basis of economy flights; these tickets often require a Saturday night stay and work at weekends. Typical schedules during international visits are described by respondents as follows:

Conference Travel

I’m going to two or three conferences a year. On top of that we have experiments and international collaborations; one in Argentina, one in Arizona and we go to meetings over there. I travel at least once a month.
About five to six weeks per year I am on conference travel. I work on weekends mainly when I am on conference travel.
Often there are travels to conferences or for arranging joint projects. So this always happens, maybe about five to six times a year. These things often cover the weekends.
My work involves being away a lot, not only to conferences and meetings but to actually collect data so for instance in September I have been away for 3 weeks.
It’s much more the travel that’s influencing so for example I’m leaving Sunday morning now because I need to be in Switzerland for a meeting Monday to Friday, the meeting starts at 9 am on Monday.

51 Unfortunately, we did not ask interviewees in this study to record in a more systematic fashion the amount of time they spent away at conferences and research visits in a typical year because we had not anticipated the significance of this element of mobility. Indicative findings suggest that researchers may spend on average 6-8 weeks of their working year away, engaged in this type of work. The work usually involves travelling and working outside usual working hours and at weekends and constitutes an important element of progression. The following respondent suggests that this form of work is difficult to control and plan for in terms of its timing:

Frequently I go abroad for 2 days, because I do experiments in France or in South England and so I can’t delay those things. I do not decide when and where I have to go, they decide it. So I have to live in that moment and that’s it.

52 It is clear from the interviews that this aspect of a researcher’s work is perhaps the most difficult to combine with family and other responsibilities. Whilst it is rarely “compulsory” as such, it is critical to progression and the pressures to engage in on-going work-related travel is an important facet of science careers, restricting progression and exacerbating retention problems. The following woman specifically identifies the pressures of travel and its impact on her working schedules as a reason for leaving her position:

I want to change job because I travel a lot. I get a couple of ‘planes a week on average. Also flexible because travel gets delayed and you come back at midnight or you have to wake up at 4 o’clock to get the ‘plane. You have to be flexible. I could get a ‘phone call now telling me tomorrow I’ve to go Dundee, they could tell me ‘no you have to go to Moscow instead’. If I tell him [her manager] I cannot travel because my husband is away so I am the only one with the child he says, ‘okay no problem’ and I will not be paid for it but you know [..] when I travel a couple of days I don’t mind and I know that [her daughter] doesn’t mind but when it’s for 4 or 5 days it’s difficult. When we go to the States for training it’s sometimes 2 weeks and then it’s very difficult. So I would like a job where I have to travel from time to time because I like going to different countries and to exchange information. I don’t want to spend my life on ‘planes.

53 A number of respondents with children spoke of having to reduce the number of trips they made. The following father explains how this might influence his career:

I’ve been to very few conferences. I’m not presenting my work as much as I used to, I’m not being seen in the international community as often, so I don’t know if that has an effect.

54 The following mother is more convinced that her inability to travel regularly since having a baby has been to the detriment of her career:

I only go as much as strictly necessary, and for the minimum time possible, at this stage of her development. There is no doubt that this has very deep implications, and it also faces me with a lot of questions concerning my career, concerning what I want to continue doing...

  • 6  Very similar issues have arisen in the Marie Curie Impact Assessment (Ackers L. et al., 2010b).

55 This empirical data drawn from this study6 emerged in the course of trying to understand how much time researchers spent working and how they used this time to optimise career outcomes (Ackers, 2007). The interview questions were only indirectly concerned with mobility. Looking at them over again now demonstrates the relationship that exists between mobility and time-use and really focuses the policy tension between internationalisation and work-life balance.

V. Conclusions

  • 7  The author is currently undertaking a pilot study on internationalisation and mobility with Dr Por (...)

56 Drawing on a wide range of empirical studies, this paper has examined the relationship between mobility and equality in the context of research careers. The research points to the limitations of defining international mobility narrowly in terms of length of stay or employment/residence in another country. Short stay mobility presents important opportunities for international collaboration and knowledge exchange. There is currently little research focused directly on exploring and exposing the relationship between mobility, internationalisation and excellence7. The empirical studies referred to in this paper have created interesting findings that have thrown light on these relationships sufficient to question any implicit assumptions about the quality of different forms of mobility in terms of knowledge exchange potential. They have also shown how, in certain circumstances, short term mobility can substitute for and extend important opportunities to those people for whom longer term stays are either not possible or not desirable. More detailed attention to the “very short term” end of the mobility continuum where mobility shades into concepts of travel and “visits” or what in business circles are often termed “international assignments” indicates new challenges. Where the expectation of mobility in careers implies very frequent, unpredictable kinds of mobility that generate new forms of time pressure (including anti-social working hours and weekend or vacation working) we can anticipate discriminatory outcomes.

57 A recent survey of work-life balance of expatriate employees in the corporate sector concludes that, « Home country flexible work arrangements, if applied abroad, may come under increased pressure in a high-productivity, cost-conscious and time-pressured expatriate environment […] work-life initiatives for the internationally mobile population can potentially provide an important coping mechanism as expatriates try to juggle the demands of their business and family lives » (ORC Worldwide, 2008:1).

58 More careful attention needs to be paid to the growing tensions between the flexibilisation agenda – and promotion of work-life balance as a key mechanism for increasing the attractiveness of research careers (capitalising on the latent human resource potential in this group) and the internationalisation agenda, with its emphasis on geographical mobility and international connections.

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*  The author would like to thank the referees for their comments on a draft of this paper.


2  Source: Adapted from Ackers L. et al., 2010b. The term “former” fellows refers to those respondents who had completed their fellowship prior to the survey. “Current fellows” were still based at the host institution. The data here refer to “individual fellowships” which usually require a researcher to spend 2 years in another country.

3  Source: Adapted from Ackers L. et al., 2010b, p.33.

4  Source: Adapted from Cox D., 2008, p.37.

5  The “habilitation” can best be described as a second doctorate and is a pre-requisite for progression to a full professorship in Bulgaria and Poland (Slantcheva S., 2003).

6  Very similar issues have arisen in the Marie Curie Impact Assessment (Ackers L. et al., 2010b).

7  The author is currently undertaking a pilot study on internationalisation and mobility with Dr Porter and Chris Coey. For details of this and related projects see

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Titre Figure 3: Researcher’s Mobility Status by Experienced or Anticipated Difficulties4
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Louise Ackers

Chair in European Socio-Legal Studies and Director of the European Law and Policy Research Group, The Liverpool Law School, Liverpool University.

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