This post appeared at the Scientopia Guest Blog, but I'm also posting it here. I've turned off the comments here, so please comment over at Scientopia!
Coming from a small country, I always heard people say that if you wanted to stay in academia, you had to go abroad for a certain amount of time.
I think this is very valuable, not just because the home country’s
funding agency thinks it’s important, but also because it’s good to see a
different scientific culture from up close. However, when we recently
went back for a short vacation combined with some informal interviews,
I realized that a lot of the people that are assistant or associate
professors have never been abroad. And also, that some people that did
go abroad are now having great difficulties to come back as assistant
professors*. It seems that the very simple explanation for this is that
when you’re away for too long, you’re out of sight and thus out of mind.
The people that decided not to go abroad however, have started to help
out teaching and supervising graduate students and thus made themselves
very useful. And in the current economic condition, this creates the
situation where maybe you have a better CV with post-doc experience
abroad, but there’s simply no place for you because the available spots
have been taken by people who just stayed in the same department where
they got their PhD.
As I said, the home country’s funding agency thinks it’s an advantage
when you have been abroad, but for their personal grants, you need a
host lab that is willing to sponsor you, and thus offer you a place to
sit. And more importantly you need a host lab for its equipment, because
the funding agency’s grants mostly pay salary.
I don’t know if this is the case in more small countries, but I think
it might be considering the lack of tenure track job ads coming from
European countries. I would love to see more countries (including my
home country of course) adopt the US system where you can interview for
TT jobs. Now, it’s more a matter of sneaking your way back into a
university, or just staying in the same place where you did your PhD and
make yourself irreplaceable.
*For now, I am fine with doing another post-doc back in the home
country and from there write grants and assemble my own little research
group, but there are people that have done longer post-docs and would be
competitive for TT jobs that still have to start out as post-docs.