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.