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International mobility and career progression of European academics

21/04/2023| By
Eric James Eric James Iversen,
Richard Richard Woolley

The international mobility of academic researchers is a topic of sustained scholarly and policy interest. International mobility has come to be seen as something of a ‘rite of passage’ for early career researchers. Many early career grants require international visits of significant duration. In many national science systems, access to tenured positions and/or mid-career support grants requires or values previous international experience. International mobility can thus be understood as an important contributing factor in the transition to independence in academic careers. This paper uses data from surveys of the mobility of European university researchers to consider the role of international scientific mobility (job changes and long stays) in the transition to career independence. Results suggest that whilst overall mobility appears to have a positive effect on competence acquisition and career progress, this finding varies according to epistemic (disciplinary) and institutional (national system) factors, and gender.

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International mobility and career progression of European academics

Eric J. Iversen* and Richard Woolley**



NIFU, Norway



INGENIO (CSIC-UPV), Universitat Politècnica de València, Spain

The international mobility of academic researchers is a topic of sustained scholarly and policy interest. International mobility has come to be seen as something of a ‘rite of passage’ for early career researchers. Many early career grants require international visits of significant duration. In many national science systems, access to tenured positions and/or mid-career support grants requires or values previous international experience. International mobility can thus be understood as an important contributing factor in the transition to independence in academic careers. This paper uses data from surveys of the mobility of European university researchers to consider the role of international scientific mobility (job changes and long stays) in the transition to career independence. Results suggest that whilst overall mobility appears to have a positive effect on competence acquisition and career progress, this finding varies according to epistemic (disciplinary) and institutional (national system) factors, and gender.

1. Introduction

An important focus of the current literature on research careers involves the transition from being an ‘apprentice’ to becoming a fully-fledged ‘independent’ member of a scientific community. Attaining the status of an independent researcher requires the confluence of attainments in an academic’s cognitive, community, and organisational careers (Laudel and Gläser 2015). In this paper we build on a growing body of literature that links international geographic mobility to progress in research careers (Cañibano et al 2020; Laudel and Bielick 2019; Franzoni et al. 2014), with a specific focus on the effect of international mobility on the transition to being an ‘independent’ or ‘established’ researcher.

The question of academic maturity has risen to prominence in light of developments in European and national policy thinking. In particular, ‘more abundant and more mobile human resources’ was conceived as a foundational aspect of the European Research Area (EC 2000). Priority 3 of the ERA is an ‘open labour market for researchers’ in which highly skilled and qualified persons can move seamlessly across borders to where their talents can be best employed (EC 2000). More recent plans for a rejuvenated approach to the ERA continued to emphasize mobility between Member States and between universities and industry as integral to objectives including accessing excellence, translating R&I results into the economy, and to make “further progress on the free circulation of knowledge in an upgraded, efficient and effective R&I system” (EC 2020). Action 4 of the ERA Policy agenda focuses on the promotion of attractive and sustainable research careers, balanced talent circulation, and international, transdisciplinary and inter-sectoral mobility across the ERA (EC 2021).

This work-in-progress paper uses the Mobility and Career Paths of Researchers in Europe(“MORE”) survey on mobility and research careers to study the research question: Does international geographic mobility influence the progression of the research career? More particularly, this paper addresses three empirical research questions:

  • is there a difference in research career progression based on the incidence of mobility?

  • do mobile and non-mobile researchers (in terms of international geographic mobility and sector mobility) differ in career progress velocity?

  • do all mobile researchers benefit uniformly in terms of progression to research independence, or do we see the emergence of career ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ tracks?

Two waves of the MORE survey (3, 4) are used to analyse the effect of mobility on the transition research careers to analyse this question. We employ a standard time-to-event analysis to calculate the relative ('risks') rate at which researchers cross the ‘threshold’ to independence, controlling for both the occurrence and the timing of the events.

2. Literature review

Transitions in research careers have long been considered uncertain; “High degree of uncertainty ('hazard') in academic career transition and appointments" (Max Weber, 1918, cited in Lam, 2019). Transition to research independence and relative autonomy is a particularly ‘critical juncture’ (Cañibano et al. 2019) in research careers. According to Gläser and Laudel (2015), transcending this critical juncture requires progress in an academic’s concurrent cognitive, community, and organisational careers. Gaining access to a permanent position in a university or other research performing organisation, depends on making progress in producing research results that are recognised as valuable contributions in a scientific community. Whilst many national science systems provide career advancement or support grants to smooth career progress (Melkers et al. 2023), access to such grants and to scarce tenured positions is often highly competitive.

The competitive context of making the transition to being an established independent researcher can trap many academic careers below this threshold. Today’s “extended entry tournaments” (Lam & Marsden 2017; Marsden 2011) yield varying outcomes in the academic labour market including ‘fast tracks’ across an occupational threshold, ‘slow tracks’ that remain trapped below a threshold, and the phenomenon of ‘extended apprenticeships’ (Lam 2019). In such contexts, researchers can risk being trapped in sequential ‘soft money’ post doc positions (Stephan et al. 2014). Struggles to transition to an established researcher stage of the career thus leads to alternative occupational roles for the highly trained, including as ‘pracademics’ (Posner 2009) and ‘interstitial intellectuals’ (Tchilingirian, 2018), operating in spaces between research and policy.

Under conditions of highly competitive ‘tournaments’ for scarce stable academic positions, international mobility can function to smooth labour markets and facilitate the transition to an established academic career. A relatively small but growing body of literature explicitly links scientific mobility and research careers (for a review see Netz et al. 2020). This is further limited when considering the literature that links international mobility to an explicit model of research career stages (Figure 1). Empirical studies investigate connections between mobility and productivity (Fernandez-Zubieta et al. 2015). An OECD (2015) analysis found emigrant researchers to be more productive and have higher citation impact than other groups. Higher levels of publication have been found for mobile researchers in Norway (Asknes et al. 2013) and the UK (Fernandez-Zubieta 2009). In a study of sixteen countries, Franzoni and colleagues (2014) found that migrant scientists are more strongly represented in top quartile journals in terms of impact factor, with the ratio of migrant to domestic scientists increasing as the quartiles rise. Lu and Zhang (2015) found researchers who had returned to China from overseas were more productive in terms of publications, grants, and patents than domestic researchers. However, other studies did not find any impact on productivity from being mobile (Cañibano et al. 2008; Halevi et al. 2016).

D’Este and colleagues (2020) establish that the profile of international mobility varies by academic research career stage. They also show that for researchers in the established mid-career phase who are working internationally, there are career advancement benefits associated with return mobility to their home country, providing the timing of return is not too delayed. Lawson and Shibayama (2015) found short-term research visits are associated with more rapid career advancement (promotion) among biology Professor in Japan, but post-doctoral studies abroad are not. Marinelli and colleagues (2014) found that non-mobile and returnee researchers are both more likely to achieve a tenured position when compared to migrants in ten European countries. Laudel and Bielick (2019) establish the importance of mobility for early career researchers in certain disciplines to establish their research autonomy.

Several studies have also shown that researchers perceive mobility to be important for their professional and career development (Bauder 2015; Musselin 2004). Stephan and colleagues (2014) found that ‘career benefit’ is one of the most highly-rated reasons for doing postgraduate studies abroad among young researchers in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US. However, Børing and colleagues (2015) found no difference in this perception between mobile and non-mobile researchers.

Figure 1. Relevant literature on research careers and international mobility

3. Data and Methods:

The paper takes stock of the factors that influence career progression through to recognized level of independence. In the European classification, this corresponds to the transition to stage R3, "established researcher who has developed a level of independence...". We take advantage of the two latest waves— MORE3 (2016) and MORE4 (2019)— of the "survey of mobility patterns and career paths of researchers" (MORE). The analyse contained here is thus an example of data re-use in the social sciences, using an existing open dataset to answer questions that are a combination of the authors’ interests and the affordances built into the original data collection exercise (Hyman 1972).

MORE3 yielded 10,394 valid responses from researchers in 31 European countries (EU28 plus Switzerland, Iceland and Norway). This reflected a total estimated population frame of 1.373 million researchers. MORE3 employed a sampling matrix of 93 final cluster strata (i.e. 31 countries x 3 Fields of Science (FOS)), and provided appropriate weights (population and adjustment weights).

The MORE survey collected self-reported data on researchers’ career stage. It employs the European Commission career stage descriptions:

  • Early Career Researcher (R1): up to the point of PhD award

  • Recognized Researcher (R2): PhD holders or equivalent who are not yet fully independent.

  • Established Researcher (R3): researchers who have developed a level of independence

  • Leading Researcher (R4): researchers leading their research area or field

Descriptions are based on the acquisition of research and research-related competences and designed to be independent of a particular sector of employment or career path.

An important dimension of the MORE survey for our study is that it provides a vantage point on the timing at which career paths intersect with spells of different forms of mobility (international and sectoral). Responses serve to situate/date progress through recognised periods of transition and, in parallel, whether it was accompanied by periods of mobility. Responses furthermore include evaluations of factors that may have shaped the paths and the mobility patterns that are observed. The paper leverages this new information using a two-stage approach.

The first stage examines the general effect of mobility and other factors that may curtail (or prolong) the journey from apprentice to independence. We estimate the effect of mobility and other factors on the period until attaining Independence (year of R3 - year of starting R1). Mobility may however serve to shorten the path towards independence in some cases and prolong it in others. The second stage of the study goes on to try to disentangle such effects to distinguish two archetypical 'careers' following Lam (2019): fast track and slow track.

4. Approach

We use time-to-event analysis (‘survival analysis’) commonly used in the social sciences to model job-changes (e.g. Allison, 1982). The event of interest is the aspiring scientists move to a position upon completion of the post-doc stage. This move is interpreted as the move to ‘independence’ or autonomy in the academic career; “R3 Established Researcher (researcher who has developed a level of independence; tenured, assistant or associate professor; research specialist or manager, senior lecturer, senior scientist,…”). This transition, which is self-reported, may suggest the scientist’s subjective evaluation of autonomy but is also probably a reflection of the scientist’s organisational position. We exclude respondents who reported being PhD students at the time of the survey. We end up with a set of 8,650 responses. The population weight (weight, field of science) is utilised.

The move to independence (R3) is self-reported and we observe differences for mobile versus non-mobile populations. We construct a baseline of the concept of promotion for different subpopulations. Three cases are focused on, namely those in which:

  1. current employment in a new country coincided with attainment of independence(R3)

  2. current employment in a country came after attainment of independence (R3)

  3. attainment of independence (R3) came during current employment.

To assess the effect of mobility on the rate of progression, we fit a basic cox proportional hazards regression to model the probability that an individual will transition to R3 at time t: this point in the career is measured from its start, which here is set at the beginning of PhD (R1). The model denominates this in terms of age (years after birth). The hazard rate is the likelihood that an individual will experience an event at time t while that individual is at risk for having an event. Thus, the hazard rate is the unobserved rate at which events occur while it controls both the occurrence and the timing of the events.

5. Results

Career progression is recognized to vary both according to country and to field of science. Our descriptive results (based on MORE3, with reference period…) indicates that:

  • Respondents [n=10,300] were on average between 40 and 50 years old and started their current job on average in 2006.

  • Average start as R1 in late 20s

  • Average transition to R2 at 33

  • Average transition to R3 at 38

  • Average transition to R4 at 43

  • Country differences within and between regions

The duration of research career stages varied significantly by geographic region. If we only focus on the population that reached R4 (2300 respondents), thus looking back in time, we find that on average the first stage (R1) lasted 4.91 years in Europe, the second (R2) 4.92 years, and the third (R3) 7.2 years. The following figure compares how much the durations of each stage differ from the European average by region.

Figure 2. Career stage durations, R1-R3, by region, respondents in R4 stage

We find that the regional differences are pronounced. Now considering the effect of mobility on progression to ‘Leading Researcher’ (R4), we find that ‘long term’ mobility is instrumental in reducing the duration of both R2 and R3 career stages but that there are some marked differences across regions.

Figure 3. Average duration of R2 and R3 career stages, by region, mobile and mobile respondents, R4 stage respondents only

In this light, we apply our formal model to better understand whether international mobility promotes a ‘fast’ track and/or a ‘slow track’ and for whom. The basic Cox proportional hazards regression models the probability that an individual will transition to R3 at time t. It demonstrates that:

  • 25 % transition to R3 at 7 years after PhD start

  • 50 % transition to R3 at 10 years

  • 75 % transition to R3 at 15 years.

Figure 4. Model 1: Cox proportional hazard regression*

*Not reporting age, country and field of science, Adjustment weight is used

The results of Model 1 suggest that:

  1. Being long-term mobile increases the probability (hazard) of reaching R3 by about 10-11 percent at any given time in relation to the baseline. This supports the hypothesis that longer term mobility in general has a positive impact (‘fast track’) on reaching independence.

  2. However, beyond a point, mobility reflects a slowing of the pace towards independence. Particularly, a heightened number of job-changes associated with mobility spells actually coincides with a slowing pace towards independence (‘slow track’).

  3. This preliminary approach using MORE3 responses also considers the role of gender, fields of science and region, including interactions between these key variables. Notable among the findings involves the role of gender. The findings support the recognized effect of gender on progression (with lower hazard rates for women than males).

Figure 5. Model 2: Cox proportional hazard regression, stratified by country and field of science*

* Stratified by country and field of science, Adjustment weight is used

The second model is stratified by panel-country and field-of-science using strata in the survey design.

  1. The results remain largely the same as Model 1.

  2. The binary mobility variable weakens slightly and becomes insignificant.

  3. The number of long-term mobility stints is curvilinear.

  4. The total duration of mobility (logarithm) appears to reduce the time to event.

The following figure of the Kaplan-Meier estimates indicate that the (positive) effects of international mobility on crossing the ‘occupational threshold’ more quickly depends on the field of science.

Figure 6. Kaplan-Meier survival estimates

Further work in model building will also include results from MORE4 and will integrate integrating time-varying covariates based on the responses to other questions in the survey. Further work on the appropriate model is also underway.

6. Discussion

The initial results contained in this work-in-progress paper suggest two main lines of future contribution to emerge from this study. First, in relation to the role of mobility in the transition to an ‘established’ career stage, our descriptive results show that the duration of career stages varies considerable between regions, and between stages within regions. A consistent result is the relatively extended period to reach the established (R3) stage of the career compared to earlier stages. This is particularly evident in the British Isles and in Southern Europe, although the explanations for this may be very different for these two groupings, due to their different institutional characteristics. Among ‘Leading’ (R4) researchers, international mobility has an apparent effect on the durations of the previous two stages (R2, R3). However, at the regional level this effect is not consistently positive and varies considerably. The function of international mobility to smooth academic labour markets and facilitate research career transitions, whilst overall having a beneficial effect, does appear to be simultaneously context dependent and contingent on intersections with factors including national science systems, gender, and scientific field.

Second, at the systemic level, another function of international scientific mobility has been assumed to be contribution to the building of human capital and institutional research capacity in particular locations, particularly developing countries. Returning students and early career researchers bring with them the connections to colleagues in advanced science systems that form distributed knowledge networks (Barré et al 2003). The importance of the return of the highly skilled to developing science and research systems has been observed in the case of both north and south-east Asia (Krishna and Khadria 1997; Song 1997; Zweig 2006). Scientific mobility also played an important role in rebuilding the German science system after WWll (Jöns 2009), for example. Our results show that internationally mobile academics report an accelerated acquisition of research competences, consistent with assumptions about returns to human capital and institutional capacity building from mobility.

Our initial would appear to lend qualified support to policy initiatives that target ease of movement and employment across the European Research Area. The apparent accelerated acquisition of competences by mobile researchers should also be considered also in relation to the regional variations evident in our results regarding transitions to an independent, established career stage (R3). While movement of researchers can indeed smooth labour markets and help build institutional capacity, these outcomes appear contingent on national and regional contexts. Policy development needs to continue to focus on improving access and supporting the expansion of institutional endowments in smaller and peripheral science systems in Europe. This is important in order to avoid entrenching or intensifying two-tiered patterns of mobility of the highly skilled in research and innovation.

Open science practices

This paper uses an open dataset produced as part of the European Commission’s support for policy making in the European Research Area. The data re-used in this paper is from the MORE3 survey and is openly available at the RISIS data platform (


The authors acknowledge the work of a variety of organisations involved in the conduct and careful preparation of outputs and datasets from the MORE series of surveys. These organisations include IDEA Consult, WIFO, Technopolis and PPMI. The authors also acknowledge the Directorate-General for Research & Innovation of the European Commission for making the MORE datasets available to the research community.

Author contributions

Eric J. Iversen prepared the empirical analyses reported in this paper. The two authors shared equally the drafting of the text.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Funding information

This research was supported by funding for the Oslo Institute for Research on the Impact of Science (OSIRIS, grant 256240) from the Research Council of Norway, and for the Research Infrastructure for Science and Innovation Policy Studies (RISIS2, grant 824091) from the European Commission.


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