How can universities improve their services for internationally mobile researchers? This is the subject to be addressed by an international conference at ETH Zurich at the beginning of June. ETH has been supporting dual careers for researchers for 15 years now.
Switzerland, and Zurich in particular, is an attractive place for researchers to work - this becomes clear from the high proportion of foreign scientists at all levels of the career ladder. At ETH Zurich, for example, over 50% of the workforce is recruited from abroad.
One reason for Switzerland's success as a scientific centre in the international competition for the best talent is the service culture that has been established in recent years to help internationally mobile researchers. Universities have recognised that looking after the families of professors coming from abroad is an important factor in the competition between scientific locations, because a researcher rarely comes alone.
"ETH Zurich wants to assert its leading position in the international competition for the best researchers. This means that we help couples where both partners work in cutting-edge research, or one partner has a career outside the university, to pursue dual careers," says ETH President Ralph Eichler.
Madeleine Lüthy is Head of the Dual Career Advice Office at ETH Zurich and therefore the central point of contact for newly-appointed professors. Over the past ten or twelve years, she has seen two important changes. First, the traditional earning model, where the man has a career and the woman stays at home or works part-time without attempting to progress in her career, has definitely had its day. Nowadays, married couples are often equally highly qualified and move around in academia on equal terms.
"My wife has a 51% stake in the family company" - this is now commonly heard in academic families. This means that a move to Switzerland must be worthwhile for both partners. Second, researchers are no longer willing to go abroad at any price - be it because a career locally in their home country has become equally as attractive, or because universities are nowadays deliberately bringing back their own talent, or because, over the course of an academic career, a certain weariness of having to integrate into new places sets in.
"As recently as the mid-1990s it was inconceivable that anyone would turn down a professorship at ETH Zurich if they were offered it," says Madeleine Lüthy in her office overlooking the neighbouring University of Zurich. Nowadays, even a prestigious university has to compete for the top talent by providing dual career options and integration services - not least because candidates have learnt to make demands.
At ETH Zurich, services for internationally mobile researchers are included in the appointment negotiations as standard. When a professor's post needs to be filled, Lüthy offers not only a formal package of services – such as help with relocating to Switzerland, switching health insurance providers, dual taxation arrangements, finding accommodation, organising childcare, etc. – but also advice regarding personal circumstances. "For the applicants, it's really important to have someone locally they can talk to," says Lüthy. She knows that whether or not a preferred candidate accepts the post may sometimes depend on "soft factors", that's to say, purely family-related matters.
Above all, the decision depends on the career prospects for the accompanying partner. Providing support with job-hunting (including outside the university) – from professional coaching in how to present applications to arranging contacts with HR managers in industry and private and public sector companies – is one of the main responsibilities of the Dual Career Advice Office.
This all-round support for international new arrivals before, during and even after they actually take up their post, has been in place at ETH Zurich for a good fifteen years – longer than at almost any other European university. The advice service on career and integration matters was set up in 1999 on the initiative of the then President Olaf Kübler.
The office is a strategic recruitment tool based on the American model and embedded in the Professors' Staff Office, reporting directly to the President. "By doing it this way, we wanted to send a strong signal to professors that ETH Zurich actively addresses these issues in negotiations."
It is now well-known that a happy home life increases motivation and makes for a better atmosphere at work. "It's a question of establishing a good culture," says Kübler, "of looking after newly appointed staff properly and accepting the consequences arising from recruitment processes."
The anniversary of ETH's advice service will be celebrated at the beginning of June with a two-day conference on the subject (see text box). It is being organised by the Professors' Staff Office and the EU GrantsAccess information and advice centre, run jointly by the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich.
Researchers and their partners, junior scientists, representatives from the private sector and experts from service departments at universities and other educational institutions will have the opportunity to compare notes on the issues and difficulties that arise for international researchers when they move to a new country. What services do internationally mobile researchers need locally? How could service provision be improved? What strategies do European universities use to attract the best brains to their institution?
The conference will also mark the conclusion of a TANDEM project that started nearly two years ago as part of the European Euraxess initiative, intended to support career progression and mobility for researchers in Europe. As well as ETH Zurich, partner institutions from Greece, Denmark, Estonia and Slovakia are involved in the TANDEM project.
From Zurich, Madeleine Lüthy and Sibylle Hodel, Research Manager and Deputy Head of EU GrantsAccess, will be attending with their teams. Among other things, the results of country-specific surveys carried out among researchers and their families will be presented and discussed at the closing conference of the TANDEM project.
Whereas Greek universities will in future have to work harder on removing bureaucratic obstacles to mobility, i.e. administrative hurdles, for foreign scientists coming to Switzerland the main need is for social support, i.e. cultural and social integration services.
"We didn't really expect that the main difficulty would be in meeting Swiss people, establishing a social life and a private network," says Sibylle Hodel. Closing this integration gap is now the next step. A good start has been made by setting up a Welcome Centre for new scientists in cooperation with the HR department at ETH Zurich.
The idea of expanding similar support services to non-tenured staff is also being considered. Sibylle Hodel is quite certain: "Doctoral students and postdocs are the best ambassadors when it comes to spreading the reputation of ETH Zurich around the world."
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