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Supporting international postdocs

International mobility is quite common in academia at any career stage. More so, at postdoctoral level, when the positions become fewer and the renowned research teams or experts in specific fields might be on the other side of the world. 

If you find yourself employing, and later supporting, an international postdoc, there are some points that you might want to consider, to best start your professional relationship with them. 

National and international bureaucratic hurdles 

International staff will most likely need to apply for a visa to work in your institution. You should be able to direct your potential postdoc to the correct department within professional services, that can support them in applying for the correct permits. 

Be aware that visa applications can require a lot of paperwork for the postdoc to complete and can require a relatively long time to be processed by the relevant embassies/consulates/Home Office. This might be a source of anxiety for both you as a manager of a team and/or project that needs to make steady progress, and your future postdoc who might be waiting for the paperwork to come through and living in a precarious financial situation. 

Once the work permit is granted and the postdoc can move to your country, they will find themselves dealing with other hurdles. These will go from opening a bank account which requires a residency address and proof of employment, to finding long-term accommodation which might demand (inexistent-to-the-postdoc) references of previous property owners or big financial commitment. 

Be prepared to have a less-then-focused new staff member in the first few weeks, while they try to sort their life in a new country! 

Finally, visas are often dependent on specific conditions, such as salary and employer. In particular, visas are connected to the specific contract offered to the postdoc, and thus they are limited in time – and sometimes need to be reviewed even before the end of a contract depending on Home Office requirements. Having short term employment will mean that your postdoc will need to apply for a new visa each time their contract changes, even if they are still part of the same group/team or if the contract is just an extension. This process requires an expense of time and money and dealing with stressful bureaucracy. One way of avoiding this would be, for example, to try and offer a longer contract from the start while combining already existing funding: the Research Support Officers in your institution should be able to support you in completing the correct forms to enable this. 

Expats and immigrants 

Whatever your international postdoc’s intention is regarding moving back to their country of origin, to another country, or making your country their new permanent home, the decision to live away from family and friends is not made light heartedly. Making a new support network is often a lengthy process. Your postdoc might, possibly without showing it or calling it what it is, be homesick at times, or worried for things related to their family which they have no control over.  

You can support them through the ebbs and flows of settling-in by giving them space to share their thoughts without feeling judged, and by allowing them time to work through this in their own terms. 

Travelling back to their home country can be an essential element of their own wellbeing. They might prefer and be able to go often, or they might only travel back seldom for a longer period. Being aware of this and showing them your willingness to potentially adapt work timelines, patterns, or responsibilities with mutual agreement, will make them feel accepted and establish a stable ground for a healthy professional relationship.  

Diverse cultural and social norms 

Cultural identity is not only unique to one country or nation or area, but it can also be unique to an individual. Working in a multicultural team is not without its challenges.  

Your own intercultural awareness comes into play and is a crucial element in supporting your international postdocs.

You can gain a better understanding of the areas in which you are already an expert and those in which you might want to develop with guidance from Sally Walker in this video and accompanying workbook.

Yours and your postdoc’s cultural and social norms will heavily influence your relationship from the very start at interview, to the day-to-day in meetings and email interactions. Here are some tips for a better mutual understanding: 

  1. Be aware of differences in body language and non-verbal behaviour 
  2. Be aware of language challenges 
  3. Build trust and common agreement to make everyone feel safe and welcome 

If you want more tips watch this video by Sally Walker with the accompanying workbook.

Career development across borders 

Finally, one thing to keep in mind is issues around career development for overseas postdocs.  

Firstly, HE structures and pathways to permanent academic positions can vary greatly in other countries. For example, in Germany and Italy there are specific rules regarding number and total length of successive temporary contracts at postdoctoral level. 

Additionally, your postdoc, who might have experienced a different education system and different training, will benefit from a skills audit. Focusing on this at the beginning of the contract will enable both you and them to identify which areas they will need extra support and address the lacunae in an open and appropriate way. Similarly, this type of gap analysis will support your postdoc to identify the transferable skills they already have and feel more prepared if they decide to move to another sector. 

In fact, career decisions for international postdocs might be heavily dependent on their immigration status. Their visa running out almost immediately after the end of a contract might urge them to find a more long-term solution in a different industry, rather than pursuing a more unsteady academic career. Exploring the UK employment landscape will be essential for them. Indeed, career options beyond academia might be very different in their home country or the other countries they have lived in. It might be easier or harder to move across sectors, and transferable skills might be more sought after within different industries. To support them, you can point them to the career clusters or use your own experience in other sectors. And always be open to having a conversation about career progression, wherever that might lead them.

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