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1.2.2007 | Von:
Jessica Guth

Other factors influencing the mobility of scientists and their choice of destination: mobility triggers

Traditional migration literature tends to view the motivation for moving and the choice of destination country in terms of push and pull factors.
Abschlussfeier der Uni BonnGraduation ceremony at the University of Bonn. (© picture alliance/JOKER)

Basic economic migration models emphasise the role of wage differentials as reasons for migrating and for choosing a particular destination. Research also points to financial security and working conditions. While some commentators take wider factors into account, migration literature generally assumes some sort of cost-benefit analysis on the part of the potential mover. It has been suggested that "migration starts with imaging the new destination, continues with balancing benefits and costs, and ends with an actual move." [1] In the literature on highly-skilled migrants and on scientists in particular, improved working conditions, pay and opportunities for scientific work are among the main drivers discussed, with only a few commentators highlighting the influence of more personal factors.

While push and pull factors may influence the migration of the highly-skilled, mobility and choice of location amongst early career scientists is also linked to certain mobility triggers, which are neglected in most literature and will therefore be considered here. Mobility triggers include impetuses, events, persons or contexts that make mobility a workable possibility and a reality for a particular scientist. Mobility triggers act in a way which is not necessarily planned or controllable by the scientists and which adds considerably to a chance element in scientific mobility. This is not to say that it is beyond the power of a state to influence the mobility of scientists; rather, as will be argued in the conclusion, states may need to look beyond issues such as working conditions, pay and legislation in seeking to increase the inflow of such highly-skilled people. The triggers discussed here are networks, undergraduate exchange programmes, fellowship opportunities as well as family and partners.


While it has been claimed that "it can be safely said that networks rank among the most important explanatory factors of migration," [2] some researchers point out that the role of "ad hoc" networks in scientific mobility has been downplayed in favour of a focus on mobility through transnational companies and "organizational channels." [3] However, scientists generally move with little corporate support, so scientific mobility "rather takes place through networks, individual motivation and risk." [4] It therefore seems necessary to direct more attention toward the way in which "ad hoc" scientific networks emerge and function, in order to understand and promote the patterns of mobility that derive from them.

Scientific networks often emerge as the result of international collaboration. Project partners go to partner institutions for short visits or longer research stays. Established professors send younger colleagues to learn new techniques or ways of working; in turn, more senior scientists are invited to lend their expertise and share their knowledge. Thus scientific networks are formed and expanded every step of the way. These collaborations and international settings often lead to scientists being "socialised to the idea of migration" [5] and to the expectation of mobility being reinforced. The role of networks in scientific mobility cannot be underestimated, and almost every scientist will make use of professional contacts or wider networks in order to advance their work or their career at some point. The earlier these networks can be established, the more scope there is for scientists to draw on them. Increased international science funding that fosters collaborations between countries and brings together multi-national research teams can be a powerful tool in establishing networks and thus in promoting mobility.

Undergraduate exchange programmes

Research has found that a high proportion of mobile scientists have some experience of mobility at the undergraduate level, and that students who had spent some time abroad display a higher propensity to move in the future [6]. Mobility at the undergraduate level provides students with a snapshot of what scientific work abroad might be like. It offers insight into the working conditions, work ethic and everyday life in the host country. As such it can prompt the desire to move abroad at a later stage. Additionally, it allows the student to learn about the science landscape, including scholarship opportunities and application procedures at first hand. Further, a move at the undergraduate level sets the foundation for building networks and can provide the contacts that may prove helpful to the student in the future. Through networks and contacts, as well as simply being abroad, many students are able to take advantage of arising opportunities of which they otherwise would not have been aware.

Fellowship opportunities

Opportunities such as individual fellowship schemes provide a relatively risk-free way to make mobility happen, especially in cases where a position at home can be kept. The type of fellowship and the ease with which it can be administered are important factors in determining whether or not they trigger mobility. Germany boasts a host of funding organisations that award individual fellowships at all levels. The Table shows that the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD), the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), the Max Planck Society and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation are the four most important providers of individual funding.

While fellowships are undoubtedly important in bringing foreign researchers to Germany, they become even more influential if used as the basis for establishing networks (see beginning of this section). Some schemes such as the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation or the European Marie Curie Fellowship Schemes recognise this and have established strong associations of former and current fellows.

Foreign Scientists in Germany by Level of Seniority and Funding Body
GraduatesPost DocsAcademic Staff
Funding bodyNumberFunding bodyNumberFunding bodyNumber
DAAD5.845Max Planck1.569DFG1.409
Max Planck1.383Humboldt581Humboldt1.168
Source:DAAD (2006)

Family contexts

In addition to professional networks, undergraduate studies and fellowship schemes, family and partnering issues play a very significant role in inducing mobility or making it a viable option. Literature on the migration of the highly-skilled has only recently turned its attention to the non-economic issues which shape mobility decisions and experiences. Even where family relationships are acknowledged as factors to be taken into account, they have mostly been talked about in terms of limiting mobility or tying scientists to a particular place. However, family can make significant contributions to the context that prompts a scientist to move. Families provide emotional support and encouragement in addition to needed assistance in day-to-day life. Krystina [7] explains this in the context of childcare: "I have [a] very supportive mother in law [...]. She can be retired if she wants, she doesn't want to stay at home and she said if we have a baby and, even if it's abroad, she will come and help us; it's great." Conversely, Krystof [8] explains what happens when family issues cannot be resolved: "I think that people sometimes cannot arrange the personal affairs to go abroad ... There was a PhD student who [...]wanted to apply but in the end he couldn't arrange his personal affairs – family." Family members who are already abroad can trigger the migration of children or siblings, and some scientists move to gain better access to educational opportunities for their children.

Another dimension is added when a scientist's partner is also employed in the science field (dual science career couples). Researchers have analysed issues arising from this arrangement, including its impact on both family life and career progression. Either partner in a dual science career couple can also act as a significant mobility trigger, as the couple tries to minimise the time spent apart. In the first instance one partner's move can act as a strong incentive for the other partner to move in order to be in the same place. However, one partner's move can also imbue the other partner with a sense of confidence in being able to live and work in a foreign country. Especially at the early stage of a scientific career, a partner already working abroad or going at the same time provides a safety net as the scientist does not have to go it alone. Even where dual science career couples do not secure positions in the same city, they can take advantage of the fact that they have someone within a manageable distance who is facing similar issues and on whose support they can count. Additionally, partners can facilitate access to important contacts and information about opportunities, application procedures and the way of life in the host country. Only in the rarest of cases do both partners move together to positions they have already secured. Often one partner will secure a position and the other will move at the same time and then attempt to find something once in the host country. This was the case with Justyna [9]: "I came here to join my husband; it wasn't my wish to come to this country; it just happened that I found myself here and decided that I needed to do something with my degree and my future career." More often still, one partner is already in the host country, either a national of that country or through mobility, and the trailing partner joins them in the host country at a later stage. In the course of their careers, the partners may alternate in their roles as initial movers and followers when it comes to international mobility.
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See Hadler (2006).
See Arango (2000).
"Organisational channels" refer to formal mechanisms which are in place to facilitate mobility such as transfers between different offices of the same company etc. See Arango (2000) and Willliams et al (2004).
See Ackers (2005a).
See Ferro (2006).
See Ackers (2001) and King and Ruiz-Gelices (2003).
Polish scientist in the UK.
Polish post doc in the UK.
Polish scientist in the UK.



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