Go figure: salary drives researchers to move to new countries

More than two-thirds of scientists polled in a survey say that they would move for the ‘right’ academic job — if the pay suits.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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ResearchGate, the Berlin-based social-network site on which researchers can share papers and seek collaborations, is now using its connections to conduct studies of its own. A survey released this November that gathered responses from more than 10,000 ResearchGate members around the world found that 70% of respondents were willing to relocate to a different country if the right job in academia came along — and if the pay was attractive.

Mark Howard-Banks, head of scientific recruitment at ResearchGate, says he hopes that the results will inspire hiring managers to take a far-reaching approach when considering candidates. “The scientific talent pool is global,” he says. “You need to make sure you are hiring the best, and not the most local, talent.”

Some potential destinations stood out. About two in three respondents said they would be willing to relocate to the United States, Canada, Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Around 55% would make the move to the United Kingdom or Ireland. At the other end of the spectrum, 13% expressed a willingness to relocate to China, 10% said they would move to Africa and 9% would consider India as an option. Willingness to move varied by region, too. Only 46% of respondents from the United States and 54% of those from the United Kingdom said they would consider crossing a border for their careers.

Science has long been a highly mobile enterprise, but the large proportion of researchers who are willing to relocate is noteworthy, says Alexander Petersen, a complex-systems scientist at the University of California, Merced. He says that international relocation is still relatively uncommon outside of Western nations. “At a more international level, the results may reflect a growing understanding that relocation in the pursuit of an academic career is not just feasible, but increasingly normal,” he says. “There may be a global shift in the culture of academia that, as Westerners, we take for granted.”

Money is a major motivator. When participants were asked to name the most important employment-related factor they consider while applying for a new position, the most popular response was salary (21%), followed by location (18%). Overall, 64% of respondents said that salary was very important or extremely important when considering their next job opportunity.

Petersen notes that previous research, including the 2011 GlobSci survey of more than 47,000 global researchers, has found that the motivations for an international move can change with a person’s circumstances. In that survey, researchers who left their home country often felt a sense of adventure, but the choice to return home after working abroad was largely driven by pragmatism. “Not surprisingly,” Petersen adds, “a good balance of adventurism and pragmatism is also central to the scientific approach.”

The ResearchGate data also suggest at least one reason that so many researchers would be willing to move to the United States. Twenty-one per cent of US respondents reported earning between US$60,00 and $90,000 every year, and 10% reported earning between $90,000 and $120,000 — significantly outpacing researchers from other parts of the world. About 40% of all respondents worldwide reported earning less than $15,000 each year, but Howard-Banks notes that many of those low earners were graduate students.

In 2020, ResearchGate will revisit the data and add more responses to take a closer look at salary issues, Howard-Banks says. Among other things, the results will clarify the effects of location, career stage and gender on the earnings of scientists.

ResearchGate often conducts internal surveys as part of their product development, but this is its first large-scale survey to be released to the public, Howard-Banks says. “We’re here to increase scientific productivity,” he notes. “We want to help hiring managers build the right teams to solve the big challenges.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03890-w

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