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Postdocs from abroad: quality of life is of increasing importance

By Birk Grüling

Research is best conducted in an international context - this has long been the case at German universities. In order to strengthen their reputations as leading academic destinations, German universities are making a considerable effort to attract the best postdocs from abroad. And they have been succeeding, as a recent study shows.

Postdocs from abroad: quality of life is of increasing importance© Alex Slobodkin - iStockphoto.comThe local framework is a determining factor for postdocs from abroad
"Since 2007, we have been steadily improving our international strategy for recruiting scholars from abroad," says Dr Uwe Muuss, director of the International Office at Göttingen University. This strategy does not only mean ensuring that the university has a presence at international academic careers fairs or advertising postdoc positions worldwide, but also includes generating a certain quality of life at the university itself. "Besides the renown our university has gained through its numerous Max Planck Institutes and the excellent research conducted here, the personal recommendations the university receives are definitely an important reason scholars from abroad choose us," says Muuss, confidently. "That means it's not only the workplace that needs to be just right, but everything else that is connected with it." Göttingen University's Welcome Centre is responsible for ensuring the best possible start for one's life as a researcher in Göttingen. Not only does the Centre help arrange suitable accommodations and childcare for academics and their families, it also makes life much easier in many other respects. "We help with administrative formalities, assist with official paperwork, and organise intercultural exchanges," says Muuss.

Dr Yoshifumi Tokiwa has experienced first-hand how such services make settling in much easier. Dr Tokiwa is carrying out postdoctoral research at the Institute of Solid State Physics and has been living in Göttingen since October 2008. "I settled in quite quickly. There are lots of foreign academics in the city, and so people are very approachable," says the researcher from Japan, who earned his PhD at Osaka University.

Focus on Germany, 2011

How researchers from abroad view Germany.
  • The study surveyed approximately 1,700 international Alexander von Humboldt Foundation research fellows and 1,200 university hosts.
  • 91% of those surveyed expressed interest in returning to Germany. Approximately 70% cited the unusual support they received from their host institution as the reason why they would return, and 81% cited the "very good" or "good" atmosphere.
  • The hosts were also satisfied: 84% of them believed the collaboration resulted in meaningful contributions to the field.
  • Some general aspects of living in Germany were viewed critically, however, especially in the areas of childcare and bureaucracy.
Before coming to Göttingen, Tokiwa was a postdoc in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and at the TU Dresden. This kind of mobility is not uncommon among young academics, as the staff at the International Office already knows. "Many young academics are very mobile, in many cases even if they have a partner and children. That's why we've expanded our range of services to accommodate them." There are now bilingual nurseries and schools in Göttingen, and the partners of newly appointed professors and postdocs can receive assistance in finding a job.

The University of Hamburg has also recognised the importance of providing such services. "A good level of support from the university is an important factor when competing internationally for the best scholars. Even though the academic reputation of an institution is still one of the main criteria for attracting postdocs and leading researchers, it is increasingly other external factors, such as the Dual Career Service or simply the location, that determine the choice of university," says Prof. Dr Dieter Lenzen, president of the University of Hamburg. The latest addition to his university is the International Housing Office, an accommodations service for visiting academics. Finding affordable housing near the university in Hamburg is difficult. The new service connects those offering private accommodations with visiting academics. The university team helps make sure that the arrangements suit the visiting scholars' particular requirements.

Postdocs from abroad: quality of life is of increasing importance Dr. Uwe Muuss claims that local conditions are a determining factor for international scientists when it comes to the designated work location
Such measures have proven enormously successful, according to a recent study conducted by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation entitled, "Focus on Germany, 2011: How researchers from abroad view Germany" (Deutschland im Blick 2011. Wie ausländische Wissenschaftler Deutschland sehen). Ninety-one percent of the surveyed international scientists and scholars who had received fellowships from the foundation voiced interest in returning to Germany and gave their university hosts a positive evaluation. Dr Tokiwa would surely also give his stay in Germany as a postdoc high marks. "Here in Göttingen, I have been able to significantly improve my German language skills, have made many new friends, and have been able to pursue my hobby, rock climbing. For me, these are all factors that make life and work easier." As to how long he will remain in Göttingen, he cannot say. The decision depends on his job prospects there or at another prestigious institution elsewhere in the world.

For more information please read: Postdoctoral funding opportunities.»

academics :: May 2012