This is how we ended up in Porto – reflections on academic mobility

The post has been written jointly with Lukas Daubner.

Academic mobility isn’t a new phenomenon in higher education – moving around has always been a part of being an academic. But the necessity of being mobile and flexible has increased: today, mobility is considered more of “a must” for all academics. We’re expected to network worldwide, to constantly widen and strengthen our networks, and in this way to enrich our ideas.

Academic mobility can be arranged in different ways. It can be done in an employment relationship with one’s “home” university or with a grant provided by the university/country of origin, for example. There are also different EU funding opportunities for EU-based scholars (e.g. the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and Erasmus+). Academics can also be hired by a university in another country, turning mobility into migration. Mobility can be short-term or long-term. For many academics, the visits abroad vary from a couple of days to some weeks. Some end up spending years abroad – and some never returning.

Academics are also often expected to be mobile, especially at the early-career stage. Some universities even refuse to hire those doctorate holders that graduated from there. Instead, these universities expect and encourage them to go abroad (or at least to another university within the same country) after completing the PhD. These policies are challenging for many academics, especially those with a family (Nokkala et al. forthcoming). Mobility is even becoming important for the competitiveness of higher education institutions, with universities trying to attract international visitors, strengthen their international collaboration, as well as have more international recruitments (e.g. Wihlborg & Robson 2018).

How can I be mobile? You can either plan it carefully in advance…

If you’d like to be mobile but don’t really know where to start from – don’t worry, there are ways! My own mobility periods in Portugal are a result of long-term collaboration with Portuguese researchers. The previous years I went to spend at the University of Aveiro but this year I wanted to try something different. So I emailed the director of CIPES (Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies) around January and asked if I could spend four weeks at their institute in June. He had no problem with it, so after finally finalising my dissertation at the start of June I flew to Porto.

A research stay like this can really help you with getting some space away from the usual stuff. During my stay at CIPES I was finally able to focus on the things that had long been waiting to be done. What was the most inspiring of all, however, were the numerous discussions with my Portuguese colleagues and other people who had also decided CIPES would be a great place to visit. And how could it not be? It’s located in Matosinhos, next to Porto, whose historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and which is also where port wine comes from. For someone coming from a country with outrageously expensive restaurant food and drinks, being able to enjoy the local delicacies for several weeks was not a bad deal!

I was also able to have my daughter and some friends visit me for the latter half of the stay. By now she’s already used to the fact that whenever mum goes abroad, mum’s going to be working (she couldn’t believe her ears once when I said to her that I wouldn’t be taking my laptop with me on a holiday…). But of course I wasn’t working all the time, so we could spend time exploring Porto and its surroundings. One has to maintain work / life balance also when abroad!

…or you can just throw a dart at a world map

There are also other ways to be mobile. On my first day at CIPES I met Lukas, a doctoral student from Germany, who had ended up there in quite a different manner. He had had the idea of going abroad during the last year of his doctoral studies. He had thought that changing the scene would do good for writing his thesis, and he had also never been away from his home institution. As he had been awarded with a scholarship, he could freely decide where to work, so there was pretty much nothing preventing him from going wherever he wanted.

Without encouragement or support from his supervisor or department he didn’t get lots of help though. To find a suitable place, Lukas browsed through different alternatives and finally decided to contact CIPES, without knowing anyone there in advance. After a brief email exchange with the director, things started rolling. At the beginning of June, and after a measly two days’ train ride, he found himself at CIPES. He’s planning to stay until September, giving him plenty of time to focus on his writing. But writing hasn’t been all he’s done. Besides enjoying the perks of Porto and the life next to the sea, Lukas has used the beach promenade as his outdoor treadmill. For commuting from Porto to CIPES he (quite bravely I would say!) also chose cycling. Luckily for him – and for all of us sharing an office at the top floor of CIPES – the central European heatwave in June didn’t quite reach Portugal.

So, not everyone has to be mobile in the same way: It can be well planned and based on your existing networks, or you can just try contacting whichever place sounds interesting to you. But whichever approach you choose, we encourage you to do it – even for a short visit, if your life situation doesn’t allow otherwise. For both of us, the mobility experience in CIPES has been extremely rewarding: New ideas emerge in new environments, and you never know what kind on new opportunities come up when you meet new people. And the time spent with new international friends is the most fun and memorable!

This is us!


Nokkala, T., Bataille, P., Siekkinen, T., & Goastellec, G. (forthcoming). Academic career, international mobility and the national gender regimes: Comparison of Swiss and Finnish polities. In: L. Weimer, & T. Nokkala (Eds.), Universities as political institutions. Higher education institutions in the middle of academic, economic and social pressures. Brill.

Wihlborg, M. & Robson, S. (2018) Internationalisation of higher education: drivers, rationales, priorities, values and impacts. European Journal of Higher Education, 8(1), 8-18.

Taru Siekkinen has just finalised her doctoral thesis related to changing academic profession, work, and careers. She is working as a project researcher in a research team Higher Education Studies (HIEST), in the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä. Her current project is called “Exiting Academics in Networked Knowledge Societies”, where the aim is to study the knowledge transfer trough people from universities to other sectors of societies. You can follow her on Twitter.

Lukas Daubner is more or less in his last year of his doctoral studies. His work concerns organizational change in Higher Education. In his doctoral work, Lukas is conducting an ethnography on what universities do when they are expected to adapt a new program. Besides hanging out in university administrations to find out what they do there all day long, he is also teaching classes in Political Sociology at Bielefeld University. Tweet him pertinent evidence here.

Photo by Héctor J. Rivas from Unsplash

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