Is simultaneous mobility the future for PhD holders?

PhD holders’ careers analysis shows that getting an academic degree is no longer enough for a career in research. The chances of getting a permanent job, of getting a good position at a university or research centre depend not only on one’s academic degree but also on one’s experience, competencies and portfolio.

The route from defending a dissertation to getting tenure is taking longer: it now includes all kinds of temporary positions, such as internships and fixed-time (post-doc) contracts. Employers’ considerations with regard to job candidates’ experience imply preference for candidates who have worked in several research or educational organisations, not only in their home country but abroad too.

Therefore, young PhD holders’ careers have become directly related to their level of mobility.

Evaluating the scale of doctoral holders’ mobility and identifying their main mobility destinations are one of the main aims both of the international study Careers of Doctorate Holders – a joint project by the OECD, UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Eurostat – and of the related Monitoring of the Labor Market for Highly Qualified R&D Personnel – carried out at the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge, National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia, under the HSE Programme for Fundamental Research.

These research projects are focused on mobility at both national level (changing jobs within the national labour market) and international level (which implies moving abroad to work or to study, contracts with foreign employers, participation in joint research programmes, etc).

’Mainstream’ and 'alternative' career paths

Traditionally PhD holders have always pursued academic careers by working at higher education institutions or research centres. Employment outside of academia was considered to be an alternative career path.

However, in recent years the number of people with a PhD degree is growing much faster than the number of available academic positions, which is making non-academic careers more common. Another long-existing alternative is to search for a job on the international academic market, which often results in emigration.

According to Careers of Doctorate Holders or CDH results, the share of PhD holders working in industry and in the service sector is steadily growing, as it is in high-tech production and intellectual services. In some European countries (for example, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Poland) up to 20%-40% of all doctorate holders work in areas unrelated to their research, while in the United States, Japan and Taiwan this figure is even higher.

Research competencies are being transferred to new professional areas where before employees were not expected to possess such qualifications. The competencies obtained during the period of doctoral education, dissertation research or post-doc employment are applied in new ‘alternative’ ways.

On the one hand, this trend is related to the ‘massification’ of research competencies. For example, after 2000 PhD awarding rates in developed countries were equal to or even exceeded the rates of awarding bachelor and masters degrees.

On the other hand, technological innovations, high-tech production and the proliferation of science-driven services require employees with new skills and sometimes with unusual combinations of knowledge and skills. The skills and knowledge provided by STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education are becoming essential for a growing number of professionals.

Career and mobility

CDH’s results analysis shows that PhDs who are employed in industry and whose work is not related to research change jobs more often than others. PhD holders who have left academia for the business sector often win in terms of remuneration but lose in terms of social status and scientific capital.

At the same time, the common perception that there is a relationship between job change frequency and whether there is a match between one’s job and educational background is not 100% true. The mere existence of a match between one’s work and the area of one’s doctoral degree or lack thereof is not enough for one to change jobs.

In Belgium, for example, nearly one third of all doctorate holders work in a sphere that is not related to their area of doctoral degree, while in Poland or Russia the share is much lower: just 6% or even 4.4% respectively. At the same time, in Belgium the share of PhDs who have changed jobs in the past 10 years is relatively low (15.2%) unlike in Poland (63%).

In Russia the share who changed jobs in 2009 resembled that in Belgium (16%), but in 2012 this indicator grew and reached 24.8%. In other words, the mere existence of a relationship between one’s work and the area of doctoral degree cannot fully explain PhDs’ mobility.

Switching to the business sector brings ambiguous benefits for Russian researchers, which can be seen, for example, in the case of employees of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Their relative financial losses (compared to salaries in the non-academic sector) are compensated for by their chances of raising their social status by building a professional career in science and accumulating scientific capital. Moreover, there is a kind of compensation in the fact that they get better access to the international labour market.

The survey of researchers from European OECD-member countries indicates that there is a positive relationship between mobility and salary levels. More mobile researchers tend to be more satisfied with their salary and other types of pay-off (wage premiums, bonuses). There is a similar relationship between mobility and job prestige.

’Simultaneous’ international mobility in science

It should be stressed that a career in research or as a university teacher is still mainstream and remains the most preferable route for young doctorate holders. There is no doubt that among the main drivers for such a career are international cooperation and building academic social networks.

Interaction between scientists is not merely a mechanical exchange of certain knowledge, skills and social relations necessary for research; it also means an accumulation of social capital, which often results in the fact that one researcher obtains numerous institutional affiliations.

This phenomenon necessitates the introduction of a new term and the study of a new type of mobility – that is, ‘simultaneous mobility’, when a researcher is working for several organisations located in different countries at the same time and is based either in one of them or in the home country.

If one were to follow the geographical location of a Russian scientist, one would see that this person is most probably living in Russia, followed by the US, Germany, France and the UK. The main result of joining international academic social networks is often co-authorship of publications.

Mobile Russian scientists are unevenly spread in terms of institutional affiliations: the G7 countries and Switzerland account for a disproportionately high (57.8%) share of affiliations in comparison to Japan, China, South Korea, Brazil and India (9.3%).

Mobile Russian researchers with a high citation index get affiliated with organisations that are located in the more developed countries in terms of science more often than their colleagues with a lower citation index.


Our study shows that despite industry’s growing need for research skills, young PhD holders are still aspiring to a traditional career in academia. At the same time, major academic employers, that is, big universities and research centres, are raising their requirements for candidates seeking tenured positions.

Such requirements include an ability to work in multi- and interdisciplinary areas, on international projects, within international teams, in a context of uncertainty and being involved in a flexible distribution of duties. Many of these skills can be acquired via PhD students’ academic mobility and young researchers’ professional mobility.

CDH outputs confirm that mobile researchers – especially those who are internationally mobile – show better competencies and are more productive, that they publish more often, submit more patents and exhibit higher job satisfaction.

Despite a rather low level of academic mobility – only 20% of Russian researchers were mobile on the national labour market in the previous 10 years and only 15% on the international labour market – on the whole, Russia does not differ much from other countries that participated in the CDH project.

Internationally mobile Russian PhD holders who are involved in international cooperation gain various attributes including professional achievements, recognition and prestige.

‘Simultaneously mobile’ researchers are high in demand on the global labour market beyond the national market. However, unlike the ‘traditional’ brain drain situation, ‘simultaneous mobility’ is beneficial for both home and host countries because researchers maintain relations with their home country.

Further development of international academic cooperation and simultaneous mobility in particular will certainly help PhD holders’ career advancement and enhance their relevance within and outside of their national labour markets.

Natalia Shmatko is head of the department for human capital research, Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation. Email: This article appears in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.