Issue Date: October 17, 2011
Spanish chemist Rebeca Reguillo Carmona faced a major decision four months ago: Should she accept an offer from a company in her home country of Spain, where she had earned her Ph.D., or a position in Austria, which she had never visited?
The position in Spain would allow her to stay close to her family, but she would be a lab technician, a job for which she felt overqualified. The position in Austria, on the other hand, was a much better fit for her qualifications, and the salary was much higher than the job in Spain was offering. Reguillo Carmona chose the position in Austria and took up her new duties last month as a researcher at polyolefin company Borealis.
With high unemployment and the potential for underemployment in their home countries, young European chemists like Reguillo Carmona are increasingly seeking—and accepting—positions in foreign countries.
Many look to European countries with stronger economies, such as Germany and Austria. Others are considering a move to the U.S., where the unemployment rate is also high but employers are still recruiting.
Spain is among the European countries hardest hit by the recession. The country’s unemployment rate jumped from 8.3% in 2007, when the global recession began, to 21.2% in July 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Countries such as Greece, Italy, Latvia, and Lithuania have also seen their unemployment rates rise. In contrast, Germany’s unemployment rate dropped from 8.7% to 6.6% between 2007 and July 2011, and Austria’s, from 4.4% to 3.7% over the same period.
Spaniards traditionally stay close to their families, Reguillo-Carmona says, but as the Spanish economy struggles, job seekers are becoming more flexible. “I think there is a new generation of scientists who are more open to going out of Spain,” she says.
Like Reguillo Carmona, Italian chemist Francesco Caruso is working in a country that’s not his own. After receiving his Ph.D. this past March from the University of Palermo, in Italy, Caruso sent out numerous copies of his curriculum vitae, hoping to land an academic position in Italy. At the same time, he applied for positions in France, Germany, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S.
He was not hired for any of the Italian positions, but he did find a postdoc position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zürich, where he began working in June. “It’s a very good professional opportunity for me,” he says. “Staying in Italy would have been good for staying close to my family and my girlfriend and my friends. But at this moment, there are limited funds for research in Italy.”
Caruso knows that having left Italy, his chances of returning are slim. Faculty positions in Italy are normally obtained by climbing the ranks at a single institution, he says. “If you do not stay in a lab for many years in Italy, your chances of getting a tenure-track position in Italy are really low,” he says. “It’s a little frustrating, feeling that you can’t go back to your country easily. After finishing your Ph.D. and doing a postdoc in another country at a prestigious institution, it should be easy to come back and get a tenure-track position, but most of the time, this is not the case.”
Croatian chemist Sacha Javor has also accepted that he won’t likely be returning home to work. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Bern, in Switzerland, he accepted a postdoc position at Scripps Research Institute, in La Jolla, Calif. “Unfortunately, I will never be able to go back to Croatia because I probably won’t be able to find a job there,” he says. “If I find one, I will probably not have the same conditions as, for instance, in Switzerland or in the U.S.”
This new reality is sinking in for young European chemists. “Over the past few years, young scientists in Europe have gotten used to the idea that they might move,” Javor says. “They won’t have the choice to work where they want to. There will almost certainly be a compromise to make.”
Once he finishes his postdoc, Javor will look for a full-time academic position in either Switzerland or the U.S. “I’m absolutely ready to move anywhere where I will find the best opportunity and the best position,” he says.
For citizens of European Union countries, emigrating from one EU country to another is relatively simple, and countries such as Germany and Switzerland are becoming a magnet for job seekers. With strong chemical industries, these two countries provide more job opportunities than countries such as Spain and Italy, which concentrate on academic research.
Sarah Ulmschneider-Renner, talent resourcing at BASF in Ludwigshafen, Germany, notes that nearly 40% of all scientists the company has hired in Germany this year have been of a non-German nationality. BASF has “observed a notable increase in numbers of applications, particularly from Spain, over the last six months for positions in Germany,” she says. “Overall, the number of foreign applications for R&D positions at BASF is continuously growing.”
Not all European countries with a high unemployment rate are losing their talent to other countries, however. For example, Ireland’s unemployment rate grew from 4.6% to 14.5% between 2007 and July 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet many chemists are still finding jobs in the country, particularly if they are willing to move away from the bigger cities, says Irish chemist Lisa Phelan.
Phelan, who received an M.Sc. in chemical engineering from Ireland’s Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, says that all of her classmates found jobs after graduating. She was hired by a small start-up company that specializes in medical devices. When the company implemented work schedule reductions, Phelan began looking for another position; this past August, she was hired as an R&D scientist at a multinational medical device company based in Ireland.
Phelan suspects that what’s helped Ireland sustain employment in the chemical sector is the country’s investment in chemical companies. In the past, Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency gave companies grants to set up shop there, she notes. Ireland’s strong pharmaceutical and medical device sectors employ a lot of chemists, she adds.
Moving to another country for work often requires a personal sacrifice. French chemist Olivier Fleischel makes the hour-and-a-half drive from Ludwigshafen, Germany, to Strasbourg, France, every weekend to see his wife and children. Fleischel, a research scientist at BASF, had contemplated moving his family to Germany when he got the position, but he and his wife decided that it was more important for their children to live near their relatives in Strasbourg and to grow up in a French environment. “It is not an easy situation, personally, but I am convinced that it is worth it,” he says. “Since I started my studies in chemistry, this job at BASF is the one that I have been dreaming about.”
Greek chemist Alex Grigoropoulos is also trying to manage work-life balance. Grigoropoulos earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Athens and completed a postdoc at Montana State University. He returned to Greece in July 2010 to search for an academic position.
With newborn twins, Grigoropoulos and his wife are hoping to stay in Greece because they want their children to grow up in a Greek environment and to attend Greek schools. But they also realize they may not have a choice about where to live. “Right now, it’s very hard to find an academic job in Greece,” he says.
Grigoropoulos is searching for positions in the U.K., but he’s not giving up on Greece yet. In fact, he has applied for funding from the EU to continue his research in Greece. But if he doesn’t get the funding, he’s willing to move abroad. “We have two or three more years to decide where to settle down,” Grigoropoulos says. “We don’t want our children to start changing schools every two or three years.”
Many chemists say that moving to a foreign country has benefited them both personally and professionally. “This turned out to be a really excellent move,” says Javor of his postdoc experience at Scripps. “Spending over two years in the U.S. has been great. I learned a lot and I got a lot of experience, not only in chemistry but in general.”
And this cultural exchange could ultimately benefit a chemist’s home country. “It’s easy to give always the negative version of the crash, and of course it’s negative because we can’t forget that we have 5 million people unemployed,” says Reguillo Carmona of her native Spain. But “if we think positively, it will be nice for Spain in a few years if these people decide to come back and to start doing things differently.”
As for her own prospects for returning home, she says: “Right now, I don’t consider the possibility to go back to Spain. I’ve been living abroad for a long time, and my life is where my job and my friends are.”
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