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Towards a more equal community: International mobility

Depending on personal circumstances, international mobility can be either a burdensome responsibility or an open door to adventure. Tapio Lokki and Jara Uitto discuss how they experienced their time working abroad – and how they would now advise younger researchers.
Tapio Lokki, Jara Uitto
Tapio Lokki and Jara Uitto. Images: Patrik Strenström, Matti Ahlgren

Gathering work experience abroad and from different research organisations is a basic tenet of an academic career. Aalto University wishes that anyone elected to a permanent professorship who has defended their doctoral thesis at Aalto or its predecessor stay at another research institute – preferably a foreign one – at least a year. The Research Council of Finland, on the other hand, long required its Postdoctoral Fellows and Academy Research Fellows to spend at least six months in a different organisation than the one they received their doctorate from. The rule was dropped last autumn, but mobility remains an important merit in evaluation.

We discussed the advantages and challenges of mobility with Tapio Lokki and Jara Uitto. Lokki is a professor and head of the Department of Information and Communication Engineering at Aalto University. He received his PhD from the Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) in 2002 and has spent his entire career at TKK and later at Aalto, except for a short stay abroad. Uitto has been an assistant professor at Aalto’s Department of Computer Science since 2019. He defended his doctoral thesis in ETH Zürch in Switzerland in 2015 and spent a good year in industry thereafter. Before he came to Aalto, he did his postdoc in Germany.

What role have mobility requirements played in your life?

Tapio: When I was finishing my PhD at the Helsinki University of Technology, mobility wasn’t yet a prominent topic and it was even preferred that people stay at TKK. I was immediately appointed as a lecturing researcher and, five years later, got a position as an Academy Research Fellow. In my field, our laboratory belongs to the top 5 in the world, we have all the equipment and know-how we could need here so I had no need to look elsewhere.

When I got my permanent associate professorship in the summer of 2012, my lack of international mobility became a problem for the first time. At that point it was overlooked, though, since my other merits were considered sufficient. In 2017, I applied for a full professorship. The lack of experience abroad became an obstacle and my position was 'conditionally accepted', i.e. accepted provided I first acquire significant experience abroad. I made a plan for it and in December 2021 was awarded a full professorship. In spring 2022, I spent a couple of months in France, with my stay cut short due to covid.

Jara: Actual mobility requirements didn’t really concern me since I did my doctoral research in Switzerland and my postdoc in Germany, so I already filled these before starting at Aalto in 2019. But overall, as I decided to return to academia from the industry in 2016, my then girlfriend and I discussed that this path will pretty surely involve moving abroad. So we planned ahead for that. At that point I already had one kid, and of course it was a bit impractical for everyone involved.

Was international mobility an obligation or an opportunity for you?

Tapio: I had nothing against international mobility, but the official requirement does not really make sense to me. We should be focused on content instead. Personally, I have been going to a lot of international conferences and doing a lot of networking, for instance I was the secretary general of the European Acoustics Association, i.e. the European umbrella organisation of acoustic societies for three years. I’ve counted that I've been to enough international conferences to fill a year abroad.

I think it's silly to have to move from one physical location to another when what we should be doing is networking. Now what is being used is the easiest measure, that is, how many days you spend away from Finland. And I know people who have been away for a year and have not internationalised at all, just sat in the corner of a lab. I think it's extremely important to internationalise, but the current measure is completely wrong.

Jara: For me it hasn’t been an obligation. I’m also currently in the comfortable position that my partner works at the university, too, and it is relatively easy for us to move from one place to another. The department of Computer Science has a program that encourages young researchers to go abroad, it gives out one-month funding for another organisation. My spouse and I have used it: last year we were in Switzerland and soon we will go to Berlin. We have been encouraged well and the programs are handy, one-month sessions are short enough that you don’t have to move your whole life to another country. If you go for a half a year it gets a lot more difficult, for instance with regards to children’s school.

Would you make the same choice again?

Tapio: I haven’t really made choices but have gone where the situation has taken me. If you want to become a professor, you have to do the right things and be in the right place at the right time, and have lots of luck.

Jara: Of course. It was more difficult to make the decision to move back to Finland than go to Switzerland years back. I got faculty job offers from Germany and Singapore and was asked after from Canada, and it was difficult to refuse. My own culture and relatives are here, however.

Are the challenges that relate to international mobility talked about enough in the academic community?

Tapio: I don’t think so. There is general awareness about the challenges, but still the attitude tends to be that you should just go and do. This works fine for some, but there are many young researchers with families for whom a stay abroad can be difficult to organise. Will the spouse tag along and take care of the kids?  I know a few whose spouses are for instance medical doctors and have permanent jobs in Finland. It’s a difficult place to take off abroad for a year or two. Everyone says in hindsight that their stay abroad was great, but memories tend to grow sweeter with time. We should think about the bigger picture a lot more than we do now, so we don’t move for the sake of moving.

Jara: To me, everyone seems to be quite conscious of the challenges or at least in my circles they were talked about a lot. Not so much in an academic advising kind of way, but in my opinion the challenges typically relate to social relations and I’m not sure you can be coached for that in other ways than just by being mentally prepared yourself.

What tips would you give to younger researchers?

Tapio: The youth nowadays already grows up in an international environment, also in my lectures over half of the students come from abroad. It is more important to become independent, to go somewhere else, be alone a bit, establish your own networks. But that doesn’t necessarily require a longer stay abroad.

Jara: Don’t wait for too long. The practical side of it doesn’t get any easier, if you first wait to get old. When you’re young you can do interesting things and move from one place to another easier. I myself am really happy that I was encouraged to go abroad.

We are an inclusive community that values everyone and where the members of our community feel a sense of belonging and can fully live the everyday life of work as equals. In this article series from the School of Electrical Engineering and School of Science, we enter into topics that are interesting in an academic career, through people.

Tapio Lokki

Tapio Lokki

Professor
T412 Department of Information and Communications Engineering

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