This guest entry is written by Dr. Brendan Cantwell who is currently employed as an assistant professor at the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. His current research interests include higher education organization, governance and policy, with focus on comparative education, political economy and theory.
Since the 1990s over 50% of all postdoctoral researchers (‘postdocs’) working at universities in the United States (US) have been temporary visa holders, or ‘international’. This makes postdocs the most internationalized group at American universities.
The fact that over 50% of postdocs are international is especially striking when compared to student enrollments; international students accounted for only 3.7% of total enrollments in the US during the 2011/2012 academic year. Why, then, do most postdocs come from abroad?
Over parts of the past five years I have studied the employment of international postdocs, primarily in the US but also in the United Kingdom. One of my objectives was to understand why so many researchers work as postdocs abroad. I began this research qualitatively by interviewing international postdocs and their supervisors. I examined the experiences of international postdocs, the role international postdocs play in the production of knowledge, and the process by which postdocs become employed internationally. From these studies I drew two main conclusions.
First, international postdoc mobility requires demand for postdocs from aboard, as well as the supply of internationally mobile researchers. Global expansion of higher education, and especially rapid growth of higher education systems in Asia, produced a large supply of PhD researchers looking for jobs abroad. But professors also had to be willing to hire international postdocs. In other words, postdoc mobility would be impossible if there were not individual professors and universities interested in hiring international postdocs.