Mobility in Doctoral Education

Europe of Knowledge |

Word cloud of most common words in 12 interviews with Marie Sklodowska-Curie PhD fellows. Designed by Lisbeth Kristine Olesen Walakira at

Corina Balaban & Susan Wright

Mobility in Doctoral Education was the topic we tackled in the most recent special issue of LATISS, the International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences. ‘Mobility’ is now a buzzword of research policy, referring to a whole range of experiences, from moving between countries to switching between disciplines and sectors. The ability to be flexible and adaptable is now a highly desirable skill required by funders and employers alike. This special issue acknowledges the need to discuss mobility as a widely encompassing concept referring to various kinds of experiences within higher education, and particularly doctoral education.


Mobility as a concept

With very few exceptions, the academic literature has tackled different types of mobility separately (geographical mobility, disciplinary mobility, cross-sectoral mobility). This special issue makes a case of bringing them all together, by discussing the commonalities between them. We put the emphasis on mobility as a concept, understood as fluidity and flexibility and as one’s ability to adapt to new situations and environments. By discussing these types of mobility together we show their combined implications for the lives and careers of PhD fellows and how they all cluster around a common notion of adaptability. While in the policy sphere mobility is often discussed as something inherently beneficial, this special issue exposes some of the less talked about experiences of mobility, revealing mobility in all its complexity and contradictions.


The special issue emerged as a result of the project Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE), a four-year collaborative initiative for early-stage researchers. The research project was funded by the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission (EC) as an Initial Training Network (ITN) and investigated the dynamic relationships between universities and knowledge economies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific Rim. It included researchers based at six different universities in five European countries, who all engaged in various kinds of mobility as part of the programme requirements.


Mobility as EU requirement

One of the most prominent features of the programme was the EU’s requirement that PhD fellows must relocate/ not have resided in the country where they were taking up their position within the previous three years. In addition, the project also encouraged interdisciplinarity and cross-sectoral collaborations. Mobility was therefore both a project reality enacted in the daily life of UNIKE, and a research topic that emerged as part of the focus on recent developments in higher education.


In an attempt to provide a more nuanced account of mobility, this special issue discusses not just the policy perspectives, but also the lived experiences of mobility, as recounted by PhD fellows. It gathers four articles, each focusing on the perspectives of different actors involved in the field of doctoral education.


‘Mobility’ as a policy concept

Pavel Zgaga’s analysis of European higher education policies explores mobility from the perspective of European and national stakeholders, showing the evolution of ‘mobility’ as a policy concept. The article focuses on how mobility became central to the EU’s idea of doctoral education and ultimately became one of the most popular ideas in the context of European integration post-1970. He explains how, throughout time, the EU gradually became more and more involved in higher education policy-making; eventually, the European Commission’s efforts to consolidate the European Research Area (ERA) have contributed, directly and indirectly, to mobility becoming a central concept in European doctoral education today.


Mobility as homelessness

Building on this historic account of mobility as a policy concept, Corina Balaban expands on the different forms that mobility has taken in European, as well as American doctoral education. Her article presents the voice of early career researchers by showing how they negotiate experiences of mobility.


Empirically, the article discusses two types of flagship doctoral models: the Innovative Training Network (ITN) in the EU and the Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) in the United States. The core features of these programmes were related to different kinds of mobility, namely geographical, disciplinary and sectoral mobility. The main finding of the article is that PhD fellows associated all these different types of mobility with feelings of homelessness: the fact that they had nomadic lifestyles, that they missed the safety of a disciplinary ‘home’, or that they found their motivations to pursue a PhD being misplaced, or lost, in the programme expectations that they find jobs outside academia.


The theme of ‘homelessness’ also features in the article by Lisbeth Walakira and Susan Wright, who conducted a large-scale survey of EU-funded doctoral fellows to explore their lived experiences of mobility. Their survey of 3,410 respondents was followed up with in-depth interviews with selected fellows and explored notions of relocation, international networking and stays abroad. Their evocative title is based on a statement from one of their interviewees: ‘I’m like a snail carrying my entire house with me’. In addition to geographical mobility, they also explore cross-disciplinary mobility, as well as cross-sectoral and social mobility. The results show that, while many of the fellows were excited to engage in mobility during the early stages of their career, they were less likely to view mobility as a lifelong pursuit, or accept this as a prerequisite for a successful career as a knowledge worker.


Who fits in the Anglophone knowledge economy?

The article by Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich discusses the results of ethnographic writing workshops that captured PhD fellows’ strong emotions about their lived experience of mobility. The UNIKE project was in fact one of three sites where she invited fellows to write about, read aloud and discuss their experiences of mobility, as a way of capturing life in transit. Her narrative exploration offers a methodological tool that reveals a wide range of concepts that fellows used to describe how they became ‘global knowledge workers’: what strategies they employed for settling, how they negotiated their hybrid identities, how they dealt with emotional experiences of loss of control, and how they coped with their diminished agency. She shows how several fellows’ encounters reveal ‘whose accent and whose body fit best into the colonial paradigm that is the Anglophone knowledge economy’. Undoubtedly, this article makes for a beautiful, sensitive read.


All in all, the special issue provides an innovative account of mobility today, by drawing together different types of mobility in doctoral education and exploring what unites them: the ability to adapt, to be flexible; in other words, the ability to master the prerequisites of becoming the perfect knowledge worker. By drawing on historic accounts of mobility, as well as lived experiences of early career researchers, the special issue has challenged the idea that mobility is entirely and inherently beneficial, and has opened up new avenues for research into the implications of mobility for the lives and careers of PhD fellows.


Corina Balaban is Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at the University of Manchester (UK). She conducts research on the changing roles of universities in societies, focusing on knowledge production processes and academic identities. She was previously Marie Curie Fellow in the EU-funded project Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE). She holds a PhD in Education from Aarhus University, a Master’s in Educational Research Methodology from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s in Education and English from the University of Cambridge.

Susan Wright is Professor of Educational Anthropology at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University (Denmark) and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Futures (CHEF). She recently completed convening the EU-funded project Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE) and her latest book is Death of the Public University?  (edited with Cris Shore, Berghahn 2017).