Policy makers and university leaders across Europe are currently discussing the proposal for Horizon Europe – the 9th EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The level of engagement shows just how important the framework programme is for universities, as it will decide the future funding of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) and other programmes. In this context, this article reflects on the importance the MSCA International Training Networks (ITNs) have had on training the next generation of researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark.
Developing doctoral education for the future
The Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA)-funded International Training Networks (ITN) for doctoral candidates include mobility, general skills training, collaboration with the non-academic sector and collaboration between universities. This makes the networks important agents in knowledge exchange across research institutions and between sectors in Europe.
The primary advantage of ITNs is that they contain key elements to develop doctoral education for a more connected future and that they can strengthen the European profile of research areas. As Professor Søren Riis Paludan at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University puts it, “In our network – EDGE – fifteen young people are receiving training at nine different universities in Europe. It has been a fantastic platform for consolidating doctoral education within my field.”
During the last ten years, the number of doctoral graduates in Denmark has more than doubled, and it has become very important to prepare our doctoral candidates for multiple career paths. The international job market, still to a high degree, relies on candidates with specialist knowledge, general skills and a global mindset. The focus of MSCA-ITNs on cross-border and cross-sectoral collaboration and on transferable skills training generates a much-needed institutional awareness on the importance of preparing the candidates for the job market. In fact, Professor Paludan said, “The candidates have developed a strong network and have been very conscious about the need for acquiring transferable skills in order to expand on their job opportunities after the PhD degree.”
Professor and MSCA-ITN grant holder Susan Wright from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University has experienced that providing doctoral candidates with the opportunity to work outside for non-academic partners gives them a good insight into the labour market outside the university. According to her, the doctoral candidates bring the benefits of this experience into their research and careers.
The benefits of mobility for early stage researchers
During a research stay abroad, candidates gain skills that are useful for their future employment options. Access to expertise, data and infrastructures not available at their home institution is an opportunity for candidates to strengthen their research profiles, thus giving them a further advantage in a highly-competitive workplace. The connections and networks that any ambitious candidate will cultivate while abroad further help the candidate to identify relevant openings.
According to Tanja Hansen, International Advisor at Aarhus University, “In a global research landscape, international experience is very important. The skills that you obtain during a stay abroad such as confidence, adaptability and cultural sensibility are highly-valued by employers and increase the candidate’s employability.”
A survey among 300 MSCA fellows shows that international mobility and mobility across sectors and disciplines are beneficial for their doctoral education. However, the bureaucratic processes to facilitate mobility across borders can be a hindrance (Walakira, L. K. & Wright, S. (2017). The mobile academic. A survey of mobility among Marie Sklodowska-Curie doctoral fellows. Working Papers on University Reform, p. 8). A survey among doctoral candidates at Aarhus University showed that more than 80% of candidates who went abroad value the skills learned and the network gained as deeply important to their future career opportunities. However, many choose to go abroad for only a short period of time or not at all because of the difficulties involved.
The MSCA networks not only benefit the candidate, but to a high degree the involved institutions by offering them a framework to develop the necessary support structures. Doctoral candidates returning home from a stay abroad have matured and they have gained perspective from seeing things done differently. This makes the candidates valuable to labs that want to grow and include new methods and techniques.
From a recruitment perspective, nurturing a pool of talent means a higher chance of recruiting the most talented candidates for a given position. Furthermore, synergy is obtained through access to the networks’ shared core facilities, data and expertise. Due to this, institutions avoid building duplicate specialisation centres and become more agile because international networks of resources and expertise enable the institution to react swiftly to new funding opportunities.
Mobility as a driver for research collaboration
Aarhus University is currently participating in around 25 MSCA-INTs with more than 140 different partners and beneficiaries. It is our experience that collaboration on doctoral programmes is a very important driver for research collaboration:
“ITNs are first and foremost an opportunity to bring together researchers working within the same field, but from different countries, to create a research community that will last beyond the project period,” explains Professor Liv Hornekær from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University.
Professor Wright adds, “The ITN is a unique opportunity to create volume and critical mass within my research field. It has resulted in a new international research centre within my discipline at AU with more than 200 associated fellows from all over Europe, extensive collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines, and several memoranda of agreement with universities around the world.”
The experience of Professors Hornekær and Wright is that after their first ITN expired, the network lives on, resulting in new externally-funded projects and continued research collaboration across the institutions where doctorate holders found employment.
This extends to cross-sector collaborations according to Professor Paludan, “The MSCA-ITN “EDGE” has acted as a catalyst for interactions between labs, hospitals and private companies, which have led to a range of new and exciting projects that otherwise would not have been initiated.”
All 25 projects at Aarhus University contribute to the European research and innovation landscape because of the sheer quality of the research output. Furthermore, new partnerships are forged, new career paths are envisioned, and new avenues of research are explored. In other words, the result is more than the sum of the parts.
The value of MSCA-ITN for the future
Mobility across disciplines, nations and sectors is at the heart of MSCA-ITN and encourages the doctoral candidate to adopt new research methods and to deal with challenges beyond the traditional research environment - thus creating new solutions and forging new career paths. An important part of preparing for Europe’s future challenges is globally competitive research and knowledge exchange. The MSCA-ITNs facilitate this by developing research exchange and collaboration.
Aarhus University considers MSCA-ITNs as important platforms for strengthening existing research collaborations and for facilitating new ones - not least, within the framework of Horizon Europe. It is also our experience that international and inter-sectional mobility increases the quality of research and the attractiveness of the doctoral candidate.
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