Tracking Alumni Career Paths

Tracking Alumni Career Paths

Engelage S, Zimmermann AB, Herweg K, 

Michel C, Breu T. 2012. 

Tracking Alumni Career Paths: 

Third NCCR NorthSouth Report 

on Effectiveness. 
NCCR North-South Dialogue 42. 
Bern, Switzerland: NCCR North-South.

20–22 August Tracking Alumni Career Paths: Third NCCR North-South Report on Effectiveness NCCR North-South Dialogue

This was presented at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, (20–22 August). It looked at PhD alumni of the Swiss National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South Programme, which is hosted by the University of Bern.

The NCCR programme has trained 112 PhD students over the past 12 years, in areas including health, natural resources and poverty, with the aim of contributing to sustainable development and capacity building.
The Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South is an international research programme on global change and sustainable development. One of the NCCR North-South’s goals is to improve research structures in Switzerland and in the South. To this end, the NCCR North-South provides research funding and training for Swiss and Southern PhD students, among others.

The present report is based on a survey of 83 NCCR North-South alumni – former PhD students – conducted in an effort to fi nd out whether the NCCR North-South’s aims were achieved, specifically with regard to capacity development and career building. All alumni were informed about the planned survey and asked to confirm their email address in July 2011.

The participants in the survey came from 27 different countries: about half were from Switzerland, Germany, and France, while the other half came from 24 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Alumni from Switzerland overwhelmingly had backgrounds in geography and other earth sciences. The social and political sciences, as well as agriculture, environmental studies, and forestry were more frequent in the South than in the North. As a discipline, economics was almost entirely missing from the picture. This stems from the thematic composition of the NCCR North-South research consortium.
In cases where alumni did not respond, the authors contacted their colleagues or supervisors to obtain their current address. Further, some alumni were located via Facebook and other social media. By the end of 2011, the authors had valid addresses for 111 of 112 alumni: there was only one alumnus who could not be located. Of these 111 alumni, 83 completed the questionnaire. A raffle (three $100 Amazon gift cards) was organised to incentivise participation. All statistics were performed using SPSS 18 EM.

Excerpts from the report:

  • The NCCR North-South programme has not simply reproduced an existing class of Southern elites. In many cases, it has provided people in disadvantaged positions the chance to advance their career.
  • The career-boost effect in the South was impressive, equal to almost a 60% increase in leading or middle management positions among Southern alumni following their PhD. The great majority of these worked at universities or research institutes
  • From these results, we conclude that the PhD title had a very important effect on the careers of Southern alumni, especially those working in academia. 
  • The percentage of Northern alumni in higher positions after the PhD was considerably lower. This could be because it takes more time for researchers/scientists to obtain a leading position in Switzerland than in the South.
  • The NCCR North-South’s transdisciplinary research approach – emphasising application-oriented research and working with non-academic actors – might hinder Northern alumni from experiencing a classic academic career trajectory. 
  • In Switzerland, publication of peer-reviewed articles in high-ranked journals is among the most important factors in obtaining leading positions within universities. However, NCCR North-South alumni sought not only to publish their results on behalf of the scientific community, but also invested a considerable amount of time working to apply their results and communicating with non-academic partners. Learning more about whether the transdisciplinary research approach has hindered the academic career trajectory of Swiss alumni appears crucial.
  • About 12% in the North and South had acquired one or two research and development projects after their PhD, while 23% had acquired three or four projects. In Switzerland, most projects were financed by Swiss funding agencies such as the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) or the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). In the South, eight projects were financed by Swiss donors, 13 by international donors, and nine by Southern funding agencies.
  • Alumni were in frequent contact with non-academic partners, such as NGOs, IOs, governments, private industry, and extension staff. Of course, our data cannot show whether alumni actually contributed to more sustainable development in their countries – but it does indicate that many alumni made a conscious effort to apply their knowledge and experience in practice.
  • More than 90% of Southern alumni remained in their country of origin or worked in another country in the South. In other words, the “brain drain” phenomenon was averted. Among Northern alumni, the majority worked in their country of origin at the time of the survey. We were surprised to find so few Northern alumni employed abroad – especially considering that many of them had already worked in the developing world before starting their PhD and had spent several months or years in a developing country for their fieldwork.
Claudia Michel, NCCR

Claudia Michel, a researcher at NCCR and one of the report’s authors, told SciDev.Net (see below: related article) that the findings appeared to conflict with a widely held belief that North-South partnerships can lead to a brain drain, and favour students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The survey data dispels these myths, she said.

  • In the global South, it is more difficult for women to pursue a PhD, especially if they are from lower social strata. But once they have gained access to higher education and earned a PhD, it seems to “outweigh” many obstacles posed by gender discrimination. 
Sarah Ayeri Ogalleh

Sarah Ayeri Ogalleh, a Kenyan PhD student on the NCCR North-South programme, told SciDev.Net that most southern researchers want to remain in their home country because of their families and a desire to boost a country’s development. Ogalleh added that the NCCR programme has helped students remain at home through capacity building and linking them withnetworks and partnerships that continue even after a student leaves the programme.

Sarah Ayeri Ogalleh graduated from a Bachelor Programme in “Animal Production” at Egerton University in Kenya. She later obtained her Masters Degree in “Environmental Science” and wrote her Masters thesis on ‘Status of On-Farm Tree Establishment and Factors Affecting Tree Planting: The Case of River Njoro Watershed, Nakuru District, Kenya’. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree on ‘Assessment of local agronomic practices (characterization, effectiveness, sustainability) in small scale agriculture as building blocks for Adaptation to Climate Change in Laikipia District, Kenya’ (supervised by Christian R. Vogl, Michael Hauser). This study intends to identify the existing local agronomic practices used by smallholder farmers to adapt to climate change. The project will also highlight the economic, social and ecological sustainability of the identified adaptations for appropriate policy recommendations. Sarah Ayeri Ogalleh receives a scholarship from OEAD for her doctoral study.

  • Respondents valued the alumni network, but that the platform must become more user-friendly and more adapted to the specific needs of alumni.

Recommendation No. 3: 

More research is needed on the specic contexts in which researchers in the global South are embedded, especially regarding the relevance of science in local policymaking, the relative standing of researchers and universities in society, and the obstacles to pursuing a PhD, particularly for Southern women.

North-South collaboration helps researchers stay at home

Gozde Zorlu 23 August 2012 SciDev

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