VIE LESA: Hilde, it’s great to be talking to you! Thanks a lot for sharing both your personal experience(s) as an expat, expat partner, dual career couple, global family and your professional insights, responsibilities and visions at IST Austria with the VIE LESA community! To start with, could you tell us a bit more about yourself, your background, your professional career and what brought you to Austria?
Hilde Janssens: I am a biologist by profession and started to move around internationally because of my job. My first move abroad was to Switzerland. I wanted to do a PhD on fruit flies which I could not have done in Belgium at that time. And that’s how I left my home country, always thinking I would go back – but as always life had other plans. I met my – now – husband in Switzerland, he is Swiss and also a scientist, and we started to move around together. All our moves were within academia which basically runs on short-term contracts. We have never been recruited – we always moved on our own initiative because a contract runs out and you try to find the next one.
VIE LESA: You also mentioned you had two kids – 12 and 15 – one born in the States and one born in the UK. So tell us, how many different passports or nationalities do you actually have in your family? And was that ever a problem in terms of residency permits or visas?
Hilde Janssens: True, we are all born in different countries. Our oldest one has three nationalities (American, Swiss, Belgian), the youngest one two (Belgian and Swiss) and I just asked for the Swiss one, so at least we have one in common which helps when you move around. And yes, there was a bit of a problem with our older one when we lived in the States as he, as an American citizen, did not have a visa then being an American citizen – and it was the time of 9/11, so we did have to think quite a bit about which passport to use when we entered and left. And to make it even more challenging, we do not share a common last name – our kids have my husband’s last name. Quite tricky when you move around…
VIE LESA: …that truly sounds challenging. Talking about challenges, could you tell us a bit more about the decision-making process within your family when and where to move next. How does that usually work?
Hilde Janssens: A big challenge within academic research is that the careers are not always synchronized. This is something that we are also trying to address as one partner might be ready to go on the market and for example successfully apply for a Professor position, but the other one is just finishing a project and might just need another two or three publications. And then it becomes tricky. It’s almost easier when there is a clear deadline – like we had in the States as my visa was running out, so I had to leave the country by November 9th. And as for deciding on the next step it is always a balance of who finds a position first, who knows what they want to do and money because we don’t always have the luxury of saying “I will keep on looking a bit and see what comes up” – especially when you have children, you need money so you also start to take positions because there is a contract “Let’s just move to that country and take it from there”.
VIE LESA: You mentioned earlier that so far every move has been on your own initiative. Is there some kind of support in place, on an institutional level? Or could you ask your employer or partner’s employer for help for the next move? Maybe some Best Practice example you could share?
Hilde Janssens: Universities don’t really do that much. I mean everybody knows you need to leave because you only have a temporary contract. When you know you only have one year left in your contract, your boss might be supportive in terms of networking or helping to find other scientists that do similar research but in the end it’s not really up to them. And at least you know one or two years in advance that your contract will run out, so you can start preparing and looking around then. That’s kind of an advantage, but we all have a clear deadline when the money runs out.
VIE LESA: Listening to how academic networks and the dual career system work, I realize there are quite some differences compared to other globe-trotting groups, for example diplomats. Could you give us a bit of an overview of how dual career works within academia and whether there are global networks in place where one could find support?
Hilde Janssens: I think it is tricky in academia to have those global networks. As I mentioned, we did most of the stuff on our own, but we always got some help from the receiving institutes. As soon as they want you, most universities have an international office and the higher your position is, the more support you get. Like when you are a PhD student, there is not so much support but when you are a professor, there is more support. For professorships there is more of an effort because they want you – if they really want you, they are going to help you more. In Europe there is EURAXESS which is a network for researchers. Personally, we have not used it much because I didn’t know much about it before we came to Austria. We always worked with the local university or research institute, the one receiving us basically.
VIE LESA: Talking about Austria, how did you perceive that last move as a family? For yourself? If you had to rate Austria, how does it compare to the other countries you moved to?
Hilde Janssens: Well, it really depends on where you live. I guess. We live in Klosterneuburg, so right outside Vienna, where we got good support in integration, like with the residence permit and all these things. So that was very smooth. I found the dual career issue more difficult than in other countries. Finding a job here is not easy because it seems like a very closed network. I found it very challenging, even though it worked out for me – we moved here for the job of my husband and actually that did not work out. So we are in the awkward situation now where he is looking for a new job and even though he speaks German, it still is very difficult because of the closed circles. Getting into networks in Vienna is really tricky.
VIE LESA: Fingers crossed and all the best for your husband – don’t hesitate to reach out to us to help you connect in Vienna/Austria! PS: We sometimes get the question whether VIE LESA will also support male spouses – yes we do and happy to 😊! Going back to the challenges in Austria – could you draw a bit of a comparison between the different countries? Are their Best Practice examples?
Hilde Janssens: Yes, I was just trying to go over my different countries – thinking where it was maybe easier or more difficult. But I mean there are these urgent things that one has to do immediately on arrival like permits or health care, especially with children. That worked out very well in every country. The receiving institutes have always been very helpful to get these as soon as possible. Schools are of course always a challenge – definitely. I found kindergarten way easier. When the kids reach school age, it’s getting tricky because you have deadlines and schools are mandatory. Then questions like when to move, when to take the kids out of school, when to enter them into the next school, how to settle them into school come up. That is tricky. And the third big challenge, at least in academia, is the whole finance issue. We would not have been able to do all the moves without the financial support from my parents. Of course, the higher you get in academia, the better it gets, because also salaries are higher and then for professorial moves there usually is a budget for most universities. For PhDs and postdocs that is a major challenge which IST Austria is also looking into and trying to help with. For example, we urge scientists to apply for a Relocation Grant and Dual Career Grant (EURO 2.000 each) with the FFG which is very helpful (Link: https://www.ffg.at/en/career-grants – note: only for scientists with a Masters degree). The Dual Career Grant can be used for German courses for instance and for career coaching or even for emergency babysitting when you have a job interview. And the IST also has a little extra budget – for instance for German courses for the spouses. Unfortunately that again is only at professorial level. There is a huge gap and discrepancy in academia between PhDs, postdocs and professorial level and that is a major challenge, not only in Austria.
VIE LESA: We look forward to continuing our conversation on the challenges in academia and learning more about IST Austria the next time – stay tuned 😉 Many thanks, Hilde for sharing your personal story and insights.
Hilde Janssens is also member of the Austrian DCIS (Dual Career and Integration Services) Expert Group who created a report analysing and mapping the landscape of DCIS and exchange of best practice examples. “An Analysis of Dual Career and Integration Services” (from page 20 zooming in on Austria) can be downloaded from https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu/austria/news/analysis-dual-career-and-integration-services
Contact Hilde Janssens:
Phone: +43 (0)2243 9000 – 1046