A cartoon brain with suitcases above a city landscape

Case study of brain drain from Spain to Germany: a reversible process?

The first time that I travelled to Germany was in the Spring of 2004. A few years before the actual financial crisis started. For this trip, I mainly packed three things in my suitcase: a degree in chemistry, several books to refresh my German and the need to see the world with my own eyes. One month later, I returned to Spain with some extra luggage: a climatic and cultural shock, the confirmation that my German was not as good as expected and an offer letter to do a PhD at the Technical University in Berlin.

My individual story might but not be representative of that of the many other scientists who, due to cumulative cuts in R&D budgets, are forced to leave Spain. Although protests have been continuously increasing in Spain and austerity policies have been strongly criticised by eminent scientists, economists and politicians, the trend still continues. And so does the brain drain.

In parallel, the demand for high-educated professionals in fields such as engineering and medicine has led Germany to set up sponsoring programs to attract candidates from other countries. In other words: Germany has been participating since at least ten years in a global race for the best brains, the so-called “War for Talents”. For instance, a German-Spanish agreement has recently been signed in order to invite 5,000 Spaniards to work in Germany.

My story is not unique. But it has been a real eye opener when it comes to understanding the cultural differences between Spain and Germany. First of all, speaking no or only very little German will lower significantly the chances of any foreign candidate of getting a job. Besides, other cultural aspects represent a significant challenge for professional moving to Germany from abroad.

The first obstacle is the highly standardised and often long application processes. What’s more, dealing with the very specific and particular requirements of the human resources departments can be daunting. And applicants will have to fend off the competition of German co-applicants, who have become highly skilled in following this process. Other important details such as CV-design, examination marks and actual qualification may contribute to determine whether an applicant is invited to a job interview.

Once I landed my first job, I felt a certain level of uncertainty about the low-context communication style in Germany. There was almost no small talk, only comments and questions that were straightforward, that pointed out past failures and focused on technical expertise. My initial impression was that this only left little room to establish a personal relationship with work colleagues.

I also found German colleagues rather task-oriented. This means first solving problems together, reaching joint goals and being successful due to the high level of expertise of the team. Only then would a common personal bond be developed. Trust is subsequently established opening the door to very loyal, long-lasting relationships.

In order to succeed when moving to a new country, intercultural competence, meaning the capability to reflect upon one’s own values, observe the others’ behaviour without judgement and then adapt to the environment is a necessary prerequisite. Attending an intercultural training or receiving a specific coaching can strengthen these abilities and help to avoid lapsing into stereotypes.

Although many researchers might agree that spending some time abroad is good for scientists’ careers, the current context may lead to more than a temporary delocalisation. Thus, if science infrastructures in countries such as Spain become irreversible damaged, there is the risk of a permanent lost of a significant portion of native brains, in many Southern European regions. This may be avoided by implementation of long-term strategies in R&D programs and not to circumstantial investment depending on current financial situation. In words of Barcelona-based Joan Guinovart, director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, the situation in Spain could be different: “With very little, the Government would have a science flagship”. Other changes such as improving technology transfer, to stimulate innovation and to increase flexibility of research institutions would be also necessary in order to provide Spain of stable and strong scientific infrastructures, and thus help reverting the brain drain .

Solutions may take time to come by, especially if they require a change in mentality. As for me, ten years after my farewell to Spain, I now work for a well-renowned research institution in Germany. And I cannot imagine coming back to Spain.

I would like to acknowledge the support and contribution from Anne Schwarz, Senior HR Consultant and expert in international recruitment and intercultural trainings at Interpool.

Note from the authors: the opinions and comments expressed here are personal and do not represent the opinion or interests of any of the respective hosting institution or company.

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by The People Speak!

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Guillermo Orts-Gil
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