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Bright sparks are coming home

Munich, 01/21/2013

The German Academic International Network (GAIN) says that many expatriate researchers are returning home. Munich University Magazine (MUM) spoke to two returnees about their experiences abroad and their reasons for coming back.

Graphik: Haak&Nakat

The “Buffalo Germans”, founded near the end of the 19th century and disbanded in 1925, was one of the most successful teams in the history of basketball in the US. But as the name suggests, the early line-up consisted largely of German-speakers and players of German ancestry.

Even today, elite professional basketball players from Germany can be found on the top teams in the land that invented the sport. The best known and most successful example is Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, and Anke Ortlepp, Professor of American Cultural History at LMU, has been trying for some time to persuade him to give her an in-depth interview. Ortlepp is interested in the acculturation of German professional basketball players in the US, and Nowitzki, the NBA star from Würzburg, is of course a prime representative of this group.

With regard to the cultural acclimatization of German researchers to life in the US, Anke Ortlepp can draw on her own personal experience. “I was able to go to Harvard relatively early in my undergraduate career. That made the adjustment process easier.” She says she had no difficulty getting used to the American mentality, the open and direct manner, and what often strikes Europeans as a rather superficial approach to things. “Some of my colleagues, and especially those who first encountered American life relatively late, had more - and sometimes bigger - problems.”

Interpersonal relationships in the USA function in a somewhat different way, she feels. Prior to her Habilitation and appointment to her present position at LMU, Ortlepp spent 5 years at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C., as a member of the research staff and, for a time, as Acting Director. – She is also acquainted with several expatriate colleagues who are playing with the idea of returning to Germany.

Reasons for returning
Two-thirds of GAIN’s members in the US say they would like to come back to Germany. Their reasons are many and varied. They range from very specific, private motives to inadequate remuneration (particularly for postdocs) to unsuccessful acculturation – an inability to establish a relaxed relationship with the people and their way of life. In most cases, however, the individuals concerned always intended to return, after having gained useful experience in a different research environment, to continue their careers in Germany.

Mark Wenig, for instance, had planned to spend no more than 2 years abroad. In the end he stayed away for 10, before coming back to take up a professorship in meteorology at LMU last September. For half of this time he worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, followed by 5 years at the City University of Hong Kong. “My career goal was always a professorship in Germany,” he says. “It is important for me to be able to get students involved with the latest ideas in my field, and to develop these ideas in collaboration with them.” Because the employment situation in the academic sector in Germany was not very promising at the time, he accepted an offer that led him to move from a non-academic research center in the US to a university in Hong Kong. However, he says that he found the students in Hong Kong to be nowhere near as motivated as they are here in Germany. According to Wenig, that is partly because not many get to study the subject of their choice, because their grades are not good enough. They then have to make do with second-best – with predictable consequences for their motivation. In addition, universities in Hong Kong are expensive. “And students there are not accustomed to failing exams. It’s something that just doesn’t happen.”

Wenig is very happy at LMU, primarily because his area of expertise – the analysis of trace gases, particularly nitric oxides, in the atmosphere – ideally complements the meteorological research profile in Munich, but also because he finds working with students much more rewarding here. “And I also feel rather proud to be part of a University of Excellence.”

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