Linda Nasr interviewed for our series “Going abroad” Marianna Sigala, who moved from Greece to Adelaide, Australia.
Tell us briefly about your international research experience? Where did you study and live? What motivated you to travel and research abroad?
I did my undergraduate studies at the Athens University of Economics and Business (Greece) about 20 years ago. At that time, the educational system in Greece did not motivate and foster active learning and research. Instead, it pushed students to simply memorize textbooks and theories, which obviously did not motivate many students to get actively engaged with and be inspired by their university studies. I decided to do one year in the UK (University of Lancaster) as an Erasmus student, which was an eye-opener experience from the point of view that it gave me the opportunity to experience a totally different educational system that did motivate students’ inquiry and free independent learning and research. As a result, I decided to remain in the UK for completing my Master and PhD studies (at the University of Surrey, UK), specifically as I had been awarded a scholarship to complete these studies based on my academic performance. That was also a research opportunity that one could not easily find or get at that time in Greece.
After completing my PhD, I worked as a lecturer for the University of Westminster (London) and then, for the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow). This working experience of five years in the UK had been a very enjoyable and productive one. It enabled me to learn and experience the British educational system from the academic staff perspective; it provided me with the resources to conduct research and participate in associations, international events so that I meet, network and form collaborations with international peers and researchers. And this had been very important to me (specifically at the early stages of my academic career), because what I have experienced and learned is that irrespective of how good or bad an academic is, his/her affiliation with a ‘good’ and/or internationally recognized university certainly opens doors easier and helps him/her to be easier recognized and appreciated.
Due to personal reasons in 2004, I decided to accept an academic position at the University of the Aegean (Greece) and return to my home country. Getting an academic position in Greece is very difficult, not only because of the limited university positions and competition but also because who you know and nepotism plays a major role as well. So, given this context, I thought it was a good opportunity to return home, as it may have never appeared again.
I lived and worked in Greece until 2015, when I was offered a professor position at the University of South Australia, and decided to immigrate to Australia in order to pursue my academic career and life there.
However, during my 10 years in Greece, I was very happy that I managed to expand and deepen my international contacts and collaborations by conducting research as well as teaching at various international universities such as: the Free University of Bolzano (Italy), the University de Lyon III (France), Les Roches Hotel School (Switzerland), University of Nicosia (Cyprus), University de la Laguna (Spain), National Chiayi University (Taiwan), Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service (Russia), University of Rijeka (Croatia).
These international collaborations have not only made my work more interesting, fun and rich, but they have also given me the opportunity to experience a varied international context of academic life and work.
What do the people you’ve met abroad want to know the most about you?
I am always involved in various projects, such as: academic and professional associations (e.g. IFITT, CHRIE, AIS, Associations of hotels or tourism enterprises, destination management companies); developing, writing, bidding and conducting research projects; organization / chairing of conferences and other events; and editing of academic journals and books.
It is usually this context specific knowledge that people are interested in asking me about. I usually get approached to give advice on issues related to:
- How do I get involved and how can I contribute to this association / project?
- What are the features of a good quality journal paper and what are the criteria that you as journal editor use to filter paper submissions?
- How can I find industry contacts to conduct research or who are the industry people that can help me with this issue?
What would you say is the main difference and similarity between the Greek, UK and Australian academic systems?
My work and life in these three countries refers to totally different decades and so, using my experience for making any comparisons and deriving conclusions may not be very reliable and valid. The environmental factors influencing the nature and the evolution of the academic system in every country change in relation to time and context. However, I would say that the similarities and differences in educational systems in any country can be identified in the following dimensions:
- Access to funds, resources, and opportunities for conducting research: unfortunately in Greece opportunities for bidding for research projects as well as the research funds of universities (specifically during the last years of the economic crisis) were very limited to almost none. In the UK, research funds were significantly more but indeed much more competitive. In terms of Australia, I had been told that research funds had been relatively easy to bid and get for numerous years, but given the difficult economic times and lower governmental budgets and spending in education, this situation has changed with fewer opportunities and much higher competition.
- University pressures to conduct research and publish in academic journals: diminishing research budgets of universities in the UK and Australia means that the pressures to bid for and acquire external research funds are much higher and the ability of the researchers to achieve this heavily influence his career progression and promotion. University funding from the government also relates to research outputs measured in both quantity and quality of research publications. Because of that, universities and educational systems in the UK, Australia and other countries have been developing and using rankings of academic journals in order to try to measure quality of research publications and distribute funds to universities in a more ‘fair’ way. In the Greek academia, there is still not a nationally developed and recognized list of journal rankings that universities ‘have’ to use to evaluate research publications. The evaluation and selection of the performance of Greek academics is based on a national legislation formed by the ministry of education that uniformly applies to all Greek universities. This legislation does not discriminate quality of research output based on the ‘type’ of journal, and papers published in any international journal need to be equally treated and considered. Informally some Greek universities do use journal ranking lists and impact factors to evaluate publications of academics in selection or promotion evaluation panels of academics, but this is a practice that is not always applied by all universities, in all occasions, and in a consistent way. Ultimately, the selection and promotion of an academic in Greece (and of course in many other countries like Italy, Russia, Middle East, Spain, UK) would depend on many other variables including and maybe very frequently on issues related to politics, public relations and nepotism.
- Motivation and drivers to conduct research and get engaged in other academic activities: educational systems differ in terms of the ways, criteria, formulas and the context within which an academic is evaluated for career promotion and/or selection. This in turn, creates different pressures and motivations for an academic to publish, raise funds and conduct research and publish. In educational systems whereby such processes are not that ‘transparent’, ‘equal’ and ‘fair’ the person’s motivation to actively engage in academic activities heavily depends on his/her internal drives for self-accomplishment and satisfaction as well as on the person’s values, ethics and commitment to professional work, duties and responsibilities.
- Relation and perceptions about the role of industry in university life and research: educational systems also differ in terms of how much they motivate and help academics to liaise with industry for teaching, research and continuous professional development. Industry perceptions and professionals’ attitudes towards the academics and the university also differ from country to country. I have experienced two extreme situations: the Greek tourism industry perceiving the Greek academics as ignorant and so unhelpful to their own needs and context; and the Australian tourism industry seeing university academics and researchers as great collaborators and peers to learn, to get access to and collaborate for collecting research findings. Of course, industry perceptions heavily depend on the profile and image that university academics and universities build around them. Industry – academic relations also depend on the perceptions and image that each other holds for the other party, but again, educational systems also differ in terms of what universities do to influence, change and build their image and profile to the industry. Industry engagement and relations in Australia have been perceived as heavily important and critical by the universities that are investing a lot of resources on this. And it seems that these efforts pay off.
What is the best part and the biggest challenge about doing research abroad?
Conducting research abroad and in a different context /system can be very stressful but also very educational and fun as well. It has given me the opportunity to learn more by understanding and interacting with a different environment, researchers and professionals. By experiencing something different, one can better understand and appreciate what he/she had or not had in another context as well as better integrate within his/her current environment. I usually say to my students that if one picture equals 100 words then, one trip abroad should equal a library full of books. Therefore, the ability of someone to not only travel but also live and integrate into a different country is an invaluable learning experience that cannot be substituted with any other opportunity.
On the other hand, living and doing research abroad can also be frustrating at the begging and/or if someone does not have ‘local’ support. One has to get himself familiarized with the local research context such as: research bodies; procedures and ways to identify, become aware and bid for research opportunities; ways to identify, get appreciated and recognized by the local industry; evaluation systems and criteria of research projects; and time and performance evaluation pressures to get engaged and conduct research.
What advice can you give to scholars considering doing research abroad?
Mentorship, networking and public relations, as well as collaboration, are the most important success factors in order to faster and easier understand the local context for conducting research. One cannot survive alone, imagine how difficult this can be when you are alone in a ‘strange’ environment. Networking and public relations are time-consuming and sometimes emotionally exhaustive, but they really pay off. One needs to build a large network of peers and collaborators with different backgrounds, experiences, and access to resources in order to be able to have some good mentorship, guidance, and access to local knowledge and networks. Nowadays, it does not matter what you know, but who you know and how you can identify someone to give you access to the knowledge you need at any single moment. Networking for building collaborations and synergies and keeping up with the current trends is a recipe for success in our dynamically changing environment. Scholars failing to do this may really wake up in some stage and realize that their once familiar environment is totally ‘strange’ to them as a foreign country.
Marianna Sigala is
Professor Mariana Sigala is Professor in Tourism at the University of South Australia Business School and
Co-Editor of the Journal of Service Theory & Practice.