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Solène Baffi and her experience of international mobility

Solène Baffi is a PhD in geography, specializing in transportation and mobility issues. She talks about her experience in South Africa and the impact international mobility has had on her career.

[you want to know more about her career path]

When did you go abroad? Why? Why did you choose South Africa and this particular university?

I went abroad during my Master 1. I wanted to go abroad for a long time, and I chose a course in Geography that required me to do research abroad, in a developing country in particular. Since I wanted to work on transportation and mobility issues in French-speaking African countries, my teachers advised me to go to Cape Town. It was rather a coincidence that led me to this field, and this first experience proved to be extraordinary in several respects. So, I went back there to do my research field in M2, and then during my thesis. The contacts I made there and the fascination for my research subject are at the origin of this need to return each year to Cape Town. During one of my stays, I met a teacher-researcher who had written an article related to my thesis topic. He found my approach original and decided to assign me to the organization of a seminar in his university. When he learned that I was defending my thesis, he sent me an offer for a post-doc from his institution. I applied for it and obtained the funding for two years.


Funding is a key point in a mobility project. Can you tell us how you financed it?

During the first years, I systematically applied for research grants allocated by the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) and an IFRE (French Institute for Research Abroad) in Johannesburg. They didn't represent huge amounts of money, but they really helped me to implement my mobility project, and when I was still a student I worked alongside my studies. I then had the opportunity to get funding for my thesis, which I complemented with occasional grants from IFAS and my home Doctoral School to carry out field trips. Each time that I wanted to go abroad, I applied for the mobility grants published in my network.


What has this experience brought you personally and professionally? How does it help you in your current activities?

This experience has been extremely rich. The most obvious contribution is the daily practice of English. Then, the ability to adapt and discover, to become familiar with other social and professional codes is also, in my opinion, an undeniable contribution of the mobility experience. I think that this has played a role in my current recruitment, but this is mainly due to the job description I applied for (a number of the activities I carry out are located in Africa). The fact that I found a job abroad (as opposed to an expatriate position, i.e. working for a local institution and not a French institution abroad) was appreciated by several interlocutors during my job search.


What differences do you make between the academic world in France and in South Africa? In the way of doing research?

South Africa operates on the Anglo-Saxon model. I was surprised when I realized that researchers and teacher-researchers receive bonuses from the University when they publish articles... which also explains the rate at which my colleagues were producing publications! More generally, the functioning is conditioned by funding, so there is a logic of work per project. This is not necessarily negative, but it translates into much greater pressure for the researchers who must constantly find sources of funding to guarantee their salaries. The stakes are therefore not the same; the quality of the research sometimes suffers, while the links with the private sector and civil society are also stronger. Finally, action-research is quite developed in South Africa, linked to the country's political history. Also, most academics (especially in SHS) feel a responsibility to contribute concretely to the development of society and justifying the societal contribution of research is a sine qua non condition for obtaining funding.