Researcher mobility starts with a button on the form

The Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Oslo, my new departmental home for the next few months.
The Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Oslo, my new departmental home for the next few months.

Greetings from Norway! I will be spending the fall semester at the University of Oslo as a guest researcher in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography. My stay here is supported by a generous Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide grant from the US National Science Foundation and the Research Council of Norway. I’m very excited to join Oslo’s vibrant community of migration scholars as I develop my dissertation proposal.

My plan is to study how international students become skilled labor migrants in the countries where they were trained. As a domestic student in the US, I don’t have any first-hand experience with the complex immigration bureaucracy there and how it shapes international students’ lives. In preparing to come to Norway for the semester, though, I got a small taste of migration management for myself.

Researcher mobility and citizenship-based restrictions on movement

Iversen et al (2014) found that the share of non-Norwegian researchers working in the Norwegian higher education sector has increased from 15% in 2007 to 20% in 2012. While previously most foreign researchers in Norway came from the Nordic countries, other parts of Western Europe, and North America, many more are now coming from elsewhere, particularly Asia. They also found that foreign researchers are now more likely to be coming as PhD students and postdocs, rather than at later career stages.

The Norwegian immigration authorities do not treat all of these foreign researchers the same way. Citizenship is the main axis of distinction. Citizens of the European Economic Area countries may live and work freely in Norway, though longer-term residents must be registered. Citizens of a number of wealthy countries outside of Europe may enter Norway and other countries in the Schengen Zone for up to 90 days in a 180-day period, but longer stays require a residence permit. Everyone else must apply for an entry visa for visits up to 90 days, and a permit for longer stays.

As a citizen of the United States, I was prepared to apply for a residence permit for my semester-long stay. I knew that I had to fill out an online form, mail my passport to the Norwegian consulate for verification, and pay NOK 3000 (approximately USD 487 when I applied) to put my application in the queue for consideration.

What I was not prepared for was the complexity of filling out the form itself. As an educated native English speaker, I had no problems with the language of the form, and the length was quite reasonable. The problem was that the purpose of my stay in Norway did not fit into any of the bureaucratic categories that the online system allowed me to choose!

What does a PhD student do, anyway?

The first issue was which form to fill out. Was I going to be in Norway for “studies” or “work”? That’s a hard question to answer, even in the US. I am pursuing a degree, but I am (modestly) compensated so that I can pay the bills while I get my PhD. My situation in Norway was going to be similar, except that I was not admitted to the University of Oslo as a degree-seeking student or as an exchange student. In the end, I started a “work” application, figuring that I fit into this category somewhat more closely.

The application was fairly straightforward until I got to the end, where I had to select the type of work I would be doing in Oslo. The options were presented with radio buttons, so I could only pick one.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 4.21.25 PM
Screenshot from the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) Application Portal.

Was I a:

  • “Skilled worker – employer in Norway” (Maybe?)
  • “Trainee” (Does “academic apprentice” count?)
  • “Artist, musician or performer” (No.)

There were a few other options that were even less applicable than the three above. After the long list of descriptors that did not seem to include me, there was an additional small list:

“If you cannot find your permit type in the list above, please choose one of the two remaining categories below:

  • Other, employer in Norway
  • Other, without employer in Norway”

I understood that I was not considered an employee of the University of Oslo or the Research Council of Norway, so the first could not apply. The second seemed like it would raise too many eyebrows, so I decided against that, as well. In the end, I applied as a “trainee,” and explained in the text box what I was going to be doing and how I was going to be financially supported. I submitted the form, paid the fee, and hoped for the best. (As a developed world passport holder, I did not expect my application to be put under any special scrutiny.)

In the end, my permit was granted, and the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (Utlendingsdirektoratet or UDI) e-mailed me a letter informing me so. At Oslo Gardermoen airport, the immigration officer asked about the purpose and duration of my visit. Upon hearing that I was to stay beyond the 90 visa-free days, he asked about my residence permit. I presented the letter and was stamped into the country, with no additional questions asked.

The missing button on the form

Since arriving in Norway I’ve found other ways where I don’t fit into bureaucratic boxes. My case was escalated to several levels of managers at the bank as they tried to figure out whether the paperwork for my remunerated, non-worker, non-student status was sufficient to open an account. I am not a student or an employee to the university, so I don’t get student discounts and access to university services has required special arrangements. Even getting a local SIM card has been a hassle because I am not staying in the country long enough to be granted the type of identity number needed to open an account with a month-to-month contract.

None of these problems are particularly major, especially for someone like me. I arrived under favorable economic circumstances, my stay is temporary and voluntary, and my native language happens to be very widely spoken here. The passport I hold does not single me out for increased scrutiny, nor does my physical appearance.

However, this experience of preparing to enter a country as a guest researcher and having trouble fitting in bureaucratic categories has raised a lot of questions for me about researcher and skilled labor mobility in general. How do migration authorities and the regulations they enforce understand different types of working arrangements for skilled labor? How do citizenship-based restrictions on border crossing affect patterns of labor mobility? And if researcher mobility is politically desirable, then how can migration regulations encourage such movement?

(I suppose it would start with having an appropriate button on the form!)

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