Researchers need language skills and knowledge of history and culture

My academic career began with master’s studies at the University of Oulu in 2000. I took my first steps towards a researcher's career by working as a research assistant in underground physics in 2003.
Kansainvälinen tutkijaryhmä yhteisessä kuvassa työpajan pohdintojen välillä

My impression of researchers toiling away in lonely chambers faded very quickly. I had an opportunity to work with a great variety of people, and English was one of the working languages from the very beginning.

As I gained more experiences and learned new things, the world of research opened up in line with the visits from all around the world. In addition to various research initiatives, workshops, meetings and actual research work, I became familiar with researchers from Germany, Poland, France and Russia. Although the events mainly focus on actual scientific work or the related planning, the work is nevertheless carried out in collaboration between people. English is a second or third language for many, so the discussions are conducted using a common vocabulary without any frills or perfect grammar. Being able to speak other languages, even in the form of individual phrases, helps break the ice and encourages others to take part in the discussion. Particularly in the discussions taking place in the evening and during leisure time, the most interesting topics include the people themselves, their history and their country and home region. It is easy to show an interest in others by using these themes, and to deepen mutual understanding.

On my first trips as a researcher, I travelled to Spain, China, Germany and Russia. In all of these countries, I had an opportunity to familiarise myself with underground physics research. When communicating with the locals, I sometimes needed to use sign language, dictionaries or translation apps on the phone to get my message across and to understand other people’s sentences. A small number of phrases, such as hi, hello, good morning, how are you, what’s your name, I would like to buy, and so on, came in very handy, too.
One of funniest moments of linguistic success was when a Russian researcher, who did not know English very well, told a joke after repairing a measuring device. We had opened the device, fixed the problem and finally turned the device off. The researcher told me a joke about an elephant and a nurse – after performing surgery on the elephant, they checked that all the tools were outside, but the nurse was missing. I was able to understand the joke based on individual words and the context.

The route I have travelled so far, from a budding research assistant to a laboratory engineer, project researcher and project manager, has been quite interesting, both in terms of the subject matter and the people I have met. By investing a little in language studies, I have broken the ice, and the people I have met during the collaborative visits have become partners in long-term cooperation. Later, my cooperation network has expanded to Africa, Australia, South America and North America, covering almost all continents.

If you are thinking about your future subject choices, I would like to say: don’t forget the importance of studying languages and (your own) history. Regardless of your dream profession or expertise, the work will be carried out in an international world. Sector-specific competence lays the foundation for your career, but language skills, even limited ones, and knowledge about cultures and your own history will lay the foundation for the development of interpersonal relationships in the international world.

Jari Joutsenvaara, Project Manager
Regional Excellence Research Group (REx), University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute