After obtaining his Ph.D., physicist Carl McBride (pictured left) decided to leave his native Britain to gain some research experience in Spain. All went well during his postdoc in Madrid--so well, in fact, that in a competition for an assistant professorship he ranked first. Unfortunately, "they denied me the post," he says. "They said my Ph.D. could not be used, neither for professional nor academic purposes."

McBride isn't the only one to have suffered as a result of Spain's complex and unfriendly procedures for certifying foreign degrees. To be eligible for permanent positions in Spain, scientists with foreign titles need to have their diplomas recognised as equivalent to Spanish ones, a process which, in the past, could take a very long time. But, thanks to a nudge from the European Commission and a Spanish law passed last March, the process seems to have become much quicker and easier--although only time will tell whether the problem has been solved.

Wrestling With the Past System

McBride obtained a B.Sc. in physics from the University of Bath, a master’s in computational physics from the University of Salford, and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham. After that, he says, "I had to develop my career, learn new techniques, and publish, and there were some very good people in Madrid." So in 2000, he started a postdoc in the Department of Chemical Physics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid with a European Union Marie Curie Individual Fellowship.

After coming out of a competition with the highest score, McBride was awarded the position of profesor ayudante (assistant professor) in his department in early 2004. But about 5 months later, the decision was reversed on the grounds that, in the eyes of the Spanish system, McBride did not hold a master's degree or a Ph.D. "The forwarded documentation," said the official rejection letter, "has not gone through any of the two legal processes, neither of homologation nor of recognition, for the mentioned title to be valid in Spain, neither for academic nor for professional purposes."

Spain has two systems for validating foreign academic degrees. The process of homologación matches foreign diplomas with Spanish ones and provides access to a university, whether to study or get a permanent job. " Professional recognition," on the other hand, acknowledges the competence of degree holders to practice a profession in Spain and is usually required outside of universities.

Since arriving in Spain, says McBride, he has "tried twice to get through the process of homologation." But before the new law, it was a complex process; in order to have a Ph.D. homologated, it was necessary to get preceding university degrees homologated first. This involved gathering many certified documents and detailed information on the courses and having them translated into Spanish. "The first time, I had to stop the process because they wanted documents that I could not obtain," says McBride--documents that indicated the number of hours for each course and individual final-exam results. Four years later, McBride decided to give it another go, but that time "was a disaster as well," he says, because he didn't want to part with his diplomas. "I didn’t wish to give them the originals, as they keep them for a long time. Without them, I couldn’t apply for other opportunities. They then refused to even start the process."

With no homologation in sight, McBride decided to take the case to court, a procedure, he knew, that could take up to 3 years. "At the same time, I was giving classes, as a doctor, in the very same university. On my university ID card, it says ‘doctor,’ and [the ID card] is signed by the vice-rector. However, it was the vice-rector that denied me the position. It is ironic," he continues, "that they are happy to employ somebody on a temporary contract but make it very difficult for them to get a permanent job within the system."

McBride says he received much support from his boss, Carlos Vega. "He wanted me to stay and he tried very hard, but it’s difficult to fight against the system when so many laws seem to be designed to stop foreigners from getting jobs in Spain." Eventually, despite his advisor's support, his postdoc came to an end and he had to leave the university. He landed a job at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) Instituto de Química Física Rocasolano in Madrid, but the Instituto could offer him only short-term contracts. "If I had the post [in the university], I would be working toward a permanent position," he says. Since then, McBride has started doing a second Ph.D.--at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia --in his spare time to make sure he could be considered next time a professorship comes up.

McBride's experience was disheartening, but it did not put him off of employment in Spain. "I have been here for 7 years now; I am settled down. Mobility is an opportunity, but I do not think that one can be mobile all the time." Besides, he says, "I enjoy work and life here."

Other Experiences of the Past

Before the new law on diploma recognition, it was not uncommon for scientists in Spain to struggle with similar problems.

Erik-Jan Malta (right) left his native Netherlands for Spain in May 2001, after obtaining a master's degree in biology from Leiden University and a Ph.D. in marine ecology from Nijmegen University. He went to Cádiz University for a postdoc with a Marie Curie Fellowship. In 2004, a temporary professorship came open at the University of Cádiz, but because he didn’t have his diplomas homologated, he was refused the right to apply.

"I would have stood a chance there, and I wasn’t even allowed to compete," says Malta. So in November 2004, he asked for the homologation of his master's degree. Four months later, he was asked for more documents, which took him 3 more months to get. "I am sure I can get it; I’m just not sure when," says Malta. Meanwhile, he is doing a postdoc at the Centre of Marine Sciences of Algarve in Faro and the University of Cádiz.


For those wanting to work in Spain, obtaining a Ph.D. directly from a Spanish institution may have seemed like a good solution, but this still required getting previous degrees homologated first. After starting a Ph.D. in mathematics at Heidelberg University in 1994, Dagmar Meyer, now an assistant professor in the Mathematics Department of the University of Göttingen, decided to finish the degree in Spain. "My boyfriend at the time was Spanish; he was having problems finishing his teaching degree in Germany, as his previous studies from Spain were not recognised. I thought it would be easier to go to Spain."

Meyer pursued her work at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona , but she was told that unless she homologated her master’s degree, her Ph.D. diploma would not be valid in Spain, even if it was granted by a Spanish university. So she embarked on a process that, she says, took "1 year and three-quarters. It was a real nightmare." She got the homologation of her master’s, but by that time she had to go back to Germany because the scholarship she had received was only for a year.

While in Barcelona, "I was hoping to get a teaching post but couldn’t because I had no recognition of my title," she says. This time the problem was obtaining professional recognition, a process separate from homologation. "I finally did get the professional recognition within 4 months, but since I was already back in Germany, it no longer fulfilled its original purpose. … I still thought that I might like to go back to Spain eventually, so I also went for the professional recognition of my Ph.D. But when I eventually received it, I was quite sick of the whole process, and I no longer felt like moving back to Spain."


Even Spaniards have struggled with the Spanish homologacíon. Félix Fernández-Alonso (left) got his B.Sc. in chemistry from Hamilton College in New York and Imperial College London, and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Stanford University. Because he was thinking about going back to Spain, a couple of years before finishing his Ph.D. he decided to have his diplomas homologated.

"The major problem was the fact that the degrees were not European," says Fernández-Alonso. "It made things much harder even though they came from universities with ample international recognition." All documents had to be validated in a complex procedure that required stamps from The Hague and the involvement of notaries public, embassies, and state and federal government officials. It took 2 years and more than 2000 euros to collect all the documents and another year for the homologation to be granted, he says. "I could finally apply for really serious positions; finally, I could compete with anybody who had a similar degree in Spain." But a better opportunity eventually came up for him in the United Kingdom.

Improvements

The Spanish homologation requirements are the same for nationals and foreigners alike. "Generally speaking, a Título de Doctor is required for both the profession of university professor and the profession of researcher," says Nieves Trelles of the Spanish Ministry for Education and Science National Academic Recognition Information Centre NARIC España. But the exact requirements will depend on each convocatoria de concurso--the announcement of competition--which is issued by the competent authority.

In time, the European Commission became concerned that long delays in the homologation process were a threat to the free movement of science students and workers. A 2002 court ruling gave the European Commission the power to require countries like Spain to change their national laws concerning the recognition of foreign diplomas; in 2004, Spain received an official warning.

Aware, probably, that it was imminent, the Spanish authorities issued a decree 2 months before the official warning. A new law released in November 2004 allowed applicants to submit certified photocopies rather than original diplomas. Most importantly, another law in March 2005 made it possible to homologate a Ph.D. without homologating previous degrees first.

Also, now "holders of Ph.D. degrees from E.U. and non-E.U. countries can apply for the homologación of their degrees to the Spanish degree of ‘doctor’ directly at Spanish universities," says Trelles. Furthermore, the new regulations limit the time they have to respond to 6 months."Concerning homologación a título Superior Universitario, there are very few delays, and homologación a Grado Académico is done very quickly, provided the required documents are submitted," she says.

The European Commission is keeping an eye on the situation, but improvements seem to already be felt on the ground. Valentina Luridiana (right), an Italian scientist with a B.Sc. from the University of Pisa and a master's and Ph.D. in astronomy from the Universidad Nacional Autónomade México , is among the first to benefit from the new system. She arrived in Spain in 2001 for a postdoc at the CSIC Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Granada. In 2004, she received a contract from the CSIC to continue her work at the institute.

Until recently, Luridiana had avoided applying for a homologation, a process that she felt was too long and expensive. But in May 2005, she heard about the new law and asked the University of Granada about the new homologation rules. After a few months, they gave her a list of documents she needed to provide. She was able to put them together in just a few additional months. Just 16 days (and €100) after she made her application, she received a letter granting her homologation.


The new law and experiences like these give hope to scientists who have struggled in the past. "I am preparing the documents for the new [application]," says McBride. But it would be even better, he adds, if degrees from reputable foreign universities were automatically granted recognition: "Maybe [someday] the qualifications within Europe will be like passports." That day is still a long way off, but Spain's new homologation laws have brought European scientists closer than ever to true mobility.

For more information:
Practical guide for foreign researchers in Spain, 2004

Elisabeth Pain is the contributing editor for South and West Europe .

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.