Local to international postdoc
Jan 2016. I’m about to commence moving from one side of the world to the other in six weeks (Sydney -> Munich). I’m beginning my second postdoc post since leaving my PhD lab, about 12 months ago now. Over the last year, I’ve acquired some general experience with transitioning between jobs, and the challenges that comes with changing projects and environments (more about that here). Now I am about to relive this experience again, but also throwing in an international relocation, and to a country where I do not speak the native language.
To try to make this transition as smooth as possible, I interviewed some twitter friends,Rachel, Dimitri and Kyren, for their advice on moving overseas and starting a new postdoc abroad. I found their advice really helpful and thoughtful. I imagine that this information will be useful for someone else going through this too, so these guys have kindly allowed me to share their answers to our informal interviews with you.
Here is a little bit about each of them:
Rachel (@rachelemoore): I’m originally from Australia, where I studied Biomedical Science at the University of Melbourne, focusing on developmental neuroscience. I finished up there with an Honours project on the development of the nervous system in the gut and then moved to the UK for my PhD at University College London, looking at migration of the neural crest (a population of cells present early in development). After my PhD I ‘traveled’ my way home and started looking for post-doc positions. In the end, I returned to the UK to start a post-doc at King’s College London, where I have been for nearly two years, researching how nerve cells are born.
Dimitri (@dperrin): Dimitri’s a lecturer at QUT specializing in artificial intelligence and image processing in relation to Biochemistry and Cell Biology. He has relocated A LOT, and as you read below you will see that his advice is really valuable due to his many experiences with moving countries. Dimitri moved from his Masters studies in Clermont-Ferrand, France, to PhD studies in Dublin, Ireland, to postdoc work in Osaka and Kobe in Japan, and is now lecturing in Brisbane, Australia. Dimitri was a Marie Curie fellow and has since been very successful with funding. You can read more about Dimitri and check out his blog here.
Kyren (@KyrenLazarus): Like Natalie, I have moved overseas to start my second postdoc position. I am a cancer researcher interested in elucidating the function of cell fate regulators in specific subtypes of breast cancer. My PhD lab was at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research. Soon after my PhD, I moved to Perth for a short postdoc at Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute. The move to Cambridge, UK was tough at the start, but a year on, I am enjoying it.
Over to the experts!
Q. How long should I expect it takes to settle into lab and home life?
R: I would say a few months to settle into lab life, slightly less time for home life. I’m sure this was at least partly because the city was not particularly new and I already had some friends here (although many of my friends from my PhD had also moved on to other places). I had also been living out of a backpack for months by the time I got back to London, so it was almost a relief to have a wardrobe, never mind where it was! Both times I lived for a couple of weeks in an AirBnB room until I was able to find permanent accommodation. I was pretty relaxed about that, but I guess some other people might find it a bit stressful. But there was also quite a difference in the dynamics of my then new lab compared to my PhD lab (not bad/good, just different) and I had been out of the working mindset for quite a while, so it took some time to get back into the swing of things in that sense.
D: I usually make fast transitions with respect to home life. Maybe about 2-3 weeks. It really depends on the individual, though. For my wife, it regularly took several months.
K: Home life: Australia – UK was a very smooth transition. The only settling in that we had to do was generic living out of home issues (setting up accommodation, bank, mobile phones, electricity, gas). This was the first time my wife and I moved out of home so that was challenging, but doing it together made it fun. Cambridge is a small town so we soon started to recognise people down the street, at the local pub etc. Meetup.com is a great resource in any city. We only realised that we were ‘home’ when we went away to France for a trip and we were delighted to return to Cambridge.
Work life: My boss told me during my first week that I wouldn’t get any results for a few months. He was right. Simple things like cloning, western blots etc. were not working. I had a serious case of ‘imposter syndrome’. But after a while it was fine and now I am very productive.
Q. Relocating is a big move and so productivity is obviously going to be affected. What did you do to keep everything rolling, or what didn’t you do that you would do differently if you were moving again?
D: If you are a “dry” scientist (I am working on complex system modelling and analysis, bioinformatics, etc.), you can get set up fairly rapidly. For others, it will take longer, but either way there is a period when you are not going to produce new results. What I have found useful is to use that time to finalise papers from previous projects, and to make sure you are up to speed on the latest research in your new field (especially important if your new group is in a different field to your previous work). If you can manage both, it ensures that you can hit the ground running whenever your equipment/material arrives, and that you do not have a “white year” in your publications.
K: As mentioned, I did have some issues at the start. These things are unavoidable. Time is your friend and in time things will smoothen out. The best thing I did was never said ‘No’. That was my motto. This helped to keep me busy on projects that were working well and spend less time on the others. I always think about going back in time and doing it again, but I really feel that nothing much would change.
Q. Anytime a scientist changes jobs, there is usually a heap of data from the old group which carries over (I.e. Papers and projects). How did you manage this during your move? Did you get to a point where you stopped doing old work and focused on the new?
D: For most projects, the initial period mentioned above was enough to finalise everything. There is a point when you want to stop working with your old group, especially if it is where you did your PhD. It does not mean you will never work together again (do not burn any bridges!), but your CV needs to show some independence as well. It is slightly different if it is a group where you worked as a postdoc, or if the project has a very high profile, but you would still need to make sure it does not decrease your productivity for new projects.
K: My PhD project was finished after I wrote up. One paper was pending to be published, but that needed a cohort of animal experiments. This was not possible with me leaving, so my PhD supervisor has come up with novel ways of publishing the work. I do work on old projects from time to time, mainly at home.
Q. What was your approach to collaborations? Did you take on everything offered, did you actively have to go out and make it happen, or were you careful about what type of work you added to your load?
R: I was pretty open to anything. My supervisor suggested a couple of people within the department who are doing things that could be interesting for my work. I used it as a way to meet people, particularly more senior researchers who I wasn’t necessarily going to run into at the pub on a Friday night. I didn’t feel “overloaded” with these things as they were and still are quite relevant to my project, but if more opportunities or less relevant opportunities had come up I might have had to think more carefully.
D: My research is very multidisciplinary, so I always actively seek collaborations. For collaborations being offered, you need to be careful about what to accept. It is natural to want to make a good first impression, but make sure you do not spread yourself too thinly. Start by identifying your “why” (watch this). If you are offered something that does not fit your own goals, is it worth accepting? There are also “offers” that you are not allowed to reject, but these are usually easy to recognise. Remember there are ways to decline offers without making enemies, e.g. “thanks for considering me, but I do not think I would be the best fit for this project, because A, B and C. have you talked to X about your ideas?” People come to you because they think you are the solution to their problem. Show them you are not, and offer an alternative.
K: As before, I never said no. Hence, we have set up some key collaborations that will hopefully stay with me for life. Cambridge is a great place for collaborations and everyone is willing to help.
Q. Are there any other challenges you faced in or out of the lab?
R: Nothing in particular springs to mind. I did have it relatively easy though, in terms of language, culture etc., so I’m sure other people would have different or more challenging experiences.
D: In the lab, language can sometimes be an issue. Other researchers usually have at least a decent English, but this is not necessarily true for students, admin staff, etc. Each country also has its own research culture, in terms of how to run meetings, to what extent ideas are discussed (and critiqued) in public, how rigid the hierarchy is, etc. If you observe carefully during the first few weeks, it should not be too difficult to understand. Outside the lab, everything (language, culture, food, climate, etc.) can be enjoyable or discouraging, and usually is both at different times. Living abroad is a rollercoaster. The highs are higher, and the lows lower.
K: Finding a good Parma. But seriously, I found that having a good work/life balance is tough. I found myself wanting to go in over the weekend. But with a new wife in a new place, it was tough. So I made the decision to work long days to sustain a good work/life balance where I am able to spend quality time with her over the weekend.
Q. Do you have any advice on applying for grants (particularly the importance and timing) and/or building overseas networks?
R: I haven’t used it for this purpose yet, but following a couple of relevant people on Twitter seems to be a good way to find out what grants are coming up and when in various countries, as well as what the general funding situation is. Apart from that just keeping in touch with past colleagues is good. While looking for post-docs I emailed a couple of people I knew who were in departments that I was thinking of applying to, to see what they thought of working with my potential supervisor and his/her lab. I think this is a particularly good idea (if you know someone there) if you are moving over without really knowing the person and having the chance to meet the rest of the lab.
D: Overseas networks are great for the research itself, but not always easy in terms of grants. Not all schemes have an international scope, and not all pairs of countries have bilateral agreements like the Australia-China Science and Research Fund. All countries, all funding agencies have their own rules, priority research areas, etc. Ask your new colleagues about how things are done in your new country. The sooner you are familiar with your new funding landscape, the easier it will be to plan for and prepare high-quality proposals. Some agencies will focus their evaluation on the project itself, while others favour track-records. If your targets are in the second category, identify your partners early, and start working (and publishing) together.
K: The more you apply for, the more you will receive. Use the first two years to build the foundation work that will be used as preliminary data for your next grants. Timing is everything.
Q. Part of being a postdoc and moving towards group leader is starting to have your own group. What is your opinion on supervising students after relocating?
R: I’ve supervised several students, but they all started after I had already had time to settle into the lab and were only there for a couple of months at a time, so my relocation didn’t make any difference. If they were PhD students, for example, and you weren’t sure how long you were going to be around, I can imagine it might get tricky. I think you’d need a clear plan and an involved co-supervisor from the start, if only so that the student understood exactly what they were getting themselves in for.
D: If you are staying long enough to see them through graduation, you should do it. It is useful for your career development, and they will also benefit from having a co-supervisor with an international (and necessarily different) perspective. If you are not staying long enough, or not sure you will, make that clear from the start, and discuss how you will continue to be involved after you leave. It is doable, but it would not be fair on the student to leave that until the last minute.
K: I had to supervise two students on the day I arrived. They were Portuguese and wonderful in the lab. However since I was new and so were they, it did not make the best combination. Since then, I have taken on a few students and even a visiting postdoc. It has given me the opportunity to develop the major story without having to spend time on it. Its great!
Q. If you had to give a single piece of critical advice to ensure success in your overseas position, what would it be?
R: I’m not sure if this is only because I was very junior when I was in a lab in Australia, but I find it much easier to meet various people from many different institutions and countries in the UK. (I suppose Europe is the same). Even just in my department, we regularly have seminars by people working all across the UK, Europe, USA, and Japan. Then there are other seminars organised by the rest of the faculty or university, and those organised by other similar departments across London. You can go to a relatively small conference and meet people from a dozen different countries. Everywhere is so close – it’s nothing for someone from Paris to hop on the Eurostar and come to London for the day. So – not that I’ve been wildly successful in my career just yet! – I’d say just take every opportunity that comes up. It might not make a huge difference in the UK/Europe/wherever, but I’m hoping that it will make a difference once I move back to Australia and have made connections that I otherwise would not have had the chance to make. Another piece of advice that I was given, which is really just advice for anyone moving or travelling overseas, is to remember to tell yourself that things are different compared to home, rather than bad compared to home. It takes some effort sometimes, but it gives you some perspective.
D: Be positive. There are times when it will be hard, but it is worth it in the end. Having contacts with other foreigners (especially from your own country) can be useful at times, but it should not be your only social circle. Make sure to avoid the disillusioned, sour ones: it is not because their experience did not work out that yours will not. They are toxic more than anything else.
K: The one piece of advice would be: never say no. Try to work around and fit it into your schedule if it has relevance to your work and if you see the potential benefits.
Another important point for fellows who are planning to return home:
Since I am going to Munich on a CJ Martin Fellowship, which intends for applicants to return to Australia after two years abroad, it is really important to stay in touch with what is happening at home. Ideally, it’s a good idea to visit a couple of conferences with your “hometown” community during the time you are overseas – then you get the opportunity to show off the great things you are doing abroad as well as figuring out your next steps in the funding and employment landscape that you will be returning to.
Other general advice
Moving is expensive. A Canadian working here in my Australian lab says it cost her around $5000-8000 every time she relocated, although she was selling everything and starting over each time. Shipping furniture and possessions, especially from Australia, is similarly expensive.
It takes time to get the first paper out after moving country. Jenny Martin (@JennyMartin_UQ) provided some advice a few months ago about transitioning overseas. In Jenny’s experience, it can take up to 2 years to get the first paper out. It is important to set reasonable expectations for yourself and for your mentor.
Work with people you like and trust. Jenny also advised to work with people you trust, respect and like. It is best to do the ground work for this, by talking to students and post docs, and working out how people operate. This applies to collaborations but also deciding which lab you will move to. Also find a circle of peers that you can ask advice from, like how to identify the best suppliers.
Take the time to settle in. Rachel says, “When I first moved to London for my PhD, I made an appointment to meet my supervisor straight away and pretty much assumed I’d be turning up to start work the following Monday. He told me not to bother coming in for a couple of weeks (I can’t remember exactly how long, I think perhaps a fortnight), which I was really surprised about! But it gave me time to find a flat and move, get the internet connected, buy linen and plates, get a mobile phone, and so on. Looking back, I would have really been quite useless in the lab for those few weeks anyway, so it was very understanding on his part, even though I was a bit put out at the time.”