The Pros and Cons of a PhD or Post-doc in a Foreign Country

by on 4th of August, 2011 in PhD Survival
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About Marisa Fernández-Cachón
I finished my Chemistry degree in 2007 at the University of Barcelona, Spain. From 2007-2009 I carried out a Master program in Biochemistry at the University of Barcelona, Spain. Since March 2009 I joined the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) at the Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg as a PhD student in the field of Systems Biology.

It's time to start thinking about your next move. Maybe you've finished your undergrad/master's degree and are considering doing a PhD. Or maybe you're past all that and need to find a post-doc position. Amongst all of this, you might be considering the option of doing your PhD or post-doc in a foreign country.

It's a great opportunity — and the fact that you have it is just one of the many wonderful things about being a scientist — but is it also a huge decision.  Moving abroad would certainly be an enriching experience, both personally and professionally, but it can be very challenging as well. Here is my take on the advantages and disadvantages of taking on a PhD or post-doc in a foreign land. I hope it will help you with your decision.

Advantages:

  • You'll get to know another country and its culture. Choose a country that you particularly like or that you feel especially connected to. Take your time to do research on the Internet or ask your friends/family. Think carefully about whether or not you could fit in the country and its culture.
  • Your self-confidence will increase. You will find yourself constantly in new and difficult situations that you will have to face without support from family/friends (especially in the beginning). You will be forced out of your "comfort zone" to develop new skills and competences to overcome these situations and this will increase your self-esteem.
  • You'll become proficient (or thereabouts) in the language that you use to do your PhD. Unless you choose a country where they speak your mother language, you will have to adopt a new language as your everyday language. You will use it for 3-5 years in a formal and informal context.
  • You'll gain a lot of transferable skills. As I mentioned before, you will be forced out of your comfort zone. To cope with this, you will have to improve your communication skills, be flexible and adaptable, learn to work in an international team…These are very valuable skills that you probably won't get if you stay at home.
  • You will meet many new people and increase your network. As a foreigner, you will have the opportunity to meet many more people than you would if you were local because locals tend to keep their old social circles and stay there.
  • (Possibly) better working/funding conditions than in your home country. Hopefully you will choose a country that invests more money in research than yours. You will then have more opportunities to attend international meetings, get to know state of the art science, and so on.

Disadvantages:

  • You will feel alone and miss your roots. Try to build a nice social circle and this will help to cope with difficult situations and nostalgic feelings.
  • You'll have to build a new life from scratch. Remember that a PhD or post-doc is not just a few months, it's 3-5 years. You will have to fill in a lot of bureaucratic forms, move to a new house, get new friends, maybe get a new partner…The more motivated you are, the more energy you will have and the less difficult this will be.
  • You'll need to adjusting to new work and lifestyle. Again, the more motivated you are about getting to know your new culture, the easier this will be, but sometimes you will wish that you were at home and didn't have to think every time if it is appropriate to shake hands or give two kisses when you get to know somebody…and so on.
  • It can be exhausting not to use your mother tongue. There will be very hard days or difficult situations where you wished you could say 'blah blah blah blah blah blah' very fast in your mother tongue!
  • Earning a PhD/doing a post-doc is usually hard, and it is even harder in another country. Keep this in mind before making a decision. Personally I don't regret it.

Let us know if you are already in this situation and want to share some tips or if you have any specific questions.

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8 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of a PhD or Post-doc in a Foreign Country”

  1. Avatar of kathie kathie says:

    I did my PhD overseas. Luckily it was in a country that was also predominately English speaking. I didn't give myself much time in-between arriving and starting work. I noticed that my productivity dropped dramatically. First impression can be hard to shake. My advice is to give yourself plenty of time to acclimatize to your new environment- the emotional and physical (jet lag) costs of moving country can be harder on you than you think.

    1. Hello Raptorman,

      I agree with you, it is important to take things slowly in the beginning :)

  2. I'm originally from the US, but I did a post-doc in England. It was a great experience, but I was not able to apply for any grants in the UK (they require 5 year residency). I also could not apply for any grants in the US, except an F32 which would have reduced by salary by $10,000 a year (I couldn't afford that) Just something to think about since grants show productivity.

  3. Thanks for this great post.
    I am doing my postdoc in a country where English is not the native language. I could say that people in general hate English here. I thought that science is communicated in English all over the world but it is not exactly like that! On the contrary I visited countries where everybody speaks English perfectly. So before you go, don't hesitate to ask your PI.
    Marisa, I wonder how it is for a spanish to do science in Germany.

    1. Hi OmicsScience,

      Yes, that you say is a great tip, if your PI doesnt speak perfectly english its a problem…
      You ask me about how is it for a spanish to do science in Germany. Well, doing science in Germany is great. We have much more founding here comparing to in Spain. Also I like the way things work here, specially in my institute. Most of the people here are young PIs, with a long of nice and interesting ideas. Really a good environment :). I dont know exactly if this answers your question :)

    2. Thank you for your reply Marisa. What you mentioned is another reason to enjoy science there. I bet not speaking German is not a problem, at least in the lab.

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