I have always had it in the back of my mind that I would like to live and work abroad for a year or two. This was augmented in my mind by the mainstream view in scientific research that a stint in a foreign lab is beneficial to a scientist’s career. The benefit of working overseas is further evidenced anytime you scan the CV/resume of a laboratory head or manager. In the past two years, I’ve gone from writing up my thesis in Dublin to doing an exciting postdoc in Australia. I’d like to share my experience with you, and maybe help you decide whether or not working abroad is for you.
I started thinking about a move abroad as I entered the final year of my PhD following a chat at lunch one day with one of the senior scientists at our institute. In early May, around the time I was had started writing my thesis, I headed off to New York for an interview. Flying out of Dublin airport, I was really confident I would be coming back a few days later with an exciting job in the bag.
My PhD supervisors and the postdocs I mentioned above had me well prepared for the presentation I was to give, what questions I would be asked and what questions to ask. Overall, the visit went well and I got offered the job. What made me decline was my potential future colleagues: one PhD student acted as if he had never seen a woman before, and another replied “us biologists are hermits” when I enquired into social interaction outside lab hours.
And so, following thesis submission, I stayed on with my thesis supervisors for a couple of months, writing papers while preparing for my viva and job hunting. Just before my viva, I secured a postdoc at Queens University Belfast, covering maternity leave for the senior scientist. My boyfriend and I decided then to book flights to spend a few months in South America then move to Perth, Australia early in the New Year. The recession was starting to bite in Ireland and elsewhere, Australia with its more resilient economy seemed like a good option.
During my time in Queens, I started researching labs in Perth, and applied for two fellowships: an EMBO Long-Term fellowship, and one from the Human Frontier Science Program. The whole application process for both was relatively straightforward and a good experience to go through. The hardest part was waiting to hear back. We had been travelling around South America for just over a month when I got the dreaded rejection letter from EMBO. It was my first taste of grant application rejection, and it wasn’t nice!
With our move to Australia coming up fast, I started looking at my other options, in case I wasn’t successful with the second grant. Despite having several promising interviews, nothing came through, and the next few months were a bit of wilderness. I started an office job to keep myself busy and to bring some cash in.
Eventually, when I was coming up to four months in the office job and getting really sick of data entry, things really turned around for me. My current boss invited me for an informal chat after I applied for a research officer job in her lab. This went well, and a formal interview followed a couple of weeks later. She offered me the job that evening by email. I am now almost eight months into my current job, and at this stage I am very happy. I am learning a huge amount in my current position and have added a significant number of skills to my repertoire. While it did take me a number of months to secure a position, I never had an interview where they brought up the fact I hadn’t done laboratory work for a number of months. My year out of the lab did affect me initially, in that it took me a bit longer than I thought it would to settle in and get back up to speed with techniques. However, like a lot of things, it’s just like riding a bicycle: you never really forget.
In a way, the last two years are a reflection of the uncertainty that comes with working in research. If I was to give anyone advice to anyone thinking of moving abroad I would say the following;
Really research the city and country you are thinking of moving to i.e. visa requirements, cost of living and availability of affordable accommodation.
If possible, meet with your potential boss and colleagues in person before you accept a job offer. I was advised to push for a lab visit, which I would highly recommend based on my experiences since.
Have back up plans and don’t put your all your eggs in one basket. Approach a number of labs and keep applying for other jobs while waiting for funding to come through.
Look for a postdoc before submitting your thesis. Potential bosses would keep strong candidates in mind when applying for funding. In addition, it’s better to have something lined up so you won’t be unemployed for too long after submission.
From a future employer’s perspective, the purpose of the phone interview is to screen your CV and get an idea of your technical competence in the lab. Use this phone interview to your advantage, too, by asking questions regarding the makeup of the lab, i.e. the number of postdocs, students and research assistants. This can give a sense of how the PI runs their lab and the relationship they have with their staff. For a first time postdoc, being the most senior postdoc/scientist in the lab is probably not ideal.
It’s a good idea to ensure that a specific project is in place for you in a potential new post, as you don’t want to have to come up with a project from scratch.
Another issue to consider is funding. I was advised to ask how long the project was funded for. Some contracts are for a year initially, and extension is dependent on you personally bringing in funding. Again, this is a lot of pressure for your first postdoc.
Have you worked overseas in the course of your scientific career? What advice do you have for scientists in a similar position?
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