We have previously discussed some of the pros and cons of moving countries for a new research position. If you’ve made the decision to take the plunge and move abroad, here are 5 tips from a seasoned scientific wanderer.
While I was doing my Master’s degree in Biotechnology, I decided on something – I would spend the beginning of my career (PhD and post-docs) in different continents, to experience different ways of working and different approaches to science. I have nearly finished the European leg of my journey, and I’m now getting ready for the US part. So, I wanted to share what I have learnt from moving around and give you a glimpse of what to expect:
1) Bureaucracy matters – get your facts straight
Never ever assume that things that worked in one country will work the same way in another. Even in a Union like the EU, where legislation is supposed to be synchronized to some extent, there might be huge discrepancies. Learn the tax schemes, when they are due and if you need a residence permit. Do not just depend on University services; they might be as lost as you are. Learn your rights; they are not the same as in your home country. Never wait to be informed, go out and seek the information yourself.
2) Local language –a double barrier
If the language of the country you are in is not English, never forget that there are two barriers: yours and theirs. Try to get to at least intermediate level in the local language. And never assume that the people around you know as much English as you do. Try to speak slowly, avoid complex words and look into peoples’ eyes to gauge their understanding. If it is not there, paraphrase and try again. Remember, the more people understand you, the more helpful they will be. Opening the discussion with local language and switching back to English when it gets out of your depth is always a good trick, as you get the sympathy vote and that renders people more helpful.
3) The culture of the country is the culture of the lab
Culture is not something that stays in the museums; it seeps into every aspect of life. From the basic understanding of what research is, to the means of reaching specific goals, every country has its own ways. The earlier you notice these and play along, the better the outcome will be for you. Behavior that is very normal in your home country might be quite unacceptable, so try to learn from your mistakes. Pushing people in directions that they don’t want to go in will only result in your isolation. For example, in Ireland, people generally prefer to find a solution to their needs in their own universities, whereas in France they tend to use personal contacts in other institutes more; or if you are from a Mediterranean country, what is a normal discussion for you might be considered confrontational in other countries.
Try to learn the rules before playing the game!
4) Do not learn the machines, learn the techniques
Experimental equipment is an important part of our lives and one thing you’ll notice is that it changes considerably between labs. One thing to always remember is that this is due to the current and past funding situation of the group. You could go from a lab where you need to book a confocal microscope in the central laboratory but you have an RT-PCR instrument on your bench, to a place where there is a confocal dedicated to your lab, but you need to do PCR the good old fashioned way! The remedy for this is developing a good general understanding of techniques and instrumentation rather than learning the step-by-step instructions for operating the specific machinery in your lab. This will not only make you a better scientist, but will also make you more adaptable in a new setting. You won’t freak out when you move away from your bench top SEM with auto-everything functions to a 25 year old behemoth with tons of warnings on it, because ultimately they all work the same way.
5) Bring something in to get something out
This is a bit hard for a PhD student, but if you are a post-doc, bring something to your new lab, a new analysis technique, a networking opportunity with one of your previous labs, contacts you have in the companies that sell instruments or disposables or, most usefully, a new idea for how to use their resources and established techniques. When you give, you will definitely receive. This is easier if you have made quite a leap and find yourself in a lab which is not at all related to your previous research. Just observe the environment and try to find a way to use your previous knowledge in this new setting. Believe me, there is always a way to integrate your past experiences.
We have previously discussed some of the pros and cons of research in different countries. Now that you’ve made the decision to go for it, bear these 5 things in mind and your experience will hopefully be one that is challenging but enriching, both personally and professionally.