One of the most significant transition points for many scientists is the decision to move overseas. For most people, this occurs at the point of the postdoctoral fellowship, with the experience of conducting research in a foreign country and system, and also one of the key stages in career progression for those who are aiming for international employment.
A smaller number will move overseas for graduate school, which comes with its own challenges and opportunities. I made the move at several stages, heading from Australia to the UK for graduate school, then to the US for a postdoc (and subsequent transition into science policy), and finally followed by a recent return back to Australia.
I thought I’d share some of my experiences during those moves in case they might be helpful for others considering or adjusting to a recent move.
I’m not going to cover the logistical details associated with moving overseas here (finding a job, immigration issues, moving your stuff, etc.) – there are a number of excellent resources on the Bio Careers blog and through the National Postdoctoral Association that delve into these issues.
My focus is on getting the most out of the experience of living and working overseas. In particular, I wanted to briefly cover a few of what I’ve observed as key issues for foreign scientists to consider:
In each of the countries I’ve worked in I’ve been very fortunate to be operating in my native (and, ashamedly, only!) language – English. I’m constantly amazed and impressed though by people who live and work using a second (or sometimes third or fourth!) language.
While English is undoubtedly the international language of science, scientists living in non-English speaking countries will usually need some working knowledge of the local language to get by. Similarly, non-native speakers working in English-speaking countries have the opportunity to develop conversational and colloquial proficiency by engaging outside the lab.
The key thing in both cases is being willing to take a risk and interact with non-scientists and in settings outside of research. If your institution offers language courses or conversation groups, or you can find them elsewhere in the local community, get involved early. Picking up improved language skills, especially if those skills are in English, will be one of most valuable things you can gain from a stint abroad.
Don’t spend too much time with other expats from your own country
Living far away from friends and family, in a place with a different culture and custom, can be quite lonely. If you happen to be in a place with a substantial sized group of other expats from your home country, it can be tempting to band together and spend a lot of time reliving the experience of home.
I’d suggest not falling back on this too much. One of the key advantages to living overseas is the chance to interact with other cultures and nationalities and meet people from backgrounds different to your own. This will obviously mean experiencing the local culture, but if you’re in a multicultural country like the US, also gives you a chance to socialize with others from a broader range of nationalities.
As hard as it might seem, do your best to make the most of those opportunities. Many institutions will have social groups for foreign students, so try these along will local groups (sports, social, musical, arts, etc.).
That said, do spend some time with people from your country!
While you’re living overseas, especially if you haven’t moved in with a family, being able to relax with people who understand your customs can be a great cure for homesickness, and it’s nice to celebrate national days and significant events with other expats.
However, I was surprised to find that possibly the hardest transition I’ve made has been the one back to my home country, Australia. Having been gone for 8 years, many things about living back at home feel strangely unfamiliar.
On top of that, it’s quite difficult to go from being somewhat exotic (a foreigner!), to being just like everyone else. Thankfully, many of the Australian friends I made in the UK and US are now back in Australia too, and have been a great support network to help with the readjustment to being back home. I also made use of connections from friends to help me find a job once I got back.
Don’t forget your networks back home
In keeping with much of the advice on the Bio Careers blog, I spent a lot of time building up networks in the US. This was especially important once I made the transition from research into science policy. However, once I decided to move back to Australia, a different problem emerged – I didn’t really know anyone back there anymore!
If you’re considering returning to your home country after a period abroad (and even if you’re not – immigration and family issues can sometimes mean you need to change plans down the track), keep one eye on maintaining contacts with people back home. Even just sending the occasional email to former supervisors, colleagues or friends can help ensure you don’t get forgotten and can more easily make the move back home.
There are obviously ranges of other issues associated with thinking about or actually making a move to foreign country. Given the international nature of science, it shouldn’t be hard to find others in your lab, department or institution who have done a similar thing, either as foreigners coming to your country or compatriots who have returned home.
Make the most of this resource and ask them about their experience to help you get the most out of what can be an incredibly exciting and rewarding career move.