Moving across the atlantic to do science. What for?

I have repeatedly discussed this with friends and colleagues, even before I left Europe for the United States. Sometimes, we touched on specific details about the States, other times we had more broad musings concerning leaving your home turf for a far away country “simply” to work there. Well, it is hopefully not only work what you are planing on doing while living in a far away land but rather immersing yourself in the culture and becoming part of a community. In this snipped I am trying to address several of the issues that come hand in hand with a big move across oceans and landmasses. It’s gonna be a mix of self-lived experiences and advices gathered along the way. One of those I got early on, when I was still an undergrad at Glasgow University. It boiled down to not to cross the Atlantic in order to get a PhD in the States. The reasoning be that it simply takes b…. ages to graduate compared to most European countries. Another point being that with several more years of science and life experience I would be professionally and personally better equipped to be proactively involved in one of these “big” American labs that can be for sure overwhelming without adequate skill set.  I am glad about this advice as I stayed for grad-school in the UK and had a splendid time. That said, I also meet several friends that had a amazing time during grad-school in the States. So here we go.

Most importantly know why you want to be, live and work in a new place far away from home. Don’t just leave because you have nothing else to do. Or it is the thing you ought to do. You won’t enjoy your stay. Also one place is not like any other and this holds true abroad as well. What I mean is that it will be a totally different experience of where you gonna end up within one country. For me it was pretty clear that I wanted to leave Europe to live in the States for some time. Yet the only place I really wanted to move to (within the States) was sunny California. Having seen several other states by now I absolutely don’t regret living here in northern California. It was similar when I went to Japan: only being in Tokyo, and not somewhere in Okinawa, made it such an impressive experience.

My next point might sound like a no-brainier, yet personally I  consider it one of the main reasons why I enjoyed all my moves to different countries. I always aim to be open, relaxed and content before departure. This is even more important when moving across an ocean and several time zones.  It involves taking all your belongings you can manage to get across and leaving much of your previous life behind. \\\ In case you had the experience of moving within a country or continent, for the purpose of Europe, just multiple the distance you feel between your friends and family back home now by the multiple of hours you need to spend on a plane reaching your next destination. This might provide you with a glimpse of the distance you going to cover.\\\ It sounds dramatic and it definitely can be. Moving to another continent implies adapting your life to a different society with distinct rules of engagement and social codes. Whereas at the same time you will be without most of your accustomed social backdrop and comfort network. So be prepared for your move. Practically, this means arrange everything for the first month or so before you arrive. Have a bucket of cash you can spare on the side. Take a break between your old job and your next assignment. Spend as much time as you think you need with friends and family. Get yourself in this space where you absolutely enjoy your life and feel good about yourself. Be open! Be ready! So bring it on 🙂 This smile was brought on my face by taking off three months before I left from good old Europe to the States. Within this time (and even before) I meet most (if not all) of my plenty great friends I made over all these years. This involved traveling all over western Europe seeing lots of places I’ve (never) seen before and some I always wanted to see. Milan, Bern, the Alps, Barcelona, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem…just to mention a few and to give me some time to reminisce….Yes, everything is close together in Europe and yes sometimes I really miss the magical views and sunsets on-top of old-grown European cities. With all this energy and amazing memories on board it was much easier to stick to my rule of thumb. For moves to give myself at least a year for arrival and settlement. Because each and every time before I move I think I am pretty clear about all those facts. I give in to the delusion of having a solid idea about what I getting myself into. Well…that’s before and totally contrary to what I always experience when submerged in these moves. \\\ At a recent EMBO meeting of European post-doctoral fellows working in the States a fellow and me came to a similar conclusion about our experience of moving to the States—“…but it is really different from what I expected it to be.”—“Well didn’t we all think so!”—\\\

This gulf between expectations and reality of course can also easily be experienced within your new lab and towards your new boss. At the end of the day these two components might be the main reasons why you came all across the world. Accordingly you might feel entitled to be rewarded for all your efforts and personal ‘losses’. This sounds logic, at least somewhat, yet in fact it might come totally different. This whole move of yours is for sure a huge step and game-changer for you but your colleagues might just don’t give a s… and simply see you as another competitor. Similarly your boss might perceive you as just another of multiple minions, never have time, no real interested in your project and actually not really be a scientist at all anymore. He or she might have slowly morphed into a politician or sales(wo)man without you realizing from afar. These and many more horror stories have reached me via the grapevine or first hand from other colleagues. Thankfully I haven’t experienced such an horrific situation myself. Though at first I struggled with having to start from scratch; again being no-one at all. In this sense most of your new colleagues likely have not read your papers, do not know your reputation or in fact that you might have any at all and are rather concerned with their own projects (yet sometimes offer to help with bits). Overall it boils down to you starting at a similar position as at the beginning of your PhD (just at a higher level). You have to prove yourself all over again and reclaim your turf just as you have done before with the one you just left behind. Of course, as you can imagine this can be at times a rather arduous exercise and upward struggle. Being just another reason to start your new assignment with energy and full-heartedly…..and ah yes the approach to science might be as different as the banking system. So don’t bank on what you are used to in this respect either.

In a nutshell you not going to know what you get yourself into and it might go all wrong. You ending up unsatisfied and ready to leave after your first year starting a new post-doc somewhere else in the States or back home. This won’t be the end of your life or career. You still gonna have had this experience and you most likely will have grown and learned a lot scientifically and personally. Alternatively, it might be also simply the start of an amazing new part of your life. You getting to know the love of your life, making the discoveries of your lifetime and ending up with your dream position in the place you wanted to be.


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