Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Careers going global

<i>(Image: Caroline Purser/Getty)</i>A spell abroad used to be a luxury – now it's becoming the norm if you want to get ahead in science
APART from Nobel prizes, what do physicists Andre Geim and Charles Kao, and chemist Ada Yonath have in common? Career trajectories that have taken them all over the world - in Geim's case, from Russia to Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK.
While globetrotting is not a prerequisite to winning the coveted prize, having a CV that looks like a much-stamped passport is increasingly seen as the signature of an ambitious and motivated young scientist. "In some countries, such as Austria and Germany, going abroad for two years is pretty much a requirement," says Walter Meissl, who has just returned to Austria after a medical physics postdoc in Japan. "It is an unwritten rule."
A recent report published by the Royal Society in London found that more than 35 per cent of articles published in international journals involve international collaborations, a 10 per cent increase on 15 years ago. British researchers are a mobile bunch, with more than 63 per cent having worked outside the country between 1996 and 2010, according to a government report published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The report also notes that those who left the UK for two years and returned were 66 per cent more productive by papers published.
Why should I go abroad?
While the statistics suggest that working abroad is linked with industriousness - and therefore your competitive edge - in an increasingly international playing field, relocating is still a very personal decision. Seeing the world, a desire to do something different and the chance to open their minds were all important to the researchers in New Scientist's select sample.
For others, it was less a matter of choice. "My subject of study was very narrow and my supervisor was leaving the lab, so to move forward I needed to move away," says Vanessa Diaz, who moved to the École Centrale de Lille in France after graduating in mechanical engineering in Venezuela.
And for some, the opportunities on offer were too good to ignore. For John Griffin, an ecology postdoc who moved to the University of Florida, Gainsville, after his PhD at Plymouth University in the UK, the islands off the Georgia coast offered the chance to carry out field experiments in salt marshes on a scale impossible at home. And, says Griffin, somewhat tongue in cheek, "I was tempted to see what the American dream was all about."
How do I get a placement?
There are no hard and fast rules but it shouldn't be too different from applying for a post in your home country. It can be as simple as responding to an advert - or you may have to put in some more work. "Many of our faculty don't advertise widely for positions because they get a lot of speculative CVs," says Lisa Kozlowski, associate dean of the postdoctoral office at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Zoe Fonseca-Kelly, a senior research fellow at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston who has moved from Ireland to Singapore to the US during her training, agrees. "Most positions come down to networking at conferences and mining your supervisor's contacts." She recommends quizzing someone doing a job that interests you to get the inside story.
Potential supervisors will also look more favourably on you if you try to secure your own funding rather than relying on them. There are plenty of international fellowships available for PhD candidates and postdocs.
Do I need to be top of my class?
Most countries won't hold international students to higher standards than they would for their own students. For your first postdoc, says Kozlowski, "they are going to want to see you have a publication record but they won't require five first-author papers because you wouldn't normally have that. At Jefferson, we typically look for one or two."
How do I pick a country?
Rather than asking where should you go, think about who you should join, says Beate Scholz, a consultant on research careers who advises the European Science Foundation among other bodies. Ask where you will learn most, and which lab will set you up with good connections for the next stage of your career. "These are primary criteria. The secondary criteria will be things such as how easy it will be to immerse yourself in the culture and whether there is a language barrier."
It also helps if you have some connection with the lab, whether they collaborate with or know your supervisor, or whether you have met any of the lab members at a conference. And always make contact before signing up. "If you are moving country, perhaps also moving your family, it is a big deal. You want to move somewhere where you will be happy so really check out the group before you move," says Diaz, now a bioengineering lecturer in the mechanical engineering department at University College London.
Of course, if you really love a specific country or region, by all means narrow your search geographically, just don't compromise the quality of the institution you join. "One reason I ended up where I did," says Scholz, "was because I had always wanted to live in Italy. Luckily, I also managed to find a great institution and a field that was perfect for me."

When should I go?

Whenever you feel ready. This may be when you apply for a PhD - or not until your second postdoc. Either way, it is much easier to relocate in the early stages of your career before you have a family or a mortgage.
Orlando de Lange studied natural sciences at the University of Cambridge and is now in the second year of a four-year molecular biology PhD at the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany. He describes the transition as "a shock to the system", mainly because he went straight to a PhD from undergraduate studies, whereas in mainland Europe most people do a master's first. "The first year was extremely hard. I didn't know what I was getting into. If I had, it might have affected my decision."
If you are thinking of going to the US, be aware that their PhD programme is five years long - students have to do two years of classes before they start their research. Five years anywhere is a big commitment and, as Kozlowski points out, trying to transfer your research somewhere else after three years because you're fed up may be a problem.
There is also more pressure for your PhD to be successful than for your postdoc studies because you can always do another postdoc. "Your supervisor knows this so they can push you to work longer hours - you are under their thumb more," says Meissl. "Doing a postdoc abroad was more relaxed."
Will it help my career?
The idea is that you learn new skills and new ways of approaching a problem that you can take to your next position. You will also meet many more potential employers and collaborators. And since relocating takes a considerable amount of organisation and determination, it shows an employer that you are committed and not scared of a challenge.
But being mobile is not enough, warns Guntram Bauer, director of fellowships for the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), an organisation based in Strasbourg, France, that gives grants for international research. "Mobility per se has nothing to do with being an excellent scientist. If your relocation doesn't pay off in terms of output then it didn't help you. It may even hurt you because people will ask what did you do with your two years in the US or France."
Simply getting papers published is not enough to show from your time away, says Fonseca-Kelly, who is also chairwoman of the board of directors of the National Postdoctoral Association in the US. It is about developing networking skills, communicating your science well, collaborating, understanding how to write successful grants - and managing a budget. "Postdocs sometimes forget that they need to make time for these other aspects of career development," she says.
This especially applies to international students. If you intend to return home, you need to network with institutions back home, and even more so if you want to stay in the US. "If an investigator has the choice of hiring someone from the US or someone with a green card, or an 'international', it is always going to be easier to hire the person who is most easily employable," says Fonseca-Kelly. "You've got to make them really want you."
What difficulties will I face?
When you arrive, your problems will tend to be basic: where do I live, how do I set up a bank account, register with a doctor. A harder issue is establishing if there is an expectation mismatch between you and your supervisor. You need to have an idea of what hours your supervisor will expect from you. This is especially important if you are coming from Europe, where working hours tend to be shorter than in the US or Asia. Are they going to expect you to publish two papers a year, go to meetings and apply for your own funding? Have a frank discussion before you arrive.
Loneliness can also rear its head, especially if you have left a family at home. "At Jefferson, we organise social events - for example, we celebrate international holidays and hold dinners where everyone brings a dish from home - you have to introduce yourself and the dish," says Kozlowski. She advises getting involved with as many things as possible.
Diaz says that everyone should prepare themselves for a period of adaptation, during which progress in the lab is slow. "You have to prove yourself over and over, even if you come with fantastic recommendations. When you come to a new place, the bank doesn't know you so they don't want to give you a credit card, it is difficult to find a flat, you need to find a job for your spouse... Publications are actually rather slow in coming, which can be frustrating but it is perfectly normal."
If you are moving outside of the European Union, you will need to sort out a visa before you go and ensure it is valid for your stay. Often visas are very specific about the research post you can hold, and for how long. "As an international researcher, it is always at the back of your mind. You can't just quit your job because the supervisor is driving you crazy," says Fonseca-Kelly, most visas require a continuous period of study or research.
Do I have to go abroad?
Going away just because you think you have to rather than because you want to is unlikely to lead to a successful placement. However, in some fields, such as life sciences or physical sciences, it is starting to be considered a necessity.
None of the people New Scientist spoke to said they felt pressurised to go abroad but many said that it was almost an unwritten rule that it was a good idea to at least change institutions between PhD and postdoc.
It also depends on your country of origin as some countries favour people who have been at the same institution a long time. For example, in Japan, Bauer says he has seen fewer people apply for the HFSP fellowships in recent years because they are worried they might not get jobs at home if they go abroad.
While international experience is good, it doesn't have to last for the whole of your PhD or postdoc post. Scholz says it is increasingly becoming acceptable to get your international experience by presenting and networking at international conferences, and being part of cross-border research projects. Three or four-month stints abroad as part of your training are also helpful, such as those funded by the European molecular biology organisation EMBO.
Where can I get funding?
There are many organisations catering for researchers coming from and going to just about every country in the world, and seeking postgraduate funds at all academic levels.
For European (plus a few non-European) countries, try EMBO, the Human Frontiers Science Program, and Marie Curie Actions. Then there are Commonwealth Scholarships, helping, among others, UK citizens who want to study in Canada, and Commonwealth students keen on Singapore.
The Fulbright Commission helps UK citizens with their sights on the US, and look out for the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science if you're looking for fellowships in Japan. The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance handle all inquiries about India. A*STAR Research handles all levels of study in Singapore for international students.

Words from the wise

Do things beforehand that will simplify your life when you get there. For example, we opened an account with a bank we knew had offices in the country we were going to. Do not underestimate the kindness of people. If you need help, ask, and be prepared to give help back. Be open-minded and don't stress too much at the beginning. Things will be incredibly hard. Be prepared.
Vanessa Diaz, Venezuela to France to the UK
Check out whether your qualifications match those of your peers in your host country. If not, be prepared to work hard to get up to speed.
Orlando de Lange, UK to Germany
Just do it! It's a really rich experience. Whatever happens, you will come back with something - even if that is just a greater appreciation of your home country.
Walter Meissl, Austria to Japan
For more information on relocating to the US, check the Education USA website. For Europe, see profiles on the Euraxess website.

The lure of the east

The US has been the destination of choice for years, with a stint there looking essential to many postdocs. But recently other countries have become attractive, with China and Malaysia in fourth and fifth places in the British Council's league table (see chart). With a Royal Society report predicting China will surpass the US in scientific output before 2020, will a stint in Asia become important soon?
Yes, says Guntrum Bauer of the Human Frontier Science Program in Strasbourg, France. "I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to go to grab it." Lisa Kozlowski of Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is less sure: "I haven't seen a shift in my Chinese postdocs wanting to go home yet. Maybe in 10 years you will need to have studied in China."
Clemens Smolders manages the European Union's Science and Technology Fellowship Programme, a pilot scheme that offered grants to researchers to go to China for two years. He thinks Chinese institutions are keen to host young scientists because they are short of people who can both research and help support masters and PhD students.
It is possible to go to China even if you don't speak Chinese, he says, especially for those based in Beijing or Shanghai, but adds that life will be difficult for the first six months as you adjust to cultural differences such as the Chinese reluctance to say no. "They would rather not say anything, which can be frustrating if you are waiting for a decision," says Smolders. And don't expect a five-day working week, he warns.
Singapore is also on the rise, with lots of investment. Zoe Fonseca-Kelly, a senior research fellow at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, moved from Ireland to Singapore for her first postdoc. She says it was definitely a culture shock despite Singapore being very westernised.
"The heat! I thought I was going to melt. Also the postdoc community was not very organised so it was hard to meet people." Even so, she describes the experience as "some of the best times of my life".

Jessica Griggs is the careers editor at New Scientist
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