One the day you are awarded your PhD, you celebrate the end of a long journey of studies and exploration in the world of science.
At the same time, if you opt for an academic career, you might celebrate the beginning of the long journey to the land of Tenure.
Your advisor will tell you to go and clean up your name. Go and see some of the world and some other labs.
So you box up your things and put them “temporarily” in storage at your parents’ place, or you donate it all and are left with 3 suitcases worth of personal belongings.
With that, you are ready for world domination. Or at least, for starting at a post-doc in a foreign lab.
If you look at the resumes of successful scientists, you will see that it takes a lot of moving and traveling, especially nowadays. Research grants of the European Union require academic mobility. Universities are pushing towards hiring “fresh blood”, coming in from far-flung places.
I’ve been quite a nomad over the past few years: moving between Belgium, the USA and The Netherlands before landing in Ecuador (while keeping a part-time job in The Netherlands, to spice things up and keep collecting airmiles).
Frankly, I wish I could tell you that all it takes is packing up your stuff, throwing a goodbye party and taking the plane. The reality is different. Let’s look at some particularities of academic mobility.
- Applying for a position abroad
When you are ready to turn into a nomad, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the hiring procedures of foreign countries. Your curriculum requirements can be different in different countries – some places value industry involvement very highly, while others will have a quick look at your publications and/or H-index. Before you start looking into positions abroad, try to get a grasp of the academic culture in the country of the institution you are targeting. Ideally, you would be able to meet some people from your target institution at a conference, and learn from them how things work in their place.
You can leave it all behind, pack up a couple of suitcases and leave. But as you advance along your career, you might have amassed a good number of technical books that you wouldn’t be able to miss, or maybe you have a family/partner/pet that you need to take into consideration. Once you are at the stage of having a family, you might need to ship a container with your belongings to your new place. Depending on the regulations of the country where you are moving to, shipping might require quite a lot of paperwork. Packing up, numbering, and more might take a couple of months to prepare – plan ahead. Also, if possible, see if you can get some relocation compensation when you negotiate your contract.
- Administration issues
New country, new visa? Before you leave, make sure you know what the requirements are. Sometimes, HR departments of universities will help you with this process, but sometimes you might be pretty much left to your own. Visit the embassy of your new country ahead of time – they are the people who really know how things work. Inform which other administrative hurdles you might need to pass before being able to get your contract as an employee of your new institution: do you need a local ID, local bank account…? All these things take time, and there are always things that go wrong when you are dealing with paperwork. It’s frustrating, but it’s just something you got to get through.
- New academic culture
Before enthusiastically diving into the lab and getting started on your assigned task, take a moment to sniff the academic air of your new place. Sneak into a few classes, or look at some of the class materials to have an idea of the teaching philosophy of the place. Do they think in a top-down manner, or bottom-up? What “extra” tasks are your colleagues spending time on, and what is valued: being part of the university as an organization, consultancy to the industry, memberships of technical committees or science communication?
- Trying to grow roots in a new place
Last but not least, the hard part of moving is getting settled into your new country. Yes, you will get a culture-shock. Yes, you will want to hop onto the first plane and go home. Yes, you’ll be calling your friends and family to list all the complaints you have about your new place. But eventually you’ll make friends, get settled into your new job, start participating in local organizations – and before you know, you’ll call that place home. And then maybe, your contract time will be over, and you’ll need to move to yet another place to keep going up on the academic ladder.
Are you a nomadic researcher? What hurdles took most effort and time to overcome when moving?
Dr. Eva Lantsoght is a structural engineer specialized in structural concrete bridges and working as an assistant professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito and researcher at Delft University of Technology. Originally from Lier, Belgium, she received an Engineering Degree from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, MS from Georgia Tech and PhD from Delft University of Technology. At her blog PhD Talk, she blogs about her research, the non-scientific skills you need in academia and living abroad (currently in Ecuador).