Lessons From Working Abroad as a Scientist
By Dianne van der Wal, Ph.D.
As a scientist that moved to the other side of the world (several times) to pursue my career, I have a unique perspective on how to navigate professional life, an experience shared by many ISTH members. The society estimates that at least 10% of ISTH members currently reside in a different country than their birth country. If you’re considering moving abroad, I hope my experience can provide some lessons learned along the way.
I’m originally from the Netherlands, where I studied, worked in five different research laboratories as a research assistant, and completed my Ph.D. at the University of Utrecht. With my Ph.D. complete and funding exhausted, I was keen to move abroad for a new adventure.
My first overseas postdoc position was in Toronto, Canada, in the lab of Heyu Ni, M.D., Ph.D., as I wanted to study platelet clearance in a mouse model of immune thrombocytopenia (ITP). It was a very exciting time as I found a novel platelet clearance mechanism in a subset of ITP patients involving removal of sialic acid mediated by antibodies against GPIbα. Then, I moved to Melbourne, Australia, for a second postdoc at the Australian Centre for Blood Diseases. Sadly, being on fixed-term contract overseas, obtaining external funding became impossible, and I returned to the Netherlands as a Scientific Officer at the International Society for Blood Transfusion (ISBT). Working in the ISBT office proved particularly useful, as I learned about science communication and met many interesting scientists.
Following my time at ISBT, I moved again to Sydney, Australia where I currently work as a Senior Research Fellow at Australian Red Cross Lifeblood (national blood centre) in the lab of Denese Marks, Ph.D. I now study various factors influencing the quality of platelet components and general platelet function.
In my travels, I have learned that the research environments vary a lot between labs and countries. There may be cultural or language barriers to overcome, especially in the beginning. Also, there are variations in style of supervision, funding opportunities, and differences regarding direct assistance from research assistants or students. I quickly learned that adaptation is necessary when moving to a new environment.
My favorite thing about working abroad is meeting new people. In addition, starting over in a new country brings opportunities including growth as a person and as a scientist. New people and opportunities allowed me to receive different inputs and perspectives leading to great out-of-the-box research ideas. Plus, I am able to experience the different cultures and cuisines of the world!
One of the challenges whilst working abroad, especially in the current pandemic, is that I was unable to see my family for a long time. Australia is even further away from any other country than before the pandemic due to high costs of travel and for a long time: closed borders and/or very strict COVID-19 regulations. No one was able to visit me here. To stay in touch with close friends and family, this generally means I’m scheduling weekly WhatsApp and Skype calls. I even use my ‘old-fashioned’ email sometimes to share photos. Luckily, I also received a few surprise boxes over the years, jam-packed with Dutch goodies and souvenirs. This was a lovely gesture, especially during the pandemic.
Another personal challenge that I faced was the postdoc salary/fellowship vs. the cost of living did not match my expectations. Initially, I did not research enough into this. Living in an expensive city, like Toronto, can eat into savings substantially. Moving abroad also has relocation costs, which were not always offered. If you plan to take a position abroad, be sure you are familiar with these cost differences before your move.
In the lab, a challenge is developing techniques from scratch, often without any technical help. Also, finishing a project well is challenging to do in a short amount of time and can delay publishing high-quality research papers. I have also found that building a strong network takes even more time than usual when moving abroad. However, putting in the time to build your international network will eventually broaden your connections.
If you are considering moving abroad to pursue your career, here are a few tips:
- Contact current and former lab members to ask about their experience in the new lab. Gather as many details as possible, e.g: visa requirements, availability of assistance from others in the lab, student supervision responsibilities, budget for lab expenses, congress visits allowance, holidays, relocation costs and costs of living.
- If your partner is also moving, investigate the job market beforehand.
- Research the city of choice extensively and visit the lab in person at least once before moving.
- Investigate the availability of external funding for scientists with temporary visas.
- Don’t forget the importance of a plan B, including backup savings, especially if you must return to your home country unexpectedly.
- Finally, if you decide to work abroad, seize every opportunity and learn from all different roles, even non-academic or research-based roles.
I strongly recommend working abroad. You’ll learn so much about yourself and science in a short time. It increases your network significantly which remains important throughout your career.
If you’re interested in moving abroad for science, consider applying for an ISTH Fellowship here.