Lessons From My Postdoc Abroad
All postdoctoral experiences are unique. Still, I hope that my personal account of doing a postdoctoral position in the United States has some useful takeaways for others. Here’s what I think you should know.
Why did I decide to do more postdoctoral training abroad?
I grew up and was educated in the United Kingdom, and completed a short postdoctoral position at the University of Edinburgh. I then decided to continue my training in the United States.
A major reason was access new opportunities. The United States has good funding, many excellent labs, and a variety of places to work.
I also believe that it is important to experience other cultures and see how science is done in other places. International travel and working abroad is really an adventure — one that I find very attractive.
Finally, my partner actually found a job in the United States before me. This obviously constrained where I looked to do postdoctoral training. I was very lucky to find a position in the same place.
How did I get a postdoctoral position?
I wrote to people whose work interested me and to people who I knew. I did this in combination with a search for formally advertised positions.
In the end, I was lucky. Just from a cold call, I ended up in a fantastic lab at Brandeis University in Boston, where I wanted to live. Brandeis has a very strong graduate and research program, and it has a particularly excellent neuroscience department. I’m very lucky to have an excellent mentor, Eve Marder, as well.
What did I learn? What do I wish I had known before I came here?
The biggest lesson is persistence. It’s a numbers game. Not every application and not every call is going to be successful. Out of 15 applications (possibly more), I received five replies — and not all were positive. Of these, I got three interviews. I could only attend two interviews in person.
It helps to have people in the field who may know your work, supervisors, or colleagues. This is a really important way to find a postdoctoral position. Networking is about being collaborative and communicative, so leverage the contacts you have.
Make it easy for the person looking at your application. If you send them an email be clear, polite, and to the point.
Take advantage of international conferences. If you’re thinking about doing a postdoc in another country, try to meet some of the people you may want to work with – even if it’s just for 15 minutes – so they can put a face to your name. This can make a big difference.
What are some practicalities to keep in mind?
You will need a visa. For example, in the United States, J1 or H1B visas are applicable. If you receive an offer, your institution’s international office should contact you. If they don’t, be sure to contact them.
Be aware of taxes. Inform yourself ahead of time. Don’t panic; just educate yourself about the country you are planning to work in and about any tax treaties. Similarly, consider eligibility for health insurance for yourself and your family.
You will experience lifestyle and cultural adjustments. In my case, even though people in Boston complain about the weather, moving from the United Kingdom to Boston was a refreshing change. If there are cultural differences, they can be interesting and fun.
If you engaged in research, then you may already be in an international setting. In science, people generally tend to speak English and use the same conventions and ways of organizing research. A lot of what you find at a new institution may be familiar. As such, many of the cultural adjustments will be in with your personal life outside of work. However, if English, for example, is not your first language, look into ways to get language tutoring.
Finally, remember to be bold. You don’t get things if you don’t ask for them. You can’t be too overbearing. There are many ways to get an international postdoctoral position, and you should try all of them. Be persistent and don’t take setbacks, such as people not replying, as a personal affront. Scientists are very busy people so not every call is going to be successful.
Adapted from the webinar, Neuroscience Training Programs Without Borders: Postdoctoral Training in the U.S.: A Personal Perspective, sponsored by SfN’s Committee on Neuroscience Departments and Programs and FENS’ Committee on Higher Education and Training.