Getting Along With Germans

Science is international. And so it follows that one perq of an academic job in the United States is attending conferences in intriguing places like Japan, where, as a graduate student, I discovered that I could fall in love with a foreign place and its people. It was on a post-conference field trip, a tour of the lakes near Mt. Fuji, where something happened that led eventually to the long period of my professional life that I spent in Germany.

But Japan came first. Standing on a dock in the early morning mist, excited about getting a sample from a Japanese lake, I may have neglected to check the knot in the rope attached to the plankton net, I don't know. What I do know is that when I tossed the net out over the water it was not attached to the rope in my hand--a limp rope was what I held as I watched the white and silver of my net fall farther from view into the green water. And then ... And then, the next thing I saw was my Japanese host--who had been leading us on a tour of "his" lakes--flying through the air, fully clothed, jumping into the lake and diving for my net. Need I say that I was shocked, surprised, and touched all at once, and from that moment felt a strong bond with the Japanese.

Now, as you may already know, visiting a country as a conference participant or tourist is quite different from actually trying to live and work there. But I didn't know that when, in the final year of my dissertation work, I received an invitation to do postdoctoral studies at the Max Planck Limnological Institute in northern Germany, part of the system of national research labs. I think it was the warm memory of the chivalry of my Japanese host that prompted me to say yes without reservation--yes I can, and am eager to work in a country other than the United States.

What started out as a 1-year postdoctoral fellowship turned into 5 years spent working in Germany's research labs and university system. During that time, I was again and again to experience the same warmth and gratitude toward my German hosts that I had felt on the day I stood on a dock looking at Mt. Fuji in the distance. The setting was different, but the thrill of connecting with foreigners was the same.

I could go on for many days about my experiences in Germany. But there are two interrelated thoughts about that time working outside of the United States that I'd particularly like to share here with Next Wave readers. The first is that when working in a foreign country you really are not in Kansas anymore and that can be a good thing. But with the ying comes the yang, so be prepared for difficulties in adjusting while you are there and when you return to the States.

Diversity Breeds Ideas

As graduate students, we in the American university system recognize that science is an international affair, but what I don't think we realize is that academic systems in other countries operate by different rules. I think it is very good for American scientists to see this as early in their careers as possible. Doing so saves them from the insularity that so often afflicts those living in the United States--where geography makes it easy to think that the world consists of the 50 states and the couple of foreign countries that border us--but also because I believe the experience enhances professional creativity.

Working with foreign scientists on their own turf, such that you become the foreigner, can enrich your thinking in myriad ways: It builds tolerance for different approaches to problem solving, and it can promote ingenuity by forcing you to go beyond your boundaries and explore new ways of dealing with those problems.

Gaining this comes at a cost, however; it won't do to act like a tourist while spending time in a foreign lab. You must try to assimilate, first by learning the language as much as you are able. Because English is the lingua franca of science, American scientists may feel they don't need to learn other languages. But if you are really going to get to know your foreign colleagues and try to figure out what makes them tick, and if you really want to enjoy your stay in a lab where English is not the native tongue--it is imperative to at least try to learn the language.

When you do embark on language studies, try to do it in a way that will save you embarrassment (see sidebar). When I was in northern Germany at the Max-Planck-Institut, I traded weekend German lessons from a local schoolteacher for the American conversation that she craved. Later, when I had a faculty position in Frankfurt and needed to teach in German, I took intensive evening lessons at a Goethe Institut and also lived with Germans, the former allowing me to learn grammar and the latter allowing me to learn how to converse.

The Cost of Shortcuts

If you try to learn a foreign language from a book, you might find yourself in the position of an American colleague who wanted to learn German before coming for a research stint but felt he didn't have time for classes or even tapes. So he purchased a book called Deutsch Ohne Muhe, which translates as "German Without Effort." Anyone who has tried to learn German or who is familiar with Mark Twain's essay entitled " The Awful German Language" will know that learning German without effort is impossible.

Well, said scientist, well-intentioned and polite, thought that the expression "Verzeihen Sie," which means "excuse me" and is what you say when you accidentally bump into strangers, was pronounced "vierzehn," which means fourteen. The looks he would get from people when he said "fourteen" after bumping into them were entertaining indeed. The poor fellow may have been allowed to suffer through this for far too long before a German colleague corrected him.

After you've learned the language it will be easier to detect the nuances of the particular country in which you find yourself, and my advice here is to be eager about learning the working ways of your hosts. If you do try to stick to the American way, you will miss out on the opportunity to learn about other approaches that may augment your own armory for doing battle in the world of science.

There are differences in style to be sure. I remember the Max Planck director telling me that he liked to invite American scientists to work at the institute and collaborate with his German staff because Americans are good at generating ideas, even though their methods can be sloppy--I tried hard not to take this as an insult--whereas Germans are great at methods. He saw real complementarity there. And I have to say I think he was right--in my own research I was more interested in the idea part than in the methods, although I won't go so far as to call myself sloppy, and my collaboration with German scientists, who excelled at the implementation of ideas, was most productive because of it.

The Hard Part

And so, as far as developing your scientific career goes, I would highly recommend working outside of the United States. There are some things that we Americans take for granted, however, that you will probably miss when you are working abroad and, for some people, this can make the experience miserable.

There are work-related issues, such as the often more formal and hierarchical academic systems in countries outside the United States. In my experience in Germany, this was most acute in the university system where, after a department seminar, the question session was led by full professors--who were assumed, because of their status, to have the best questions no matter what they asked. Only after the senior professors had asked their questions were assistant professors and graduate students allowed to speak. Coming from vibrant universities where the post-seminar question period was considered time for an intellectual free-for-all, sometimes taking on the nature of a food fight, I must say I had a hard time dealing with the change. But the level of formality depends on where you are working in a foreign country. At the Max-Planck-Institut where I was a postdoctoral fellow, the tone was relaxed and the intellectual interaction much more like what I had been used to in the States.

Aside from workplace differences, there are other lifestyle changes that can drive you right up a wall. Be prepared for less living space--three or four people occupy the amount of space used to house one in the United States--and interminably long laundry sessions: Washing a load of clothes can take an hour and a half, and dryers are few and far between because of the high energy costs. But the differences can keep life interesting; I think it is best to embrace them and try to see humor in, for example, discovering that your colleague's underwear, which is hanging to dry on a line in the basement of the Institut because there is a washer there but no clothes dryer, has turned from white to pink because he washed his red shirt in the same load, using the hottest setting.

But things like cramped quarters and take-forever laundry are minor pains compared to the heartache you feel when, set to return to the States after what you thought merely an extended visit to a foreign country, you must bid farewell to people with whom you have forged lasting friendships and to places that refuse to leave your consciousness. And the pain will be even more intense when, once again settled back home in the United States, you find yourself homesick for that foreign country and starting to wonder where home really is.

Despite those caveats, however, there is more to be gained than lost from journeying out of your own land and customs. Working for a time as an academic scientist outside of the United States, even though it may remove you from what's happening in your own country, will change, for the better I believe, the way you look at things when you return.

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