The idea of working abroad--immersing myself in another culture and coming to grips with life in another country--had always appealed to me. So, halfway through my Ph.D., I decided to take the bull by the horns and secure a foreign posting.
Working in scientific research offers excellent opportunities to combine travel with work, so the options can be wide-ranging. However, securing a high-quality position is as important as getting the experience of working in another country. Advice from scientists above me was imperative. After consulting my supervisor, whose international reputation allowed contact with top names in exotic locations, I sent out a barrage of CVs with enticing covering letters selling my various skills. Each week in Science, numerous jobs in various countries are advertised. However, rather than applying for what was available, I preferred to show my initiative by making direct contact with high-quality research groups that I knew I wanted to work in.
Inevitably there were rejections and nonresponders, but several very positive responses did come from both sides of the Atlantic. After much deliberation I decided against opting for a position in the United States. Although the United States offers undoubtedly the best prospects for career development, I felt a greater geographical, cultural, and political affinity for Europe. Therefore, after a series of interviews, I duly accepted a postdoctoral position I was offered at the Schering-Plough Research Institute in Milan, Italy.
I have to say that my transition into Italian science was a lot smoother than it might have been. Being a European Union national, I didn't need a work permit. The remaining, often mystifying, bureaucracy was dealt with expertly by my colleagues, who led me through the streets of Milan collecting various sheets of paper that qualified me to work legally in Italy. My company was also gracious enough to provide accommodation for 3 months while another colleague scoured the newspapers for a suitable place to live.
I began work as a contracted senior scientist but subsequently obtained a 2-year Marie Curie Individual Fellowship. This improved both my wages and my CV. These fellowships represent a tremendous opportunity for young European researchers to work in labs in other European countries and are well worth investigating.
It's neither easy, nor fair, to compare directly my experience, thus far, of laboratory life in Milan with that in Manchester, because the experiences of a graduate student in an academic laboratory and a senior scientist in an industrial research institute are quite different. Even so, I will try.
When I started working in the lab in Italy, it soon became apparent that the Italian research training system is quite different from that in the United Kingdom. As a 25-year-old researcher with over 3 years of practical experience, I was somewhat unusual in Italy. Most Italians don't finish the predominantly theoretical Italian laureate until the age of 25, or later if they are men who haven't managed to avoid national service. I, at least, felt it was therefore important to prove that I could deliver what I had promised at such a tender age. This I accomplished by doing what I had been trained to do and what I had come to Milan to do--that is, to work in a team with confidence and an enthusiastic desire to learn from those around me. Although the Italian scientific culture seems, at times, to be more of an "ageocracy" than a meritocracy, I believe that I was hired on merit and that if I succeed in fulfilling or, indeed, surpassing the expectations my employers, my efforts will be appreciated and therefore rewarded. Whether this is the case remains to be seen--although I haven't been sent back to England yet, so I must be doing something right!
In actual fact, settling into lab life was quite easy, because, although practically all the researchers in my lab are Italian, most speak at least some English. The average age of the researchers is also quite low (approximately 30). This is usual in Italy, because low wages force all but the most committed out of research when the financial constraints of age take hold. This young average age does create a dynamic and enthusiastic working environment, which makes it very similar to the lab back in Manchester.
Regarding language difficulties, although the official language of the lab is English, many key meetings are still held in Italian, which can be both confusing and soporific. Consequently, it became apparent that I would have to learn Italian, not only to buy beer, but also to understand what was going on at work. Having learnt only the phrase 'Where is the San Siro stadium?' I began to wish I had invested a little more time in learning Italian. I must stress, however, that no one, in Italy at least, expected me to speak the language. (I suspect visitors to France may encounter a different attitude.) After an intensive course of lessons, I became reasonably incompetent at Italian, which, coupled with a misplaced confidence in my new language skills, led to some interesting faux pas. For instance, the Italian words for "researcher" and for a person who sells stolen goods are frighteningly similar. Therefore, I spent the first 3 months in Italy informing everyone I met that I was a fence. When questioned, I assured people that, yes, it was true and I had a Ph.D. in the subject to prove it!
On accepting a position in Italy, I was well aware of the preconceived ideas about Italian science being somewhat inferior to research in the United Kingdom or United States. From my experience, I can honestly say that if you are surrounded by good scientists, which fortunately I am here and was in Manchester, you will do quality science. The only obstacle to maximising the fantastic potential of science in Italy is the comparative lack of funding relative to richer states. Fortunately, this doesn't really affect my position working for an industrial employer, although the crippling bureaucracy, which can lead to a month's wait for a reagent that would take a day to arrive in the United Kingdom, can be exceedingly frustrating.
As for the future, after spending 9 months in Italy, I feel very comfortable here. How my remaining time will affect my future movements remains to be seen. At the moment, the idea of staying is not unappealing, although low pay in Italy may force me to return to the United Kingdom or cross the pond to the United States. If this is the case, I will present myself as a young research scientist who has spent a postdoctoral term in a foreign country, often working in a foreign language, and has acquired all the skills and experiences associated with such a massive challenge. Either way, the prospects seem bright.
On the whole, working in an Italian lab has been an overwhelmingly rewarding experience, professionally, culturally, and personally. My advice for other young researchers who find themselves with wanderlust is to pursue it. However, I cannot stress enough the importance of finding a good position in a country you will be comfortable in. After all, this isn't a holiday, it's a life.