The Italian Job II: The Long Haul

In June we published the experiences of Rob Grundy, who has moved from the UK to take up a postdoctoral position in Italy. Now Chris Berrie, who has worked in the poorer, southern part of the country for 6 years, shares his experience of research in Italy.

Rob Grundy followed his wanderlust; I followed my future wife. I had met Emanuela in London while she was spending a year or so abroad from her university in Ancona as part of her dottorato (Italian PhD). Once she returned home, we continued to maintain contact as I approached the end of my 5-year postdoc in Liverpool. But this couldn't continue, and I started to plan my move to Italy.

The first challenge was to find a laboratory where I could work as a foreigner, while not still being ridiculously far from the woman I hoped to marry. Italy's research system is very different from the UK's. In order to work within the university system in Italy, I would have needed an important contact, a mentor who could have overseen my move. This is generally an essential requirement for all researchers in Italy, which makes it difficult even for Italians to move between institutions. Although the situation is improving, it is obviously a particular handicap for a foreigner.

Instead, I investigated private research institutes. Although I limited my inquiries to just two, it is of note that such research institutes are on the increase in Italy (see sidebar). They are now the main way that not just foreigners, but also experienced Italian researchers working abroad and looking to return, get into the main science "flow" in Italy. Although most Italians still work towards that often-elusive "permanent position" (essential to enter into the full pension and benefits system), the recent introduction of "contract researcher" posts is also making it somewhat easier for incoming scientists to break into the Italian system. And there are more positive reasons for choosing a research institute as a potential employer, because the science is usually excellent, even in the less developed southern part of Italy. So, having visited, talked, planned, and written, I sent off three grant applications.

Living and Working in Italy: Chris Berrie's Top Web Choices

Discover the Mario Negri Sud Research Institute and our presently available EC-funded postdoc positions at Find out about numerous other institutes and universities in Italy through the Web guide Science in Italy, following your preference from the 10 scientific fields listed (for example, A Guide to Italian Science in the Web: Biology and Biotechnologies). Web sites of some individual research institutes can be found at

My own field is cancer research, and the main funding bodies we use are the Italian Association of Cancer Research, the Italian Federation of Cancer Research, Telethon Italia, and the Italian National Research Council. Italy is also strong on the physical sciences side; try, for example, the site Job Opportunities in Science & Technology.

There's more on life in Italy and how it varies from that in England in my notes "An Englishman in Italy".

But, because I intended to move to Italy whatever my grant success, as backup I took the excellent part-time course Teaching English as a Foreign Language/English for Specific Purposes at Liverpool University. Hence, my first job in Italy, which lasted all of 3 months, was actually teaching English. During this time I waited for the confirmation that my application to the EC for a grant from the Training and Mobility of Researchers Programme, Category 40 (later to become Marie Curie Fellowships) had been successful and for the signing of the necessary documentation by the European Commission and my new employer, the Mario Negri Sud Research Institute, some 200 kilometres south of Ancona.

A few months before leaving Liverpool, I started Italian lessons. After all, if I was hoping to become a member of Italian society, it was the least I could do. In the end, it also seemed to be the least I did! Somehow all the "conversations" I'd had in my lessons just never seemed to appear in Italy, and I rapidly found out how little I could communicate. However, the official language of the Mario Negri Sud (as of all of the research institutes here) is English, and because the scientists who work here publish regularly in international journals, just about everyone speaks at least basic English.

Mario Negri Sud covers basic and clinical research and is officially involved in training young scientists (we run our own Open University-accredited PhD programme). Our new recruits tend to come to the laboratory

as recent first-degree graduates (laureati) and hence have little or no real laboratory experience. This means that, although they have a very good theoretical base, their problem-solving skills and application of independent thought need work. This takes time, and there is often the feeling that these junior researchers are working more for their bosses' rather than for their own future. This is where the guidance of experienced postdoctoral scientists comes in, and hence where laboratories everywhere have a continuing need. However, our institute's success in training and our international standing are demonstrated by our numerous collaborations with internationally recognised laboratories around the world and the fact that our department currently has some five or six people working in laboratories abroad (mainly in the United States).

Research salaries in Italy as a whole are low, and they are generally lower in the south than in the north. As a senior researcher here, I take home about 60% of what I did in Liverpool 6 years ago. Although this would not be enough to live on in Italian cities (or in Liverpool!), here it is adequate. Of our joint take-home pay (Emanuela is now also a postdoctoral contracted researcher at Mario Negri Sud), some 20% goes to rent (a two-bedroom unfurnished flat--with balconies and a sea view!--in the small local town of Fossacesia) and bills, about 15% to food, and about 25% to other survival "essentials" (such as meals out, a car, and a motorcycle). So, the remaining 40% or so is disposable income, which (as a percentage) is a lot more than most people have!

Santa Maria Imbaro may seem somewhat isolated (maybe this is a plus side for work, due to the lack of immediate distractions?!). However, Rome is only 2.5 hours away by car, and the nearest city, Pescara (which has cheap Ryan Air flights!), is some 40 kilometres away. About 40 minutes by car gets us to Maiella National Park, our local mountain for skiing and walking, and in a further 30 minutes we reach the more extensive ski slopes of Alto Sangro or Abruzzo National Park. Finally, we are just 10 minutes from local beaches. High-quality research and outstanding natural beauty in one place--what more could one ask for?

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