American Postdocs Abroad

By contrast to the steady flow of scientists to the United States, American scientists tend to stay put. Nobel laureate and secretary-general of the Human Frontier Sciences Organization (HFSO) Torsten Wiesel lamented this situation in an editorial in Science last year. Weisel has a good grasp of the topic--the organization he heads funds international scientific collaboration. But of the 1551 postdoctoral fellowships the HFSO awarded from 1990 to 2000, only about 6% went to scientists from the U.S., a tiny number compared to the pool of potential postdocs there. "Our concern is that unlike their counterparts in Europe or Asia, young scientists from the U.S. do not avail themselves of the career-transforming experience of having been trained abroad in a foreign culture," he says.

Many Americans believe that the best scientific institutions are in the United States, or that if they go abroad they'll fall out of the scientific mainstream and be forgotten. But Americans who have done postdocs abroad disagree. "E-mail, faxes, and cheaper plane tickets have done a lot to make the world smaller, and I found during my job search that being in Europe was not a big disadvantage," says Pauline Bariola, who recently returned to the U.S. after a postdoc working on plant immune defenses at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. And she scoffs at the idea that high-quality research is found only in the U.S. "The quality of research, laboratory facilities, and scientists that I have encountered outside of the United States are at least as good as what is available here," she says.

But obtaining funding for studies abroad may be tricky. In the United States, investigators can often find money in their grants to pay for a postdoc, at least initially. But this is nearly impossible in France, for example, because investigators' grants usually don't include money for salaries. So if you've decided that going abroad is something you want to do, it's best to start sorting things out as early as possible. There are many options: some specific for international training, some allowing you to use the money abroad, some specific for foreign scientists to work in a particular country, and some that are institution-specific. Many of the fellowships listed below deal with funding for biomedical research, because postdocs in this area are most common.

The Human Frontier Sciences Program, which funds "basic research focused on complex mechanisms of living organisms," has made traveling across borders its mission. Scientists from 16 European countries, Japan, Canada, and the United States are eligible and must propose to do their fellowship in another eligible country. The long-term postdoctoral fellowships last 3 years, with the option to spend the third year in the home country. The fellowships provide nearly $45,000 a year, including salary, travel, relocation, and language training.

The European Molecular Biology Organization is composed of and funded by 23 member countries in Europe. The organization funds postdoctoral research that "promotes molecular biology studies in Europe," and prefers that fellows move between member countries. However, they will allow scientists from a nonmember country such as the United States to go to a member country, given sufficient justification for why the research should be done there. The fellowships are for 2 years and provide relocation as well as a salary that depends on the host country.

There are also U.S. government-based grants for postdoctoral fellowships abroad. The National Science Foundation has several, including the International Research Fellows Program, which can be used anywhere in the world (except Japan) for up to 2 years. The size of the award varies, but it includes salary, travel, relocation, and language training if requested. For people interested in working in Japan, the NSF nominates researchers for fellowship programs administered by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The fellowships last up to 2 years, and in addition to salary, they provide for relocation, language training, and health insurance.

The NSF-NATO fellowship can be used in any of the countries that are members or cooperating partners of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for up to 1 year. It provides a salary of $2750 a month, plus a travel allowance. The Fulbright Program, which is administered by the U.S. State Department, also funds postdoctoral study in over 140 countries. And as well as administering postdoctoral fellowships for Japan, the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers a comprehensive list of foundations and governmental agencies that support foreign study, although not all are for Americans.

Some grants are not specifically intended for international study, but can be used abroad. Restrictions tend to apply, however. For example, the guidelines for the NIH NRSA postdoctoral fellowships (F32) ask applicants requesting foreign training to "show that the foreign institution and sponsor offer unique opportunities that are not currently available in the United States." Like all F32s, salaries depend on the number of years the applicant has been in postdoctoral training, but the fellowship also provides relocation, tuition, and fees, as well as an institutional allowance for up to 3 years. The Life Sciences Research Foundation fellowship, which provides 3 years of postdoctoral funding at $50,000 a year, allows U.S. citizens to use the fellowship anywhere in the world. The 3-year Helen Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship similarly places no geographic restriction on U.S. citizens. The fellowship provides a salary of $36,000 in the first year, which increases each year; relocation; and a $2000 research allowance each year.

Foreign countries themselves may have funding for nonnative postdocs. For example, France's INSERM offers the postes verts (green positions), which are fellowships for foreign postdocs to work in an INSERM-supported laboratory in France for up to a year. The French embassy also administers the Chateaubriand fellowship for Americans to conduct postdoctoral research in France for a year. In addition to providing a salary, the fellowship provides health insurance, a round-trip plane ticket, and deals with visa issues. And the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has 2-year postdoctoral fellowships for Americans looking to work in German labs.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which is based in the U.S. but has ties to the United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust, offers Career Awards in the Biomedical Sciences for Americans or Canadians who have been a postdoc for at least 1 but no more than 4 years. These can be used inside the U.S. or outside--in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland--to support up to 2 years of postdoctoral study followed by an initial faculty appointment, for a total of 5 years of funding.

And keep in mind that if you plan to go to a particular institution, they may have internal funds for foreign scientists in general or Americans in particular. For instance, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyons, France, which is part of the World Health Organization, has postdoctoral fellowships to work at the IARC. The Pasteur Foundation also has postdoctoral fellowships for Americans and other foreign scientists to work at the Pasteur Institute.

So if you're an American who's finishing up your Ph.D. and has the urge to live abroad, a postdoc can be a perfect opportunity to learn about doing science in another culture. And as this article shows, there are plenty of funding opportunities out there.

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