A Change of Scene

Editor's note: Of course if you want to forge a successful research career, getting postdoc experience in a totally different lab once your PhD is safely behind you is, these days, a given. But what if you're looking not just to change lab, and country, but research field too? Is it at good idea? And how do you go about it? Robin May shares his experience of changing direction.

This week marks my 20th month as a professional worm-picker. Clearly an achievement that one's parents can be proud of, even if it's not quite what they had in mind for their eldest offspring. In a certain sense, however, my work today is much as envisaged at the age of six and a half, when I gave up on a long-held ambition to become a milkman and chose instead for a career working with animals.

Early career indecisiveness induced me to choose for a broad biological sciences degree at Oxford, rather than a more specialised degree elsewhere--one of the most worthwhile moments of dithering I have ever had. The dithering wasn't over when, 3 years later, I decided that I'd like to do a PhD 'involving microscopes' and joined the 4-year PhD programme at the Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology (LMCB) at University College London. The LMCB programme was ideal, arriving as I did with almost no practical experience. Initial 'rotations' in four different labs gave me a solid grounding in a variety of fields and made choosing a final lab destination remarkably easy. Happily my confidence was not misplaced. My 3 years working on the actin cytoskeleton in Laura Machesky's lab, which moved to Birmingham as soon as I joined it, turned out to be both productive and extremely enjoyable--due, in no small part, to the enthusiasm and support of Laura herself.

Why, then, one may ask, do I now find myself working on worms in the Netherlands? Good question.

Given my past experience of dithering, I decided to apply myself to thinking about a postdoc position relatively early (after less than 2 years of my PhD), buying myself valuable 'dither time'. I already knew that a change of field was the thing for me. The actin world was (and still is) enormously interesting, but I felt I knew a lot about the cytoskeleton and that it was time for a change. So, I set out to find a new challenge for the future.

The search strategy was, I thought, brilliant in its simplicity: read Science and Nature cover to cover each week, highlight anything that sounds interesting (cytoskeleton excluded), and in the meantime skip off to some noncytoskeletal conferences to see what's happening in the rest of academia. Because many conferences provide funds to allow PhD students to attend, I managed to disappear off to several unrelated conferences without costing the lab a fortune (although I suspect that Laura did wonder where I was on several occasions--I remain very grateful to her for not commenting on my absence!).

The only restriction I placed on the search for my next lab was that I was determined to cross the Channel (to broaden my horizons with a stint of foreign living) but had no intention of crossing the Atlantic. This deliberate exclusion of the United States as a postdoc destination was the source of much comment from various friends and colleagues, the vast majority of both having completed, or planned, a postdoc in America. For me the decision was not a difficult one--on the one hand I was not confident in signing up for several years of work a very long way from family and friends in a country about which I had heard, at best, mixed reports, and on the other my experience of conferences and collaborations in Europe had comprehensively destroyed any idea that European science was second rate.

Surprisingly, my Europe-oriented trawl of the academic literature took only a few weeks to yield several tempting possibilities. With the list assembled, I fired off a few e-mails complete with attached CV and, after a short wait, received a selection of interview invitations (point to note--asking around, I have yet to meet anyone who was NOT invited to an interview at a lab they sent their CV to, so don't spend too long worrying about your application e-mail!).

Because all of the interviews were in mainland Europe, in a moment of woolly thinking I concluded that the best plan would be to arrange my interviews as close together as possible, thus allowing the most accurate comparison. Not very clever. By the end of two solid weeks of skipping from airport to train station to hotel to lab to train station to airport I was well qualified to write the Lonely Planet guide to European rail-road-air connections. Not only did I spend more time than is generally thought healthy reading duty-free catalogues, but I also ended up having to do some serious mental juggling to remember which lab was which. Mixing up principal investigators' names, expressing a lifelong interest in viral pathogenesis during an interview in a plant cell division lab, or accidentally attempting tourist-German whilst in Paris are all, in general, bad ideas.

Amazingly, despite several such blunders, and the additional hazard of negotiating foreign cities in the dead of night following delayed flights, I reached the end of my tour without a breakdown and with offers from all the labs I visited. For a month I wrestled between the two most tempting options but eventually chose for a position in the Plasterk lab in Utrecht, the Netherlands, working on RNA interference in C. elegans.

During my European safari I had already been exploring grant options (after all, I'd had plenty of in-flight reading time), and with my destination chosen I could set to work convincing someone to pay for it. Top of my list of desirable fellowships was the Human Frontier Science Program long-term fellowship. Previous HFSP fellows had all been very positive about this fellowship, the finances on offer were very appealing, and, above all, the HFSP had a reputation for funding postdocs attempting a change of field. Because the HFSP also had the earliest deadline (and by far the simplest application procedure), I made a start there and was extremely happy to receive a positive reply before having to spend too much time on other applications.

With a destination, a project, and a fellowship lined up, I could devote the last few months of my PhD to ... well, my PhD. The final bits and pieces completed, I jetted off to Uganda for 2 months (watching chimps and playing at being a 'real' biologist ... strongly recommended as post-thesis writing therapy!) and then flew back to a new home, new lab, and new lifestyle in the Netherlands.

New labs are rather like new shoes: day one is all gleam and polish, day two is just painful. Fortunately, like shoes, one can eventually wear a lab in, although in my case this took rather longer (okay, much longer) than expected--more a reflection of my overoptimism than any fundamental characteristic of my new scientific home, I suspect.

I had expected three 'adjustment problems'--new country (culture, language), new field (ideas, background information, knowing who is who), and new lab (Where are the chemicals kept? Whom do I talk to about freezer space?).

Problem one was almost nonexistent, although I suspect that the Netherlands is one of the easiest non-English-speaking countries for an English speaker to integrate into. Just remember to avoid the milk cartons with red text ("karnemelk"--I'll spare you the details) and you'll be fine.

Changing fields was a somewhat larger hurdle, but essentially only one of self-image. I expected to be viewed as--at best--a little backward for my lack of knowledge about both my chosen field and experimental organism. (Ever tried sexing a nematode? Not as easy as you might think. ...) However, no one seemed very bothered (or perhaps they were just being nice) and, after a while, you realise that you're not quite as behind on your reading as you had suspected and, in any case, it doesn't really matter.

By far and away the largest problem was the physical change of lab. In my case the difference was one of scale, moving from a lab of around eight people to one of more than 20. I had no idea who worked on what, who was new, who had time to explain how to distinguish a healthy worm from a sick one. The general 'feel' of a lab that one takes for granted was suddenly missing and would come back only very slowly. In fact, it was almost 12 months later that I at last remarked that I finally felt at home in the lab.

This is certainly not unique to my situation or indeed to big labs in general, but is rather, I suspect, a reflection of diversity in some indiscernible lab 'karma'. Some labs have 'compulsory' tea breaks, some go to the pub, in some you're expected to bring cakes on your birthday, in some it's champagne for papers ... every lab has its own quirks. The point is not that some labs get it right and some don't, it is that every lab is different, and labs in different countries particularly so. And it's the small stuff such as tea versus beer versus cakes versus goodness-knows-what that takes a LOT of adjusting to. Silly, huh?

In the spirit of all good fairy stories, however, it all ends happily ever after. After 12 months of fruitless pining for lengthy tea breaks discussing which amoeba species would win a fight to the death, I stopped pining. And when I stopped, I made a dramatic discovery. You can still talk about amoeba wars, even without a tea break. And you can still learn to love a new lab's karma, even if that means compulsory birthday celebrations but no tea. And when you do, suddenly it feels like home again.

Mind you, I still miss Friday evening beers. ...

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