A French Postdoc, Made in USA

Straight after gaining a doctorate in paleoclimatology modelling in her native country of France, Myriam Khodri (pictured left) packed her things and set off for the United States to do a postdoc. She found the experience invaluable. "It gave me confidence, I learned a lot, it opened my mind to other things, and I improved my English a lot, too," says Khodri. "That is why I came here initially, to learn new things, new tools."

Khodri's expectations of work and life the American way have been far exceeded; yet, after three years in the United States, she is preparing to return home, a move that had always been in the cards. She always intended to do her research career in France; that's why she left home to begin with. "I decided to go abroad because if you want to enter the CNRS, you have to go abroad," she says.

A Personal Journey

In November 2002, Khodri started a postdoc at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) of Columbia University in New York City, on past climatic variability in tropical areas. "I chose this lab because I did my Ph.D. on climate processes at very high latitudes and I really wanted to broaden my knowledge of climate processes--and change location," she says. Also "I was interested to learn and work with people I had heard of, with 'big shots' as we call them here." Two years later Kodhri went to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) at Princeton University, in New Jersey to do a second postdoc on future climate change.

Khodri has enjoyed her time in the United States very much. "I have discovered the American culture; for me it was great at a personal level. You learn a lot about other people, and yourself." Professionally, too, the experience was very rewarding. "What strikes me the most is that you have very good scientists from all over the world," she says. "They are really approachable." She feels that even though they are not established yet, young scientists in the United States are taken very seriously and encouraged by more senior people. "It's great if you want to be yourself as a scientist and if you want to gain confidence. In France, [the system] is more hierarchical." She also found the way of working and the culture to be different in U.S. labs. "They work a lot, they are very dynamic and energetic, this is what I like most, and they are open-minded."

Khodri's decision to do a postdoc in the United States is hardly unusual, according to a survey that was carried out by the French Embassy's Mission for Science and Technology in Washington, D.C., and published on Science Odyssée , the French portal for scientists in North America. "Each year, hundreds of French young scientists with a doctorate go across the Atlantic with the aim of doing a postdoc in North America," says the report.

The survey also showed that, like Khodri, the vast majority of French postdocs in North America want to go home once they have finished their postdoctoral experience, with only 19% of French postdocs intending to stay in North America. Moreover, only 58% of those who had taken a permanent job in North America said to be satisfied of their choice of working country. The vast majority of French postdocs eventually return to France, and this is definitely their choice: 97.5% of them are happy to return home, according to the survey.

Going home

Khodri feels lucky in that she has found her way back home to the job she wanted: Chargé de Recherche 1ère classe at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), a permanent position in Paris. She even had the choice between the IRD and the CNRS, where she was offered a similar position. "I will integrate a lab [at the IRD] but have been hired on a specific project," she says.

Khodri has even more reasons to be pleased, for she found her permanent employment straight after her American postdoctoral experience. According to the French Embassy's survey, Khodri's experience is rare; only 18% of the young French postdocs in America find permanent work right after their foreign experience. About a third of French postdocs feel the need to do an additional postdoc in another country, usually within Europe, perhaps while waiting for a permanent job closer to home.

Khodri's experience is also unusual in that she found a permanent job after only 3 years of postdoc experience. The French Embassy survey suggests that for many French postdocs in America, the search for a permanent job is longer and more difficult. "The probability for French postdocs in North America to have found a permanent job within six years of getting their doctorate is about 64%," says the report, combining the statistics for all scientific disciplines.

The odds are best in informatics and mathematics, with 95% finding permanent employment within 6 years; in chemistry and earth sciences where the figure is 80%, and for physics where it is 75%. In the life sciences, however, that figure falls to 50%. For French scientists, searching for permanent employment back home can be frustrating; the dearth of permanent positions, high selectivity, poor organisation of the competitions for entry, and geographical distance with added travelling costs are all perceived as hurdles.

But Khodri believes another challenge is especially tricky, and to her it is the key to finding a job in France: you have to keep in touch. "You don't want to be forgotten; you have to go back a couple of times a year," she says, noting that the travel bursary she received from the French Government as part of the Postdoc Initiative was very helpful in helping her maintain professional ties with France. But travelling back to France a couple of times a year is not by itself sufficient, she warns; you also have to keep people apprised of your work and your plans between visits, and for this, e-mail is an ideal tool. "It is not difficult, but it is a long-term process. Not everybody can or wants to do that."

Home, Sweet Home

So why do so many French postdocs want to go back home? "I've always wondered why," says Khodri, so she asked around. "It's because we have the possibility to get permanent positions in France" at an early stage in our career, when young scientists in the USA and many other countries usually are on soft money, she now reckons. "There aren't a lot, we wish there were more, but at least we have them." There may also be some truth in the old cliché that French people are very attached to their roots. She says that eventually, "I would miss my culture and family, and I want to raise my kids in my country."

Khodri is convinced that her success in securing a permanent job with a research institute in France has a lot to do with her American postdoctoral experience. "They don't say it officially, but there is a little box on the application form that says 'Have you done some research abroad?' If you haven't, you have very little chance to be read." What the French institutes want to see most, Khodri believes, is the added value one can bring to research upon returning from America.

"You will come back with new skills and international collaborations, so this is good for France," she says. By going abroad one may also demonstrate the ability to adapt to another culture, another way of working, learn a new language -- and still be productive. "I was offered the two [jobs] because, I think, I gained a lot in maturity; it is what they look for when they say 'you have to go abroad'."

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