It's a career right of passage for many European scientists to carry out postdoctoral research in America, but it is less common for an American scientist to do a postdoc abroad. However, in 2009, that is the career step I chose.
As I wrapped up my Ph.D. research in theoretical biophysics at the University of Maryland, College Park, I decided to look for a postdoctoral position at a lab that excelled in both theory and experiment, wherever that lab might be located. By giving equal consideration to labs both in the United States and abroad, I was able to find a postdoctoral position that matched my research goals and the type of mentorship that I was seeking better than any position in the United States. I joined the University of Cambridge in England, where I obtained a postdoctoral appointment in the lab of experimentalist Christopher Dobson and worked in close collaboration with theorist Michele Vendruscolo.
"If you want to be successful in academia, you need to locate and choose the best and most appropriate training opportunities, wherever they might be." —Edward O’Brien
My experience in England was very positive, professionally and personally, affording me opportunities I would not have had otherwise and helping me land a tenure-track position in the United States.
Few American Ph.D. graduates do postdocs abroad. This is unfortunate because limiting yourself geographically limits your options. In the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities, the United States was dominant, with 35 of the 50 top-ranked science universities, but that still leaves 15 top universities outside the United States. The University of Oxford and University of Cambridge in England, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Switzerland, the University of Tokyo in Japan, and the Technical University Munich in Germany are all on the list; all provide opportunities for postdocs to work with world-renowned scientists on important research questions. And of course, such opportunities aren't limited to the top 50 universities.
Two reasons often cited for American postdocs’ reluctance to go abroad is the fear of losing touch with the U.S. research community, and that it can be harder to obtain a tenure-track position back home. But I found that it was easy to stay in touch. Skype, and the many international meetings held in the United States, made it possible for me to interact face-to-face with other American scientists during the 5 years I spent overseas. I also found that my foreign postdoc did not make it harder to find a U.S. faculty position; what counts most, after all, are the rigor of your training, your scientific record, and good recommendations from leading scientists. These things were all strengthened by my overseas experience. I was invited to interview for tenure-track positions at 10 U.S. universities over the course of my postdoc. During those interviews, the fact that I had carried out my research abroad never came up.
If you want to be successful in academia, you need to locate and choose the best and most appropriate training opportunities, wherever they might be.
Still, a long-term move overseas is a big step; it's good to test the water with shorter research visits during your graduate studies. Both U.S. and foreign funding bodies support such visits. I had a wonderful experience with international research during my graduate years, when, as a National Science Foundation (NSF) East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students fellow, I spent the summer of 2007 at Nagoya University in Japan. The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) provides support for 3-month European visits for life science graduate students via their Short-Term Fellowships. Other European organizations offer similar support. Such funding opportunities provide a low-risk way to see the research being carried out in other parts of the world, to establish the connections that could lead to future opportunities, and to determine whether living and working in another country is for you.
Beyond the career benefits, there are two practical benefits of doing a postdoc abroad. First, if you do your postdoc abroad, you are eligible for more funding opportunities to support your postdoc. Both NSF and the National Institutes of Health allow you to take your postdoctoral fellowship to a foreign country; I used an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology to fund my position in England.* But in addition, the European Union and its member states also offer postdoctoral fellowship opportunities for Americans who wish to work in Europe. Examples include the Individual Fellowships under the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, The British Academy and Royal Society’s Newton International Fellowship in England, and the Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers in Germany. Other international funding opportunities are the EMBO Long-term Fellowships and Human Frontier Science Program Postdoctoral Fellowships. None of these are available to U.S. nationals who do their postdocs in the United States.
The second practical advantage is that, because you are exposed to a new group of scientists, time spent overseas helps you establish a global network of collaborators. While in England, I set up a collaboration with an experimental group in Germany whose work complements the theoretical modeling work I am doing. I'll be carrying that collaboration forward into the research program I'm setting up, examining nascent protein behavior at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, where I have accepted a faculty position.
In doing a postdoc abroad, there are some potential pitfalls to look out for. One is the logistics of relocation. Visas, housing, schools, childcare, and a job for your partner all require a lot of time and energy to arrange and can eat into your productivity if you're not careful. In some locations, unfamiliarity with the local language can slow you down; even in England an American needs to learn some new words. Beyond language, there's courtesy and customs: Every country has its own unspoken expectations about how people should behave and interact. It is important to learn these.
Provided you are aware of the potential pitfalls, the right foreign postdoc position can give you an edge. Going abroad can allow you to do research with leaders in your field, set up new international collaborations, and learn from exposure to a different working environment. The curiosity, adaptability, problem-solving, and open-mindedness necessary to work and live abroad are valuable qualities for postdocs ready to make the next career step in academia. Most important of all, a willingness to go abroad opens up scientific and training opportunities that are not available locally, even for Americans. So don't limit yourself.
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*At NIH, approval isn't automatic, but you can take your NIH fellowship abroad.