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Tea for Two

Cheddar cheese and pickles, pub crawling, and cricket---all things we would never have known had we stayed in Switzerland. Would we have missed them? Probably not. But we would definitively have missed a great opportunity to live and work together in a foreign country.

Patrick: It's been almost 3 years now that Marta surprised me with her plans of going abroad after finishing our PhDs at the University of Zurich. I didn't really know how to react at the time. I had already been to Strasbourg University, France, to do my MSc in biotechnology and to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, for a research project--and I was quite happy to be back home. My friends and family were all close to Zurich, the country and culture were familiar, and the standards of both living and studying were excellent. Most importantly, I wasn't really thinking about the future--not even the one with Marta. I was just happy that we had found each other and were having a good time together.

Marta: At that time, Patrick was possibly overestimating my determination. I had not made any specific plans yet, but it had always been clear to me--and meeting him didn't change this--that my career should include some experience in an extraordinary environment. While I was getting closer to the end of my PhD I felt that doing a postdoc in a foreign country would match this very well. The question was just where and how: in Europe or overseas, in academia or industry. After contacting some people and exploring the opportunities, I finally got interested in the UK for its variety of world-class labs in my field, its culture and history of science, and the possibility of improving my English. Things happened pretty quickly then and I was eventually given a choice between a position in an academic lab in London and another in a biotech company in Cambridge. Due to various circumstances such as grants and timelines I favoured the latter and very much hoped I could convince Patrick to come along before leaving. Failing to do so would have been a great disappointment for me and would have provoked quite some tensions, especially as I had not yet heard any of his plans.

Patrick: Now I really had to face it. Marta was just one step away from going to England for several years. She was about to decide on our future and was waiting for my approval. What were my options without any good alternatives at hand? Stay alone in Switzerland and risk our relationship? Convince her to decline the offers--and risk our relationship? Or just go with her and start my career over there? Put that way, it ended up being a rather easy choice. Although I was still undecided about my own professional future and skeptical about following my girlfriend into the unknown, I felt that some years in Cambridge would be beneficial not only to my personal and professional development, but also to our relationship.

And it would be good fun, too. I knew there were plenty of excellent research institutions and biotech companies in the area with great job opportunities. Then there was the fact that the UK was a very interesting country to explore and only a thousand kilometres away from home in case we missed skiing. I wouldn't have said yes to just any proposition, but with these perspectives, I was ready for a new adventure in a foreign country--but this time with a partner!

Marta: I left Zurich for Cambridge alone in October 2001, straight after finishing my PhD, and started working for KuDOS Pharmaceuticals at the Cambridge Science Park. It was quite a challenge! I had to adapt to another culture and an industrial work environment at the same time. I had a huge pile of administrative stuff to deal with due to the move, and I needed to meet new friends. Luckily, I had a very good grasp of English from the start, and I met very helpful and friendly people. Nevertheless, I was separated from Patrick. I couldn't share any of my experiences with him or get any help from him in difficult moments other than over the phone. And most of all, I had no guarantee that the future I was about to build would be our common one.

Patrick: Meanwhile, I was spending days and nights writing my thesis in Switzerland. My efforts to search for a job in Cambridge were therefore very poor. As the response to my sparse enquiries and applications was even poorer, I decided to put the job search aside until I was there. I remember being very calm about it. I even found the time to go travelling for a month between finishing my PhD and moving to the UK in May 2002. I started living with Marta (for the first time by the way!) and took care of the dog, the house, and the garden. As I finally had a free mind and a lot of time to myself, I also resumed my job search. I decided to initiate my career with a research scientist position in industry and therefore started looking for job offers and interesting companies in scientific journals and on the internet. I sent my CV to recruitment agencies and applied to several positions. For almost 2 months not much happened except for my savings being burnt at a fast pace--obviously, I wasn't entitled to any unemployment benefits from either Switzerland or the UK. I therefore began to ask myself whether I should accept any job just for the money or go back home and hope for the desired position there. Neither was a good option really.

Marta: It was very nice to be with Patrick again. I could introduce him to my life in Britain, to my work, and my friends. We started exploring the country together. Unfortunately, the uncertainty of him finding a job and thus being able to stay with me did stress me rather a lot. I felt somewhat responsible for the situation and I even considered going back earlier. After all, it was me who had persuaded him to this adventure. Two incidents, however, made me more confident. First, the UK job market opened up to Swiss citizens with the bilateral agreements between the European Union and Switzerland coming into force on 1 June 2002. From that day, he didn't need a work permit anymore and finally had the same rights as I had being Belgian. This strengthened his applications a lot. Second, there was the phone call from Cambridge Antibody Technology ( CAT).

Patrick: It was via the alumni association of the University of Strasbourg that I got in contact with CAT: I had sent an e-mail to all the former students via the association's dispatcher and asked if there was anyone working in Cambridge and ready to give me some hints on how to find a job in the area. And as scientists tend to spread out all over the world, it was not very surprising that I got a reply shortly afterwards. This former student, who I had met only a few times before, invited me for lunch, answered a long list of questions, and showed me around his company (CAT). He finally also asked me to leave my CV with him although there was currently no position available. Some weeks later, however, CAT invited me for an interview, and I got a temporary position from the beginning of August.

Marta: Starting two science careers in a foreign country was surely a risky and expensive thing to do. But we get paid back every day now. Especially since Patrick has been upgraded to a permanent member of staff, we are enjoying the priceless experience of living together in a foreign country. We are amazed not only by the different food, the architecture, the landscape, but also by the way British people work, think, and interact. Perhaps even more than what we will learn at work, our reward is all these things one can't understand on a holiday trip. They are broadening our horizons and thus are of great value for both our personal and professional future. So, although I'm now officially half-way through my postdoc, we are not thinking about going back too soon!

Patrick: Now, go and try yourself! Find a nice place to live with good job opportunities for both of you. Make sure you are entitled to work there, that you know the language well, and that you have some spare money. Be adventurous, open-minded, and positive, and give your career as well as your relationship the ultimate kick.

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