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Academics, Wish You Were There?


Dear CareerDoctor,I'm a year into a PhD in physics with the longer-term intention of pursuing an academic career. I've been talking to a postdoc in my group who has suggested that a good way to improve my chances might be to spend some time overseas. I find the idea a bit intimidating (particularly as I don't speak any other languages) and I'm not sure where to start looking, where to go, or for how long. I'm also worried that being out of touch with the UK academic community will actually reduce my chances of getting a lectureship when I come back.On top of this I'm not sure when to start looking for opportunities as I've heard conflicting information on how to arrange an overseas project--ranging from years of complex applications to just a few weeks and a couple of e-mails!What is the best course of action and where do I go for help?E.M.

Dear E.M.,

As you might expect from an adviser on an international science careers site, I am going to support the comments made by your postdoc colleague! If you look around the many articles on Next Wave which refer to doing research in foreign countries you'll find numerous personal examples of the positive impact international experience can have on a career in science. Your questions suggest that you appreciate this enough to have started looking into your options, but are still unsure about whether it will suit you. You mention language as a potential hurdle and may also be concerned about the culture shock and isolation that could stem from this.

I'll look at these particular issues later as I want to start by clarifying the different ways in which you can arrange time overseas.

A relatively low-risk strategy for testing the waters of overseas working could be to spend some time in another lab during your PhD. Look for details of short-term programmes for doctoral students which allow you to spend from 3 months to a year of your studies abroad, such as The Marie Curie Training Networks and The Marie Curie Host Fellowships for Early-Stage Research Training. You'll need to discuss these options carefully with your supervisor, but the placements are intended to boost research, so he or she may be receptive to the idea of you spending some time in a group with complementary interests. A similar scheme is run by Erasmus and you may be eligible for intensive training in relevant languages before your placement starts.

However, you may decide to wait until your PhD is safely under your belt before taking the plunge. The most obvious route is to apply for an advertised postdoctoral post. For this you need to be looking at international recruitment in journals and on the Internet. Many sites will send you e-mail alerts with details of jobs that suit your needs in terms of employment type and location. The timescales between applying and starting are typically a few months, but you can start looking for vacancies now to get a feel for what is available.

The downside to this approach is that your choice is limited to what is on offer and if you are keen to work in a specific field, you may have to wait some time for a suitable vacancy. A more complicated, but ultimately more tailored, method is to create your own post, which will also demonstrate your initiative and determination, thus giving a boost to your hopes of obtaining a lectureship! As one of your contacts suggested, you need to start looking into this now as it could take years to arrange, having to create your own research project, find a host institution, and apply for support from one of the formal schemes promoting the mobility of high-quality researchers. The advantage of these is that they offer additional support, a network of contacts within the research community, and the kudos of being associated with a programme of international repute.

But before you can apply to get your hands on the cash, you need to find a lab willing to host you. Begin to identify the key researchers in your field--a famous name on your CV will boost your chances of success in the future. Talk to your supervisor and other researchers for any insights they might have on the personalities behind the papers. You may also use conferences as opportunities to meet potential employers or develop informal collaborations. Talk to students and researchers in groups you are interested in about what it is like to work with the principal investigator, whether they have good publication rates, and any possible funded research opportunities they may have opening. The latter will give you the breathing space to write a fellowship application once you arrive; otherwise you and your new boss will need to work on your proposal long distance.

You can start to identify possible sources of funding at this stage too. A European example is the well-regarded Marie Curie Fellowships which offers a range of schemes for postdoctoral researchers. The programme is described best in a brochure produced by the European Commission, which manages to translate the EU recommendations into a readable " Rough Guide". A particularly appealing development is the introduction of " Return and Reintegration Mechanisms" for researchers who have just completed a Marie Curie Fellowship in Europe or any EU nationals who have been abroad for at least 5 years. This initiative should address the concerns you have about losing touch with opportunities and developments in the UK during an overseas fellowship.

More Resources on Next Wave

Since you are concerned about language issues, you may prefer to work in an English-speaking country. It's worth noting that Marie Curie Fellowships now allow you to travel anywhere in the world, not just within Europe. But there are many other schemes available too. Be aware, though, that the application deadlines are surprisingly early for many of them.

Your university careers service or international relations office can give you details of many of the programmes, but you might want to start your research by looking into opportunities offered by the Leverhulme Trust, the British Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, the Human Frontiers Science Program, the Fulbright Commission in the UK, or the national equivalents of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)--to name but a few!

The question of how long to work overseas may be decided for you in the length of any research posts or fellowships that you secure. Most postdoctoral posts are for 2 to 3 years, but it can vary. This is probably a good period of time as it will give you a chance to produce high-quality work with sufficient scope, and publications should have begun to emerge by then.

We also need to address your concerns about a culture shock and isolation, and let me reassure that you can prepare for that too. Now is the time to begin language classes, if relevant, and to look at holiday destinations which will give you a chance to sample potential cultures and climates. You may also be able to meet students from countries you are considering working in through student societies in your current institution and build your own support network for when you take the plunge. While abroad, universities may offer informal support through international societies as well with regular social events at which you can meet people from your home country or continent. And if you have joined a professional body, find out if they have overseas branches or activities as these may also include social events.

Learn from the experience of those who took the plunge ?

Now, you were also worried about losing contact with the scientific community back home and diminishing your chances of securing a lectureship here. You will almost certainly need to do further research before being considered for a lectureship, so this will give you some breathing space on your return to the UK, if that is where you see your career developing. Meanwhile there are many ways to make your return easier. Conferences, for example, are a great way for overseas researchers to keep up with the "home crowd". You should also aim to keep in touch throughout your time away by sending details of any publications or presentations to key researchers in the UK or comments on how their work has influenced your own.

Going overseas to work is certainly a big step to make but it can enhance your career in many ways as well as enrich your life experience--and as long as you keep in touch with the scientific community back home, you shouldn't worry too much about returning. Just enjoy your stay!

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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