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Relocating With the Lab

Your principal investigator (PI) calls you into his office and says that he has been offered a full professorship and a half-million dollars in research funds. He wants you to share the largess, but there's a catch: You have to follow your boss to another continent. Do you uproot your life on the promise of a better world, or do you stay and find another position locally, even if in doing so you must abandon your project halfway through and risk losing authorship on work you haven't published yet?

When Yann Mineur, a graduate student, faced this decision, he chose the bolder path and became the only member of the lab staff to follow his adviser to the United States. He arrived in a brand-new lab that took nearly a year to set up as the two learned the American system, got animal approval, and ordered supplies. Mineur expected to struggle with the language barrier, but he wasn't expecting the isolation he encountered as he worked in the lab with only his boss for the first several months. "Scientifically, I undoubtedly gained much more [by moving] than I would have in France," he says; he received his Ph.D. with honors, published several papers, and landed a postdoctoral position at Yale. "But the price to pay for that was very high. Things were much tougher than one would have expected as seen from the outside."

Figuring out how many young researchers are uprooted by lab relocations is difficult, because few organizations keep data. But the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) may offer a clue. Of the 240 to 300 fellows active in a given year, HFSP estimates that three to five relocate with their labs. Most look on it as an opportunity to try something new. "Fellows are happy to move with the lab," says HFSP director of fellowships Guntram Bauer.

What is there to gain, and to lose?

Rong Li

Rong Li

PIs negotiate such moves to advance their careers and research programs, seeking access to better facilities, funding--salary included--and opportunities for collaboration. Relocation may be difficult, but for the leader of the lab, it's typically worth the challenge. "It's hard to say what I would have accomplished [staying in the same place], but one thing's for sure: It wouldn't have provided us with the opportunity for growth that we've all experienced," says Tina M.,* a PI who moved her lab within the United States.

But only a PI has the luxury to focus on the long term. Early-career scientists are vulnerable to the immediate disadvantages of the move. As a graduate student, Michael Abram moved from McGill University in Canada to the University of Pittsburgh in the United States. One big setback for Abram came when the U.S. institution rejected much of the coursework he completed in Canada; as a 4th-year Ph.D. student, he had to take two more years of classes. "In retrospect, I am very glad I took the path I did, although it was very frustrating ... at times," says Abram, who is now a postdoc. "It helped to build my character and make me the scientist I am today."

Ask tough questions

Young scientists face the possibility of great professional and personal upheaval during relocation, at the time in their careers when they are expected to be very productive. It's hard for even the most diligent student or postdoc to estimate the loss of momentum she will experience and weigh it against the benefits the new environment is likely to provide. But, hard as it is, that calculation will determine not just the success of their current research but also (to a large extent) their long-term career prospects.

So faced with a decision that's both critical and practically impossible, what should you do? First, try to figure out whether you're moving to Shangri-La or being shanghaied. The type of lab--whether it will be in a well-organized private research institution, in a top public institute, or in a small public university--is an important factor. The new lab's location--closer to home or in a foreign country, in a place you always wanted to visit or a place you always sought to avoid--should also weigh heavily. But be wary of generalizations.

Jerry Workman, a PI who moved his group from a public university to a private institute within the United States, experienced only 2 weeks' downtime while refrigerated trucks transported his still-stocked freezers and even the personal possessions of his staff. In contrast, Tina M.* moved her lab from a public university to a top private university within the United States before her new lab space was ready; a "temporary lab space assignment ... has been terribly dissipating toward our efforts," she says. It wasn't expected, but she might have read the signs in the tea leaves. "The lab space was a bit of a moving target, ... which should have been a red flag."

The best way to assess the situation is to "go and visit, be open-minded, and don't focus on the negatives," says Rong Li, a PI who moved her lab to a private institute after 10 years at an Ivy League university. Once there, make sure you ask plenty of questions and judge what sort of interruption the move will pose to your research. How well are the institute's facilities suited to your project? Will your PI's lab have the right equipment? Is it likely to be ready on time for productive science? Make your own judgments, but keep it discreet: You don't want to seem to be second-guessing your PI.

Yann Mineur

Yann Mineur

Other key details are the presence of reliable support staff or other colleagues in the institution who may help you learn the local system. For international moves in particular, figure out how hard it will be--or how easy--to obtain laboratory certification for animal and radiation usage, for example. Expect a lot of bureaucratic encumbrances and extensive customs paperwork. Anna T.,* a postdoc who recently moved from the United States to Switzerland, says that "animal facility regulations here are more strict; it will probably be 6 months until I have sufficient animals to do experiments." Also inquire about who will help you obtain the paperwork to live and work in the new country--or whether you will face long days preparing it on your own and long hours waiting in immigration offices.

Visiting the lab also provides an opportunity to sample the scientific culture of the new institute. Workman says that his staff "was grumpy for a few months" after moving from a public university to a private research institute, but now they all consider the university's system of doing research less efficient. While you're on site, it's a good idea to get contact information from other researchers, too, because more critical comments are only likely to be aired later on by phone or e-mail.

But scientific culture isn't the only kind of culture that matters to a successful experience. A short visit will allow you to evaluate the new place. Can you get good bread? Good entertainment? How's the public transportation? Will you get by with your language skills? Will you enjoy your new lifestyle?

Finally, do not forget to quiz your PI about your place in his or her plans. What are his plans for the new lab? How do you fit into them?

An opportunity for negotiation

Most PIs recognize that moving is a sacrifice even if it's a good career move. This gives you some leverage to negotiate. Ph.D. students may try to secure a postdoc in the lab for after graduation. Postdocs, Li says, should negotiate an extension of their contract (assuming they want one) with funding obtained through the lab's relocation package. Be sure you know what your new salary will be, and negotiate for more money if necessary. "I should have asked whether the salary was gross or net, because the first year I was spending almost everything on rent," says Mineur. Or, you could propose taking on some extra responsibilities, which may justify a higher salary and allow you to add some valuable skills to your résumé. You could also seek reimbursement for moving expenses.

Perhaps the best advice to those contemplating relocation is not to say "yes" too quickly. Even if you expect to make the move, visit the place first, if not to avoid bad surprises then at least to keep disturbances to your work and life to a minimum. Both relocation and negotiation opportunities are rare, so make sure you make all the right moves before making the jump.

* Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Photos: Top, Tim Herrick. Middle: Don Ipock/Stowers Institute. Bottom: courtesy, Yann Mineur.

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