Do you remember when you were a child, when you finished junior school feeling top of the world, only to start senior school right back at the bottom as the newest, youngest members of the school? You had no idea where anything was, which teachers were the good ones, and you suddenly needed to be a lot more responsible all of a sudden. Doing a postdoc abroad, for me, was the grown up version of that.
For the first few months in my new lab, I felt like I knew nothing. I had just come from my PhD, where I spent 4+ years getting to know the lab, the people and the way the university runs really well. Also, by virtue of having to write a thesis and survive a viva, I knew A LOT about my PhD work. Unnecessary amounts of detail including pretty much every paper under the sun relating to my project.
Suddenly, in a new foreign lab, I knew no one. I didn’t know how to turn the hood on in tissue culture, or how to use the machine for making cryovial labels. I had no idea how the printer worked and people kept talking in acronyms of funding bodies and charities that I’d never heard of.
At the time, it felt like all I did was ask questions on how to use machines or where stuff was kept. It felt a bit like I’d never catch on. I also spent a lot of time dashing back to my computer after meetings to look up papers mentioned in the discussion. I just tried to help out with lab jobs, or chat to people in the tea room, in the hope that colleagues would go out of their way to help me if they saw that I was also making an effort.
Without realising it, you learn the ropes, get to know people and settle in.
HOWEVER, the good news is that, like when you move up to senior school, you find your feet. Without realising it, you learn the ropes, get to know people and settle in. I remember the real turning point was the day some new students arrived, and I found myself showing them where the new pipette tips were and how to work a piece of equipment. My new found knowledge seemed all the sweeter after feeling like I came from knowing nothing.
On the other hand, there were a lot of things that were weirdly familiar. It was amazing to me, that all the way round the other side of the world, we had the exact same coulter counter, or the exact same trypan blue. Now, I just need to remember to place orders at least a month in advance, as it turns out reagents take a lot longer to get to New Zealand than the UK!
There were also non-science things to get used to. For example, the work day in New Zealand is an hour or two earlier than what I was used to in the UK. A pre-6am alarm took a bit of getting used to, but it certainly pays off when I have more time after work to explore.
I also now feel much more prepared to embark upon future challenges that appear in life.
Overall, I am so glad and grateful I have had the opportunity to do a postdoc overseas. It was challenging at first, but then I think that would be the same with any new job, even at home. I feel that I have learned so much through this experience, much more than I would have done by staying in the UK to do a postdoc. I have gained experience through being able to compare research culture in two different countries, and observe their strengths and weaknesses. I have developed new techniques, as well as advancing skills I already had. I have learnt a lot about myself as a person, simply by moving to the other side of the world. I also now feel much more prepared to embark upon future challenges that appear in life.
I would 100% recommend going overseas for a postdoc
The opportunity doesn’t suit everyone, but if you can, I would 100% recommend going overseas for a postdoc. For once, short term contracts play in your favor, you’ll learn loads and it looks great on your CV. I know I should be focusing on the science, but it’s also a life experience you’ll never forget. My time in New Zealand outside of the lab in New Zealand has been, without sounding too cliché, amazing. Heading to the beach to soak up some sun at the end of the day is one of the highlights, not something I did very often in the north of England! In my opinion, being able to travel around New Zealand in my free time is absolutely worth learning how a new lab runs!
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