Being able to work overseas is one of the really cool parts of being a scientist. Combining the dream of living abroad for a couple of years with actually advancing your career? It’s a win-win situation. For once, even the dreaded short term contracts become an advantage.
Working in a lab in sunny California is the exotic light at the end of the long PhD tunnel…but how do you actually get to jet off to London, Sydney or Barcelona post-PhD? It can be overwhelming trying to work it out around long days glued to the lab bench.
Here are some tips for how to get that elusive postdoc abroad, in a position that will actually suit you.
Start thinking about it (really) early
The process from when you first consider going abroad to actually setting foot on foreign soil can take a really long time. We’re talking over a year in many cases. So you need to start mulling it over quite a while before you want to go. This will also take a lot of the stress out of the whole thing.
For a start, it can take you a while to find a lab that is the right fit for you (more on this later). But once you know where you want to go, you’ll probably also want some money to live off (because let’s face it, we don’t love science QUITE enough to do it for free). For the lucky few, your new lab may already have money or a position advertised, but this isn’t always the case.
In some situations, a lab may agree to apply for funding with, or for you. You may need to apply yourself for funding. Depending on funding rounds and deadlines, this lengthy process itself can set you back several months.
Visas can also slow things down. The last thing you want is to have found your dream position AND money, but not be able to get there because you’re stuck in a really long backlog of visas waiting to be processed.
You might think this all sounds a bit extreme – but moving abroad is a big step so there is a lot to sort out. It’s better to have everything sorted too early than too late.
As hard as it is to hear this, group leaders will rarely go out on a whim for someone they have never heard of, even if you do have a golden CV and a glowing reference from your supervisor. Busy PIs just don’t have the time to apply for funding for someone they have never met.
So, there are two options: collaborators and conferences.
Start with collaborators. Does your lab collaborate with any cool groups abroad? If not, are there any other groups in your research center/institute that do? This is where it pays to show your face a bit; take part in journal clubs or research in progress talks. Show yourself to be proactive around your wider research environment – even if that’s just asking someone how their weekend was as they make their morning cup of coffee.
The second option is conferences. International conferences are a great way to identify potential new labs working in a similar or complementary area to you. Make yourself known to them by asking an intelligent question in a talk, then go and chat to them afterward. You can follow up later with an email – they’ll be much more likely to act on it having met you in person.
Meeting a potential new boss in person is also a great opportunity for you. More on this next…
Choose your lab wisely
The same rules apply when choosing a postdoc that di for your PhD. Do you want to be part of a big lab churning out ground-breaking nature papers, where you’ll probably never see the PI and be firmly stuck as a middle author? Or are you better suited to a small lab where you’re more likely to get first author publications, but maybe not in those elusive top impact factor journals.
Will you get on with your colleagues? This is a pretty important consideration given that you’ll be moving away from familiar friend and family. You don’t need to be best mates with your fellow future scientists, but it will definitely be a lot easier to land on your feet if you have a bit in common with them.
Also, think about the lifestyle you want. Are you aiming to get really stuck in and get first author science paper, or do you want to spend a bit of time exploring your new country beyond the cell culture lab? Try and get a feel for how other people have found moving to a similar place. Possibly a friend of a friend, or someone a few years ahead of you in the lab. Every little bit of information helps!
One solution to the supervisor-doesn’t-want-to-apply-for-funding situation is to come with your own funding. Depending on where you are from, and where you want to go, there will be options for applying for a grant or fellowship. This shows initiative and will definitely be appealing for a group leader.
Finally, it sounds obvious, but make sure you are up to speed with the lab’s research areas and have a think about how your skills and knowledge would fit in. This will help both you and them decide if you will work well together.
So, good luck, bonne chance, buena suerte! Oh, and make sure your passport is in date!