Should I do my postdoc/PhD abroad? One of the great questions faced by scientists everywhere. You come to the end of your studies and you hear rumors of how working abroad looks good on your CV. Working abroad will be a life-changing experience. But should you really go abroad? Is it worth it? Will you have an outrageously good time or will it be the worst 3 years of your life? To help put your mind at ease we asked a few people to tell us about their experiences of working abroad. Here’s what they had to say.
Also! If you enjoy this article and would like to send us your own scientific working abroad stories, we’d love to hear them. Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where would you like to go?
- Davide Mantiero, Italy/UK/USA
- Christina Douka, Greece/Germany/France
- Dandan Han and Junkai Li, China/Germany
- Vivi Vastolo and Pepe Petrosino, Italy/Germany
- Bill Hinchen, UK/USA
Name: Davide Mantiero
Originally from Italy, I did my PhD in Milan, studying the mechanisms of DNA damage repair. Then I moved to Boston in the USA where I spent two years postdoc’ing, whale watching, and eating lobster. As I wasn’t happy with just one postdoc I did another one: at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, UK, on DNA replication.
In the lab
When I did my PhD in Milan, we had a single computer in the lab that we had to share for everything: Pubmed searches, preparing presentations, putting data together, checking emails… We used to make homebrew stuff a lot vs buying kits. We had to make the most of the funding we had. People enjoy breaks more socially in Italy. The mid-morning coffee break is almost sacred and I would often find myself sipping my espresso with the whole lab (boss included) without worrying too much about anything else. Lunch break is a ritual too, very rarely people eat on their own in the office.
On the flip side, in the UK and US there was more funding available, more facilities to do things for you as a service (eg buffers, media, etc) and so I had more time to think about my actual experiments/project and read papers, so my projects could run faster… at least theoretically.
Outside the lab
Outside of work in Italy there is less need to organize social moments and get into people’s agenda to meet; meetings (social or for work) are a more spontaneous thing. Milan is the city of aperitivo; after dinner, many bars have a happy hour where you buy a drink and access a free buffet for a couple of hours. Often, that’s your dinner sorted.
When I postdoc’d in the UK and the US I found a more balanced, consistent rhythm of life and work around the year, and your boss wouldn’t give you that strange look when you’re asking for holidays in periods other than Christmas and August. From this point of view, I found the UK the best of both worlds, with 30 days annual leave and bank holidays with the flexibility to take them anytime – I only had 20 days off in the US.
Name: Christina Douka
Originally from Greece, after completing my undergrad studies in exotic Crete, I moved to less exotic Germany to do my masters in Developmental Biology. Fascinated by epigenetics, I decided to stay in Germany for my PhD and recently moved to France for a postdoc in my favorite topic of stem cells.
Science in Greece
Research in Greece, even in pre-crisis times, was poorly funded which makes projects go a bit slower than in other European countries. However, during my first lab experience, I learned that it is important to communicate in English (even if you are not surrounded by foreigners). I also became great at multitasking and doing experiments with limited resources.
Science in Germany
Working in Germany was a different reality in so many ways. First, I had to adapt to how much faster things happen. More resources mean more opportunities to do things; so many different techniques can be used for one project. I must admit that this scientific heaven can’t be seen all around Germany, at least to my experience, only in certain university-centered cities. But if you make a wise choice, then you can really grow and expand.
Sometimes you have to deal with the monster of bureaucracy which can be really tough. But at least there are written rules for this. I also learned how to be more efficient and that being on time is important to be respected. And last but not least… beer is always a good idea.
Science in France
And then it was France. “Don’t you speak French? Why? All our computers are in French, our protocols and some of our compulsory introductions and most of our safety rules.” The French love their language and you have to love it too. If bureaucracy in Germany was a beast, I realized that this beast was more like a teddy bear when I moved to France. The latter beast is many levels scarier. It’s as slow as it gets and based on rules that are not mentioned anywhere. But at least when you mess up with something people are less rigid about formalities.
Being on time is overrated, a meeting time at 10 am can start any time from 10.10am to 10.30am. Flat hunting in Paris is the most difficult task I have ever accomplished in my life (even a PhD was way simpler) and you have to be ready to pay almost half of your salary for rent. Canteen food in France is like a three (or even four) course meal in a very decent restaurant (even if the French consider it trop mal). Want endless paid holidays? Then go work in France! Sooo many holidays you can’t take them all if you want to finish a project.
Greece: be patient and enjoy the sun
Germany: be on time and enjoy your beer
France: be patient, learn French and bon appetit
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Names: Dandan Han and Junkai Li
I did my masters in one CAS institute in China. CAS stands for Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is the biggest research organization in China. Normally all those institutes are well financed where even master’s students are on a stipend. My husband did his masters at Sun Yat-sen University, where they do not provide a stipend, but rather a scholarship that requires an application. Only half of the students could get it. And he got it!
In the lab
I don’t know the situation overall in Germany, but at least master’s students from both my husband’s and my current labs are not getting any money. Other aspects really depend on the lab or the person, but not the country. For example, I haven’t worked much on the weekend for both master and PhD, while my husband really spends more time in the lab for both. My former and current labs are well financed and equipped, even though one is in China, and the other one is in Germany.
Outside the lab
Outside of work, in China, we went to KTV (karaoke clubs) together, which was very popular. I am not sure whether it is still a thing? We also went to restaurants together. In summer, there are many BBQ restaurants opened. Our boss would invite us to fancy restaurants using the special part of grant money as encouragement and reward for our hard work. Some institutes also award people with money for their publications, like my former institute. The amount is depending on the impact factor of the journal.
In Germany, KTV is not so popular, but we go to the wine/beer festivals. Also, PhD students get 25–30 days holiday that they could decide to spend any time they would like. But for master or PhD students in China, they only get the Chinese New Year holiday, which is normally 2 weeks long. Also, the public holidays in China are way less than in Germany!
Names: Vivi Vastolo and Pepe Petrosino
Vivi: I am an Italian biologist and I did both my masters and PhD in Naples, with a short work experience in Barcelona. After a super frustrating PhD, I still decided to continue in research doing a postdoc in Germany.
Pepe: I am coming from Naples and currently working as a bioinformatician in Germany. I spent my first years studying in the field of Oncology. I then decided to study for five more years to become a geneticist to hopefully find a nice and permanent job. No way! So, I added on three more years of PhD in Computational Biology. After all this, there is still no possibility to get a job in Italy. That is why I am writing now from Germany.
Science in Italy
Vivi: In Italy you can get a high-quality education however if you think of doing your PhD there, most likely it is not the ideal place. In most of the cases, funding is the biggest limitation and you must prepare everything by yourself (eg buffers, solutions, etc). Forget about buying super cool kits or just having a multi-step pipet that allows you to load a 364 well plate in few minutes. Every day is a mission, maybe you have to exchange with the next-door lab a package of gloves to get few microliters of the antibody you need!
Pepe: I had all my educational studies in Naples, cool Professors, nice colleagues, and atmosphere. In Italy, in general, you can get a very good education however resources for research are extremely limited. When I applied for the PhD and I got the position the only possibility to get the stipend was to move to another lab. I was studying brain tumors and I had to change and start studying the octopus nervous system. My boss was great, I learned a lot and the lab was amazing. My four colleagues and I had to squeeze in a very tiny room together with the boss! The institute provided us with a computer but the printer was bought from our boss on Amazon.
Science in Germany
Vivi: Working in Germany means that you will get paid. Always. This is not so obvious for people coming from Italy, where the chance you will work for free is very high. Here, it is much easier to carry out your own research; if you want to order something it is enough to type it in an excel file and all the possible sequencing techniques you can think of, you can do them.
Pepe: Everything is extremely organized and planned for the next 2 years already. OMG. No budget issues, possibility to go to conferences, free coffee at the institute (which is not as good as the Italian espresso… but is for free). Office spaces are comfortable and you get very good contracts. On the other side, the weather is not great for instance last year the 15th of August was raining and all my friends in Italy were on the beach at 30°C! Also, mozzarella cannot be found, the good one!
How do they compare?
Vivi: Italy is a beautiful country; nice weather, good food, amazing landscape. People are super friendly and you can decide any time of the day, even very late in the evening, to go out and eat a very good pizza (at least in Naples J) for few euro. However, in general, there are not so many job opportunities. If you decide to go abroad for a research experience most likely you will not have any chance to go back to Italy. You left so you lost your spot! Pretty sad but true. You just have to look at websites where you can find job applications (eg Naturejobs), how many offers come from Italy? Very few, and all of them from the north of Italy. Italy should really learn from most other countries. If in Germany I could have all my family, my friends I would not miss Italy.
Pepe: Italy is beautiful, warm, nice people, and amazing food. Germany has job opportunities where you can apply and to get the position you don’t need to “know” someone. It is only about you and how good you are in your job. It would be great if we could combine all the best from the two countries.
Name: Bill Hinchen
“USA USA USA!” greets you from the Tannoy system as you enter the lab each morning. Okay, so maybe that doesn’t happen, but I’d be lying if I said that isn’t kind of what I was expecting back in 2008 when I was lucky enough to spend a year at Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB), in Boston, USA.
I went over from the Hogwarts-like surroundings of Cambridge, UK, during my PhD and was fully expecting to be greeted by something from an American high school movie scene. I was wrong and right on several points. For starters, I didn’t see any cheerleaders, jocks in bomber jackets, or groups of people chanting “USA USA USA!”. Although I was in a bar one night when several guys really were drinking and chanting “USA USA USA!” at some sort of sporting event. It was totes surreal.
Inside the lab
The OEB was incredibly diverse – just like the other labs I’d worked in. People had obviously come from around the world to work there and I think diversity is only ever a benefit to science. And everything, actually! But what really stood out was the work ethic there. While at Cambridge, someone had once said to me, “I don’t want you to do all the experiments; I want you to be smart and do the right experiments,” the attitude at the Harvard lab seemed to be to do every experiment you can think of! Oh, and to always be seen in the lab. It was common to hear people talking about having slept in the lab, or having been there until the ridiculous-o’clock, or even completely reversing their sleep patterns so they’re in the lab all night, and asleep all day. I don’t know if people were actually more productive for the vast amounts of time spent in the lab.
No tea breaks. Not officially anyway. At Cambridge, we stopped for tea at 10.15 am and 3 pm. We downed pipettes and PhD students, post-docs, and lab techs alike went to the tea room. To talk. To complain. You know, the usual. At Harvard, this wasn’t a thing. I spent most of my time on my own getting work done and grabbing coffee from the machine in our lab – no need to go to the communal kitchen at all. Maybe that was just because we were a new, small lab? Maybe.
Outside the lab
What the OEB did do well, was Friday. At Cambridge, we had a “Happy hour”, which meant some of us went to the tea room at about 6 pm, had a few beers (provided by one of the labs that week – it was on rotation thingy) and did some socializing. It wasn’t very popular though. At Harvard, it was awesome. At about 6 pm we’d all gather outside and there’d be a human-sized stack of free pizza, free beers, and always a great turn out to get together, play some volleyball (to the Top Gun soundtrack in my brain), and generally just chill. Yeah, Harvard smashed that.
Overall, Harvard was way more work, work, work, but when they did cut loose, they really went for it. Cambridge was a lot more relaxed about the time you spent in the lab and mainly judged you on the actual work as opposed to the hours put in. On a side note, in Boston, so many houses are made from wood, they ID everyone for alcohol, people really have flags on the front lawn, their portions are huge, everything comes with cheese, you have to tip everyone for everything – even if they suck, and it’s really easy to get fat. On the other hand, service is always good, BBQ-style food is terrific, I love dive bars, and people were almost universally friendly – I think the British accent wins a lot of people over!