Moving to a laboratory in another state or another country is an academic tradition. Scientists move for master’s and PhD programmes, postdoctoral experience, competitive faculty positions and short- or long-term study exchanges. Early-career researchers, in particular, are encouraged to broaden their horizons in foreign labs before deciding on a career path. Some move to gain experience in a prestigious lab; others for a promotion or because they cannot stay. Whatever the reason, the decision to pack up and go is rarely easy, and the process itself can be overwhelming.
Last year, I moved from Adelaide, Australia, to Boulder, Colorado, for a postdoc position. My reasons were simple: I wanted to travel, and I found a lab that matched my interests while providing me the opportunity to learn new techniques. Now that the dust has settled on my move, I’d like to share my experiences so far as an international postdoc.
I’ve never been the sort of person to make drastic, life-altering decisions. For years, my comfort zone was restricted to a small city ‘down under’ with its reliable safety net of friends, family and a familiar university. I could happily have spent the rest of my life alternating research with swims at the beach.
But moving abroad has boosted my confidence in ways staying at home never could have. Compared with uprooting my life and working out the US tax system, writing a paper doesn’t seem so hard. Presenting a lab-meeting talk no longer makes me anxious. My new-found perspective has encouraged me to set ambitious scientific goals and work hard to meet them.
Moving to a different country has meant new opportunities and experiences. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve already had the chance to meet some of my academic idols, go on departmental and science-communication retreats and learn the idiosyncrasies of a new supercomputer. Being located in the BioFrontiers Institute gives me the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary projects with the support of experts in a variety of fields, including algorithm development, machine learning and host–virus genomics.
Back home, the computer science, maths and science departments are all in different buildings, and there’s less opportunity for collaborations arising over coffee, for example; here, we’re actively encouraged to blend weird scientific topics together. I have the freedom to explore a subject with the support of world-leading experts in the field. Living in the United States also means that I now have access to a wide range of conferences and ‘hack-a-thons’ that used to be too far away or expensive to attend.
Homesickness is real. In the past four months, one of my best friends back home received her PhD; another became pregnant; my brother secured his dream job; my family moved house; and Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open in straight sets. It hurts not being around for big events. No matter what happens back home, it’ll take me at least 24 hours to get there. Skype calls and postcards are poor substitutes for quality time with loved ones.
Building a support network from scratch takes time and work. When I first moved here, I didn’t know who to list as an emergency contact. Making friends has required a conscious shift into extroversion: attending social and networking events, introducing myself to other postdocs, trying local hobbies to meet people in the community (I started with ice skating and stuck with climbing). Just experiencing a cold Colorado winter was a shock at first; seeing fresh snow continues to amaze me.
Moving countries involves a lot of paperwork. Getting a US research visa from Adelaide required a lengthy online application, multiple payments and travelling to an in-person interview at the embassy in Melbourne. In the United States, I landed on a pillow of further forms to fill in: immigration check-in documents, a social-security-number application, my university contract (with various associated benefits), a new bank account and housing applications. The process differs from country to country, but it’s never fun.
Likewise, I needed a hefty chunk of savings to book flights, secure accommodation (both temporary and long-term), buy basic necessities, such as utensils and furniture, and generally survive. Not having a US credit score caused issues when I tried to apply for housing and made it very difficult to get a credit card. Things went wrong. My first payslip was processed incorrectly and reimbursement took several months. Incoming postdocs should take care to consult tax agents from both countries to avoid costly mistakes and ensure that obligations (such as student-debt repayments or declaring foreign income) are met.
For me, moving was the right choice. The life experience I’ve gained has made me more confident, and motivated me both in and out of work. My advice to prospective travellers would be to plan carefully and allow yourself plenty of time to adjust. If possible, arrive a few weeks before your start date to rest, get comfortable and explore the neighbourhood.
Most of all, don’t stress about the small things. I came here with only a 23-kilogram suitcase of belongings, owing to difficulties with shipping to a landlocked state. Before I left, I spent weeks fretting about the things I had to give up because of costs: my books, my bikes, more than 20 years of accumulated belongings. Now, I think I brought too much. If you’re going to all the effort of moving to a new place, remember to make it an adventure.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.