CAREER COLUMN

Ten things I learnt from conducting research in three different countries

It’s crucial to make time for the little things, and to attempt a healthy work–life balance, says Elisabeth Kugler.
Elisabeth Kugler is a PhD student in biomedical image analysis in cardiovascular research at Sheffield University, UK.
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Living and conducting research in three different countries (Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom) has taught me a lot about adapting to different cultures, being confident in myself and developing and maintaining relationships. Here are my ten takeaways:

1. Appreciate the small things. As a researcher, it can be easy to fall into the trap of living in a bubble in which you single-mindedly focus on your research and forget about everything else. But the beautiful thing about living abroad is that you can explore a new city, woodlands and parks as well as culture, history and food right at your doorstep. It can even feel like being on holiday, because you get to explore something new every day.

Simple things such as regular Skype sessions with your family or postcards from home can also mean the world, and can help you to settle into a new place.

2. Get familiar with new surroundings. Our environment affects our emotional well-being. I grew up surrounded by mountains — they allowed me to navigate and orient myself, and they constantly framed the landscape of my life as I was growing up. When I moved to a flat area in Germany, I got lost regularly because I couldn’t orient myself properly. Similarly, Austria’s summer can get up to 35 °C, and its winters can get below –15 ° C. Moving to the United Kingdom, which tends to not have these weather extremes, was another change to deal with.

3. Culture shock isn’t always a bad thing. Moving abroad can cause culture shock, but this doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Embrace the intensity of new impressions and adventures until you feel settled. You’ll always be unique in some way, perhaps through your accent, but you’ll learn to blend in over time. In the United Kingdom, for example, I discovered that an orderly queue is very common, and its formation follows strict rules and regulations compared with elsewhere in the world.

4. You don’t always have to ‘blend in’. People might tell you, “You’d need to be from here to understand.” You might find yourself experiencing homesickness when you hear, see or smell something familiar. On the positive side, others might say, “Oh, you’re from Austria? I love skiing!” — and small talk is sorted. For me, finding the silver lining in each exchange and feeling grounded, or emotionally balanced, helps me with this salt-and-pepper ‘blend in, be unique’ pattern.

5. Articulate your expectations at work. Many people are not comfortable with speaking frankly about their expectations around communication, working hours, finances and personal needs. It’s easy to forget that others have different values, cultural backgrounds and experiences. These differences can sometimes lead to awkward moments, and they can even cause unnecessary conflicts. For example, being prompt is a must in Germany, in my experience, so Germans will naturally expect others to be on time and could perceive it as ill-mannered if someone is always late. Such situations could easily be prevented by talking about cultural perceptions of time. Be clear and assertive in vocalizing your expectations and engage in honest discussions.

6. Don’t expect to understand all cultural references. People from different countries, or even from different regions within a single country, have diverse cultural experiences throughout their lives. If you find yourself in the middle of a conversation about an unfamiliar reference, be honest and say, “I have no idea what you are talking about”, and ask others to explain. Most of the time, you’ll be rewarded with a smile and a shower of details. In my experience, being frank about your cultural background not only helps to start a conversation, but will also help you to get to know people bit better, and to become a little more familiar with other cultures.

7. Pay attention to body language. Non-verbal cues and body language are a crucial part of conversations, and they naturally differ between cultures. Once, I was sitting in a noisy bar with people from the United Kingdom, Italy, China and Poland. I noticed that each person used different body language to ask, “Do you want another drink?” A person from the United Kingdom forms a cup with their hand and moves it towards their mouth, but someone from Poland flicks their neck, and an Italian will sketch out a ‘hang loose’ sign (a fist with the thumb and little finger extended) with their hand and move it to their mouth. Having a conversation about how body language differs between cultures is a great way to break the ice, and it might prevent you from unintentionally offending someone.

8. Take steps to prevent burnout. As a researcher, you will face pressure to perform and deliver. It is easy to feel overwhelmed during exams, conferences, interviews or paper revisions. At these times, it can be challenging to stay patient, amiable and receptive. For example, I find it hard to keep up phone contact with friends and family during stressful periods, so I tell them in advance what is at stake, why it is important for my career, that I need the headspace to perform and that I won’t be in touch as frequently for a while. Sharing this information with others will help them to understand that you are only human and need their support.

9. Remember that there is life outside academia. Try to maintain a good work–life balance. I admit that this has been difficult for me, but I have learnt to listen to my emotional and physiological needs. Living in different countries allows you to explore a fresh culture and history, as well as make new friends. Make use of it, and spend time outside your work. Personally, I schedule time each week to help me to avoid feeling guilty about not being in the laboratory.

10. Practise gratitude. No matter how hard it is, being a researcher means being part of a vibrant international scientific community. We get to learn new things every day and, most importantly, we can do what we love — science.

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 naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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