In my work as a health-science researcher, I’ve moved to several countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. I’ve learnt that for every researcher who moves abroad, there are several more who will receive that individual and support their transition. In today’s global research environment, which values mobility and often expects it from researchers, these local teams have a responsibility to help colleagues from abroad have a good start.
During my own international moves, I have experienced at first hand the difference that a supportive environment can make, alongside your efforts to adapt to the new environment. Here are seven hospitable things that research teams can do.
Welcome the new team member
First impressions count on both sides and can set the tone for days and weeks to come. It is crucial to be aware that someone is joining the group, know the date of their first workday and say ‘welcome’ in some way. On the first day of my secondment to the United Kingdom as a PhD student, I had a meeting with my academic supervisors, one with an administrator for official intake and one with my ‘buddy’ — a fellow PhD student who helped me to take my first steps in the new place and introduced me to the team.
Show them that they are a valued member of the organization
This step applies even if they are staying for only a short period. Invite them to all activities that other laboratory members are expected to attend, such as seminars, journal clubs or team-building events. In the first month of my six-month visiting-researcher appointment in the United Kingdom, I was invited to present my work at a monthly seminar, select an article for the journal club and join the institute’s working group on research dissemination. This motivated me and made me feel like an equally valued member of the team.
Out of sight, out of mind: assign a good workspace
Give them a place next to or near many colleagues. This will greatly boost your new member’s integration into the local team, help them to quickly grasp how things work in the new lab and spur the exchange of information and knowledge.
Show interest in the way they approach projects, rather than teaching them ‘how things are done here’
While supervising an exchange PhD student in Belgium, I asked her how often she would like to meet with her collaborators. As a team, we then adjusted to her preference. Embrace the opportunity to get to know different styles of, for instance, project management, giving and receiving feedback and supervising PhD students. The new colleague might have a different career path from the typical one for your field in your country. Rather than wondering whether they are equally qualified, compare what you have learnt along the way and consider how your experiences and skills could complement each other’s.
Talk extensively about cultural differences
The value of international collaborations comes from the different perceptions, communication styles, work styles, customs and other variety that a new colleague can bring to both the work and social spheres. Understanding and speaking about differences will help to prevent conflicts that might arise. If they occur nonetheless, you will be able to more easily agree on how to handle similar situations in the future. On arriving in Belgium, I noticed that I was used to a more ‘direct’ communication style from my previous research post in the Netherlands. This prompted me to ask local colleagues for advice on how to approach discussions with my PhD supervisors, interviews for grant applications or negotiations with project partners. I am convinced that such exchanges have greatly helped me to establish and uphold successful collaborations.
Offer help with practical matters
Navigating a new health-care system, finding a good phone plan or arranging child care are time consuming at best and nerve-racking at worst. I was forever grateful to a co-worker in Belgium who helped me to arrange health insurance and an annual public-transport pass and pointed out the place that sells the best bread in town. Ideally, your university’s international office should provide a welcome pack that explains which administrative and practical matters need to be arranged and how. Make sure that the new researcher gets one before their arrival.
Pay attention to the seemingly little things
Little things count for someone whose life — particularly their social life — has been turned upside down. Suggesting a coffee together outside work or offering to show your new colleague a nice place in town might help them to forget the stresses of relocating for a little while. During my stay in the United Kingdom, I joined a fellow group of PhD students for weekly Friday breakfasts at a cafe close to our university. These mornings allowed us to bond, and I learnt a great deal about UK life outside the workplace. And if you get along with the newcomer, you might make a new friend.
Nature 576, 169-170 (2019)
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