An American Postdoc Abroad


It’s a career right of passage for many European scientists to carry out postdoctoral research in America, but it is less common for an American scientist to do a postdoc abroad. However, in 2009, that is the career step I chose.

As I wrapped up my Ph.D. research in theoretical biophysics at the University of Maryland, College Park, I decided to look for a postdoctoral position at a lab that excelled in both theory and experiment, wherever that lab might be located. By giving equal consideration to labs both in the United States and abroad, I was able to find a postdoctoral position that matched my research goals and the type of mentorship that I was seeking better than any position in the United States. I joined the University of Cambridge in England, where I obtained a postdoctoral appointment in the lab of experimentalist Christopher Dobson and worked in close collaboration with theorist Michele Vendruscolo.

My experience in England was very positive, professionally and personally, affording me opportunities I would not have had otherwise and helping me land a tenure-track position in the United States.

If you want to be successful in academia, you need to locate and choose the best and most appropriate training opportunities, wherever they might be.

If you want to be successful in academia, you need to locate and choose the best and most appropriate training opportunities, wherever they might be.

The second practical advantage is that, because you are exposed to a new group of scientists, time spent overseas helps you establish a global network of collaborators. While in England, I set up a collaboration with an experimental group in Germany whose work complements the theoretical modeling work I am doing. I’ll be carrying that collaboration forward into the research program I’m setting up, examining nascent protein behavior at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, where I have accepted a faculty position.

Provided you are aware of the potential pitfalls, the right foreign postdoc position can give you an edge. Going abroad can allow you to do research with leaders in your field, set up new international collaborations, and learn from exposure to a different working environment. The curiosity, adaptability, problem-solving, and open-mindedness necessary to work and live abroad are valuable qualities for postdocs ready to make the next career step in academia. Most important of all, a willingness to go abroad opens up scientific and training opportunities that are not available locally, even for Americans. So don’t limit yourself.

*At NIH, approval isn’t automatic, but you can take your NIH fellowship abroad.

Elsewhere in Science, 10 January 2014

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