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As a Ph.D. student in my native UK, I had decided relatively early on that I fancied doing my postdoc abroad. I must admit this had more to do with my aspiration for adventure and an interest in the languages and cultures of other countries, than with my research career itself!
So as my Ph.D. project, on the cell biology of human myocardial cells at Imperial College’s National Heart and Lung Institute in London, was nearing its end I started to look around for places where I could do a postdoc. Right from the beginning, it was clear in my mind that I favoured Europe over America. Although clearly the United States can offer a lot to researchers, I really wanted to be part of that “European” feeling, that unfortunately is somehow elusive to us in the UK.
The process of narrowing down the choice of potential destinations within Europe was initially guided by the availability of research projects and host laboratories, as well as how much of a barrier the country’s language would be and the general appeal of a move there, although not in that particular order! However, in the end all this was made virtually redundant, and at the same time easier, by the fact that my girlfriend, who I had met in the UK, is Swedish and was living in Lund, an old university city in the south. By northern European standards, the relatively large size of Lund University plus the fact that it had many well-established research departments allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief and meant that I could look for a decent position there.
Picking the right lab–it’s NOT a science
Following a visit to four labs in the area, it was Prof. Björn Dahlbäck’s lab in Malmö (which was part of Lund University) that had impressed me the most. I think it is worth bringing up here the subject of how you should go about picking the “right” lab. Unfortunately that isn’t a science. All labs had both positive and negative aspects to them. In the case of Prof. Dahlbäck’s lab, they had published very well over the past 10 years and they discovered the strongest known risk factor for thrombosis, the so-called activated protein C (APC) resistance phenomenon.
In addition this lab has a lot of expertise in protein structure and function as well as in molecular biology–the latter being an area that I was particularly keen to learn. Fortuitously, Prof. Dahlbäck had a project to offer that following autumn on a new topic in growth factor biology, my field of interest, to study the structure and functional aspects of the novel growth/survival factor and its receptor.
However the potential “negative” of this lab was that I found its track record as daunting as outstanding, in a field in which I was a complete novice. I feared that I might not be “good enough,” but the prospect of learning so much and applying new knowledge to my field of interest was irresistible. I also felt that I had something to offer them–my experience in cell biology and knowledge about the cardiovascular system. My concerns were also made smaller by the fact that Prof. Dahlbäck warmly welcomed me and introduced me to all the members of his lab, several of whom took time out of their day to sit down with me and describe their projects.
Although Prof. Dahlbäck had funding already available for me for 2 years, both he and I were still keen that I try to secure my own funding. So I applied for an Individual Marie Curie Fellowship, under the 5th Framework programme, and within a couple of days after having returned to the UK, I wrote to him to accept the position.
I managed to complete my Marie Curie application in the following 2 weeks to meet the next deadline, including gathering the necessary signatures from my host institution (Prof. Dahlbäck, plus the signature of Lund University’s finance officer). Later on in the summer, I found out that the application was successful. It took 4 months for my new contract to take effect. However, Prof. Dahlbäck had the resources to begin employing me on a stipend in October 1999 until my contract came through.
Once all the work-related stuff was organised, I could focus on the practicalities behind my actual move to Sweden. In all honesty it could not have been smoother. I gave myself 2 weeks after my arrival to settle into my new home, an apartment in central Lund, and to complete the necessary formalities. I know I had my Swedish girlfriend to consult but even without that I think it is relatively easy to get through the administrative processes here. As an EU citizen with a job, I was automatically awarded a 5-year residence permit. This can easily be taken for granted, however it can be very hard for many immigrants from non-EU countries to gain a foothold in Sweden.
So how does one first survive on Swedish soil without the language? I was already aware from my visits to the various potential host labs that English is the working language in academic science and that virtually all members of these labs were fluent. This made settling into the lab environment relatively easy and as it turned out, I could also use English to communicate outside the lab. The downside was I noticed that most Swedes were actually only too happy to practise and perfect their English language skills with me. Fair enough, but as I found my feet I was also interested in starting to learn their language–an aspect which was very important to me and in my opinion makes the difference between feeling a welcome guest in a foreign country or a recognised member of the society. I believe it is also the key in gaining and nurturing friendships with Swedes.
Therefore, I was determined to learn Swedish. I soon managed to get a place on a “Swedish for Immigrants” course which is a state-funded scheme. The course took place two afternoons a week, which meant having to leave work slightly early on those days, but importantly it was something my professor supported. One and a half years down the road, I had made leaps and bounds and could converse with both colleagues and friends. I really would encourage all visiting researchers to learn the language of their host country and am proud of the fact I did.
Well attuned to foreign students and visiting academics
Lund University is very well attuned to receiving both foreign students and visiting academics and there are plenty of associations to help both them and their families. The city itself is a charming old student city, the university dating back to 1666. Malmö, where my lab is located, is by contrast Sweden’s third largest city. Both the contrast and the proximity (they are only 20 km apart) between the two cities provide an interesting variety to the region, which appealed to me. But coming from the metropolis of London I anticipated a certain degree of boredom and monotony and it is true Swedish cities can never have the choice of bars, restaurants, or cinemas that London boasts.
In contrast to the UK, Swedish people are generally reserved and tend to only socialise at house parties, rather than out “on the town.” But the nature in Sweden is unique. I have learnt to appreciate this, and to take the opportunity to escape to the sea or the woodsy countryside, whenever I can. Sweden is a country for those who love nature or who wish they did. The weather may not have the best reputation, but ironically the weather in the south is probably better than in the UK and believe it or not the British changeable weather was a subject of humorous comments in Sweden!
Even though my Marie Curie Fellowship ended after 2 years in March 2002, I decided to stay on in Sweden, and in Prof. Dahlbäck’s lab. Professionally I have benefited so much from the experience! Firstly, Prof. Dahlbäck himself is an inspiring mentor and he gave me the chance to develop my skills both at the bench and to teach, which I really enjoy. I am currently employed as a projektassistent, which is the equivalent of an assistant professor in the US on the way to qualifying for a docent or lecturer position.
But I have been fortunate. Long-term research career prospects in Sweden are not that plentiful. For example, the competition for 4-year postdoc fellowships, which are meant to give a kick-start to promising young researchers, are very competitive due to the limited funding available. Thus many postdocs have no choice but to go into other things or otherwise plod along for a few more years on dire stipends. Therefore, in Sweden the chances of getting a permanent university position are very small.
Nevertheless, I have to admit also that a large part of the decision to stay in Sweden was down to a longstanding romance with both the country and a certain member of its population! But my research career very much depends upon my performance within my current capacity, and getting a permanent position or professorship will be very difficult. I can say with conviction that my postdoc period in Sweden was well worth it and fulfilled most of the expectations I had. Although not traditionally a country UK postdocs choose to further their careers, Sweden is one country that would be a great shame to overlook.