The Non-U.S. Postdoc, Part 1

Foreign postdocChoosing a postdoc is a very important decision in a scientist’s career.  Selecting the P.I., institution and field are all factors in creating the perfect springboard for our careers.  However, where you perform the postdoc can be just as important.  To help understand the realities of selecting a postdoc outside of the United States, we talked with Wesley McGinn-Straub, Ph.D. about his decision to perform a postdoc in Germany.

Leaving grad school, were you only looking to go overseas or did you also look in the US?

My search for a post-doctoral position was exclusively focused on Europe,  with Germany primarily in mind.

What governed your decision to perform a foreign postdoc?

The decision to perform the post-doc position in Europe was made from a blend of both personal and work related factors.  On a personal level, as wonderful as the Bay Area was, I was ready for a change and after visiting Europe several times, felt a strong desire to experience the European lifestyle as a resident rather than as a tourist.   On a professional level, the move exposed me to a vast new pool of scientific threads, organizing structures, and people.  Europe houses thought leaders in every industry, but, more often than not, due to the geographic barrier, and what some believe is a US centric perspective, their work is less widely reported.  In the end, that combination of an exciting new cultural scientific experience drove the decision making process for me.

The transition to a new lab can be incredibly stressful- throw in a new culture and it could be overwhelming.  How did you find the transition?

Its amazing how a moving to a new lab, which appears so similar because it has the same instruments and reagents, can create such stress. With your Ph. D. under your belt and soaring expectations in your head, who would predict that you would break 3 things, ask 1000 questions and generate 5 poor ideas in your first week?  The details of transitioning from a US to a German academic lab, however, are likely no different than from one US lab to another.  In fact, it might be easier.  Most German labs include the professor, a full time lab manager and staff technicians, who together maintain an organized lab.  Transitioning into structured environment is certainly easier to navigate since one is dealing with a known quantity.  Most mid-sized to large academic groups self-organize into social fiefdoms, which develops into an educated anarchy, which is most often functional, but difficult to navigate and transition into.

It’s not uncommon to hear that after performing a foreign postdoc, a second US-postdoc will be required to get an academic position – did you ever consider the academic path?

After a Ph.D. and a post-doc, the academic path was all that I knew-and I enjoyed it.  Yet, I could felt a steady movement away from it.  Its an odd sensation to be comfortable in a position and yet, at the same time, to be sliding away from that position towards a new one, especially when the direction you are headed is largely an unknown –

Did this play into your decision to go overseas?

I was aware of the idea but, conveniently, chose to ignore it.

Do you think there’s any truth to it?

Yes, there is some truth to it.  The barrier created by the geography between the US and Europe is a bit ridiculous, since the distance from New York to Los Angeles is comparable to the distance from New York to Paris, but it is certainly embedded in many minds, and is therefore real.  Without a doubt, attaining a position in the US, be it academic or industrial, from Europe is more difficult.  The hassles of timing and cost are usually not outweighed by resume.  That being said, a successful publication record and the ability to communicate the impact of that research in a pro-active self-marketing campaign will pave any path.   Moreover, the difficulties associated with stirring interest in employers in the US from Europe are heavily offset by the new possibilities available due to the foreign post-doc.  Germany, Switzerland, France and Denmark are full of employers potentially interested in a US trained Ph. D. that is currently in Europe.

Scientifically, did you feel isolated?  Did you make it to any conferences?

Few academic research communities compare to the information rich, frenetic and densely quartered confines of UCSF.  Naturally, therefore, the atmosphere at almost any research facility subsequent to it could feel solitary to some extent.  In fact, classmates who performed their post-doc at Stanford complained about isolation and a lack of social interaction. Life at the University of Frankfurt and the Max Planck Institute undoubtedly involved fewer social interactions.  Does this causatively lead to lower productivity or personal satisfaction?  Personally, I enjoyed the overstimulation at UCSF as well as the quieter setting in Frankfurt, which is situated on the outer limits in a rural setting, but developing at a breakneck pace.  I attended a conference about once every 6 months.

Did they hold group meeting in English because of you? (If so, did you feel guilty for making them do it?)

Group meeting was always in English, as an accomodation for the members that did not speak German.  As the group consisted of approximately 25% non German speaking members and the fact that it was excellent English practice for the Germans, I never felt a sense of guilt.  The quality of English amongst the graduate students is excellent and its use as the international language of science is not merely accepted, but actively pursued.  Even outside of group meeting, English was often used.  For example, a researcher in search of a reagent at a neighboring lab typically commenced in English.  If two Germans found themselves speaking to one another, they would switch over to German, preceded by an amusing expression of “ oh, your German”.  During my tenure at the Univeristy of Frankfurt, many of the undergraduate texts, such as Molecular Biology of the Cell,  were exchanged from the German version to the original English one and English became the language for all lectures.  As an instructor of thermodynamics for undergraduates, I also spoke in English, which worked well for almost all students.

Was it difficult not being able to understand the background conversations happening around you in lab?

White noise is a burden.  When you don’t speak the language around you or its not your native language, most people find it simple and comforting to “tune out” the words bombarding you from every direction.  The ability to sit in a popular restaurant and carry on a conversation with the person a without hearing the tales of gossip is pure luxury.

What was the biggest advantage of the foreign postdoc?

The simple observation that other cultures perform some of life’s simplest tasks differently ( and of better) powerfully opens the eyes to new possibilities.  Specifics for Germany  that spring to mind are countless: submersion in a new language, weekend trips to Brussels, Amsterdam, Rome, Milan, Berlin, Munich, the French Alps, vacations on the Cote D’Azur, excellent beer, fantastic healthcare. An expanded international network also cannot be overlooked.

… and the biggest disadvantage?

The long distance from family and friends.  Cost is another,  as international relocations are expensive.

Given the choice, would you do it again?

Absolutely and without hesitation. From a financial point of view,  I would especially recommend the German post-doctoral experience for those planning to start a family during this time.  In great contrast to compensation for a post-doc in the US,  salaries in the German university system are calculated from both the title of the position under consideration and the employee’s personal parameters, such as marital status, age and number of dependents.  As I was married with two children, compensation was adjusted such that I could comfortably support the family.  Additionally, the contribution allotted to the retirement account in Germany is very generous.  If a foreign worker spends less than five years in Germany, this sum may be withdrawn, without penalty, as a lump cash sum.  Factoring in the excellent exchange rate at the time for moving Euros to USD, (Euro/USD = 1.48), the retirement withdrawal provides a welcomed exit bonus that may be deposited into a personal 401K or used defer relocation expenses.  Graduate students wary of cost should also keep in mind that most (~ 75% in my experience), but not all,  companies offer some level of relocation reimbursement (10-25K USD) for  entry level  Ph. D. hires that travel far distances and that this parameter in the offer letter is highly negotiable.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently to make the experience better?

Attaining fluency in the language within 6 months would undoubtedly enrich the experience.  Few researchers, however, have the time or funds to allocate to an intense language study and therefore it comes slowly over years.  It took well over two years before I was comfortable performing some tasks, such as sorting out a bank statement over the phone.

In hindsight, I would consider storing, or selling, furniture and belongings in the US and buying replacements in Europe rather than crating and shipping the items.  The cost of the two approaches are similar, but the logistics of shipping items are far more complicated.

Have more specific questions about performing a postdoc in a foreign country? Stay tuned for the second half of our interview with Wesley McGinn-Straub for more!

Wesley Straub obtained his Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from UCSF and performed his post-doctoral studies at the University of Frankfurt in Germany where he researched transcription factor structure and NMR method development.  He currently works on the development, characterization and production of early stage protein therapeutics in California’s Bay Area.


Read Part 2 of the interview to see the six month survival guide for the foreign postdoc.


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  1. Career-related from Grad School to Job | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    […] Non-US Postdoc, Pt 1 – considering leaving the US for a postdoc? Here are some common issues to be prepared for when settling in the new country and lab […]

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