Lynn Kimlicka is a recent graduate of University of British Columbia with a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She engages broad audience in her blog Something About Science, where she hones her skills as a writer, while making science more accessible. She is also an enthusiastic multi-hobbyist, who enjoys photography, illustration, and music.
A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?
I was alone in a lounge, browsing through Naturejobs and brooding over my life-after-the-PhD, which basically boiled down to one word: Where?
That’s when, quite unexpectedly, a little penguin waddled through the door, clad in toy-sized, flower-print shirt and flip-flops, topped with a cheerful sombrero to finish off his look.
“¡Hola! Kia ora, mate! That’s Spanish and Maori.” The small creature continued his monologue in my stunned silence. “Yep, I’m a Kiwi – and a Blue Penguin[*].” With his flippers, he pointed at his gray-blue plumage.
“What?” I finally managed.
“I’m a postdoc.” The New Zealander continued, unperturbed, as if that explained everything. “Have you heard that Mexico is boosting its research budget,? That’s why I moved to Mexico after getting my PhD. Lots of positions opening for young scientists there. I’ve been involved in climate and ecology research, collaborating with institutions in Colorado and Arizona.”
I had plenty of questions, the top of the list being, Why is a penguin talking? I settled for something less pertinent. “Why are you here?”
“I’m coming to the Climate Conference here at your university.”
He opened the mini-fridge and offered me a popsicle. “Ice block for you?” I shook my head, dazed. The penguin shrugged. He hopped on a chair beside me and popped the entire stick in his mouth, which visibly glided down his throat like fish.
He glanced at my laptop screen. “You’re looking for a postdoc position, eh? Have you considered relocation? I’ve found that it’s beneficial for personal and career development.”
He winked at me. “You know what? I’ll give you some golden advice.”
“There are many institutions that require their tenure scientists to hold degrees from elsewhere to prevent ‘inbreeding,’ and many funding agencies view international experience as a positive quality.
“Multiple funding programmes aid mobile scientists, like Erasmus Mundus programmes, Marie Curie fellowships, and Human Frontier Science Program, to name a few. Many principle investigators welcome foreign postdocs, too. For example, over 60% of postdocs in the U.S. are international.
“But remember, a key factor for career advancement, especially in academia, is publication. If changing the environment would hamper your progress, then you might want to reconsider.”
“But what if I like it here?” Curiosity got the best of me, and I no longer felt awkward conversing with a penguin. “I’ve got my friends, family and a great support network in my lab. What if I don’t find that anywhere else?”
“Well, some stay in the same place and still achieve great career goals. It’s also common to be transiently mobile. You can arrange short trips, anywhere from few days to few months, with collaborators or industry. If you’re in a country with multiple top-class facilities, it may not even be necessary to go abroad!
“Take it from me; moving across continents can be a challenge. You’ll have to navigate through unfamiliar social customs and systems. It’s good to visit the place first; get an interview if possible. Some labs cover the travelling cost for postdoc candidates.
“Let me tell you something. People worry about brain ‘drains’ and ‘gains,’ an imbalanced migration of scientists. But I see it as brain ‘circulation.’ Wherever I go, I bring in knowledge and networks from my previous place in exchange for new ones. Exploring new societies and cultures is such an enriching experience!” The postdoc gulped in air.
“Maybe it’s time for you to leave your nest, too?” With that, the penguin gagged, and what came out from his mouth were not gold nuggets but an empty ice-pop stick.
[*] Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor), a.k.a. Little or Fairy Penguins, are the smallest species of penguins that inhabit the coasts of Australia and New Zealand.