Moving internationally for postdoctoral training can be rewarding and cultural differences, both in and out of the lab, can enrich your training. Sina Safayi and Andrew Bean offer some tips about moving to the US.
Your mentor’s track record matters
Consider the record of your potential mentor by examining previous publications and speaking with former and current trainees. How much support do they provide their mentees when they are in the lab, as well as when they are leaving the lab?
Where do their alumni go following their period in the lab? In addition to track record and mentoring interest/ability, a well-funded lab can allow a postdoctoral fellow the freedom to try different approaches to answer their scientific questions.
- How available is the potential mentor? How available do you want them to be? Academic appointments often require committee work, teaching, meetings, administrative responsibilities, writing, grant/paper reviewing, and travel. This can limit the amount of time a mentor has available. Gauging how much one-on-one time you want/get with the mentor and deciding whether that is adequate for your needs, will help manage expectations of the mentor and trainee.
- The research group structure and size. What is your role in the group? Are you a mercenary – there to get your story, papers, and a niche that you can take to the next job?
- Your mentor’s leadership style. While the mentor generates the money and pays your salary, leadership styles vary and you may be more comfortable with a top-down, egalitarian, or a hierarchical leadership style.
- Work-life balance and mentor expectations (e.g. “the hours you put in your work or the work you put in the hours”)
- A practical and feasible plan on how you will develop a research niche and a plan on how you will gain relevant expertise and skills to be able to pursue that plan.
- Are there requirements or opportunities for you to learn leadership, mentorship or to teach?
- Are there opportunities and support to attend conferences and present your data?
- Are there opportunities for enrichment beyond the lab? Are there opportunities for you to review manuscripts, serve on committees, write your own grants?
- Will you have time to spend on career development and experiential learning opportunities?
- Is there a time limit for your fellowship? Is there potential upper mobility within the same institution?
- Regardless of your career goal, it is helpful for you have the opportunity to write, or help to write, a grant application. Learning how to develop a compelling grant and write in a persuasive manner are important skills that will be useful in almost any future career in which communication skills are important.
Aside from the need to determine “goodness of fit” from a scientific standpoint, there are other considerations too:
- Your time commitment in the US. How long are you willing to commit for a US fellowship? Do you plan to return to your home country? Stay in the US? Go to a third country?
- If you are planning to stay in the US consider the level of support you receive from your mentor for your immigration status. For example, will your mentor provide a reference letter for your green card application? This may help if you are considering job seeking following your training because with your green card you will not need additional visa sponsorship to work in the US after training – a potential obstacle for international applicants during job hunting.
Institution – big names sell
Whether you enter the academic or non-academic job market following your training, the institution in which you receive postdoctoral training can influence your job prospects.
The majority (70%–85%) of career-track positions in US academic institutions are filled by alumni from elite institutions. These elite institutions often have both postdoctoral and career development offices, indications that they take an active role in the outcomes of their postdoctoral trainees.
The presence of a postdoctoral office can also ensure that human resource rules are followed with respect to salary, benefits including paid vacation and sick days, maternity and paternity leave, retirement plan, health insurance, diversity and inclusion, community, association and social support.
Be aware that these benefits can vary by institution and from state to state. In addition, career development offices may offer relevant tools, events, and opportunities for skills development and career planning to help prepare you for job hunting.
Location – seek opportunity
Many scientists move to the US for postdoctoral training. Adjusting to US cultural norms can be aided by interactions with your lab group or department.
Immersing yourself in your host society rather than remaining isolated by mainly socialising with people from your home country or region can make your experience more rewarding.
Extending your network can also broaden your outlook on the world by helping you to see new perspectives and by challenging you to move out of your comfort zone.
Your enhanced scientific/network development and social awareness will likely create more potential career opportunities. In this regard, large US population centers offer more diversity, networking opportunities, and larger economies (potential for local internships and job opportunities).
For example, Houston, Texas, the fourth largest US city has no racial or ethnic majority and nearly one in four Houstonians are foreign born. Houston is also home to the largest medical center in the world, has a considerable economy, and benefits from being close to two international/hub airports that can make travel home or to conferences less expensive and time consuming.
Beginning your search for a lab to do postdoctoral training early will help you to consider the pros and cons of multiple offers and allow time to write fellowship grants, obtain any visas that might be required, and prepare for an extended period away from your home country.
Your postdoctoral training period is a chapter in what will hopefully be a long and successful career and going abroad for training at an early stage can be a rewarding and life altering experience.
Sina Safayi is Assistant Director of Career Development at the same institution.
Both are members of the Graduate Career Consortium and the National Postdoctoral Association – organisations providing a national voice for graduate as well as postdoctoral career and professional development leaders.