An American postdoc in Europe

In January of this year my boyfriend, Andre, and I packed up our house in Fort Collins, CO, dropped our dog, Ginger, off with my mom and moved out of Colorado and the country. This marked the beginning of an international tour, and we were excited. Andre headed to live with his brother in Canada, while I flew solo to Germany for a three month position. We then met up in May in the Netherlands where I began a 2 year postdoc. The last 8 months have been enlightening, exhausting, and overwhelming. While we still haven’t figure everything out, we are having an amazing time. Here is our story, and a few tips for anyone embarking on a similar adventure- punctuated with a few on my instagram photos.

Andre and I, just visiting the #Colosseum in #Rome in the rain #nbd #postdoclife

Andre and I, just visiting the #Colosseum in #Rome in the rain #nbd #postdoclife

Back in April 2013, I applied for a short-term postdoc with the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity (sDIV), thinking I would go for 3 months, enjoy, experience, and then come back to Colorado- easy peasy. But then in the fall of 2013 I started thinking about moving onto another postdoc from the one I had in Fort Collins. I had enjoyed my time with the GSBI and it was time for me to get back to primary research. So in November 2013 I accepted a postdoc position at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO) and planned to start as soon as my fellowship in Germany ended. All of the sudden Andre and I had two months until we would be leaving for Europe for over two years! Two months to wrap up my research in Colorado, to pack up our home and sublease, to end cell phone, internet and all other random utility payments, to say goodbye to friends and family, to visit our favorite restaurants and places- it was a long ToDo list that necessitated a google spreadsheet.

Tip #1 Watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and make this your mantra: “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (i.e., take a break between jobs- even if just for a week- to enjoy where you are at). 

If moving, say from one state to another, is a big deal – moving is supposedly the third most stressful event in life (after Death and Divorce!) – then I would say that moving out of the country is a-really-big-deal. How do you pack your life down to 2 checked bags and one carry on? How do you prepare for a job in a new country? How do you plan for living for 2 years abroad? How do you keep up with your family, friends, colleagues when they are 6-9 hours behind you in the day? How do you recreate the daily events of your everyday life – both career focused and personal- in a new country with a new culture?

Tip #2 Stuff is just stuff, and Europe has almost* all the items we could ever want (*save for mexican food!). So next time I try to pack up my life, I will just bring the essential, favorite items and find the rest upon arrival. If you do need help with reducing your luggage- invite over your best friends, open a bottle of wine and start throwing every other item into the giveaway box. 

I started my fellowship in Leipzig on February 3, two days after I landed in Germany, and just a week after I finished my position in Fort Collins. Starting a position is a new country mostly requires paperwork- papework for your work visa, residence permit, contract, taxes, etc. Paperwork aside, what really helped me transition at both the sDIV and now the NIOO was the staff. Both institutions were welcoming and competent- they made sure I turned in the proper forms to ensure I could live in the country and get paid!

Tip #3 Appreciate and use the staff- they are there to help you integrate into your new institution.

The Fair. Alte Messe. 100 years. #leipzig #commute #postdoclife

The Fair. Alte Messe. 100 years. #leipzig #commute #postdoclife

 

Working in Leipzig was a fantastic experience. I loved the city, and really enjoyed working at sDIV with Dr. Marten Winter and the crew of postdocs. This was a unique position as no postdoc worked on the same project. Instead each of us was there to either organize and host a small international workshop or work on an individual project. Everyone was from a different discipline in ecology, and we would meet weekly to share our progress and receive feedback from the group. Not only were we scientifically diverse, but no two postdocs were from the same country. It was a dynamic, friendly, intellectually stimulating program, and I highly recommend this program to anyone looking to mix up their research routine. In fact, the call for the next funding round is now open– check it out!

Tip #4 Take tea and coffee breaks with your colleagues. Learn some new science and take in the culture and life around you (Andre and I are working our way through Duolingo Dutch now).

Selfies in the field #Montenegro #postdoclife #nioo #ERC

Selfies in the field #Montenegro #postdoclife #nioo #ERC

I am now over three months into my position at the NIOO. Because this is more long-term than my position in Germany, my goals are more long-term. I am focused on building up my CV, both in terms of publications and adding new research directions. After this position I might be ready to graduate from #postdoclife. The transition to postdoc life abroad has been harder than I expected. Two years feels like a long time, and I already miss home. Colorado is a lovely place to live, and I had awesome research experiences both at the University of Colorado and at Colorado State University. Still, the NIOO is a fantastic institute, and I am lucky to have the opportunity to work here and with my group: I am planning my third visit to Montenegro for field work, and preparing to analyzes hundreds of millions of sequences over the next year. So though I am not yet fully adjusted, I am well on my way to finding my science routine.

Tip #5 Draft a loose career plan. Write down why you chose the position, how you will benefit from it and how you can give back to it.

Tara River Canyon in #montenegro is the deepest river canyon in Europe. #postdoclife #nofilter #thisisreal

Tara River Canyon in #montenegro is the deepest river canyon in Europe. #postdoclife #nofilter #thisisreal

At home, Andre and I are finding our daily routine too. We have an apartment in the small city of Wageningen and adopted two cats. We bought a car to maximize our time off and travel around Europe to rock climb. In a few more months we will be well on our way to living the dutch life- with all the cheese, heineken and biking that implies. All of this cannot replace our life in Colorado, and the final tip I have, that has also been the most important for me, is keep up with friends, family and colleagues. I utilize my iphone to the extreme; using all means to keep up with people (facetime, imessage, skype, google hangouts, facebook messenger, whatsapp, snapchat). I text or message my family almost daily, I have bi-monthly skype meetings with my old office mate Jon Leff, and I frequently email and skype many other colleagues. I even organized a baby shower for my friend and colleague Dr. Terry Bilinski in Austin, Tx- we had 8 ladies on google hangouts and it worked surprisingly well.

Tip #6 Keep up your correspondence. Schedule video and chat times, and use whatever means possible (skype, google hangouts, facetime are my favorites) to keep up with your family, friends and colleagues.

I would love to hear the thoughts and feedback from other international postdocs- in the comments or via twitter (@kelly_sierra & @EarlyCareerEcol). What tips would you add? What has been most helpful for you in your own transition? Make sure to tag your tweets and instagram photos #postdoclife.

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4 thoughts on “An American postdoc in Europe

  1. Hi Kelly, I moved to Montpellier, France for a six-month sabbatical at about the same time you moved to Germany. Not the same stage in career life, but it was my first experience working overseas. I found the visa paperwork overwhelming – start it as early as possible.

    We joined a local sea kayak club, and paddled with them weekly, which gave us unique insights into French culture. It was also the best way to improve our French, as my French colleagues all chose to speak English with me, but the kayakers couldn’t speak English. Since you enjoy rock climbing, try to join a local club, you’ll find it a much richer experience. Because we could bicycle to the kayak club and we could take our bikes on the trains and buses, we skipped the expense of owning and parking a car. We got to go on two week-long trips with the kayak club, too, which was great fun and again boosted our French language skills.

    And, despite all this fun, I managed to publish two papers and submit two grant proposals!

    • @eswillwalker – Thanks for sharing Ellen! Joining local clubs and activities is a great way to meet people and get to know the local culture. We joined our local climbing gym too and have made friends outside of science. The people we have met have been really welcoming. After we finish our duolingo course we will be enrolling in dutch classes. Congrats on the paper publications too!

  2. Hi Kelly- I just wrapped up my PhD at CSU with Francesca Cotrufo this summer. Maybe you remember me? I recognize you from some SoGES events while you were here. I will be moving with my boyfriend to Antwerpen, Belgium in January for a 2-3 year postdoc. I’m really looking forward to the experience and I appreciate your perspective. I know that moving from Fort Collins to Belgium will be a big adventure and a big transition. I look forward to reading more of your blog and maybe meeting up some time in the low countries!

  3. [A post by Bertille Bellon]

    Hi Kelly,
    It’s great to read other post-doc experiences ;).
    I am actually a post-doc’s wife: We are French, and Mathieu works in spatial ecology. In 2009, he had a post-doc opportunity in Québec city. We left everything to move there, it was such a big change! I found a job quickly and it helped me a lot in terms of integration. Also,we have adopted our cat a few months after our arrival. Yet, the first year far from Europe was hard, and I had to face for the first time in my life very low temperatures. Anyway, we enjoyed a lot our time there, spending our weekends in the parks all around, meeting some friends, travelling outside of Canada …
    After three years, Mathieu got another post-doc opportunity, and we moved to the US, to Miami Beach. As you can imagine, it was another big change! Quite the opposite, with the highest temperatures ever experienced 😉 Again, we had to create our own new environment. This time, I did not find a job so easily. I had first to ask for a valid US work permit, which usually takes a few months. And then, I had a great opportunity. We have been living in Florida since almost two years now. After five years at post-doc positions, Mathieu would like to work as an Assistant Professor, which is not easy … We’ll get some answers soon. I really would be happy staying more time in the US (there are so many things to do and see here) and I am ready to move to another State for that. Enjoy your experiences and be patient, because adaptation to another culture is a long process 😉

    Here is Mathieu’s professional website for more info about his work: http://ase-research.org/basille/?lang=en

    Our personal website (still only in French) : http://bmquebec.basille.net/

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