In college, many students are given an opportunity to study abroad for a semester, the idea being to encourage young people to see the world, learn about a new culture, and enrich their lives by seeing how things are done outside of their home countries.
Just like undergraduates, researchers are sometimes given opportunities to work abroad — whether it's to establish ties with research institutions overseas, because they're promised more funding than they can get at home, or because they're feeling a bit adventurous. "If you have an opportunity to go abroad for a couple of years, I think that's a really great thing," says Karen Peterson, director of the Office of Scientific Career Development at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. "It can enhance your research in a number of different ways because then you can, perhaps, ultimately collaborate internationally. You know the culture and perhaps you know the language, so it can certainly assist with international collaborations."
Timing is everything
Working abroad can be a very good thing for your career, Peterson says. But just like in comedy, timing is very important. "If you plan on going abroad to do a postdoc but then plan to be faculty back in the States, it's going to be really hard to find a faculty position from a long distance, or if you want to go into industry in the States," she says. "So I would time it well."
However, working or training abroad won't hurt your chances of working in the US as long as you carefully consider when and where you go. Peterson went to graduate school in Canada and has colleagues at various US research institutions who went to school in Europe, and who didn't have any problems finding jobs in the US. "I think living abroad is a fantastic thing to do," Peterson says. "You certainly get a better perspective on the world and perhaps on research because you get exposure to other research institutions outside the US."
But there are certain times when it's advantageous to stay where you are. "I wouldn't do it right before you're planning to find your more permanent job," she adds.
Where to look
If you've decided you want to work abroad, there are many resources that can help you find an appropriate place and job. Many institutions in the US have "memoranda of understanding" collaborations with institutions in Asia and Europe that amount to a kind of scientist exchange program for researchers interested in temporarily trying something new, Peterson says. Many institutions, like Japan's Riken, have fellowship programs that allow foreign researchers to work there for a short time.
If there's a specific place you'd like to work, the first thing to do is to take a look at its job listings and see what's being advertised. "Secondly," Peterson says, "it's who you know." Talking to a mentor or senior faculty member can yield names and contact information for key research liaisons overseas. "If your mentor knows someone in another country, asking them what the possibilities are is important. Certainly having that kind of personal connection is the best way of getting a good spot, and that's similar to finding a postdoc in the US," she adds.
Some institutions also set up their own labs overseas and are likely to look for researchers they know and work with to help staff the new lab. In 2007, the Hutch's Julie Overbaugh established a molecular virology lab in Kenya to facilitate the HIV/AIDS research she was conducting in collaboration with researchers at the University of Nairobi. Though the new lab was mostly staffed by Kenyan researchers, several members of Overbaugh's lab at the Hutch went to Nairobi to set it up and to teach the local researchers how to run the equipment and perform new diagnostic assays.
The project allowed researchers at the Hutch to work overseas and allowed Kenyan grad students to come to the US to learn how to conduct the research and take what they learned back to Kenya. Not only did this cut down the turnaround time for analysis of blood and tissue samples — the researchers previously had to wait for those samples to make their way to the US, and it took an average of six months to receive results — but it also facilitated the international collaboration between Overbaugh's team and the team in Nairobi, Peterson says.
Some countries have also begun to establish high-tech research universities in partnership with American institutions. In November, the government of Singapore announced the establishment of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, a $700 million project undertaken in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meant to cultivate the next generation of engineers and researchers. MIT faculty members plan to teach in Singapore when the institute opens in 2012, using new methods and techniques that, if successful, they intend to bring back to Cambridge.
Opportunities like this are a good way to work overseas on a temporary basis, Peterson says. Partnerships with institutions in the US have already been set up, and the countries involved have already proven to be science-friendly. "Certainly looking into it is not going to hurt anything," she says. "It all depends on if you're adventurous. If you're a risk-taker … why not do that?"
And working in academia isn't the only way to get a post overseas. If you have a job in industry and are looking for some adventure abroad, it's possible that your company could transfer you overseas for a temporary assignment.
'Keep your eyes open'
No matter where you go, however, it's important to realize that the research culture can be very different in another country. "You want to keep your eyes open for what you're getting into because science can operate very differently in other countries than it does in the US and you have to be aware of what the differences are," Peterson says. "You just need to be aware of how a research institution works in a different country because there are different models for faculty hierarchy and different models for who the lab head is, and you need to be very cognizant of that."
It's also critical that you negotiate a contract that will allow you to take sufficient time to return home as often as you need, and that will fund a certain number of those trips, Peterson says. "So as long as they provide support and travel stipends for when you trying to find a position to come back to the States, or support for finding your next position, if it's a temporary thing," then working overseas depends on you, and whether you can find an interesting job, she adds.
"If finding a faculty position in the States after your postdoc is what makes you feel more comfortable, then that's that," Peterson says. "But I know that for other people, it can be an adventure and an interesting learning experience, and I say more power to you if you want to go and do that."