What is a Dutch researcher doing working long hours in the States? Aren't the working hours and terms much better in her small, socialist country? It's true that friends and former colleagues back home surely have more lenient work schedules and a different perspective on the work-life balance, but I found that there is a different appeal to working in the United States that outweighs long vacations.
No Pipetting Before 9 a.m.
Even for me, with only limited personal experience in a Dutch lab, the differences between European and American approaches to conducting science are noticeable. In the Netherlands numerous breaks are considered essential in order to reduce stress, socialize, and exchange gossip. The lab starts the day with mandatory morning coffee (no pipetting before 9 a.m.!). This is followed by the typical Dutch coffee break around 10:30 a.m., which is frequently joined by large cakes to celebrate a birthday or a successful experiment. Researchers enjoy long lunch hours, afternoon teas, and holidays aplenty, all in contrast to the competitive and hard-working American labor force. Taking time off and vacations would be much more limited in the U.S., where it is thought, apparently, that spending many hours at work means high productivity.
I do work harder here, as do my colleagues, but I've found the American workplace far from unbearable. Many other ambitious international professionals seem to have the same idea--that working here is worth whatever sacrifice they have to make--and although I work for an American research institution, it has more the characteristics of a global summit. Americans have more reason to feel like foreigners here, since they, in this lab, are an apparent minority. This is mirrored nationally, where during the past few years the number of non-U.S. postdocs working in life sciences has exceeded the number of Americans and permanent residents.
What draws international postgraduates from all over the world to U.S. labs, where people work long hours and don't take many holidays? Increased biomedical science funding in the U.S. and relative lack of funding in Europe and elsewhere; the large scientific workforce in places, such as India and China, where educational attainment typically exceeds professional opportunity and economic attainment; the growing numbers of postgraduates in smaller countries with fewer postdoc positions; the stimulating research environment in America; the general internationalization of science--all these factors and others have been mentioned as possible causes. All of these make it attractive for recent graduates worldwide to explore research there.
This scientific "brain drain" has finally also caught the attention of European politicians and organizations, and ideas about the exodus are emerging. In the meantime, disillusioned scientists back in Europe are protesting loudly against their stagnant salaries, poor career prospects, and the bureaucracy, which limits their research possibilities, but there is doubt among the scientists about a significant change. Europe will have a difficult time upgrading the allure of its scientific climate.
Back to the aspiring, young scientist--me--who crossed borders and started a postdoctoral career in the U.S. This was not accomplished without overcoming, or learning to accommodate, a few problems. Visiting fellows are usually here on J-1 visas; these are relatively easy to obtain but harder to upgrade if you decide to stay longer. Like many postdocs here, I enjoy my life here and work hard to fit in and feel at home. Inside the lab, with its many foreign nationals, you don't feel so strange with your quirky accent. But the local supermarket clerk notices, and you understand that you will never feel at home among the natives.
Not All Postdocs Are Alike
Apart from being Dutch, there's another way I turned out to be different from the other postdocs. I entered basic science immediately after medical school, without basic-research training. This turned out to be a challenge. I was offered a basic science research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Although my colleagues and I both have the postdoctoral status, I consider theirs more genuine than mine, since almost all of them have a Ph.D. degree, which they earned with at least 4 years of struggling in a lab or clinic. This experience seems to provide them with better knowledge of the research process, more independence, and a higher tolerance for frustration.
An M.D. degree with experience analyzing EKGs and assisting during lung surgery is little help when you want to run western blots and PCRs. Also, medicine prepares you for a certain approach to clinical problems, distinctive from the method of testing hypotheses in the lab. After much trial and error, I have learned to include any and all possible controls in my assays, to appreciate the silence of cell cultures (compared to hospital patients), and to not get too discouraged when experiments do not yield the expected results for the third time in a row without any indication why.
At times, though, my stress level and aggravation got the better of me. It was then that I decided to lift my head up from the bench and explore what other interesting careers exist for an MD with research baggage. Reading Science?s Next Wave was a good first step during my quest. Many of the articles are written by people who have made a career transition after wondering whether scientific research was really their best career choice. Many of these stories are true eye-openers, and they supply many possibilities and links for additional information. Furthermore, the solace of other sufferers is comforting.
Looking back on my encounter with American science, I am truly glad I crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Conducting science abroad forces you to look outside your little, known world and interact with people from around the globe. It also helps you realize that science?s attraction is universal. My personal situation is still uncertain, but several options have surfaced in the last months and, like a true scientist, I am researching every one of them at length. Wherever I may end up, I will take my newly acquired scientific skills with me.
Editor's note: Beatrijs Lodde serves as one of Next Wave's campus representatives at the National Institutes of Health.