One of the things that kept me going through long and often challenging hours spent in the lab during my graduate studies was the opportunity having a Ph.D. would afford me to pursue postdoctoral employment overseas. Compared with other professions, having a Ph.D. in a scientific subject enables you to work abroad with relative ease, a welcome compensation for the personal sacrifices often made during graduate studies.
During my final year I made the decision to seek a postdoc position overseas, and was thrilled when I was offered a fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which had been on top of my list of possible destinations. I was keen to broaden my horizons professionally and personally, and to experience life in a different country. I was also curious about the career opportunities available in Canada, compared to Britain, my home.
Although I was fortunate enough to have done my Ph.D. in a great lab within a well-funded and reputable institute, there was nonetheless low morale amongst many of the Ph.D. students and younger postdocs that I knew in the UK. The likely scenario of many more long hours with low pay to follow working as postdocs, with no guarantee of advancement, was not appealing to many of my peers. As a consequence, some of my friends sought jobs in industry and a few left science altogether. I was interested to see whether a more positive outlook existed in Canada. Whilst I was undecided about whether my future lay in academic science, I was happy to give being a postdoc a go. The opportunity to live in and explore some of Canada was also a great incentive.
Tackling the practical issues
With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, I set off to Vancouver in September 2001 to begin my first postdoctoral experience. Naturally, there were many practical issues to deal with: immigration, accommodation, and finances, to name but a few, as well as the challenges of making social connections and establishing a new life in a strange city. Fortunately, settling into Vancouver proved to be easy--it is a beautiful, safe city with plenty to do--and my new colleagues were very friendly and welcoming. The additional benefits of there being only subtle cultural differences and no language barrier to jump also helped my transition. Any stress when I arrived was tempered by my excitement about moving to Vancouver.
However, anyone interested in moving abroad should take the expenses into consideration. The average salary of postdoctoral fellows is modest, and the costs of immigration fees, airfares, apartment deposits, and a bed to sleep in can mount up. You can easily find yourself in debt before receiving your first pay cheque!
Dealing with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to obtain my work authorization was relatively straightforward, and, being single, I avoided the complications of obtaining visas for a spouse and children. For most occupations in Canada, work permits will not be issued to nonresidents unless the prospective employer can demonstrate that no Canadian can fill the position. Postdoctoral fellows are exempt from these regulations; this makes obtaining a work authorization faster and easier. Yet, this could potentially be an obstacle for a partner wishing to work in the same country.
The downside is that such permits only entitle you to remain in the country to perform the specified job for the exact duration of your contract. Being in this situation leaves me feeling slightly vulnerable and less in control of my own destiny than I'd like to be. Since the livelihoods of most postdocs depend upon approvals of grant applications, losing your job due to a shortage of funding is a possibility wherever you choose to work. If you work abroad, you may find yourself not only out of work but also having to leave the country. This situation isn't good if you are seeking some sort of stability in your employment. Then again, academic science is perhaps not the wisest choice for a stable and secure livelihood, regardless of location.
Another possible pitfall of work authorizations linked to specific jobs is that if, for any reason, you have issues regarding your working conditions, or if you feel you are being treated unreasonably, you may be less likely to voice your concerns, since the possibility of losing your job in a foreign country is scary. This is the kind of situation in which a postdoc society may provide support, especially for immigrant workers; unfortunately not every institution has one.
In this instability lies the fundamental problem: It may be difficult to make plans to further your career in a foreign country. Regulations regarding work permits may restrict your ability to change jobs and progress in your career. For example, right now I'm seeking a promotion from postdoctoral fellow to research associate; this requires approval from the Canadian human resources department, a process that could take several months or even longer and that requires demonstrating that no suitable Canadian resident is available. Whilst such restrictions are commonplace in many countries and are completely reasonable as measures to protect jobs for residents, it is something to consider if you are serious about an academic career abroad.
In my relatively short experience in Canada, I've found that funding is limited and grant applications are very competitive. Access for young scientists to funding and academic science career opportunities seem no better here than in the UK. Access may be even worse for foreign nationals, who, in addition to work-permit restrictions, may be ineligible to apply for certain types of grants even if they are already established and working in that country. Opportunities for advancement can therefore be restricted or made just that bit harder to obtain if you choose to work abroad.
Great opportunities abroad, despite the insecurity
Despite the drawbacks of being an immigrant scientific worker, there are still many reasons to consider taking a scientific position abroad. Moving to a different country may present opportunities that would otherwise have been unavailable. With large discrepancies in the levels of research funding available in different countries, moving abroad may make it easier to find the resources you need to carry out your work, despite research-funding restrictions. Similarly, working abroad may be the best way to obtain training in research areas or techniques, or to access specialized equipment, which could ultimately improve your career prospects.
I?m happy to report that I have no regrets about moving to Vancouver and have found Canada to be a wonderful place to live. I am very happy here and feel privileged to have had this opportunity, since I have made some great friends and have been able to travel and see some of Canada. Only time will tell whether, professionally, the experience will turn out to be beneficial, detrimental, or neutral. With any new job, regardless of its location, there are pitfalls and few guarantees. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing, especially if you're willing to keep an open mind about your career path.