I received my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in Greece, the country in which I was born. After a brief sojourn as a veterinarian in my home country and the Netherlands, I came to the United States to pursue graduate education in physiology.
In this respect, I was no different from the thousands of international graduate students who set as their goal to be educated in an American institution. For most of us, this is not an easy task because we have to overcome two very important issues: the variation between educational systems and the lack of international recognition for many of our home academic institutions. For students committed to pursuing studies abroad, overcoming these obstacles requires highly competitive grades, working closely with an academic advisor, doing a little bit of research, and learning at least one, perhaps even two, foreign languages fluently. The ones who make the successful transition are usually in the top 10% of their class and very persevering, and have put in years of hard work.
Changing fields is tough for international students
For any student with an inquisitive mind, American universities offer countless opportunities to diversify from the original plan of study, and many American citizens take full advantage of these prospects to obtain education in a variety of fields. For international students, however, changing fields or career directions is much harder. Even if the realization that our subject is no longer dear to our hearts hits us in the face, it is, for many of us, ingrained and even expected, by our families and others back home, that we will continue on the pathway we chose a long time ago--and succeed. Moreover, we must also consider financial issues (since for most of us graduate study is contingent upon research assistantships tied to specific research projects) and visa restrictions that limit our mobility within the educational system.
Very soon after I started my doctoral studies, I found myself between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I felt that bench work and I were not meant for each other; on the other, I had deep feelings of guilt for not being productive despite spending long hours in the lab. Identifying why I felt this way required a long and arduous process, which I survived because of three decisive factors: the presence of enlightened school administrators, the accommodating and nonjudgmental attitude of my advisor, and a mentor outside my field of basic science.
The empathy and humanity of others, which can help restore one's faith in oneself, are not usually a part of the rigorous process of scientific training and education. Effective, compassionate mentors do exist, but mentoring and connected activities are tangential to the main activities of science. It is perhaps for this reason that the relationship of mentor-mentee is still named by students of both genders as the number one problem in graduate school, and mentoring is one of the nine core areas listed by the Office of Research Integrity in which academic and research scientists must be educated.1
Most published comments about mentoring come from American students. Internationals are often not aware of the existence of such a resource and how it is supposed to work; for many, indeed, the concept of mentoring is foreign to their cultures, as it was for me. While my inquiring character led me to search for and finally find a mentor other than my academic advisor, most international students are reserved, preferring not to make waves by asking for advice on such issues.
In order to locate the right mentor, I sought help from school officials. School administrators can make or break a student. Caring and compassionate ones, who take time to communicate their willingness and availability to help, will help you flourish where you thought there was no chance. It was one such individual who really listened to my troubled musings and helped me connect with the person who became my mentor, colleague, and friend. Trying to find my lost inspiration and under my mentor's tutelage, I took classes and studied research ethics and health/science policy; slowly but surely, things started falling into place. Ethics and policy work made me feel complete and energized and I decided that after I finished my doctorate in biomedical sciences I would pursue a career in science policy.
Acceptance and latitude
Combining the world of bench research and policy education would have been all but impossible if not for my research advisor's silent acceptance and latitude. Academic curricula do not uniformly offer training in the skills needed for careers in teaching, technology transfer, the biotech industry, patents, administration, and science policy, so it is up to individual advisors--usually unfamiliar with these areas--to allow their students leeway to train away from the lab. Despite the increasing attention to alternative science careers, many programs have taken only baby steps towards integrating interdisciplinary "spin-offs" of scientific fields into current research training.
The cornerstone of the American dream is the concept that if you want something badly enough and work hard enough, you will eventually make it happen. Young scientists pursuing an academic research career know what they have to work hard at--one or more postdocs, high-profile publications, grant acquisitions, and a talent for asking (and answering) the right research questions. The path to an alternative career in science, however, such as a career in science policy, is not clear, no matter where you're from. It is, therefore, still very difficult to make the transition from bench research to other career choices in science-related fields. International students who wish to undertake an alternative science career face even more obstacles. In science policy, for example, not many postdocs are available and many of the most well-known training opportunities, such as the AAAS fellowships, are not open to non-U.S. citizens.
Because most faculty members in basic science departments are not familiar with what to advise those students who hope to leave the lab behind, students face the daunting task of devising their own strategic plan to become competitive in their chosen fields. International students are further hampered by their limited experience with and expectations of mentoring and by their piecemeal knowledge of broader aspects of U.S. society and science. Individual schools could do much more to assist both U.S. and international students in pursuing alternative science careers by educating faculty in the art of mentoring, embracing diversification of their students' education, and encouraging faculty to be supportive of students' endeavors away from the bench.
The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of the National Academies has recently announced that it will study the impact of the U.S. academic system on the intellectual development, careers, and perceptions of international students and postdoctoral fellows studying in the United States, as well as the impact of their presence on policymaking.2 As the number of international students has risen steadily over the past decade, reaching as much as 40% of the student population in some fields, such a study is long overdue.
Although the study will not focus on the cultural differences and the role these play on the assimilation and contentment of international students in the United States, it will provide a starting point for discussions and perhaps changes in the function of international students in the American education system. The participation of international students in alternative science career paths would benefit the integration of different cultures into the American educational system and support better communication at the global intersections of science and society.
1Office of Research Integrity, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ori.dhhs.gov/html/programs/finalpolicy.asp#core
2Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, the National Academies www7.nationalacademies.org/internationalstudents