The magic and tears of working abroad as a scientist
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
This is the first article of the blog post I am writing from my new life.
It’s a new life because after living more than 4 years in Southeast Asia, I moved back to The Netherlands with my family – a country where I am also a foreigner (I am from Spain if you didn’t know).
And this is the reality for many scientists… leaving your home city, moving to a different country, or even to a different continent! That was me. I moved to Madrid and Belgium for a few months during my Ph.D., then to the Netherlands as a postdoc, and from then to Southeast Asia with my family on my way out of academia.
Every move brings magic and tears. And here I’d like to share with you the top 3 things that I’ve experienced on those moves and my top tips for you, as a scientist, to prepare for your move abroad:
1. The magic of living in a different country
When I do this year-end review (if you haven’t done one yet, I highly recommend it!), my highlights of the year always relate to traveling. So, it’s not surprising that for me, living in a different country is magical! Now, I understand that this is very personal, and some of my best friends have never left Alicante because they don’t see any magic in moving ;) But for me, these are the top magical aspects I’ve experienced:
1.1 You grow
When you live and work in a different country, city, or even if you change neighborhoods, you grow as a person and as an academic. In the lab, you’ll learn new skills, perhaps a new research topic, a new way of working… And this is going to make you grow as a scientist. But also in life, the challenges and experiences will make you more resilient and open-minded.
The biggest growth so far has come from living in Asia, where I had to reinvent myself, brought challenges I could not imagine. And at the same time, it has been the most amazing experience I’ve ever had!
1.2 Your network grows
You’ll have new colleagues and collaborators who will bring new opportunities. And you’ll meet friends that may go with you forever!
In my case, the professional opportunities that working in Wageningen (The Netherlands) brought me, would have been very difficult to match anywhere else! Even now that I am out of academia while running “I focus and write,” more than half of my students come directly or indirectly from that network. But even more precious are the friends I made during that time!
1.3 Your creativity grows
This is fascinating. Recently, several studies have shown that living abroad, but not travelling, expands your mind! You’ll come up with more creative solutions to problems you need to solve, which is a critical advantage for a scientist!
This is one of the arguments about the need for scientists to move to different labs – an argument that I stand for. Now, between moving once or twice in your career and the obligation to keep moving to secure a job in academia, there is a middle ground. And there are fascinating discussions about it! You may enjoy this article by Manu Saunders.
2. The tears of moving to another country
I love to bring you the bad after the good, and today is no different! Leaving your country or even your hometown will always bring challenges. And these have been the biggest ones for me!
2.1 You’ll miss your people
This is unavoidable. Especially when you leave your dear colleagues, friends, and family behind. Sure, you’ll make new friends, but there will be moments when you’ll miss those relationships that were with you for years!
After years out of Spain, I thought I had these feelings under control. Making friends is easy for me, and I was familiar with the melancholy that always pops up. But my mechanism to deal with this aspect was simply traveling often to Alicante. Until COVID came and we couldn’t travel. And for the first time ever, I needed professional help because the sadness of missing my family and my friends in Spain was just unbearable.
2.2 Sometimes you’ll hate the culture
Yup. And that’s normal too. I haven’t met anyone yet who, from time to time, doesn’t hate that country where they’re living. Despite being a very positive person, I had it in every country I’ve lived in! And that’s always a sign that I need to go on a trip somewhere else…
I had it very strongly in The Netherlands…I love their culture, my family is half Dutch, and I was there for years. But after working in Wageningen for 10 years, suddenly I couldn’t stand their passion for work, their correctness, and how “perfect” they were at everything. It was a sign that I needed a break. Some days off, rest, and a trip to Amsterdam was enough to appreciate Dutch culture again ❤️
2.3 It will cost you time and energy
One thing is for sure… you need time to adapt to a new place – time to get familiar with the city, the lab, and perhaps even the research topic! So, be sure to account for that and don’t get frustrated when you’re not as productive as you used to be. You’ll get there ;)
And I am telling you this, because, during this period of adaptation, it can be difficult to focus and write. For specific tips to focus and write, even when there is a lot going on in your life, have a look at the Starter kit for mindful scientific writing!
3. My top tips when you are moving to another country as a scientist
3.1 Be open-minded
Approaching your new life with a curious attitude is key to enjoying your life in a different country. There will be many cultural differences, and that’s good! Diversity will bring you new ways of thinking. You may become friends with people that in other circumstances would have not been your friends, and that’s something magical. And keeping that open-minded approach will contribute to your growth!
3.2 Stay in the present moment
It’s very easy to fall into the melancholy of past times or the anxiety about the future. Avoid entering that complaining loop of X was better than this (believe me, it’s very easy to fall into that loop). And also avoid focusing constantly on the next escape from the country where you are (confession time: that’s something I struggle with!). Although sometimes putting a bit of distance can help, you need to build a life you enjoy at THIS moment!
3.3 Accept the challenges as part of the growth
We’ve now agreed that it’s gonna be challenging. But going through those struggles is what is going to bring you that magic of moving abroad! So, embrace the challenges, look at them through a different lens, and focus on what you’re learning from the difficult situations. You’ll emerge as a phoenix!
Pay special attention to the challenge of the energy and time that moving costs. Give yourself time to adapt, and plan for that. The first month of any new job is exhausting. But if, on top of that, you are changing countries… The exhaustion is at another level! When I started to work in Wageningen after almost 1-year in-between contracts, I was so tired, I thought I could never work again. 3 months later, I was back to my normal rhythm.
This will be the moment to practice some of the tips from my Mindful Productivity course you may have heard of: 1) Rest is productive (and so is having fun!); 2) Do less (and focus on a few priorities daily and weekly); 3) Protect your golden hours with teeth! (so you can focus and write). This free printable weekly planner can help you put those things into practice!
This post comes inspired by one of the chats we had inside Sustain, the writing membership of “I focus and write” for our alumni. Most of my students are foreigners in the country where they work or have moved to a new city. And the conversation started on how to make friends as an adult. Relationships are the key to living a happy life. So, wherever you’re living, be sure to build new relationships. Then, I realized that indeed, making friends is one of the greatest challenges of moving abroad, but not the only one! If you’re now in that situation, I hope you find this article helpful, and please share it with those that may need to read this.