American Abroad

By Bob Wieman

American Abroad


Bob Wieman
(University of Bristol, UK)

Bob Wieman
Bob Wieman

I'm writing this over breakfast in Aussois, France -- a little village in the French Alps -- at a geomaterials conference. The scenery is unbelievable: looking out the window is like looking at a life size postcard or a backdrop from "Heidi". Yesterday it rained here in the valley, and now all the mountains are capped with snow.

I mention this because it highlights what I think is the biggest difference between postdoctoral positions in the US and abroad. Working in England means that conferences might be in France, Russia, Spain, or Poland (In the past year I've been to conferences in the first two, and other postdocs have been to the other two). Other than the exotic locations, these aren't too different from meetings in the States, except that I'm liable to overhear conversations that I don't understand more than a few words of. (Although, now that I think about it, that's happened at US conferences too.)

I got my doctorate from North Carolina State a little over a year ago, investigating models of granular materials, like wheat flowing out of silos. A year before that, I was applying for postdoctoral positions. My impression is that they're pretty competitive, so I didn't want to limit my choices, but I was concentrating on the East Coast. Then an opportunity fell in my lap that made me think about working much further afield.

An email advertising a couple of research positions at the University of Bristol made its way to my advisor, Michael Shearer. (In the UK, they refer to research postdocs as "research assistants", which I'm used to thinking of as referring to graduate students.) Since one of the positions was for granular materials research, he encouraged me to apply for it. He's from England himself, so the idea of hopping across the Atlantic to pursue a career probably didn't strike him as a big step.

My fiancée (now wife) was keen on me going to the interview, because it was a free trip to England. When they offered me the job, though, that required some more serious thought. We didn't have too long to think about it. Unlike the US where each candidate is interviewed on a different day, in the UK typically all candidates are interviewed over a couple of days and an offer is made immediately. We decided that if we could fit our lives around it, spending three years in England was an opportunity to see more of Europe than we ever would otherwise. Fortunately, my wife's postdoc (she got her PhD two years before me) let her telecommute from England. She is now searching for a job over here. Because she is here as my "dependent" she doesn't require her own work permit.

Bob in Clifton, BristolBob in Clifton, Bristol.
Advances in technology have made living in England much easier for us in other ways too. In particular email, instant messaging, and the low international telephone rates have kept us in touch with our friends and family more than I think we could have even a few years ago. As a result, I don't feel any further away from folks back home than if they lived a few states away. We've found that it isn't too hard to convince people to come visit, whether just to see us and England, or as part of a larger European vacation.

As far as actual work goes, I've been struck by how similar it is with what I imagined a US postdoctoral research job to be like. The department facilities are the same as what I expected in the US -- a faster computer than what I had access to as a grad student (two processors, dual boot, more storage memory than I'm ever going to use, that kind of thing). The income (for professors as well as postdocs) is less than in the US, but for me that's somewhat offset by not having a car and walking to work. My "line manager" (postdoctoral advisor) is keen for me to convert my thesis into published papers, to start growing my CV, just like a US advisor would. This year, I've asked for and received an opportunity for some teaching experience, just like I'd hope to have in the US. The common topics of conversation among the faculty are echoes of what I've heard in American universities: debates over the preparedness of the incoming students, which departments are getting the short end of the stick, someone's office being too hot or too cold.

If you're thinking about doing postdoctoral work abroad, I'd recommend it for two reasons. One is just the experience of living in another country. It feels like I'm on vacation even on the way to work! You get to see another country close up, as well as to see America from the outside, both of which are worthwhile. The other reason is that, even with the internet and the adoption of English as a nearly universal research language, there is still a separation (figurative as well as literal) between researchers on different continents. The researchers in my department at Bristol typically go to one or two conferences in the US each year, and I'd be surprised if many American researchers go out of the country more often than that. As a result, I think a lot of important ideas are being pursued in parallel, without benefiting from collaboration as much as they could. Working overseas gives me the chance to meet with authors of books and articles that I might otherwise never see in person.

So, if you can find a place to store your belongings for a couple of years, I'd definitely recommend taking the plunge and going for a postdoc in a foreign country. As everyone said to me when I was leaving "You're young, what a great time you'll have." It's certainly been true so far.


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