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The overseas postdoc

A French Canadian in Switzerland.

by Sébastien Morin

What’s a postdoc? I have heard this question many times from family members and friends who are not in science, but I’ve also heard it from fellow graduate students wondering if they should also take this route.

Postdoctoral fellows “are newly qualified researchers with PhD and/or MD backgrounds,” according to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars. “They are a critical piece in the framework of research that is done at research-focused academic institutions in Canada and around the globe.” Asking around about what this meant in practical terms, I was told that a postdoc represents a period of time when I can sharpen my skills by concentrated work on a very specific research project. This, of course, is true. But, is it only that?

No. The postdoctoral experience is more than that.

It is said that a fruitful science postdoc, at least for those who want to enter the “holy” academic world of professorship, should be performed for a minimal amount of time (just long enough to produce a good, high-impact piece of research, that is a publication in a highly ranked journal) in a very good foreign (or at least different and distant) laboratory. This is what I did a year ago, when I left Université Laval’s biochemistry department for the structural biology department of the Biozentrum at the University of Basel, in Switzerland. The reason graduate students are advised to travel for a postdoc is because you may learn about different research practices in another country or province and make new contacts that will be useful for later collaborations. This is again true. However, is that all?

No. Really, the postdoc is far more than that. It is a period when the postdoctoral fellow (and very often his or her family) moves away from home and starts a new life, while also being expected to work a lot and be very productive. In my case, I moved with my then one-year old daughter and my wife, who had not secured a job before we moved.

My daughter adapted quite well but it was more difficult for my wife and me. For her, it would take more than a year to find a job and actively start her new life. As often happens, the location chosen for the postdoc is thousands of kilometres away from family and friends, and neither of us could speak the local language. (In Basel, German is the official language for everyday life, whereas English is spoken in the lab.) We still don’t speak German properly, which sometimes can be an issue. However, our daughter now speaks German much better than us, which is great!

Very often, the culture, both inside and outside the lab, is very different from what one knows, and the postdoctoral fellow feels alone in defending his convictions and value system. For me, the biggest challenge in joining a research group in Europe was the huge contrast in how European society deals with feedback and appreciation (the topic was recently discussed in an article in University Affairs.)

In North America, positive feedback is valued and people are often motivated by being congratulated on their successes. As well, work problems are often discussed in a constructive manner. In Europe, the approach seems to be different. When you do good work, you don’t often get positive feedback because this is how work is expected to be: good. On the other hand, when something goes wrong, there will be negative feedback – without question. For a North American postdoc like me, this was (and still is) a source of demotivation, as I often feel that my work is either okay or bad, but nothing is ever great. As some might say, this challenge – and others like it – is part of the experience.

And this is what the postdoc really is: the start of a new life in a new place, with both scientific and personal implications. The postdoc is a challenging period for someone who aspires to become an academic, but hopefully it can be looked back on as a very rewarding period if the ultimate goal is reached. But even if the goal of a professorship isn’t achieved, this still may turn out to be the experience of a lifetime, where both new ways of thinking and new friends are discovered.

Even if it’s a tough experience, it has the potential of humanizing the people who go through it. In my case, coming from Quebec City, a rather homogenous place, and now having to deal with people from many different backgrounds (in Basel 30 percent of the population is from another country), I am learning to understand other people’s customs and ways of thinking, whatever my future career might be. I hope it will also help me become a better leader and a better person.

Regardless of the quantifiable outcome of a postdoc, the concept of “postdoc-ing” is one that has the power to enrich a society as well as the individual by globalizing good ideas in many domains.

Dr. Morin has a PhD in biochemistry from Université Laval and is now an EMBO postdoctoral fellow in the department of structural biology of the Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland.

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