A computer is a pretty useful tool. It stores large amounts of information and performs complicated calculations. Fifty computers can be hooked up to share power and information. But only when connected to the outside world is their true power unleashed. Suddenly, they can be used to communicate with a worldwide network of information and resources.
So it is with humans. With societies increasingly globalized, the days when new graduates joined a company and stayed until retirement are all but over. In my fledgling career as an academic in astronomy instrumentation, living in my fourth country in the two years since finishing my PhD, I have experienced this first hand. And early on: I started the process of habitual relocation when I left my home country, Belgium, for my undergraduate degree in London.
Deciding whether to work abroad or at home is never easy. Finding a job after graduation can be bewildering in the best of times, and looking for work in a foreign country can seem impossibly daunting. But with the right mindset, it is likely to be an exciting personal as well as professional experience.
Isolation vs. Networking
A research degree can be an isolating undertaking, and your work at that stage often doesn’t afford much opportunity to interact with others outside of your closest collaborators. Staying with the same project or within the realm of your existing team after graduation is the easiest option, but it may not be the best choice for your career in the longer term.
Enter the computer analogy.
One of the most important concepts in career development today is networking. Networks are invariably linked to geography, and nothing will expand your network like moving to another country.
During a year of country hopping from England to Belgium to Germany to Belgium again, working on short-term contracts ranging from press work to mechanical engineering, and despairing that none of the work was relevant to “my field,” I nonetheless met a variety of researchers and engineers at coffee machines and water coolers around Europe.
When I applied for my current position, I made a shocking discovery: I had a network! The institution I was working at as a press intern in Germany was involved in the project that was hiring a postdoc in the Netherlands, so I had a helpful but informal chat before the interview.
Networking needn’t involve business cards and formalities. All I did was drink too much coffee and say hello.
Working abroad can help broaden your horizons and make you more attractive as an employee. A potential new employer will see in you a candidate who is firmly committed to the work, irrespective of geography.
With research projects now increasingly crossing borders, an understanding of corporate culture and funding structures in other countries—perhaps even another language—can be very important to a project team.
Your time abroad also tells an employer that you probably have a novel angle or a new technique to bring to the table. In my experience, finding a job is more about your initiative, willingness to learn, and enthusiasm for your subject rather than your brains; with an advanced degree, an employer assumes you’re smart.
Now, once you’ve found your dream job in a far-flung time zone, and before you sell your car and pack your bags, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself in for!
Salaries and working conditions can vary greatly between countries, even within close geographic regions such as Europe. Always talk to the Human Resources department to make sure you have all the information to make the right decision for yourself.
Travels With Sarah
I grew up in Belgium with one Belgian and one British parent. After developing a love for astronomy as a teenager, I went to the United Kingdom to study the subject at university. Between 1997 and 2006, I completed a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and later a PhD in Astronomy at University College London (UCL).
My research involved a lot of materials science and engineering. After submitting my thesis, I moved to UCL’s Space and Climate Physics Department in the English countryside, where engineers had helped me with various engineering tools during my PhD. Working for four months as a mechanical engineer on a subsystem of NIRSpec, a near-infrared instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope, gave me a taste for international projects under great supervision and management.
From there I moved to the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), in Munich (Germany) as a press intern. I then applied for my position at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands – for an instrumentation study for the European Extremely Large Telescope, an ESO project. I was in the perfect position to get valuable inside information on the project in an informal setting over morning coffee. My other projects here in Leiden include another JWST instrument, MIRI, and an advanced optical test bench for ESO.
Sarah Kendrew’s article on global networking is part of the Leadership Series, a collection of online and print articles about transitioning from student to career professional produced by SPIE Student Services and SPIE Professional magazine. Valuable articles for students and early career professionals focus on leadership in the field of optics and photonics. Tips and other information about patents, graduate schools, entrepreneurship, trust in the workplace, and volunteering have been the topics of recent articles.
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Sarah Kendrew holds a PhD in astronomy from University College London. She is a postdoc in instrumentation for astronomy at the University of Leiden (Netherlands) and co-chair of the SPIE Early Career Professionals Committee.