Jun 18, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

If you're a postdoc or PhD contemplating working in a lab abroad, you're in good company. Those who do it say it's "the experience of a lifetime."

A new study in Nature highlights the differentials in culture, power, and opportunity that international PhD and postdoc students face when they join a lab abroad. 

In some countries, students are used to giving and receiving direct feedback, which in other countries may offend. The opposite is true too. Those looking for a direct criticism may not get it when they want it and take a "gentler" response as an insult. 

Email culture also varies widely across cultures. In the US, it's not uncommon for emails to go unanswered, as opposed to other countries, where it's rude not to. Learning how to send follow-up emails is a skill many postdocs in the US have to learn. 

Socializing, too, is different. In Sweden, for example, it's common for everyone--including postdocs--to take fika, or a coffee break together. It's rude not to go. 

Looking to do your postdoc abroad? Wherever you go, consider these four strategies:

1. Make sure the lab fits your needs and research goals

Before you do anything, you need to do your research--postdoc lab research, that is. Go to international conferences that focus on your area of work and put yourself out there. You can't be afraid to network. 

Not only do you want to work in a place that values your research, you need to ensure that you can navigate the immigration process. Find out about work permits and visas and give yourself months to gather, submit, and wait for all your paperwork. 

Housing is another issue you shouldn't take lightly. Make sure you'll be able to afford a place close to the lab in a reasonably safe neighborhood with access to public transportation and other goods and services you'll need.

If your dream lab is in a part of town where it's tough to find housing, you may want to reconsider. Remember: it's not just about a great lab. It's about a great experience, too. 

2. Explore your new environment outside the lab

Sometimes, it's as little as walking out your front door and immersing yourself in your new culture. Check out your new neighborhood, get to know your neighbors, the shops, and the restaurants, and get a sense of what's available to you. 

This also means embracing the language, especially if you don't know it. Make an attempt. Prepare yourself for--and delight in--the daily miscommunications that you'll find.

Your experience is more about doing your research in a fantastic lab that you've researched. It's also about immersing yourself in a new culture and place.

By putting yourself out there, you give yourself a chance to fit in. 

3. Find out if the lab supervisors know about cultural differences

The Nature article highlights many of the cultural differences that international PhD and postdoc experiences face and explains that most labs are international anyway. 

Some of the biggest gaffes occur between supervisors and students, and the hierarchy--or professional distance--that's appropriate varies based on where you come from. 

Nanda Dimitrov, director of Western University’s Teaching Support Centre in London, Canada, who has written about cross-cultural graduate supervision, explained that some Nigerian, Egyptian and Chinese international students say that in their home nations, a large power differential between students and teachers is common. She explained that many students often follow a teacher's directions without argument.

In places where debate is common though, some supervisors sometimes interpret this compliance as a lack of interest in their work--or a lack of original thought.

The article showcase Keshun Zhang, a PhD student in psychology from China studying at the University of Konstanz in Germany. A postdoc and co-author of the 2016 book, When a Chinese PhD Student Meets a German Supervisor: Tips for PhD Beginners, Zhang reports that he always followed his professor's directions in China. In Germany, he says, it was different. After the first year of his program, his supervisor remarked that he'd finally learned to say "no" and push back when he disagreed. 

4. Question your comfort level with cultural change

How willing are you to challenge your cultural understandings of hierarchy and power? Of social norms and other languages? Of socializing and working?

How much autonomy do you have? How much do you want? How willing are you to conform--or at least acknowledge--that the culture you're in may not be one that agrees with you?

You have to be, to do a postdoc abroad.

 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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