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My Story: A PhD from the United States Doing a Postdoctoral Fellowship Abroad
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Lauren Drogos

 

Transitioning Between Countries

I am an international postdoctoral scholar. Life has a funny way of adding unexpected twists and turns; in one year I finished my PhD, moved to another country, completed an academic job search, started a new job, and got married. In hindsight, I don’t know why I was in a rush to complete everything in a short period of time! To add to the craziness, a few years later I purchased a house and had twins that were one year old. It was in these circumstances that I found myself starting my fourth year as a postdoc in Canada.

 

Since then I have renewed my work permit a few times and completed an application for permanent residency. Immigration paperwork is stressful to complete, no matter how many times you do it. I know many families choose to use an immigration lawyer to relieve some of this stress, but I chose to forgo this option. My best advice for you is to do your homework in advance and be prepared, if not potentially over-prepared, before submitting your immigration paperwork. It is better to have extra documents to submit than to scramble for needed paperwork that must be submitted by a deadline.

 

Daily life, no matter where you move, is going to be different. Different does not mean bad; different just means not the same.

 

When I moved from the United States to Canada, I expected an almost seamless transition between the two countries. However, what I expected and what I experienced were very different. I still experience many moments of culture shock, even though I am in an English-speaking country on the same continent of North America. Obviously, the amount of culture shock you will experience may vary widely based upon your background and by the country where you plan to do a postdoc. I do not know whether my experience has been typical for someone moving to complete an international postdoc, but there were just some things I struggled with that I was not prepared to encounter with my move. As a result, I became very empathetic to immigrants who have endured a more difficult road than me when pursuing a postdoc abroad!

 

Moving Across Countries

In retrospect, my move went smoothly. If you had asked me about relocating to a different country in the middle of the move from the United States, I might have sung a different tune. I chose to have a very light move between Chicago and Calgary. I packed a small sedan with my two cats, my fiancé, and the items that would fit in my trunk. Driving for 36 hours with two sedated cats is less than ideal, but there was only one hour I was convinced the cats were going to pee in my backseat!

 

When I reached the border between the United States and Canada, I sat nervously in my car, expecting a painful interrogation from customs officials. I had a binder full of documents and evidence to help with the interview. When my name was called, they asked for two of my many documents: my postdoc offer letter and my passport. I was vastly over prepared for my border crossing. Nevertheless, I would do the same if I had to do it again.

 

Arrow crossing map from Chicago to Calgary

Moving from Chicago to Calgary is a big change, both geographically, and culturally. Illustration by Alexandra Taraboletti.

Financial Planning is Important

I am paying back my United States student loans. The exchange rate from Canadian currency to United States dollars (USD) is currently making this a nightmare. While I am trying to pay off my loans in USD, the Canadian currency decreases my income as a postdoc by approximately 30 percent. The two main factors which makes this task difficult for me to complete are managing international bank accounts and dealing with an unpredictable or unfavorable exchange rate.

 

First, in order to maintain an additional discount on my student loan interest rate, the payments must be automatically deducted from a United States based bank account. This means I have to wire money into my United States based bank account quarterly to minimize international money transfer payments. The second hurdle I have to overcome is that I am having difficulty budgeting for the future with the current depreciation of the Canadian dollar. I have set up a monthly payment plan, but my costs can vary drastically from month to month. I tried to over budget when planning this move. However, if this pattern continues, I may not be able to afford to pay back my United States student loans with the paycheck I receive from my postdoc in Canadian dollars.

 

Hiraeth: A Homesickness for a Home You Cannot Return to, or That Never Was

Daily life, no matter where you move, is going to be different. Different does not mean bad; different just means not the same. Even though I moved to a country on the same continent, I still find myself pausing at times after some social interactions to mull over how something had just gone completely sideways from what I expected. Not understanding local customs can definitely make you feel like an outsider in a different country. I imagine this feeling is amplified when the culture in that country is significantly different than your own culture.

 

One of the biggest hurdles for me was city infrastructure. I strongly prefer to live in a walkable city; Calgary is not one of those places. My daily routine in Chicago included riding public transit to work and home, walking both for exercise and to go to the local grocery store. This type of lifestyle isn’t possible in Calgary due to the weather, the city infrastructure, and the transit systems. Honestly, I am still challenged with making the city work for me. What I have found helpful is focusing on the treasuring places I have found to love, such as a local coffee or cheese shop.

 

When transitioning between places, it is a good idea to get a social support network in place as soon as possible. Some labs are extremely social, while others barely speak to each other outside of work. Make sure you know what kind of environment you are entering and how that may affect your mental health. Schedule Skype dates or write letters to keep in contact with your friends. I have even played cards over Skype with my friends from high school. This may also be the perfect opportunity to adopt a furry friend into your life. I hope that if you are considering

pursuing an international academic position, this article can help you in some way!

 

Lauren Drogos, PhD, is an Alberta Innovates—Health Solutions (AIHS) postdoctoral scholar at the University of Calgary in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

 

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