Many scientists move multiple times throughout their careers, sometimes beginning with leaving home for university, or perhaps for a Ph.D., postdoc, or position at a university, governmental organization, or industry. In this post, Dr. Iain Stott, a Lecturer in Ecology at the University of Lincoln, writes about his experiences moving between the UK, Germany, Denmark, Australia, and Switzerland.
Becoming an “international”
My life was pretty great when I decided to leave the UK. I’d lived (mostly on and a little off) in Cornwall, S.W. England for nearly ten years. I had a core group of close gay friends (not an easy feat for a 20-something gay guy in a town of 21,000 people), and family close by. Ten years is a long time for an early career academic, though. Third-year PhD students had been taught by me as first-year undergraduates, and I’d been taught as a first-year undergraduate by many of the profs. I made a personal and professional decision that it was time to get out whilst the going was good: a risky decision that ended up paying off.
As an ecological modeller, my location makes no difference to my work, and I’ve flitted about Europe and the globe. Since Cornwall I lived in Rostock, N.E. Germany for a year and Odense, S. Denmark for three and a half years, with two short sabbaticals to work in Brisbane, E. Australia and Zürich, Switzerland. It’s been amazing, both personally and professionally.
All the broad things you hear about working and living in different cultures, learning different languages, meeting new people, broadening your network, growing as a person and just generally living an exciting life are true. I will not write (much) about such things, because lots of people already have. The reality of living abroad is, in my opinion, much more ordinary. For anyone thinking of studying or working abroad, I would like to offer some perspectives and advice on the everyday, the mundane, the minutiae of being an “international”.
Living abroad is mostly not all that different.
Here’s a secret: day-to-day life as an international isn’t really that different. I’d wake up, shower, go to the office, do computer stuff, hang out with colleagues, go to the gym, do yoga, watch Netflix, eat, go for drinks at the weekend, sleep. It’s the small things that shape your experience. In Cornwall, I woke to the sound of seagulls whilst in Brisbane it was Kookaburras. Danes, Aussies and the Swiss start and finish work early, whilst the Germans and Brits have the bad habit of working late. On my way home I dodged crows in Denmark but flying foxes in Australia. Danish Netflix has Buffy the Vampire Slayer but British Netflix doesn’t.
Those small things affect you in both good and bad ways.
Some examples: Danes and the Swiss eat lunch very early and entirely out of step with my night owl chronotype, but I loved that everyone took that time away from their desks to eat together. Germans love cash rather than card, and countless mornings I unwittingly ordered my terrible coffee and excellent pastry in the bakery, frustratingly without enough Kleingeld to pay. Contrary to the German spontan concept (which I liked), the Danes plan their fun, and their tight-knit social circles are difficult to break into. If you manage to however, there’s nothing like really experiencing that Danish hygge. On my walk to work each day in Australia I felt like I was simultaneously burning and melting, but it was a small price to pay for the amazing afternoon flat whites with a colleague, and two years’ worth of vitamin D in two months*.
A big pile of small things can break the camel’s back.
There are days when your foreign-language brain won’t work. There are days when the bureaucracy gets to be a little too much. There are days which would be fine if you were just in your native country, using your native language. I had meltdowns over stupid things. It could be something as simple spending 30 minutes on Google in order to navigate the complex world of Danish dairy products, as mundane as getting my car fixed in German**, or as important as trying to sort out complex Danish tax issues with the university finance department. Sometimes you will just want to be anywhere but where you are living.
Small but important everyday experiences often arise from big systemic differences.
You were less likely to see me in the office of an evening in Denmark than in the UK or Germany, as Danish work moves at a more measured pace. I think that should be the way, but longer term I think I perform better in a more pressured environment like the UK. In Denmark, it’s more common to see a PhD student socialising with their supervisor and other profs: Danish working hierarchies are very flat. Germany in contrast was far more hierarchical and I often saw little love lost between PhDs and their supervisors. I saw benefits and downsides to both systems.
You’ll meet people every day, and some of them will stick.
You meet many more people from many more places, both professionally and personally, by living overseas. Some occasions of meeting firm friends and colleagues stick vividly in my brain whilst others I can’t even remember meeting for the first time. You do leave people behind moving from place to place, but strong relationships endure. Sometimes meeting people is an issue however: we hear a lot about the two-body problem, but I’ve had a one-body problem. Dating in different cultures and languages is difficult, especially so as a gay guy with a more limited dating pool. I think living abroad is partly to blame, rather than just… me.
Live for the daily small things, good and bad!
There’s a tendency to get stuck on the bad aspects of a place when you live there and reminisce about the good things once you’ve left. Make a real effort to enjoy the place and meet people: I have seen it happen that someone decides quickly they don’t like their new home, without giving it a chance. If you’ve made the effort to meet people and know where you live and you still don’t like it, move on. Accept that you’ll probably have a few meltdowns. In my opinion, it’s all part of the experience. Take note of the small consequences of systemic differences, and if the system needs changing, try and change it. At the very least your experience will be useful down the line when you’re the one operating or even designing the system. It’s also worth holding on to things you cherish from your home country. There were rare mornings when I didn’t drink a cup of tea (you can take the Brit out of Britain…) and British crime dramas were always to hand when there was a pang of homesickness. I wish I had acknowledged other needs, such as braving the language barrier to join an orchestra rather than leave music to fallow for several years.
I’ve arrived back a little different
A mixture of professional and personal reasons led me back to the UK. I have managed to assimilate aspects of everyday life from all my homes along the way: I wear far more black now (thanks Denmark), I have a more direct way of interacting with people (thanks Germany***), I’m more cognizant of work-life balance even if I preach rather than practice (thanks Denmark), a flat white will never be quite good enough (thanks Australia), I’ve been chastised by friends for my spoken sentence structures (thanks everywhere), and sometimes I just wish I had equivalent English words for some I know from German or Danish. My day-to-day life still isn’t really that different, but personally and professionally it has improved, in ways both small and big, from my time away.
*You literally have to pay for that stuff in Denmark.
**Turned out nothing was actually wrong.
***After several months in Germany, I came back to visit the UK. In a charity shop, a gentleman unwittingly walked in my general direction, stopped over an arm’s length away, and then apologised. This is a British behavior I no longer understand to this day.