Coming to America: Doing a Postdoc in the U.S.

Coming to America: Doing a Postdoc in the U.S.
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When Swedish neuroscientist Jens Hjerling-Leffler moved to New York University (NYU) in New York City for a postdoc in 2007, he found life so exciting in the city that never sleeps that he never wanted to shut his eyes. “I actually didn’t sleep very much my first year,” he says. “There’s this idea that you’re going to work a lot, and then when you’re done you’ve got the whole city at your doorstep.”

After a few months of hyperactivity, Hjerling-Leffler came down with the flu and throttled back a bit on the nightlife. He has also learned a few lessons in Gordon Fishell’s lab at NYU, where he studies cortex and brain development. His American experience has been “much more productivity-based,” Hjerling-Leffler says: “It’s less about sitting in your room coming up with a smart solution or nice idea and more about getting out and doing it.”

Hjerling-Leffler, who had worked in a lab in Germany as an undergraduate before returning to Sweden for his Ph.D. at the Karolinska Institute, didn’t worry too much about the logistics of his international move. For others, the prospect of navigating work visas, securing health care, and adjusting to the American work ethic can be intimidating. But whether or not the preparations cause anxiety, for many who go the experience becomes a kind of calling card. “The fact that I had been a postdoc at Stanford [University] was a plus on my CV, … and it was the way people usually introduced me,” says Karim Benzerara, now a researcher at the Institute for Mineralogy and Condensed Matter Physics in Paris.

The best-laid plans

Beyond providing a tagline when you’re introduced, a postdoc in the United States may garner attention from potential employers. Anethe Mansén, a postdoc career coordinator at the Karolinska Institute, says that in Sweden, “mobility is seen as something good.” She believes that scientists benefit from seeing “other ways of approaching research questions and … new collaborations.” That could be why, according to many scientists and career advisers, American research experience has become de rigueur for those who wish to win independent research posts at some European institutions. U.S. training has never been an explicit requirement, says Theresa Vincent, a Swedish biologist doing a postdoc at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, “but it has always been encouraged.”

Sometimes the choice of postdoc lab is obvious, such as when your Ph.D. lab has a close collaborator in the United States. But if that isn’t true in your case, you have to do some research to locate the right lab. Step one is to identify a few labs doing science you want to do and then to figure out which are good fits for you and your career objectives — and are located in a place where you’ll enjoy spending time. The best way to find those labs is through journal articles and your network — your advisers and colleagues. Many — and possibly most — U.S. postdoc jobs aren’t formally advertised, so the personal approach is best. Don’t ignore the job boards though, because some postdocs are listed there, and it’s easy enough to set up specific e-mail alerts.

Consider more than just the scientific reputation of a lab before signing on, advises Bill Lindstaedt, director of the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco. “If they’re picking the lab for the name of the principal investigator only, that may be a mistake,” he warns. Talk to current and former lab members about their relationship with their supervisor and the lab’s after-work lifestyle. Ask whether the supervisor offers career advice and welcomes creative input to the group.

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