Life as a (semi-) nomadic early career scientist

One of the great things about being a geoscientist is that travel is often an integral part of your research and work. Geoscientists work in the field, we go to conferences and short courses all over the world, and some of us even move countries for our jobs. This often means being thrown head first into a new country and culture. An early career scientist (ECS) is someone who is very early into their scientific career, for example all of the regular authors at SeaRocks blog. While the exact definition of who qualifies as an ECS varies there is nearly always one consistency: an ESC’s life, such as mine, is often filled with uncertainty of what, and where, is next. A PhD is a fixed term contract. There are no guarantees that your next position, be it a post-doc, or job in industry, will be in your current city, or even on the same continent.

Sounds a bit scary right? It can be lots of fun too, at least once any required visas are approved. There are many main takeaways from such a life, but in my experience one thing that is continually fun and surprising is the small and large differences between cultures. For example: “pants” in American English is NOT the same as “pants” in British English. That little fact was learned the hard way soon after moving to the UK, but more on that later.

Now-a-days intra- and inter-continental mobility is encouraged and more often than not expected to occur early in a scientist’s career. Here at SeaRocks all of the authors have moved to a new country for our current jobs, some of us have even moved a few times. If you have not seen it, our “Who we are” page has a map which lists each author’s city and country of origin, and then the city and country they are now living. I unfortunately just get listed as coming from the state of Connecticut because suburban American life is very different to urban life.

Science thus far has taken me to unexpected places and allowed me to immerse myself in new cultures and countries. During these past 7 years living as a travelling ECS I have gotten a chance to not just learn more about geology (and microbes), but also new languages, and about new cultures. What follows is a brief description of how I personally ended up being a semi-nomadic early career scientist.

The nearest major city to my hometown is New York City, ~1 hour away by car. In American terms that isn’t far, but NYC is a very different environment than where I am from. I grew up in a fairly typical American way: in a relatively small suburban town. New Fairfield, Connecticut, population ~14,000, home of a supermarket, a Dunkin Donuts, 3 pizza places, and 4 delis. The town’s school system goes from kindergarten all the way through high school and I graduated high school with ~200 other people, most of whom I had known my entire life.

If you’ve ever watched any American high school movie you’ll know that after graduating high school the next step is to head to college, the American term for university. It is here that things get a bit interesting. Rather than packing all my stuff into the trunk, boot if you’re british, of my parent’s car and getting driven to college I instead boarded a plane to Germany, a country where I did not speak the language or know anyone, for Uni.

A map of all the places I’ve lived, each new visa is shown with a red flight path, and each move back home for more than 30 days is shown with a yellow flight path. My travels went Connecticut, USA (08/2008) -> Bremen, Germany (06/2011) -> Connecticut, USA (10/2011) -> Cambridge, UK (03/2013) -> Connecticut, USA (09/2013) -> Bristol, UK (11/2014) -> Paris, France (still here). (Map image from google maps originally)

August 2015 marked my 7th anniversary of living on a different continent than the one I grew up on. One new country does not make someone semi-nomadic! But does 4? In the past 8 years I have lived in Germany, the UK, France, and the USA. Have a look at the map below to see my travels. I’ve been in a different country for each of my degrees: Germany for my bachelor’s degree, the UK for my master’s degree, and now I am in France for my PhD. After that it is potentially another country and another visa application.

Through frequently moving you can learn how to become absolutely pro at packing suitcases, and you can become an expert in different airlines’ baggage policies, but neither of these ever makes the navigation of international travel bureaucracy any easier. Note: The logistical bits of moving countries is far less fun than the living in them.

As mentioned earlier, even in a country where you think you speak the language you can still encounter cultural and linguistic differences. “Pants” related linguistic foibles aside being a travelling scientist has brought only good things. I am into my 8th year living outside of the USA, and have recently finished my first full year in France. Now, it is possible to look back at all of the interesting opportunities my career choice has brought me, academically, culturally, and even linguistically.

Science and research as a career path is rewarding and constantly evolving. If you are also someone who is interested in intra or even inter-continental mobility and the sciences there are all sorts of great places to look for jobs or funding for your studies. I found the PhD position I am now in via the EURAXESS job portal, but that is just one of many.

If you’ve got any specific questions, or want to hear more about moving around feel free to give any of us a shout! If you have any specific questions or comments you can always comment here, tweet to us, or use our facebook page.

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