by Hayley Allison
On the 29th March (the first Brexit day that never was) I submitted my PhD thesis and, after a few rounds of celebratory drinks in the pub, returned home to spend the evening and the next day packing my most important belongings into two suitcases. On the 31st March I moved to Germany, ready to start a new postdoc on the 1st April.
In hindsight, that timeline, while sufficient on paper, was completely exhausting. However, moving to Germany has been one of the biggest decisions and most exciting things I have ever done and I would repeat it in a heartbeat.
Posing outside Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
How I knew I wanted a postdoc
I undertook my PhD at the British Antarctic Survey/University of Cambridge and am now a postdoc at GFZ German Centre for Geosciences.
Looking back, it was at the start of the third year of my PhD that I knew for certain that I wanted to continue with academia. I had toyed with the idea throughout my PhD, but I realised then that there were many ideas and projects I still wanted to explore and I wouldn’t have time to do them all during my PhD. I decided that while science continued to excite and motivate me, that was the career I wanted to pursue. Finding a postdoc would be a challenge, but realistically, other than a bit of lost time, it wouldn’t hurt to try!
For me, my main reservation with taking on a postdoc position was the insecurity and the short-term contracts. Sometimes funding uncertainties do worry me, but in my opinion, getting to do a job I love is worth it. I get to spend my days working on interesting problems, talking to outstandingly intelligent people, and travel abroad at least once a year! Even if I only get to do that for a few years, it seems like a pretty great way to earn a living.
At the start of my PhD, the idea of moving around while following the postdoc track had made me wary of the idea – in fact it terrified me. Choosing to uproot your life every few years is a scary thing to do, but moving offers a fantastic opportunity to work with different people, make new friends, learn new things, and experience other countries/cities. By the last year of my PhD my priorities had shifted so that these factors were important to me and moving no longer seemed (as) frightening.
Finding this postdoc and the application process
Although I had made the decision to look for post-doc positions at the start of my third year, it wasn’t until that summer (nine months left) that I applied to my first one. Actually, I think that was a tad too early. It depends on the situation, but slightly closer to when I was ready to finish might have been better as generally the preferred start date was a few months after the interview.
Finding this postdoc was the result of a rather sudden phone call one evening from the head of the Magnetospheric Physics group at GFZ. We had met previously at a Fall AGU poster session and he knew my PhD supervisors well. I spoke to him several times throughout the first AGU meeting I attended and he kindly invited me out to dinner with the GFZ group. Personally, I find the AGU poster sessions to be excellent places to meet people you have only seen on papers and actually talk to them about their work. As the whole poster session setup is about approaching people, it is one of the easiest places to introduce yourself.
During the phone call he told me about an opening in his group working on the radiation belts (my PhD focus) and then emailed me the link for the application. I distinctly remember thinking that I wasn’t qualified enough for the role. It was listed as a research scientist/senior research scientist and had items like ‘experience leading a research group’ in the requirements. Despite this, I applied and was offered a Skype interview (spoiler alert, I was ultimately offered the position, which just goes to show that even if you don’t meet all the criteria, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply). On Skype, I gave a short presentation about my work and answered a number of questions, which all-in-all took about 40 minutes. That was the first time that I had done something like that over Skype and although I wasn’t happy with my performance, a few days later they invited me for a real interview and to give a seminar to their group.
Flying to Potsdam was very fun and very tiring. It was a two day visit during which I spoke individually to each member of the group about the work they were doing, gave my presentation, and had an in-person interview. At the end of the first day, we went out to a lovely restaurant… but I was so unbelievably tired. I had gotten up at 2.30am that morning to catch my plane (I chose the flights I wanted, so I only had myself to blame) and it was 10pm before I got up the nerve to excuse myself. I had reached the droopy eyelid stage and decided I would rather be the person who left early than the person who fell asleep during the conversation.
I left Germany feeling like the interview and visit had gone well, but the key issue was the start date. They wanted someone to start the following month (November 2018) for funding reasons, but I still had to write my thesis and finish up some of my work. My PhD funding didn’t end until April 2019 and I wanted to start the postdoc at that point. Starting before would have put extra pressure on me and meant that I would have had to start a postdoc and write up my thesis at the same time. For me, starting before April was a deal-breaker. A few days later, they rang me to offer the job with an April start date and I was given a week to think about it before I accepted.
While I was lucky to be contacted about the GFZ postdoc, other fantastic ways to find postdoc positions are the MIST and GEM mailing lists. Also, approaching people directly is another option. Sometimes there are funding opportunities coming up or some money that could be used for a short postdoc and it doesn’t hurt to ask.
What it is like living and working abroad
I was completely terrified on that first Monday when I started at GFZ; not to mention exhausted and burnt-out from the thesis write-up. There were many new names and accents to learn and admin tasks to do, but everyone I met was so nice. They remember what it is like on their first day and how long it can take to settle in. Really I had nothing to worry about, but it was about a week before the nerves subsided. Receiving emails in a different language, having a German keyboard, and a computer initially set to German didn’t really help with the nerves either. A lot of the computer and account setup emails I received were in German, so Google Translate became a permanent bookmark.
Map highlighting Potsdam
Aside from the postdoc work, there were many other tasks that I needed to do because I had moved country. Things like applying for a bank account, health insurance, registering myself with the tax office, registering my address, etc. All of these things needed to be done in person via appointment and honestly were just added stress. Thankfully, not only was there a GFZ Welcome Centre which could help and advise with these tasks but my colleagues were also a fantastic source of knowledge and more than happy to help.
One thing that I had never experienced before moving was not being understood myself because of my accent or colloquial words. I never thought I would be explaining why we occasionally say “five quid” instead of five pounds when I accepted the role. After a few weeks, I could understand everyone perfectly and they could understand me.
I have been asked quite a lot how is it living in a place where you don’t speak the language. I am learning German, but I can’t really speak it yet. Unfortunately, the idea that you pick up a language very quickly if you move to the country is not particularly true. I find that if I wanted to, I could avoid the German language all together. Aside from the odd interaction, I work in English, I browse the web in English, I speak English at home, I watch Netflix in English, etc. Think about what you say to people that you don’t know regularly: you buy a ticket, you order food, you say “excuse me”. Really, that is a very limited number of words – and you learn how to say those very quickly and that’s sufficient for day-to-day life. That being said, you have more opportunities to integrate and meet people when you speak the language and I think it’s important to try.
In this post I have spoken very positively of moving because that’s been my experience, but I do want to say that moving to a new place is not without its challenges. You leave behind friends, family, plants… I was incredibly lucky that my boyfriend also agreed to move with me, making the whole process infinitely easier. Plus my grandparents kindly agreed to care for my coffee tree, the other great love of my life. Of course I miss friends and family, but it is easy to contact them. Friends have already come to visit me and it’s not difficult to get home should I need to. Europe is very well connected by plane, train, and bus if you so wish.
Oddly enough, I miss things I had never even thought about. I miss British tea. The tea is different here and I end up bringing back massive quantities of teabags every time I visit the UK. I miss being able to read magazines and pick a book in a bookshop or library. Instead I make much more use of my Kindle now. It’s easier and quicker than ordering a book online to be delivered. I also miss (missed) British bedding. In Germany, double beds have two single duvets on them – everyone gets their own cover. Also, the pillows are square instead of rectangular and, together, this amounts to a very different sleeping experience. For most things I have just adapted, but this was just too much and, after two weeks,I ordered brand new duvet set from the UK.
Moving abroad has been so much fun. It has changed how I view German culture and also British culture. I have been to new places, met new people, eaten new food, and I am sure that I will have many more new experiences throughout the remainder of my postdoc here.
Tips for finding a postdoc
Tips for moving abroad