Merlin Crossley, Lab Head
Should I Go Overseas for A Postdoc?
As time goes by the tradition of researchers going abroad to gain experience is becoming a norm. Some students go overseas for a Masters or a PhD, and some wait and go for a post-doc.
There are some obvious advantages. By moving to centres of excellence you can learn new techniques, and you can make new friends. You can be inducted into circles of successful researchers. You can build up your own expertise, confidence and aspirations.
There are other reasons too. Going abroad allows you to learn something that you can bring back. When you arrive back in Australia you may suddenly find yourself the national expert on a new technique. People will want to collaborate with you. You’ll be invited to talk at local conferences. And you don’t have to carefully navigate your exit from your mentor’s lab, working out what you’ll take and which projects you’ll leave behind. You can usually take more and apply to independent funding bodies as the national expert.
And it does look good on your CV if you have been successful in multiple, quite independent environments, and get referee reports from people in different countries. In summary, I don’t think one has to make an argument for travelling.
But what if you don’t want to go or your personal circumstances mean that you just can’t. Does this mean you are at a disadvantage and if so what can you do about that?
You certainly shouldn’t feel that going overseas is the only way to be successful.
There are many researchers who have been successful and have made very important and well-recognized contributions without ever having worked abroad. When thinking about these people two things come to mind.
Firstly, they have usually at least moved departments. Secondly, they have often worked in top national centres and with highly successful people.
When you read that last comment you might think – oh yes, the old boys network. That is another way and perhaps the old path to success. I can’t say that that isn’t still part of it today but it certainly isn’t the only part. The point about going to successful institutes and labs is that they give you more opportunities to shine – just like in the big labs overseas.
I don’t really know how this ‘centre of excellence’ thing works, but it is like urbanisation. There are more opportunities in big centres and the best labs just tend to capitalise on them again and again. There is never a quiet moment or a lull in the really productive labs in Australia. I guess that in science the more you try the more you’ll succeed. So look at any area where there appears to be critical mass and try to get a job there.
Then try to do something a little new and outside the mainstream. Again, having an established supervisor is important. If you are doing something new it may take a while to succeed and you’ll need someone to back you while you get things going. Once again this is what happens in the big international labs too.
So in summary, it isn’t necessarily the fact of going overseas that counts but the fact that most people who go tend to choose really good places – they don’t go to backwaters in Europe, the US or Asia, they go to centres of critical mass. If you do the same in your own country you should also be setting yourself up for success.