Early career newSletters
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE
ARC Federation Fellow and Director of ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics
If you have the opportunity to spend some of your research career overseas, you should take it. Whether you visit another lab or institute just for a few months, or take up a long-term position in another country, you will find the experience transformative. You will be exposed to strikingly different ways of thinking. You will be able to work closely with many more experts in your field than perhaps reside in all of Australia. And if you should later return home, you will have laid the foundations for ongoing international collaboration, for both yourself and your own students and staff.
To maximise the overseas experience, there are three important points to keep in mind. First, in choosing an overseas opportunity, make sure you don’t end up working on essentially the same thing you could have stayed working on back in Australia. The facilities, areas of expertise and underlying approaches spread throughout the rest of the world usually go far beyond what’s available back home, so make the most of what’s on offer. Once you become more senior and build up a larger research programme, you are far less likely to have the time or enthusiasm to get started in entire different areas of study, so while you’re still early in your career, immerse yourself in novel ideas, and seek to acquire expertise in new areas.
Second, maintain your links to Australia. If you have your heart set on one day landing a long-term position Down Under, you can’t simply disappear for three, or ten, or twenty years, and then come back, expecting jobs to be waiting for you. If you stay in touch with the evolving research and funding landscapes back home, you’ll be able to adapt and evolve your plans to be ready when opportunities arise. Maintain your Australian collaborations, attend annual meetings of the Australian professional society that represents your discipline, and look for short-term visiting fellowships that allow you to spend a few weeks or a couple of months developing joint research projects with Australian colleagues.
Finally, while you’re working overseas, bear in mind that whether you like it or not, you’re serving as an ambassador for Australian science and research. You might feel overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the world’s best universities and laboratories, but don’t forget that your Australian training lets you bring your own unique strengths and skills to the table. For example, in my own field of astronomy, Australian PhD graduates are renowned for their deep technical expertise and ability to develop innovative new techniques. Identify projects that showcase your training in new ways, pass on your approach to students or other early-career researchers overseas with whom you might work, and try to create opportunities for your international colleagues to begin collaborating with Australian-based researchers.
Many of Australia’s top scientists regard time spent earlier in their career working overseas as a fundamental formative experience and a platform from which they have been able to launch much of their subsequent success. If you similarly aspire to make fundamental advances in your field, you need to be prepared to add an international dimension to your endeavours.
Professor Bryan Gaensler is an astronomer and Federation Fellow in the School of Physics of the University of Sydney. After receiving his PhD from the University of Sydney, he spent eight years in the USA as a postdoctoral fellow, assistant professor and associate professor, before returning to Australia in 2006.
Box 1: How to keep in touch: Some practical tips
Most countries with a substantial population of expatriate Australians have various mailing lists, networking events and internet forums aimed at bringing expats together, and helping them keep abreast of developments back home. Australians Abroad organisations also often host functions for state or federal politicians, present talks by visiting Australian scientists, or run information sessions on taxation, visas and other practical issues associated with living abroad. Good starting points are the international Australian expatriate networks Advance, Southern Cross and Expatriate Connect. Your local embassy or consulate may also host an email list for local events or activities.
Beyond networking and research, other vital resources on offer throughout the world include on-line purchasing of Tim Tams and Vegemite, local Australian Football League teams, ANZAC Day services, Australia Day cricket matches and Melbourne Cup celebrations. Your local expats can supply you with the specifics.
Box 2: The Australian diaspora
If you’re an Australian expat or if you’re about to become one, it might be helpful to understand the demographics of the expatriate community, the career paths that expats tend to follow, and the challenges that they can face. Some useful literature includes:
- Beyond Brain Drain, the proceedings of a 2004 conference on expatriates and mobility
- The World Wide Web of Australians, a Lowy Institute white paper on Australian expatriates
- The Australian Senate’s inquiry into Australian expatriates
Government and Research
In June the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation released its report Australia’s International Research Collaboration. The report, which includes 18 recommendations, is the culmination of the committee’s inquiry into Australia’s international research engagement.
An article in The Australian, Young should get grants priority, highlighted the recommendations of the Standing Committee’s report, particularly those relating to young scientists. The article acknowledged the Academy’s championing of the importance of international collaboration for ECRs in its report Internationalisation of Australian Science.
In late June the Academy provided a submission to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Rural Research and Development Corporations. The inquiry terms of reference and related materials can be found at www.pc.gov.au/projects/inquiry/rural-research.
This issue of Early Days sees the addition of a new regular feature, The Interview. Two researchers – an ECR and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science – will be interviewed on a topic relevant to ECRs and career development. In this issue we feature Professor Chennupati Jagadish FAA and Dr Hannah Joyce, who was previously a PhD student with Professor Jagadish.
Chennupati Jagadish (CJ)
Australian Laureate Fellow and Distinguished Professor, Research School of Physics and Engineering, Australian National University (ANU)
Hannah Joyce (HJ)
Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford
Describe your overseas research experiences (including current position) – where, when and how did you find the position?
CJ: I obtained my PhD from University of Delhi (India) and after teaching there for three years I got a postdoctoral fellowship at Queens’ University, Kingston, Ontario Canada. It took three years for me to get the postdoctoral position (after many regret letters) and I had to change my field from semiconductors to magnetics to obtain this position. I came to know of the position through a colleague who also did PhD at University of Delhi and started working as a postdoctoral fellow at Queens’ University in a different field of physics.
It was a big learning experience to live in Canada; adjustment to cultural changes (east to west), weather changes (hot to cold) and field changes. I had to learn about computers, DOS, software packages, computer interfacing of instruments which was in early stages of development. I worked in an excellent group which was extremely well organised and well funded and my supervisor (Professor David Atherton) has been a great mentor, very hard working and highly successful. I enjoyed working in a new field which made me work hard and I learnt a lot of new terminology and new subject matter. I published 10 journal papers in two years and started getting invitations to give invited talks at conferences on magnetics. I became confident that that I could work in new fields and be successful in making contributions to those fields. Another professor (Professor Jim Whitton) at Queen’s University was aware that my background was in semiconductors but that I had also successfully shifted to working in magnetics. One day he came and asked me if I was interested in going to the ANU where Professor Jim Williams was starting a new Department of Electronic Materials Engineering. I showed an interest and gave my CV to him to pass on to Jim. After six months I got an offer to work on an externally funded project for two years at the ANU and I arrived in Australia in July 1990. After those first two years of my work at the ANU, I applied for a tenured position at the university and have been lucky to get the advertised tenured position (which used to be, and continues to be, very difficult to get as only 30 to 35 per cent of the positions in the Institute of Advanced Studies are tenured). Working at the ANU has been great fun; establishing new facilities and new research programs. My work at Queen’s University gave me the confidence to pursue my research in semiconductors, optoelectronics and nanotechnology. My broad background in physics, materials science and electronics turned out to be very useful in pursuing research in multidisciplinary fields such as nanotechnology.
HJ: I was very fortunate! My PhD supervisor, Professor Jagadish, has many excellent collaborators overseas, and during my PhD studies he encouraged me to meet and work with these people, and even travel overseas to visit them. When I finished my PhD, one of these collaborators (Dr Michael Johnston at the University of Oxford) became my new supervisor. Having already collaborated with each other, Dr Johnston was keen for me to work at Oxford as a postdoctoral fellow, and I was very happy to work there too. The ‘stars aligned’ and Dr Johnston’s grant was awarded, which enabled him to offer me the position.
Why did you choose to undertake an overseas research position?
CJ: To learn new skills, gain international experience in carrying out research and broaden my research experience and expertise which turned out to be excellent.
HJ: There are a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to learn more about optical spectroscopy, optoelectronics and nanoscience, and to gain valuable research experience from Dr Johnston’s lab. Secondly, I wanted to experience a different research environment. Oxford is quite different to Australian universities, with its colleges and other idiosyncrasies. Research is so globalised now, and it is important to appreciate how overseas academic institutions can function so differently. Finally, overseas research experience is highly valued and I hope it will help me obtain an academic position back in Australia.
What did/do you find to be the most valuable aspect of undertaking an overseas position?
• Self confidence to pursue research in new fields
• Ability to establish new experiments/facilities in new fields
• Ability to work in new environment and adapt myself to learn new way of doing things
• Ability to work with others (students and postdocs) and share your knowledge
• Give credit to others for their contributions
• Importance of hard work and staying focused on the outcome
• Importance of communication skills (both written and oral).
• I’ve been in Oxford for two months now. I’ve immersed myself in the lab and I’ve learned a great deal of new experimental skills and theory already
• Changing institutions after my PhD helped me make a complete transition from ‘student’ to ‘researcher’. As a postdoc, I’m given more responsibility and more independence than as a student. I think this is important for my professional development.
• Learning to live in a new culture
• Developing friendships with people from different parts of the world
• Ability to adapt myself to cold weather coming from a hot country.
• I’ve found the transition challenging. I’m learning a lot about myself and others.
Was (is) there any negative aspect to your overseas research experience?
CJ: None I can think off. Overall my experiences have been very positive. Problems in life are common, our ability to get over those problems and achieve our goals is important to be successful.
HJ: Emotionally, it was very difficult moving so far away from my family and friends, and entering a different culture. English culture is more different to Australian culture than I anticipated.
What lessons or tips have you learned about undertaking an overseas research position that you would like to pass on to early-career researchers (ECRs)?
• Be open minded for new opportunities
• Don’t be afraid of changing fields if a good opportunity comes up
• Work hard and stay focused on your work and publish papers in prime journals in your field
• Develop collaborations with the best people (both their expertise and their way of working is important) who bring complementary expertise to pursue research you cannot do on your own
• Don’t be afraid of taking up short-term contracts if there is a potential to grow in a particular place (eg a newly established department)
• Think about what difference you can make to the place in terms of research as well as creating good environment (eg good social skills, ability to build new labs/experiments, help others in their research)
• Don’t focus on negatives and stay focused on positives.
• No matter where you go, expect the culture to be different and brace yourself for the unexpected
• Choose a postdoctoral position where you are given some independence and responsibility. Be careful that you don’t become a lackey
• When you arrive overseas, hit the ground running. This might mean that you enjoy a month or two being lazy and resting at home, before you move overseas.
Any additional comments?
CJ: Even if you want to live in Australia for lifestyle and family reasons, spend time overseas in best labs/groups in your field. Institution name counts. Please choose good groups and also institutions of high reputation. This helps in finding jobs back in Australia or other institutions overseas. But it is important to choose groups where you can gain new skills and also good environment where its members are valued and appreciated.
Let us know if you have an idea for an ECR/Fellow pair to be interviewed for Early Days (see the Media Training Competition below).
Upcoming media training opportunities
Science in Public is offering media training courses in several cities over the next couple of months (see below). The Academy can offer one lucky individual the opportunity to attend one of the training days for free. To enter the competition, simply read the interview in this issue of Early Days. Then identify a new pair (a Fellow and an ECR) to be interviewed and conduct an email interview with them on any career issue or topic you choose. Entries must be submitted by 5pm AEST on 12 August 2010 to Dr Fiona Leves (email@example.com). The Academy’s decision will be final. All submitted interviews may be printed in future issues of Early Days.
Thursday 19 August at the Clare Café, Carlton, Melbourne
Wednesday 15 September, Sydney
Friday 24 September at the Clare Café, Carlton, Melbourne
Wednesday 13 October at the Clare Café, Carlton, Melbourne
Wednesday 17 November at the Clare Café, Carlton, Melbourne
The courses run from 9.30am to 5pm, cost $650 + GST per person, and include coffee, morning tea and lunch. Each course is limited to 12 participants.
Upcoming Academy event for ECRS
On 19 and 20 August approximately 60 early- to mid-career researchers will converge on the Shine Dome in Canberra for the Academy’s annual Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank. Each year the Academy hosts a Think Tank for early- and mid-career researchers on a topic of national importance. In 2010 the Think Tank – Searching the Deep Earth: The Future of Australian Resource Discovery and Utilisation – will attempt to identify knowledge gaps that might be addressed through the application of existing science and technology and also potentially foreshadow new innovations and technologies to support minerals exploration in Australia. Nominations for each year’s Think Tank are sought from senior researchers in a range of relevant disciplines to ensure highly interdisciplinary discussions and cross-disciplinary solutions. This event will involve researchers from academia and industry from across Australia and provide all attendees the opportunity to network and develop new collaborations.