Moving abroad for a postdoc

In August 2017 I moved to Nürnberg, Germany for my first postdoc position. In August 2020, I stayed at the same institute for my second postdoc. So now I feel like a Nürnberg local (apart from my terrible Frankonian accent), but it didn’t always feel like home and it definitely wasn’t easy. A few PhD students have asked me what it was like to move abroad and what advice I could give to others moving. So I thought I’d share some thoughts. Disclaimer: I can only give info about Germany, specifically Nürnberg, but I am sure some things are applicable to other places.

Germans are like coconuts: they have a hard shell but once you crack them, they’re soft and sweet.

‘Understanding the Germans workshop run by the Welcome Centre at FAU’

My first few days in the office were quite shocking. I’d spent my PhD in an old building, 10:30am and 3pm coffee breaks and a cohort of 30+ students. In FAU, my office was brand new, big and a little sterile looking. There were no regular coffee breaks and generally a lot less chit chat in the office. I started at the same time as a Canadian colleague and friend Carolyne. She’d also had a similar PhD experience, so we stuck together to learn the ropes of German academia and life.

One of the bigger differences between my PhD friends in the UK and those in Germany, is that Germans tend to start their PhDs a little later in life. Many are married with children, or living with partners, which makes spontaneous trips to the pub quite difficult. Two weeks notice and starting at 4pm is more the norm. Also, many of them are from the immediate region and have grown up nearby. They already have many friends and social activities to attend. Whereas I moved there without knowing anyone, so wanted to make friends at work. Making friends as an adult is hard! So, me and Carolyne set up a social committee and we organise monthly ‘after work drinks’ at the institute. After a few social events, there was a transition from colleagues to friends and I felt quite a lot happier!

Part of the parcel of being a postdoc on short term contracts is that you carry academic baggage with you. I finished my PhD thesis corrections on August 4th 2017 and moved to Nürnberg on August 28th 2017. Funnily enough, during that time, I didn’t finish writing up my PhD papers. So when I started my job, I still had to work on my previous papers and reviews. Whilst I did most of the work on evenings and weekends (the negative of academia is the lack of work-life balance), my boss was very understanding and allowed me to work on my projects during the work day too. This isn’t the same story that I have heard from some friends. Perhaps ask in your interview what your future boss’s opinion is on this. My second PhD paper was published in 2018 and the third in 2020 (three years after I finished), so it was quite a long process, but I’m very glad to have them done.

Experiencing the culture of a new place is my favourite part of living somewhere new. Nürnberg is in Bavaria and is a very typical, cute German city. It has four clear seasons (although it doesn’t snow much, sadly), excellent tasting sausages, great beer and lots of festivals. I enjoy living here, and even enjoy learning a new language. I have lessons at the university during semester time, approximately 3-4 hours a week. If I was to move to another country (with a different language), then I would try and take an intensive course first. It was only after 3 years that I felt confident talking German.

Nürnberg is fairly centrally located in Europe. I can get to Prague by bus in 3 hours, Berlin by train in 3.5 hours and Amsterdam by train in 8 hours. Nürnberg also has an airport, which did have direct flights to the UK when I first moved here, which was handy for the long-distance relationship. But since the end of that, I prefer to travel by train, to reduce my carbon footprint and stress levels! In just 10 hours, door to door, I can get the train to Birmingham (my home town) via Brussels and London with Eurostar. I’ve also driven round Tirol in Austria and visited many European cities including Hamburg, Copenhagen and Vienna. Before the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to travel, I had planned to extend my travel to Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw. Maybe next year!

So why did I stay for a second postdoc? I was lucky enough to work on a big group project, which also secured funding for a second phase, which afforded me another 2 years of money to continue my research. I also enjoy my project and have many ideas that I would still like to complete. I like my working group, have friends, know my way around the city and want to stay in academia for a while longer. I think after this project though, I will move onto pastures new. I get itchy feet after living in a place for a few years and want to move on. I also think it’s academically important or beneficial to collaborate with new people and work with other research groups. Overall, I am enjoying my postdoc life, although it does occasionally feel a bit like doing another PhD!

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