Scientists abroad: citizens of the world or second-class citizens?

In Notes from a Small Island the American author Bill Bryson describes his first ever visit to England. Eager to discover the country, but thoroughly unaware of local habits, he ends up spending the night on a bench in cold, foggy Dover, with a pair of underpants on his head as an improvised headwarmer. Despite this bumpy start, this night was the first spark of a love affair with the country and Bryson has since spent the majority of his adult life living in Britain.

I often think of this story, when I think about scientists on the move, starting a new position in a new country.


Moving country is a frequent feature of scientific life. This infographic from a 2012 Nature News Feature (Richard van Noorden: Global mobility: Science on the move) shows the most prominent trends in migration.

In many ways, these scientists resemble Bryson: they move, eager to discover not only exciting new science, but also a new place, it’s traditions and people. Also, even for seasoned “movers” there are always local procedures and issues that catch them unaware and unprepared. Unfortunately, unlike for Bryson, this time abroad often does not turn into a love affair with the new place – instead it remains a constant uphill struggle, battling with administration and customs that put scientists from abroad at a financial disadvantage or cause emotional stress. Even more annoyingly, often these problems could be resolved with minimal effort on behalf of the academic host institutions, making it all the more frustrating to be stuck in a one-(wo)man war against the system. To give an simple example: When I moved to France a few years ago, my university required a mandatory X-ray of the lungs within the first month, which could only be obtained from a short list of select doctors. I –like many other foreign postdocs – arrived with only rudimentary knowledge of French, only to discover that none of the shortlisted doctors spoke English! It was extremely discomforting having to strip to the waist in front of a rather severe nurse who treated me like an idiot, handled me less than gently and didn’t speak a word of English. Surely, it must have been possible to put at least one doctor on the list, who spoke English?!?

Intriguingly, having spoken to scientists elsewhere, I have found that many of us struggle with the same problems when we move abroad. So I have collected some of these below, together with some suggestions on how to fix them. Continue reading