postdoc abroad

There are many good reasons to go abroad. However, there are also a couple of unpleasant side-effects of mobility nobody dares to talk about:


1. You’ll have to build a new life from scratch.

Every time you go to another country you have to start from scratch to build your life – this is a fact that is best to simply accept! You’ll have to learn all the tips and tricks to make life easier and to save money, you’ll also have to learn where to find information and help, the health system will be different and – for sure –  the police will have a different attitude (and as you’re a foreigner anyway – you must be up to no good!! J). You’ll have to learn where the bakery and the supermarket are and where you can buy this little brownish thing you cannot find in your dictionary which is necessary to switch on the heater.

The best strategy is to find other foreigners – ideally from your own country and culture – who can help you to survive the first 6 weeks.

2. Administration works completely different in another countryadministration

Intuitively, most people know more or less how to behave in an administrative context because they have been trained their whole life to handle administration. Unfortunately, many rules you have learned do not apply in a different bureaucratic system. In addition, administrative language is normally created by robots to be read by machines, thus, your dictionary will not help you.

You should NEVER try to figure out the administration of a foreign country. You are naturally programmed to fail. Find people in the administration of your new institution and let them help you – quite often the secretaries of your institution are wizards in handling administration; they know whom to contact and they understand bureaucratic procedures better than anybody else. Buying a lot of chocolate may help.

3. You lose contact with your family, your friends and your network.

Most people who live abroad for a long period of time experience a decline in their network of friends – even with sufficient competence in social media management. If you are not situated in a very attractive touristic spot such as Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, London, New York etc, you will have to have very close friendships to attract visitors. However, some people would consider being a safe distance away from their parents  a plus side.

You must turn into an extrovert and make spontaneous contact with everybody. Learn to connect immediately with anyone and be always nice (even when you feel depressed and lonesome; “fake it until you make it”). You’ll soon find yourself becoming immersed in the culture and cheering on the local team as if it was your own…’’if you can’t beat them, join them!’’ Make a schedule to stay in contact with your friends and your old social networks – and send your parents a postcard on a regular basis.

4. Your relationship will suffer inevitably

Going abroad as a coupleheart

Moving to a foreign country as a couple is stressful for a relationship. The two partners may experience substantial differences in the quality of their work, their supervision, the colleagues and the working environment as well as the ease to integrate. In addition, it may be rather difficult to meet new people as a couple because it is psychologically more difficult to start a conversation with a couple. It is also obvious that you are not available as a potential erotic partner.

Find other couples (probably foreigners) who are in the same situation. If possible, take your partner along to social events (barbecuing, Christmas parties etc.) at your institution. Find or found an “international club” to meet other people in the same situation and organize fun activities to enjoy the beautiful aspects of the country.

Long-distance relationships

Long-distance relationships can become under a lot of stress because you can only communicate via email, phone or skype which is of course much less intimate than being together in the same room. In addition, you may feel lonely and get in contact with other attractive persons which may appear as an interesting alternatives for your existing relationship.

Actively cultivate your relationship and let your partner feel that he/she still participates somehow in your life. Make a plan for the next 4-6 months to meet on a regular basis and take beautiful trips together. Or find a new love.

5. Your children will lose their friends on 2 occasions.

When going abroad with children, they must leave their friends behind and have to integrate into a new environment. Children adapt quickly to new environments and normally have no problems finding new friends. However, when going abroad for just a few years, they will have to experience this twice. The advantage is that your children get used to integrating into new social contexts quickly which helps to get a higher salary later to pay for the therapy.

Let your children participate in activities aimed at getting in contact with other children and connect with other parents, to try organize such events yourself.

6. Your research stay abroad may not contribute to your pension

I tried to get reliable information whether my different stays abroad contribute to my pension. My conclusion after several years is: there are many interesting initiatives to standardize the European system but there is a lot of conflicting information.

I have no idea how to handle this problem.

7. It will cost you a lot of money.1MioDollars

You may have to spend a lot of time and money on travelling and communicating over long distances. You may have to rent an expensive apartment and spend too much money on living costs because you do not know the tips and tricks which save you money. However, you will get access to better jobs later, thus, you can interpret this as an investment in a higher market value.

Also in this context it is very helpful to find other foreigners who are willing to be your mentor and to organize an “international club” to help spread this kind of information.

8. Your self-expression is limited in a foreign language

Most people I know suffer from thinking and expressing themselves in a foreign language. You will never know all the necessary words and sophisticated expressions you have ready spontaneously in your own language. At the same time, you lose skills in your own language because you force yourself into using another grammar, sounds and expressions. Some people claim that their faces change when they switch to another language and speaking too much French or German may lead to muscle pain in unknown mimic muscles.

Learn to switch to the face which supports the local language and reserve some time on a regular basis to get again into contact with your roots and your own language to avoid feeling lost between two cultures…and to avoid being laughed at by your friends e.g. when you return home from the US with a ‘’Yankee accent!!’’

9. You will have to integrate into a foreign country but you will stay a foreigner anyway

You have to live in a culture which is not your own and you will miss your roots – this is inevitable. People will always treat you as a foreigner because you look different, you behave strangely and you have a funny accent. You may experience hidden or open racism and you will meet extreme nationalists, even in an academic setting. Quite often it is easier to meet other foreigners than natives, however, you can sell this in your resume as broadening your network and learning intercultural skills. Even the body language you use naturally may be a disadvantage. For example, the personal distance between persons differs substantially in different countries. In Germany, the personal distance has to be the length of your arm, thus, you are just able to hit somebody while Italians find this unpleasant and impolite and tend to come much closer to a person they talk to. This may interpreted by Germans as aggressive invasion of personal space or as a sexual contact.

Talk to other foreigners about the unspoken laws and traditions of the new country and simply enjoy a conversation about these cultural differences over a cup of coffee. You can even use this as an advantage and sell your stupid mistakes and even your psychosis as a charming cultural difference (“You know how Americans/Russians/Germans/Italians are…”).

(Acknowledgement: Thanks to Derv Dooley who added some valuable ideas to this post.)

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