Postdoc Perspectives: Looking Back on My Year in France

3. February 2012

by Elena Silaeva

I got the idea the first time I traveled abroad to attend an international scientific conference. Wouldn’t it be exciting to do a posdoc abroad?

It was an ongoing dream during my doctoral research, and I actively networked throughout my studies. However, when my thesis defense came around, no one was clamoring to welcome me into his or her lab. Like many of you, I faced the inevitability of having to write 100 emails to lab managers in the hopes of getting at least one positive answer. (I knew the sad statistics from the experience of my peers.)

Then I got lucky: One of my colleagues forwarded me an email announcing a postdoc position in Saint Etienne, France. I sent my CV immediately. Quite soon, I received a couple of emails back with relevant questions about my thesis and abilities. My future employer also asked my colleague about my work during a conference. In the end I received an offer, which I was very happy to accept. The following are my reflections on the experience as well as my advice to others who are looking to pursue a postdoc abroad.

Prepare for paperwork. For the two months before starting my contract in France, I had to get all the paperwork in order. The bureaucracy is very strong there. I was not shocked because it can be worse in Russia. However, for someone who is accustomed to a neat and quick process, such as in the United States or Germany, it can be daunting. If you are considering a foreign postdoc, make sure you understand which documents you will need and build in enough time to deliver the required information.

I was asked to provide some documents that don’t even exist in my country. For example, I had to get a medical certificate in Moscow … from a French doctor! I also had to track down my birth certificate, which I had not used since I was 16 years old. Fortunately, I found it at my parents’ home.

Learn the language. Another important thing to consider in any foreign position is the language barrier. My future supervisor advised me to learn some French before arriving in the country. I took a short intensive course that proved to be very helpful. In France, most people don’t speak English. I had to speak French to the administration of the University, in the bank, and in order to rent an apartment. In the lab, it was easier: Everybody knew English, although they preferred to speak French.

In general, it was easy to get to know people and become part of the lab. Everyone was very friendly. Every morning there was an all-lab coffee break, and my lab mates and I went to lunch together as well. Our most important decisions were made over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Test your limits. My postdoc brought with it a new level of responsibility. Since my research is related to numerical simulations, the way that I worked—in an office, on a computer—was not very different in the two countries. However, the subject of my research changed a lot. My thesis was devoted to nonlinear optics and laser pulse propagation, whereas my postdoc project was about material science and laser-matter interaction. The particular problem I was studying was new to the lab, with only one postdoc (me) responsible for its solution. Since my supervisor was busy coordinating many other projects and applying for new ones, I was largely on my own. I even had to install the necessary software on my computer. This was very different than my doctoral research, which was a continuation of earlier work and for which I received a large degree of guidance from my advisor.

Starting from almost zero was scary. I was expected to get results and have papers published by the end of the year. I worked hard and accomplished more than I thought I was capable of. I acquired new skills and knowledge. At the end of the project, I was offered the opportunity to continue working on the same subject in another French lab.

This year was very exciting and unforgettable. In addition to my professional achievements and growth, I took advantage of the wonderful French culture, great cuisine and beautiful mountains. And now I speak French.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Rouen, Materials Physics Group, France.

 

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Postdoc Perspectives: My Experience Working Abroad

25. March 2011

By Elena Silaeva

One of the great advantages of having a Ph.D. is that it gives you the opportunity to work abroad. Compared to people in other professions, scientists seem able to work in another country fairly easily. When I was pursuing my thesis in my homeland of Russia, I often dreamed about taking a position in another country after I graduated.

This year, my dream came true. I have been in France for two months for a postdoc position in the laser-matter interaction group at the University of Saint-Etienne. I have already adapted to the local culture, regulations and climate. I have become accustomed to my everyday life and absorbed in my work.

Expectations vs. reality
Before I left Russia for France, I felt completely differently. My excitement about getting a job quickly gave way to anxiety—about everything from shifting to a new research topic, meeting and getting along with people, and communicating when I did not know the language. (Although there are people from all over the world in the lab where I work, most of them are fluent in French.)

Happily, my transition went much more smoothly than I had imagined. After I arrived in France, my panic quickly turned into euphoria: My exciting new life had begun. In the laboratory, my advisor and colleagues were all very friendly and welcoming. They showed me where everything was in the lab and clearly explained the objectives that I was expected to meet. I quickly made friends who have helped me to address all the challenges I have encountered as a foreigner. Although I have not been in my new position very long, I have already had an invaluable experience.

Science and scientists in France and Russia
Overall, I think that people from the scientific community are quite similar to one another, despite their differences in citizenship and nationalities. Thus, it has not been all that difficult for me to integrate into a new research group in another country.

At the same time, science in France is different from that in Russia. At Moscow State University, where I did my Ph.D., most of the work that was being done was fundamental in nature, and it moved at a rather slow pace. In France, however, I notice that researchers direct maximum effort into real applications—and that requires fast, dynamic work. I have also observed a big difference from the financial side. Academia gets more funding in France than in Russia. To be honest, this was also an important factor that I considered when I was choosing a position.

In France, my laboratory equipment is generally in better condition that it was in other universties where I have worked. That has opened up many more possibilities for realizing scientific ideas and achieving my goals.

The benefits of a “real job”
I have often thought of my Ph.D. studies as a stepping stone on the way to earning a degree and choosing a career. By contrast, my postdoc already feels like a “real job.” It is strange and at the same time exciting to realize that, after many years of studying, I am not a student anymore. Having some financial independence is also very satisfying.

Overall impressions
On the whole, I think that science is international. It does not matter much what country you come from or where you choose to do your work. The most important thing is that you choose your position wisely and that you have smart and supportive colleagues. I was very lucky.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@univ-st-etienne.fr) is a postdoc in the laboratory Hubert Curien at the University of Saint-Etienne, France. She is also a member of the editorial advisory committee for Optics & Photonics News.

 

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