Edge for Scholars recently had the honor of discussing international postdoctoral experiences with Dr. Brian Mautz, Postdoctoral Fellow with the Division of Epidemiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). Prior to coming to VUMC, Dr. Mautz spent two years at the University of Ottawa in Canada and three years at Uppsala University in Sweden as a postdoctoral fellow/intern and researcher, respectively. He received his PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the Australian National University.

Raised in California and completing his bachelor’s degree there, Dr. Mautz never imagined participating in an international experience. For his master’s degree, he moved to Illinois where he connected with a research mentor who encouraged him to attend an international conference. It was there that he met a faculty member from Australia who later encouraged Dr. Mautz to apply to his institution’s doctoral program. Below are highlights from our interview with Dr. Mautz.

Motivation to Seek out International Postdoc Positions

We asked Dr. Mautz what motivated him to pursue international postdocs.  He shared that there were several reasons, but mostly he just wasn’t ready to move back to the US after completing his PhD in Australia. He loved living there and wanted to experience more of the world. Living in other countries made travel to additional places cheaper and more feasible.

Second, many countries pay slightly to significantly more than US postdoc positions, but this also varies by field. And depending on global finances, foreign currencies (e.g., Swedish krona, British pounds, and euros) may be stronger than the US dollar, which can be financially beneficial.

Finally, when he completed his PhD, the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis were still roiling the US. There weren’t a ton of opportunities for postdocs in the US at the end of 2011 and in early 2012. International postdocs allowed him to expand research opportunities and stay in academic science. Dr. Mautz is quick to note potential parallels to the current COVID crisis and its yet unknown impact on economies around the world. Looking internationally could hold big incentives for those desiring to stay in academic science.

Searching and Applying for International Postdoc Positions

The application process is like the US experience. You can find opportunities by visiting university or industry job listing websites, job boards at conferences, in journals such as Science or Nature, listed in topic-specific journals, or on professional association websites.

When applying for postdoc positions, it is helpful to know someone in the organization since they post more widely than academia and may receive more applications. An “in” will help your application be viewed. It is also helpful to visit the organizations’ websites to review the job descriptions and postings. Most global companies and universities/institutions offer an English version of job listings.

As with US positions, you submit your CV and letter of interest to the institution or as instructed by the posting. If invited to interview, it would typically be conducted through an online format. You likely would not visit the institution or company prior to accepting a position, so determining lab fit without an in-person visit is important. Don’t base your decision on just an interview with the potential PI. [Excellent advice for any postdoc position, international or domestic, regardless of interview medium.] Instead, reach out to people currently and formerly in the lab to hear about their experiences. When talking with others, be cognizant of your work style, and remember that their style may not work well with the PI, but the PI’s style may work for you. Finally, remember that you may be hearing information that should be kept confidential.

Visa Process

The process for obtaining a visa changes often, so be sure to check the latest regulations when the time comes. The US has specific work visa agreements with many countries, which often makes it better for US citizens to apply after you have a job offer. Some countries use a points-based system to grant work visas; having the job offer increases your points and, therefore, eligibility and often expedites the process.

Benefits of an International Postdoc Experience

Being immersed in new cultures and languages were some of the biggest benefits from the international fellowships Dr. Mautz experienced. Similar to a US experience, an international postdoc increases your research network, and the global reach of those connections helps diversify and improve your science. That network continues to spread globally throughout your career as you and your connections move on to new opportunities. Dr. Mautz also found that having international experience on your CV is viewed positively when returning to the US to find a faculty position.

Personally, Dr. Mautz found that his international colleagues had a heightened understanding of work-life balance. He greatly appreciated this perspective and has incorporated it into his own career. He feels having this balance makes you more productive.

Challenges of an International Postdoc Experience

If this sounds enticing so far, you should also consider some of the potential challenges. First, overcoming the mental and emotional hurdles of applying to and ultimately accepting an international postdoc position can be the biggest initial burden. Thoughts of leaving family, friends, home, familiarity/comfort, etc. is overwhelming.  It’s not easy to move to a new place, and it can take a while to make new friends and feel like you are at home. For Dr. Mautz, completing a PhD abroad greatly reduced the initial anxiety and “startup energy” of moving to an unfamiliar place for a postdoc because he was familiar with the emotional and financial tolls. Even so, he shared that his adjustment time was 6-18 months.

It’s important to understand your personal needs, especially related to your support network. How important is being near family to you? How often would you like to travel home, and is that financially viable? Is video conferencing with family enough to meet those needs? Dr. Mautz only traveled home about every 18 months to visit his family.

There are other financial challenges to consider as well. Dr. Mautz found it was not common to receive an allotment for moving costs with an international postdoc offer in academia. That expense, whether shipping abroad, buying new furnishings, or renting a furnished apartment, will be your own expense.

Dr. Mautz strongly encourages US citizens to be aware of tax laws. The US usually requires you to report income on US and state tax filings annually, even when all earnings are from another country. If paying taxes in a foreign country, you won’t typically have to pay US taxes, but you still must file the US income tax return. These laws do change, so it is important to review them often.

Below are a few resources if you would like to explore what international postdoctoral fellowship opportunities are available. Thank you to Dr. Mautz for sharing his experience with us.

Academic Positions Major Postdoc Fellowships

National Postdoctoral Association International Central Hub

Scholarships Lab Postdoctoral Fellowships

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