Joining an international lab: Unique considerations and tips to adjust

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Aliyah Weinstein

Early career researchers often move between labs every few years, between undergrad and graduate training, a postdoctoral position or two, and that coveted first faculty or industry job. Any time you start in a new lab, there are several considerations to keep in mind that will ease the transition for both you and your new colleagues. When the lab you’re joining is not in your home country, there are even more factors to take into account. Whether due to cultural, language, or administrative differences, joining a lab in another country poses unique challenges. As a recent transplant from Pittsburgh to Paris for a six-month internship during my immunology PhD studies, here are five things I learned during my first week in my new lab that helped me adjust.

1. Address the language barrier

Though it’s often said that the language of science is English, that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to day-to-day work in an international lab. Even if lab members know English, don’t be surprised if they prefer to speak in their native language. Your transition will be easier if you find out in advance what language your lab typically communicates in, and try to use that language to the best of your abilities. Even if you aren’t perfect, the effort will be appreciated!

2. Figure out your working hours

Both expectations and laws surrounding working hours differ from country to country. In my new lab, for example, members need special permission from the administration to work past 7 p.m. Finding out when you are expected to arrive in the morning and how late you are allowed to work will help you quickly develop a consistent schedule that fits in with your new lab. It will also ensure that you’re accessible when an opportunity arises to learn a new technique, or when your PI drops by to touch base.

3. Understand the lab structure

As with any lab, there will be meetings, seminars, or journal clubs that you will likely be expected to attend. Because universities in various countries organize their departments and labs differently, the number of meetings and their frequencies and structures may differ from what you’re used to. Spend time your first week finding out the schedules of these meetings and getting yourself on the lists to present, if necessary.

4. Check in with administration

Make sure your paperwork is in order, both at the university level and, if applicable, with the government of the country you’ve moved to—especially in countries where the two might be linked. Set up your institutional email account. Find out if you need an ID badge to access the building. Set up training for any equipment you’ll need to use. The more administrative hurdles you clear early on, the simpler life will be once you start doing benchwork.

5. Make friends!

Whether you’ve relocated with family or alone, try to make friends with your new labmates! They can help you navigate the lab, since they have experience working with the same personalities and within the same structure you now need to learn. They can also give you tips on navigating your new city, with recommendations of places to see. And if the language is an issue, you might just find a willing partner to practice with.

These tips will help you make the most of your fresh start and enable an easy transition into your new lab. Most of all, though, enjoy the excitement of working in a new country, and make the most of the experience—there’s a lot to appreciate in addition to science!


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Aliyah W.

Aliyah is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies cancer immunology. She is also an advocate for science communication. You can find her on Twitter @desabsurdites and on her blog at http://isntthatgrad.wordpress.com/.

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