International research: The secret for travel and career growth in grad school

In the short term, overseas research experience allows scientists to expand their network, acquire new experimental techniques, and become acquainted with a variety cultures. Long term, it enables one to collaborate with international colleagues, apply for international grants, and equips one with skills to interact with individuals from different backgrounds. In many countries, overseas research experience is viewed very favorably and can even be a deal-breaker if found lacking in job applications. 

I have traveled quite a bit for research. I did my undergraduate research in Singapore before heading to the US (Los Angeles) for my PhD. During my PhD, I have undergone summer internships in Germany (Bayreuth), Japan (Tokyo), and Australia (Sydney). During these experiences abroad, I have observed many differences that one should definitely consider before deciding to travel for research. 

These differences include often overlooked areas such as lab organization, experiment planning, lab management, and lifestyles. I have provided some pieces of advice below based on differences I have experienced. I hope these considerations help you ask yourself important questions and allow you to make informed decisions when considering opportunities abroad. 

Work Culture

Lab Organization: From my personal experience, I find that lab organization in America and Australia tended to be more horizontal (this often depends on the size of the lab as well). This means that you can expect to face less hierarchy when interacting with senior lab members or the professor. During my stay in Australia, the professor personally taught me the electrophysiological recording technique. On the other hand, in Japan, the lab structure tended to be more vertical. For instance, I reported to a postdoc daily and throughout my 2-month stay in Japan, I only saw the professor once. If you need a strong recommendation letter at the end of your research, make sure you understand the lab organization and develop plans to engage your professor or mentor.

Working Hours: During your overseas research stint, you might want to take some time off for some travelling. That is why it is important for you to understand the working hours and culture. Generally, the labs in Australia and Germany were more flexible as I could take time off to travel to other neighboring states or countries. When I visited Germany, I realized that I came during the summer holidays season where it is common for researchers to take holidays for up to a month! While a relaxed working culture allows you to enjoy the non-academic aspect of your overseas journey, it could also affect whether you can achieve your research objectives. I would strongly advise you to plan your internship period well to avoid any disappointment, academically or personally.

Lab Management

Planning Your Experiment: When I came to Australia, I was struck by the need to plan experiments way in advance. As a PhD student in US, I could order most reagents and have them delivered overnight. However, in Australia, even common stocks could take a few days. Some rarer materials could even take up to a few weeks or months. This is because Australia does not have lab production facilities and it is geographically far away from major lab suppliers based in the US and Europe. If you know that your experiments require reagents that are uncommon, make sure you let your supervisor know so that you can avoid waiting in frustration.

Waste Management: As a lab officer in my US lab, I thought that the regulations were unnecessarily burdensome. I was proven wrong when I visited Japan. Not only does the country have a strong waste sorting culture, their labs have it too. I had to separate up to 10 different types of waste in different labeled bags and bins. If I did it incorrectly, the lab would also be penalized. The Japan experience was definitely an eye-opener! In Australia, it is also a crime to dispose biological fluids down the sink even after they are sterilized so as to protect the waters in Sydney. If you plan to take up a research project overseas, pay special attention to the legal regulations and safety trainings. You do not want to implicate your supervisor or disrupt your internship by breaking any rules.  

Lifestyles 

I recommend that your first overseas research stint to last between 2-4 months since there might be a potential incompatibility in lifestyles. Incompatibilities can be in seemingly simple areas like food options, a language barrier, and even what to do on weekends. These can all add up and easily sour a longer trip. In Singapore and the US (Los Angeles), I was spoiled by the convenience of 24-hour shops and a buzzing city life on weekends. Through my travels I was reminded that this is not the case everywhere. Take Bayreuth Germany for instance. I remember very clearly when I first arrived in Bayreuth, it was a Saturday, and my host told me I only had 30 minutes to visit the shops before they all closed for the weekends. In Australia, shops close early too -- at around 6pm, except for Thursday where it is ‘late-night’ shopping until 8pm. Even if you prefer to stay at home and chill, take note that many videos on YouTube or other sites might have country restrictions that prevent you from streaming. Thus it is therefore very important to do your homework beforehand.

Although I am someone who dislikes relocating and having to go through all the VISA and housing applications, I have never regretted my decisions to participate in overseas research internships. They have truly expanded my network and given me a taste of alternative working cultures and lifestyles. I hope that you find this article helpful when you plan for your overseas research journey!


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Andy Tay

Andy Tay

Andy Tay is a graduate student in the University of California, Los Angeles and an instructor in the National University of Singapore. His research focuses on magnetic neural stimulation and magnetotactic bacteria. He enjoys science communication and using the gym in his free time.

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