ABG tower, this is PhD, taxi clearance and take-off instructions, over!

Bérénice Kimpe
Jul 20, 2017 · 6 min read

Many more information and advice for PhD career development on www.abg.asso.fr

You’re a doctoral candidate and you’re thinking about going abroad? Roger that. But have you anticipated the different steps of your mobility? No? Then here are some practical advices to guide you like air traffic control with airplanes.

1. Flight preparation

In this phase, pilot and co-pilot are going through the check-list before take-off. They calculate how much fuel they need for the flight, check that flight instruments and mechanics are in order, ask for the weather report to know the flight conditions… They make sure that the flight plan has been transmitted to the air traffic control.

As the pilot of your mobility project, it’s up to you to prepare your flight plan and your check-list before departure:

§ How is this mobility project part of your career plan?

Some employers, whether academic or industrial, expect candidates to have an international experience (for example Bayer, ONERA). For some others, such experience is not mandatory and in this case, you must be able to explain why this choice of going abroad was coherent with your career plan. Keep in mind that this international step must help you get your next job: developing a skill or mastering a technique mandatory for this job, high-level publications, first collaboration with industry to facilitate the transition to this sector.

§ What are your motivations? What do you expect from this experience?

Motivations are all the internal and external elements that help you to act and to keep going in the long haul, especially when your battery is low — and a stay abroad is not as easy as it may seem! Identify them and know what helps you to move forward when you’re lacking motivation: do you need new challenging objectives? Discussions with peers, friends, family members…?

Don’t forget this question: what do you want to experiment? It will have an impact on the preparation of your project. Do you have only professional expectations (for example joining an excellent laboratory, working with a famous scientist…) or do you have also more personal expectations, like discovering a new culture? In this case, try to get as much contact with natives as possible instead of remaining only with foreigners like you!

§ What are your constraints? What can be your mobility barriers?

Beyond administrative stuff (for example getting a work permit), think about your personal constraints, especially when you have a partner, with or without children. Going to the other side of the world and leaving your partner and children behind is certainly not the best idea ever! If your partner is not going to follow you, it may be a good idea to select a country for which a round-trip can be easily organized.

On the contrary, if you go abroad with your partner, both of you should make compromises: which ones? Don’t forget that more and more employers are offering dual career services, like L’Oréal and the University of Nuremberg).

Can the barriers you identified for your mobility be counterbalanced? Take this example: you’re not speaking the language of your target country. Most of the time, you can use English at the start. Then learn the language on the spot, because many employers are offering language courses for their foreign employees.

2. Taxi and take-off

Once cleared for taxi, the airplane will be pushed back and taxi until it reaches the runway. That’s when flight attendants present the safety procedure. Then, the plane is picking up speed, reaching its rotation speed and finally taking off.

For your mobility project, your taxi will be the implementation of all the necessary steps for a smooth departure: writing postdoctoral fellowships applications (for example Marie-Sklodowska-Curie-Actions , FNS for Switzerland, DAAD for Germany , JPSP for Japan …), preparing your applications and taking into account professional and cultural differences (a German CV is nothing like a French one), searching for a flat or a colocation (more usual abroad than in France), searching for information and targeting potential employers based on your professional desires, knowing the immigration rules in the target country…

Your rotation will be your recruitment and hop, you take off for a new and great adventure, on human and professional level (at least, if you made real choices and not choices by default).

3. Cruise: sunshine and turbulences

Once the climbing phase over, the plane has reached its cruise altitude. Over the clouds, you have a clear and sunny weather. Except when the weather radar warns pilot and co-pilot for weather degradations and for worse flight conditions: turbulences, air holes…

A stay abroad is not always comfortable, depending on its duration and how close you are from the host country culture. Once you’re out of the clouds (meaning being successful with the administrative procedures!), you see the sun: you’re enthusiastic about your new social and professional environment. Everything is different, so everything is better!

But this period won’t last forever. The more you’re integrated in the new culture, the more aware you will be of the situation complexity. Some behaviours you found funny at the beginning are starting to get on your nerves (for example when something is said and the real meaning is different from what you thought), your original habits are not positively perceived here (for example when you spontaneously add a topic during a meeting in Germany, whereas the agenda has been sent at least one week before)… You don’t understand the others and the others don’t understand you. Moreover, you’re feeling homesick. Welcome in the culture shock! Keep positive, it will pass at some point: ask people who went mobile, they will confirm!

4. Descent and initial approach

This phase is the one when the plane is progressively descending by getting closer to the destination point. Pilot and co-pilot ask flight attendants to prepare the cabin for landing, check the weather conditions at the airport, get in touch with air traffic control to know the approach guidelines, review the check-list for landing…

The descent is your return mobility. Like the plane, you need to prepare this phase because it can be difficult.

For a smooth landing, here are some practical advices:

  • If you have to pass examinations, don’t forget to write down all the main dates: the one for pre-registration, the deadline for sending your application (and think ahead what you need to provide), the one for the examination and the interviews…
  • You stayed abroad for a long time. Your former professional environment forgot you, except if you have maintained the contact with your former colleagues or the HR department. How? By sending them information on your latest project, visiting them during your holidays, developing a collaboration with your former laboratory… Stay visible so that people may think of you when they have a vacancy.
  • Explore the job market and be informed on the recruitment trends: who is recruiting? Which skills? Which profiles? You can then improve the preparation of your applications.

5. Final approach and landing

The air traffic control keeps guiding pilot and co-pilot to help them align the plane with the runway. In the last part of the descent, the plane is nose-up until touchdown, more or less smoothly. They just have to slow down and then taxi until their parking stand, where passengers will disembark and luggages will be unloaded.

The return in your own country can be as hard as the touchdown of a plane, depending on the duration of your stay and your adaptability level to the host country culture. You’re going to live again what you lived when you arrived in the host country: that’s what we call the reverse culture shock. You will feel like a foreigner in your own country, in your own family. Keep calm, you will pass through it!

To avoid a crash, the plane is slightly nose-up before landing. The same goes for you: don’t focus only on your return and think ahead what your next professional step will be. By keeping your nose up, you can put into perspective more easily what you have experimented during this international adventure. It will be easier for you to talk about it in front of a recruiter.

This article is the fourth of the series “Summer holidays”. To read the three first articles:

- Did you know that a splash can be useful for your personal development?

- Networking, the holiday version

- Dear passengers, please give us five minutes of your attention. We are going to show you the career safety procedures.

Career advice for PhDs

Association Bernard Gregory is a French association working to inform and accompany PhD students and PhDs towards employment.

Bérénice Kimpe

Written by

Career advice for PhDs

Association Bernard Gregory is a French association working to inform and accompany PhD students and PhDs towards employment.

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