I am an international postdoc. If you would have asked me mid-PhD if I would be working abroad for my postdoc, I would have instantly responded, ‘No!’ However, life has a funny way of adding unexpected twists and turns. So, here I am, almost through my second year postdocing in Canada!
I have struggled for a balance in tone and information in this blog post for months. I have been concerned about admitting vulnerability, and how that might look for my ability to adapt both academically and personally. I have been a bit afraid to admit that I wasn’t superwoman, and that it is okay to feel overwhelmed some days. After all of this hemming and hawing, I concluded it may be helpful for me to share some of my struggles. Partially for me to own that I am working towards overcoming them AND maybe I’ll make someone feel less alone in their transition to a different town or country.
Moving from the United States to Canada, I was expecting an almost seamless transition between countries. What I expected, and what I experienced were very different. I still experience many moments of culture shock, even though I am in North America. Obviously, the amount of culture shock you will experience will vary widely based upon your background, and by the country where you land. What I want to use this portion of the post is to cover what I didn’t expect.
I am lucky in that Canada is my husband’s native country. He has some ability to navigate, and I can mooch off of his abilities sometimes. Unfortunately, most of the time he doesn’t recognize that I am struggling to figure out something which comes innately to him. I have tried to get better at speaking up; however, it is embarrassing to admit that although you are an adult, you just don’t know how that works in this country. I also have to admit I overwhelmed by ability to deal with change. Across one year I: finishing my PhD, moved internationally, completed an academic job search, then started that new job, and got married. In hindsight, I don’t know why I was in such a rush to get everything done in such a short period of time!
Moving, Visas and Border Patrol:
In my opinion, my move went pretty smoothly. If you had asked me in the middle of the move, I might sung a different tune. I chose to have a very light move between Chicago and Calgary. I packed a small sedan with my two cats, my fiancé, and the items that would fit in my trunk. I also sent non-essential items in a set of boxes via FedEx, hoping they would arrive shortly after I did. At the shipping office, I consulted FexEx Agents and labeled all of the import documents as advised, and paid a huge shipping bill. Fairly confident my stuff was in safe hands, I started my 2-day journey to the Great White North. Traveling with two sedated cats is less than ideal! Other than an hour where I was convinced the cats were about to pee in my backseat, I made it to the border without much incident. I nervously sat in my car at the border, expecting a painful interrogation in my near future. I had a whole binder of documents and evidence to help with the interview. When my name was called, they asked for exactly two of my documents, my offer letter and my passport. Within an hour I was happily on my way to my new apartment. I was vastly over-prepared for my border crossing, but I would do the same if I had to do it again.
I arrived in town on Saturday night, and I had scheduled to start working the following Monday. I didn’t actually get started working until Thursday that week because talking to FedEx became my full time job. On Monday morning, I received notice that all of my boxes had been turned away at the border. Back to an address, where I no longer lived. I began frantically calling FedEx offices, the shipping depot, border control and embassies. After a month of frantic calls and filling out additional paperwork, my boxes eventually arrived. Lesson learned, a small trailer is likely less difficult to navigate than shipping companies.
The international economy affects my pocketbook.
I know it is a bit frivolous, but I really like to shop, like a lot. As a graduate student I filled this need by being a personal shopper to my friends. I now have a few dollars leftover each month, but I find myself struggling to find joy in this pursuit. First, some of the stores which were my go-to locations don’t exist up here. Secondly, and more importantly, with the exchange rate / falling Canadian dollar I am in a constant state of sticker shock. One of the after-effects of being a lifelong student is that I refuse to pay full price (except food). I find it harder to enjoy shopping when I break out in a cold sweat after plunking down $100 for a pair of pants, which I know I could find for $30 in the US. I have gotten many lectures about supply and demand from my husband, but it still hasn’t made this any easier for me.
A less superficial difficulty, is that I am paying back student loans in a different country. First, the exchange rate is currently making this a bit of a nightmare. With the dollars I earn (Canadian), My money gets hit with a 30% decrease in value when trying to pay off my loans in US dollars. There are two main factors which make this difficult. First, in order to maintain an additional discount on my student loan interest rate, the payments must be automatically deducted from a US based bank account. At face value this isn’t a problem, until you get an additional cash penalty doing an international money transfer. The second hurdle, is that with current depreciation of the Canadian dollar, I am having difficulty budgeting for the future. I have a set monthly payment, but my cost can vary dramatically from month to month. I try and over budget, but if the trend continues, I may not be able to afford having my paycheck be in Canadian dollars.
Daily Life: Things are just different.
Different does not mean bad, different just means different. Even though I moved to a country on the same continent, I still find myself pausing after some social interactions to mull over how something had just gone completely sideways from what I expected. I spent my entire life within the Midwest, which led me to expect some social interaction when completing everyday errands. While buying a bottle of wine or a coffee, I am used to some mindless chit-chat with the employee behind the counter. This doesn’t seem to happen in Calgary, people think I am weird when I start talking about the weather at the grocery store. Mind you, there is a strong likelihood I am just plain weird! However, not belonging or understanding local customs can definitely make you feel like an outsider. I can only imagine this is amplified when they culture is significantly different than your own.
I have also experienced general social culture shock. Many people in Alberta have families early, I am in my mid 30’s, just got married, and have no children. This is completely within the norm in academia, but outside of the social norm where I am living. This has led to some awkward situations trying to find a social life (which honestly I still am struggling with). I have found there are either couples my age with young children, or younger adults with no kids. In both of these situations I feel out of place, like I am in a very different stage of my life. I have tried to make a push to be more involved within the university, but again with limited success. The best way I can put it is people are either looking for a bar date, or a play date. I am somewhere in-between…
Hiraeth: a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was
One of the biggest problems for me adjusting to a new country was my inability to recreate my old routine. For me this came down to the city infrastructure. It is very important to my sanity that I live in a walk-able city. Calgary just isn’t one of those places. My daily routine in Chicago included riding transit to work and home, walking to the Pilates studio to work out and then maybe hitting the local grocery store on my way back to pick up dinner supplies. This life just isn’t possible in Calgary due to the weather, city structure and transit systems. Quite honestly, I am still challenged with making the city work for me. What I have found helpful is focusing on the few places I have found which I love, like a local coffee shop, a cheese shop, etc. I still feel like bits of what I need in my life are missing, but I keep trying to find something similar to fill the hole.
Finally, being homesick is real. If you have never lived outside of your comfort zone, this may be a big shock to your system. I had never lived outside of the Midwest. Although I have traveled extensively within the USA, I had never spent significant amounts of time outside of the country. For some people, this will be a non-issue, but if you have a difficult time dealing with change it is a good idea to get a social support net in place as soon as possible. Some labs are extremely social, while others barely speak to each other outside of work. Make sure you know what kind of environment you are entering and how that may affect your mental health. Try and schedule Skype dates, or take up letter writing to keep in contact with old friends. I have even played cards against humanity over Skype with friends of mine from high school. This may also be the perfect opportunity to adopt a furry friend into your life.
Another sad fact is that you will miss things from your old life. I have yet to meet one of my dearest friend’s daughter, and it breaks my heart every time I see pictures of her on Facebook. Also, I have missed Christmas with my parents across the past two years, as it’s not feasible to fly multiple times during the holiday season. However, I do make it a priority to go home every year for Thanksgiving, where we celebrate both holidays together. Also, by not flying at Christmas, when flights are very expensive, we have the money to try and visit another time during the year.
Some Final Thoughts…
I am not saying that my experience has been the typical experience for someone moving to an international postdoc, or even within the norm. These are just some things I have struggled enough with that I wasn’t prepared to encounter with my move. All of this aside, I do think the move was a good choice, and has certainly made me a more worldly person. I am also significantly more empathetic to immigrants who have traveled a more difficult road than myself. I hope if you are considering an international academic position, or a big move, this has helped in some way. Also feel free to ask questions in the comments section, I’ll do my best to answer.
P.S. Midwesterners, please send proper sweet corn.
This is the third posting in a series about being an international postdoc.
- If you are looking for questions to ask in your interviews, you can find them in my first article “International PostDoc: What to Ask the Institution/PI”.
- If you are looking for questions to ask yourself before starting an international postdoc, you can find them in my second article “International PostDoc: What to Ask Yourself”.