Friday, October 16, 2009

I'd like to thank the International Academy

I'm coming up to the second anniversary of my return to academia, and I'm still loving it. I like to say that I learned a lot from my time in industry, the most important lesson being that industry doesn't suit me - I'm an academic at heart, and I love being around and getting to write about some incredibly exciting science* (without having to actually do any of it myself).

One of my favourite things about academia is its international nature. I've been lucky enough to be part of three very multinational labs, and have shared bench and office space with people from all over the world.

Anonymous Cath has visited worked with people from 13% of the countries in the world!

(This map represents the nationalities of my immediate current and former academic colleagues only - adding in friends from other labs and departments would fill in most of the rest of Europe).

This work environment has benefited me personally - I've tried food and drinks I never would have come across without an introduction from my colleagues, I've learned (and forgotten) snippets of lots of different languages, I've discussed Iranian and Russian and Israeli and Indian politics with natives of those countries, I've heard some hilarious Greek jokes and Russian toasts, and the world cup and other international sporting events are always a hoot. Mr E Man and his friends appreciate it, too - they've all known each other since high school**, and love hanging out with my more diverse set of friends from time to time.

I believe that the multinational approach to research has also benefited my supervisors, if their publication records are any guide. Their international trainees have done and are still doing some truly world-class research, and every department I've worked in has had a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. I'm not usually one to blow my own trumpet so overtly, but my former PI asked me to check the reference she wrote as part of my Permanent Residence application, and she specifically stated that after hiring me, she was pro-actively trying to recruit other British postdocs - and she has in fact hired two more since then.

So it bugs me when I read blog posts like the recent email conversation between DrugMonkey and PhysioProf that imply it's only worth hiring US postdocs. Although this isn't the first time I've heard this kind of thing from PhysioProf, it's a little unfair to single him out when this attitude is so wide-spread, both in the blogosphere and (from my own experiences, and inferring from the statement in that post that "In my field, newly-minted PhDs from US universities have their pick of good post-docs") in real life, too.

Yes, US science is fantastic, widely regarded as the best in the world. Yes, that's why so many foreign researchers seek to undertake part or all of their training there. Yes, that's (probably) why so few US trainees spend time in foreign labs. (And yes, the scientific blogosphere is overwhelmingly American - both its authorship and its readership - and yes, it's completely natural for that (dare I say) bias to spill over into its content and discussions).

But you know what? The rest of the world is also doing some fantastic science. I know that it's possible to cherry-pick statistics, but the fact that the UK has the best ratio of citations to public spending is no small matter. And it's just my own national bias in reading material bringing that particular example to the forefront of my mind at this time - great science (and great scientific training) is being done all over the world.

Sure, it's easier to judge the calibre of a serious applicant*** to your lab when you already know the reputation of their institute and (probably, for post-doc applicants) their supervisor. But is it really so difficult to determine the quality of a foreign institution? A ten-second Google search just now brought up the Google College Rankings site - "an independent project to rank colleges and universities worldwide" - among many other similar sites. Or ask one of your colleagues who comes from that country. And shouldn't an applicant's publication record speak for itself? A phone interview would also be revealing, surely.

The comment thread on the DrugMonkey Blog post I linked to has started to address this issue. Obviously not every PI will seek to exclude foreign trainees, and some may even prefer them. But I feel that PIs who don't consider non-US applicants are missing out.

I know their other trainees are.


*My boss's paper was the cover story and image in last week's Nature - how cool is that??!!

**If you're lucky enough to be born and/or raised here, there's really no reason to ever leave.

***I say serious applicant because I'm aware of the phenomenon of generic spammy emails sent to every PI possible. I mean, I get them myself, and I'm nowhere near being a PI.


  1. very well said. I often get quite frustrated withe US-centric bias of the blogosphere. Perhaps thats why I am not participating as much? I mean I was shocked when I realized that sexual orientation is not considered a hate crime in the states or that you can still be fired for you orientation there? How can that be true!!!

  2. I've seen most of these 'only hire American postdoc' arguments before and they make less and less sense each time. It is the broad generalization that a huge number of postdocs come from institutions of dubious quality. Bah! It propagates the culture of the 'old boys network' - only accepting things from within your (narrow) frame of reference. Like taking a couple of minutes to check out foreign institutions takes that long.

    Next you'll be telling me that all bloggers are American...

  3. Oh no Propter Doc. Some are Canadian. That's the real reason Cath got her pseudo-American citizenship, so she'd be allowed to continue to blog.

  4. ScientistMother, first of all, are you kidding me?! It's legal to fire someone for being homosexual??!! I'm going to have to look into that - not that I don't trust you, but I'm having a hard time believing that such an antiquated law would still be on the books.

    Yes, there is that US-centric bias in the blogosphere. Like I said, natural and to be expected when the majority of the bloggers and their readers are from the US, and a lot of those conversations have been very interesting and useful to me. It's the complete lack of awareness of the non-US readership that some bloggers display that annoys me though. e.g. "Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers!" (emphasis mine) posts in November, when most other countries don't celebrate that holiday (Canada does, but it's in October). Or the assumption that advice on North American-style thesis defenses applies universally. That kind of thing.

    Do you remember a while back there was a clip of some new sit-com (with the guy who was the oldest brother in Malcolm in the Middle) that they kept playing to promote the show? The clip that featured some joke about "do you have any idea how hard it is to grow up in Canada, with America right there?" Did the TV execs who kept playing that ad realise that their feed gets broadcast in Canada, too? I mean, once was kinda funny, but to hear it again and again and again got really grating.

    Propter, not all of them. Some of them are foreign-born scientists who just work in the US ;)

    Yeah, the arguments don't make much sense to me either. Using "non-US" as a short-cut for "under-qualified" would not be tolerated if any other kind of distinction was being made.

    Bob, yep, my blogging visa was running out. This same reason is why you married an American, right?

  5. As an astronomer, I feel even more out of the loop. Most bloggers are American and in biology related fields. Half the time I don't get the American references, and the other half I don't understand the biology ones! LOL

  6. Yeah, it's weird how that biology bias happened! Luckily for you, I rarely blog about biology any more ;)

  7. Apparently in the US you can fire someone for their orientation. I found that out when I was watching Barack Obama's Human Rights Dinner speech. He is asking to pass allow making it illegal to do so. Homesexuality is only now becoming protected under hate crime legislation thanks to Matthew Shepherds parents. After fighting for 11 years.

  8. I think ScientistMother must be referring to Dont Ask Dont Tell, which is a US military policy, but outside of military research institutions, I have never heard of it enforced in academia or industry

  9. WOW. I haven't seen Obama's speech yet - a few bloggers had linked to the video, but I am ridiculously far behind on my blog reading. I had heard of Matthew Shephard though - good on his parents for fighting for so long.

  10. I just roll my eyes each time I read that kind of nonsense. It is called "chauvinism", albeit camouflaged under the pretense of scientific rigour.
    In physics, this is simply a moot point, as the vast majority of applicants for postdoctoral positions in the US or Canada are from outside this continent. This is also reflected in faculty hirings. My estimate is that approximately 30% of all faculty positions in physics go to scientists who were not trained in America at the doctoral level.

  11. Dave - From Obama's speech at the dinner (posted at Isis's place) he specifically mentioned changing the military from don't ask don't tell policy. In another part of the speech, when he spoke about congress finally passing an inclusive hate crime bill he said that he has asked congress to bring forward an inclusive anti-discrimination bill. He specifically said that you should not be fired at work because of the person you love at home. I interpret that as meaning that currently it is not illegal to fire someone for being gay.

  12. Sorry, Dave, our comments crossed. I tend to agree with ScientistMother's interpretation of Obama's words in her latest comment, although (like I said) I haven't seen the video of the speech yet. I hope he repeals DADT too.

    Massimo, yup, and it's usually poorly camouflaged too.

    I'm glad that this isn't a problem in every discipline. I wonder if the greater proportion of foreign-trained physics PIs helps to explain the shortage of physics bloggers, to come back to Alyssa's point?

  13. I'm pretty sure ScientistMother is correct. I think that in some municipalities, there are actually laws explicitly stating that you can discriminate based on sexual orientation. Shameful.

    It's good to see posts like this sometimes. I'm sure I'm super Ameri-centric on my blog even though I know I have many readers who are not American. It's good to have a reality check.

    I'm a tad worried about how being foreign will affect EGM's postdoc opportunities. His PhD is coming from a US university, of course, but he won't have a visa. I know universities will sponsor visas for postdocs... but I wonder if he will make a less attractive "trailing partner" (it looks like I'll find a job first) given that detail. My point is, I guess the legal stuff could make an employer wary of hiring a non-citizen/permanent resident. I don't think that was what you were getting at though.

    I too get tired of the bio-sci focus on blogs. I tend to skip the posts that are about bioscience itself, as well as the ones that are all about NIH. I tried to get into it at first, since I figured anything about careerism could be worthwhile, but now I just find those posts tedious. Your posts are never tedious, Cath. :)

  14. Funny! My brother was just commenting the other day that his American Engineering Journal was full of work by non Americans. He also said that the last big conference he went to in Singapore only had 3 US papers and they were all military based. Not a good look for the future there he thought.

    viv in nz

  15. As a non-American who ventured over to the US for a postdoc, I can understand both the pros and cons for hiring a foreign national.

    I came from an outstanding overseas school and already had several good publications and links with US researchers so I guess you could say I was a known quantity for my postdoc mentors. Several of my postdoc peers who had also been trained overseas were, for the most part, also highly skilled and also all came with publications and US links. But I also worked with some other foreign nationals who, despite holding a PhD from Obscure Foreign University, would struggle to attain an undergraduate degree in most countries.

    There are two major downsides to hiring a foreign postdoc though:

    1. Paperwork/time: it takes quite a while to get the J-1 or H-1B paperwork pushed through and if you need someone to start asap then a foreign postdoc isn't going to even be an option for you.

    2. Funding: foreign nationals who aren't permanent residents of the US aren't eligible to apply for a lot of postdoctoral fellowships (including the NIH and several other large funding agencies) and cannot be employed under federally-funded institutional training grants.

    Even as a faculty member, there are hurdles and dead-ends for us foreigners ... I've just hit another one and plan to post a rant on this within the next day or so.

  16. EGF, thank you for being the first American commenter! And I'm very glad you're not bored here ;)

    I hope EGM's foreign status doesn't count against him. I don't know the US system, but here in Canada it seems that every University, research institute, and decent-sized company has an HR department that is used to dealing with immigration and visas and all that. The admin manager in my department churns out one or two almost every month, I swear she could do it in her sleep!

    The NIH bias in the blogosphere has been useful to me - we only put in maybe one NIH application every year or two, tops, but all that bloggy advice has been very helpful (and we have a 100% record since I joined the department - 1 for 1, heh!). And there is some NSF stuff about too. I've actually been thinking about trying to put together some kind of website / wiki / whatever that focuses on Canadian grant applications, since it's really hard to find anything useful in the blogosphere. I'd need to talk to my boss though - he might not be happy with me offering advice to the competition!

    Viv, I have to confess that I don't know anything at all about engineering research and where it's traditionally and currently happening! Did he say where most of the work is being done?

    PiT, I've been lucky enough to never work with someone who I thought didn't belong in a research career. There have been a few people I didn't get along with personally and didn't like working with (one per job, actually - there's always someone!), but they were all perfectly competent, at a minimum. It must really suck to have to share space and resources with someone who doesn't really deserve to be there...

    Links with US researchers sound like a smart thing for a foreign trainee to forge! As people pointed out on the DrugMonkey blog though, not every PI can afford to send their trainees to the big US meetings (I got to go to one during my PhD, it was the best meeting I've ever been to. It wasn't the field I wanted to move into by the time I was looking for postdoc positions, though, so not exactly useful from a career perspective. Also, I ended up specifically looking for a job in Vancouver, so US contacts wouldn't have been too useful!)

    As I replied to EGF, the visa stuff doesn't really impact (Canadian) PIs - the work is all done by the trainee and the HR deparments, with the PI maybe providing a letter of reference at the most. Obviously I don't know if this is true in the States though.

    Your second point about funding is the first good argument against hiring foreign trainees that I've heard so far! Especially for early career PIs. It's a problem here, too; many of the postdoctoral fellowships are open to all comers, but foreign grad students have a very narrow pool of funding to fight over, and most end up being paid directly by the PI's core support, at least for the first couple of years. Mind you, in our lab it's currently the Canadian postdocs who my boss is supporting directly - the foreigners are all covered!

    The really top notch trainees, though, often bring funding from their home country with them.

  17. I just re-read what I wrote, and realised that the penultimate paragraph sounded like it was saying that your first point wasn't a good one. Sorry - that's not what I meant, my bad. I just don't see it as a major deterrent in Canada, but don't know the situation elsewhere.

  18. It's ok - I understood what you meant. Most of the paperwork for US visas is done by the trainee, HR and the school's international office and for trainees on the "exchange" J-1 visa, it's relatively simple but for the "working" H-1B, the letters, notices, etc can be a nightmare for everyone involved and it's expensive. The H-1B also takes several months (my first one took 5 months) so if you're looking to hire the trainee now, you have to shell out an extra ~$1000 to expedite the paperwork.

    As a grad student, I won two travel awards that helped fund my trip to the US to spend a semester in Prof Big Wig's lab (I traveled via South America and hiked for a couple of months ... it was "on the way"). My advisor had no money and didn't contribute anything apart from asking Prof Big Wig if I could work in his lab for a while.

    Now that I'm a PI myself, I'm struggling to figure out how I'm going to staff my lab without a grad program and without major funding. My postdoc is frantically collecting preliminary data so that she can apply for postdoc fellowships early next year ... luckily she's American so she is eligible for almost all of them ... except the ones in which my residency status makes her ineligible. Grrrr.

  19. I wonder if the greater proportion of foreign-trained physics PIs helps to explain the shortage of physics bloggers, to come back to Alyssa's point?
    Ah, you seem to be implying that the blogosphere is full of US biology post-docs complaining about how hard it is to be a post-doc in the US.

    (you're right about marrying an American wife though. But I tell her it's just because of her birds)

  20. Ah, you seem to be implying that the blogosphere is full of US biology post-docs complaining about how hard it is to be a post-doc in the US.


    I'm really the first American commenter on this post? yikes! Maybe you should make another map with your regular commenters' countries. :)

  21. PiT, jolly good!

    Is the expense of those visas borne by the applicant, or the institute? I paid for almost all of my own immigration and visa costs (a good few thousand dollars, in all), with the exception of one work permit renewal, which my old company paid for - but that was only a couple of hundred bucks.

    I wish you and your postdoc luck with the data and the funding. This aint an easy business, regardless of where you're from.

    Bob: saves on cat food costs, right?!

    That blog category certainly is a popular one! Mind you, if I'd started my blog while still a grad student or postdoc, I'd have been moaning sometimes too.

    EGF: just for you, see my new post!

  22. Thanks to my accent, people frequently assume that I am a "foreign national." I have found myself pointing out that I have US citizenship while talking to potential employers for that reason, which seems to open up a lot of possibilities. It is sad that a piece of paper can change so much.

  23. I actually have a "status in Canada" section on my CV - it's so obvious from my education that I wasn't born here, and my postdoc supervisor advised me to include "permanent residence application in progress" on my CV when I applied for my industry job back in 2005. For non-postdoc positions, the employer has to get an official labour market opinion done in order to hire a foreigner over a Canadian resident/citizen. But this doesn't apply to students and postdocs.

  24. As a postdoc, I paid for everything but as a faculty member, my institution paid for both my current work permit and the permanent residency application (which is in progress).

  25. Looked to me like mostly Asians and Germans with a smattering of others. Mind you, as an artist, what would I know :)

    viv in nz

  26. PiT, just another reminder of the lowly status of trainees, eh?!

    Viv, makes sense, that's where all the good cars are made too ;)


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