Moving Abroad for Science: US to Europe Edition

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine wrote about pursuing a PhD in Europe, and tried to highlight the ways it is different than the U.S. PhD.

But there’s more to being abroad than simply the difference in acquiring a PhD.  While I can only speak of my experience as a postdoc moving to Germany, there are a few bits of advice I can impart to others considering the big move.

  1. Find someone to rely on back home. There are all sorts of problems you won’t expect and you’d need to be in the States to deal with, but you won’t be. So you’ll need someone there who can handle things for you. Sometimes it’s small things (mailing address for your US bank account), sometimes more substantial things, but either way, having someone to take care of these needs is SUPER important. In my case, it’s my mother (side note, she’s also my editor… and a number of my blog posts are a collaborative enterprise). She has a power of attorney over my affairs, so when my credit card needs verification, and the company refuses to allow me to call from any number besides a U.S. number, my mother can step in and handle it. It solves all sorts of problems, and I’ll be honest, I would be screwed without her help (not just editing help, although that’s pretty awesome as well). So find someone who can handle such things and then tell them all the time how awesome they are for helping. [Editor’s note: A power of attorney is a very powerful document, so be very cautious in selecting the person to whom you grant power to manage your financial matters.  And a specific power of attorney, limited in scope, is a better choice than a general power of attorney.  Make certain it has an expiration date – better to go through the hassle of reissuing one and sending the new one out than to have an open-ended document.  Just ask legions of U.S. Navy sailors who have come home to find all their belongings disposed of by “friends.”]
  2. Figure out how to move money. I won’t recommend specific ways to move money internationally and deal with currency exchange (although I have strong opinions and if you want to know them, email me), but regardless how you do it, you’re going to need to figure out how to do it. There are still some bills I need to pay in the U.S., that I can’t pay from my European account, and vice versa. This was startling for me at first, because I hadn’t considered it (what do you mean I can’t set up auto payments from my European account?), and seemed difficult to figure out. But I have great friends who have already solved this problem, and reached out to help, and while I won’t endorse services here, if you find yourself in the same situation, feel free to reach out.
  3. Set up temporary housing for your arrival. Every time I’ve moved in the U.S., I usually have had an apartment sorted before I arrive in my new location. I know the routine:  you find a place online, contact the owner/management company, pay the deposit, move in. This is not how it worked in Germany (and when I explained this simple system to Germans, they were blown away). In Germany, when you rent an apartment, it is viewed as an intimate relationship between you and the building owner. You have to see the apartment (sometimes a few times), you have to provide evidence that you have money/a paycheck, you have to talk about each others’ families and goals and dreams, and after they have done that with you and a few other perspective tenants, you all gather for a ceremony where the owner gives out a rose to the person they choose… just kidding about that last part. But the other bullets are all true. Culturally, this is SO different from the U.S. (where the relationship is: “Here is my money, I’d like to move in now”).  I was fortunate and had a place to stay for 2 months, but you should plan (including budgeting) to have a temporary place set up while you sort out your semi-permanent home.
  4. Culture shock is a real thing. I have traveled all over the world (see blog here), and I’ve even lived abroad a few times. But boy, almost none of that prepared me for the culture shock of being in Germany. And Germany isn’t even the most extremely different place I could have moved! There are all sorts of quirks ( ingredients that aren’t available, always paying cash for everything, the entire economy and all grocery stores being closed on Sundays), but the biggest thing is that tasks that were easy at home are more difficult abroad. An excellent case study is the experience of buying a lightbulb. If a light goes out at home in the U.S., I’ll casually stroll down to any number of stores where I know I can purchase a replacement. In Germany, none of those stores exist. And lightbulbs aren’t sold where I thought they should be. And I don’t know how to ask for help at the stores where they might be sold (I don’t speak German). So an easy, mundane task is now a HERCULEAN issue that takes energy and perhaps half a day to solve. And once I succeed, I need to go home, curl up in a ball and sleep from exerting so much effort. Things definitely get easier, but expect there to be a transition period.
  5. ADVENTURE! There are many difficulties of moving abroad, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it can be as well. I get to travel to cool places around Europe for the weekend. A Friday night in Paris has become the norm. I jaunt up to Berlin for an afternoon. The Alps are a short train ride away. And mundane things are sometimes more difficult, but they are also sometimes more spectacular. I will be walking home from work, or grocery shopping, or going out to eat, and it’ll all of a sudden hit me: I live here. My every day is an adventure, because I choose to go on this adventure. I often think of Bilbo Baggins (“I’m going on an adventure!”) and embrace the struggles because they are only small speed bumps on the massive highway of fun I’m having.

Again, this is just my experience and I tried to make it general. Also, I moved for my postdoc, and as mentioned before, the PhD is VERY different in Europe.

But I’d be happy to hear other experiences! Comment away!

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3 comments on “Moving Abroad for Science: US to Europe Edition

  1. Emily Scott says:

    Now I’m curious – where are light bulbs sold in Germany?

    • cej9f says:

      Well it’s complicated. They don’t sell them at grocery stores, and there is no Walmart. There aren’t many “everything you need here” stores like Right Aid, or CVS. I eventually found what’s called a Baumarkt (a Home Depot like store), and they sell them. Toom is a Germany wide Baumarkt company, and there is one a long tram ride and a 15 minute walk from my flat. So I bought a few and now just live in fear that I’ll run out and have to go through the whole thing again.

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