Moving for Science: the Coming to America Edition

In our ongoing “When I Grow Up” series, my close friend and great scientist Dr. Simon Uribe-Convers writes about the experience of coming to the United States for Science. In additions to his scientific contributions, he was notorious at the University of Idaho for two things: 1) He was a great mentor to other PhD students who were moving to a small town in Idaho from various South American countries and 2) He started the tradition of the PhDerailer (it tastes like angel tears and happiness). Both lasting legacies of his time at Idaho. 

It’s been over eight years since I arrived in the United States from Colombia to start my graduate career. I began with a Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Idaho, followed by a postdoc at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and a second postdoc at the University of Michigan. Not only have I lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a large sprawling city in the Midwest, and a buzzing college town crazy for (American) football, but I have driven from coast to coast, traveled to more than 20 states, and married an American—so you can say I know the country quite well. When asked to write about my experiences in this country as a foreign scientist, I took the opportunity to think introspectively and to reflect about it all. Even though I am writing these words with the US in mind, they can completely be applied to other countries—I lived in Germany and Spain for a year each and the experience of being a foreigner is, as a whole, similar. By the way, I’m not going to mention some very important things to keep in mind because a friend of mine just wrote about them last week!

Do your homework and find a good principal investigator (PI) to work with 

This one is straightforward and also applies to Americans, but it is absolutely essential. You will spend a lot of time with your graduate or postdoctoral advisor—they will guide and influence your research and take decisions that will affect your development as a scientist, so working with a person with whom you have nothing in common is a bad move. As foreigners, we are mostly aware of the big universities (i.e., Ivy League schools) but the US has so much more to offer! Instead of focusing only on the big name schools, focus on the person you want to work with first. A good approach is to think of the scientific papers that you like or that have had an impact on your research, and to pay attention to the author list. You should also do this with a few scientific journals that are relevant to your field. Do you see people that keep popping up? These are the people you should work with! Write them an email—almost everyone is nice about getting questions about working with them—and start a conversation. Be aware that people are busy and that PIs get many (~100) emails a day, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately. Also, and this is key, be sure to send a polite and casual reminder with your first email attached to it if you haven’t heard back in a week or so. Again, people are busy and your email might have gotten lost among the others.

Integrate—you are not in your country.

So you traveled to the US to pursue a Ph.D./Postdoc. That’s great, enjoy it, but don’t forget that life exists outside of school! Now is the time for you to adapt, integrate, and familiarize with the local culture. First off, do you feel comfortable with the language? If not, try to take courses before you arrive or soon after, as this will make the transition to your new life much smoother. Second, learn about the acceptable social norms and abide by them, and be accepting and respectful of the way people operate here. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t like for a foreigner to come to your country and disrespect what makes your country special for you. Don’t be that person. Third, make local friends. We are always drawn to people who are similar to us (e.g., same culture) but if you are, for example, Latino and you only have Latin friends, you will not learn anything new about the local culture. Having American friends will also help you with my first and second points because you will speak English constantly and friends will let you know if you are disrespecting their local culture. Moreover, you will experience things that depending on where you are from, you haven’t been exposed to; such as skiing, sledding, or other winter sports. Bottom line, go make friends; carve pumpkins in Halloween, get invited to a proper thanksgiving dinner, and be open to new experiences within a community.

Share what’s yours

Now that you have American friends, be sure to share your own culture, language, and social norms! Throw a party to celebrate one of your country’s holidays, make some of your country’s food, and show people a part of your heritage. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world and people love experiencing new cultures and cuisines, so share what’s yours and highlight your own culture!

Understand the American system

Each country has its own way of doing things and the United States is not different. Within the first two weeks of arriving you will have to: get a social security card, a phone, a driver’s license or state ID, open a bank account, etc., and each of these transactions will require different documents and forms. It’s not difficult but it can take time to figure out. The good thing is that most universities have a group of people in charge of international students, and who will give you lots of information about all this. Take advantage of the facilities that your university has and make your life easier. One thing I struggled with (as many people from all nationalities including Americans) was understanding the healthcare system. What’s a deductible, what’s a co-pay, what’s covered and what’s not? These are complicated questions and are different in every state and insurance company, so make sure you understand them well and if you don’t, ask for help! Again, universities have people who can help you with this, so do your homework and avoid massive medical bills. Concerned? Don’t even get me started with taxes! Bottom line, find the information and help you need to navigate the system and you’ll be fine.

Enjoy your time in the United States!

I have traveled throughout the country, camped in breathtaking national parks, visited cities that blew my mind, and most importantly, created long-lasting friendships along the way. This country has been very good to me and I hope that it is as good, or better, to you. Now, go explore it!

Do you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for someone coming to the US? Leave them in the comments below, I would love to hear what others have to say about their experience!

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