During my PhD, I got to know several PhD students whose supervisor moved to a different institution – in a different city – and even in a different country. I’m one of them. Two years after starting my PhD, my supervisor, an early career research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (MPIO) in Germany, got a Lecturer position 1,182 km away, at Imperial College London (ICL) in the UK. I still remember the moment I learned the big news: the door of the office opened, and the next I could hear was, “Don’t panic. I got a job in London”. Immediately, my brain was thinking: “Say what?!”. Fortunately, my supervisor fought bravely with her funding agencies to keep my salary intact, but it took her weeks to win that battle, and for some time my salary (and thus my PhD position) was in limbo. After celebrating the success with Italian prosecco and strawberries, I was given the option of choosing whether to stay in Germany or to move to the UK. The classic dilemma: “should I stay or should I go?”. I was very reluctant to move, but my partner (another sparrow researcher) had no real choice to stay due to bureaucratic reasons, so I decided to become a visiting PhD student at ICL.
Despite having moved to four different countries already, I find moving a hassle. Not only is it stressful and very time consuming (particularly all the admin needed before and after), but also expensive. In my case, there was no budget other than my own pocket to pay the moving. Also, staying in the UK with a German PhD salary is not very clever, even less before the Brexit mess. From one month to another my expenses duplicated, but my salary remained the same and substantially smaller than British PhD salaries. Economic reasons might not be of great importance for most scientists, after all, scientists seem to be driven by passion rather than money, but you may want to consider these extra costs in advance.
Something else that kept me thinking for a while was the difference between an institute highly specialized in my research topic (behavioural and evolutionary ecology in birds) and a university campus where nobody seemed to work on questions similar to mine. At the beginning, I missed the old routine of chatting over coffee with other researchers about specific doubts on analyses and methods, and attending to invited talks from renowned researchers in my field, but I soon realized that this situation is very common nowadays (many universities seem to be generalists rather than specialists), and therefore something to get used to.
Being a visiting PhD student at ICL allowed me to increase my scientific network widely across disciplines. I’m not sure I will professionally profit from that in the future, but at least I learned a lot about how science works in different fields and in a different institution and country. One of the biggest pros for me was getting involved in teaching and supervision. Over two years I supervised a dozen bachelor and master theses, assisted several lecturers during teaching and even gave a couple of lectures myself. These experiences definitely enriched my scientific and personal life.
After two years as a visiting PhD student at ICL and a wonderful time meeting new people and new places, I decided that it was best to be at the MPIO for that final push to the submission of my thesis. Where do I go next? I still don’t know, but I guess I should start packing.
PS: Feel free to add your experiences below. Also, for a non-romantic way of planning your scientific career, I strongly recommend reading: “A PhD is not enough! A guide to survival in science” from Peter J. Feibelman.
Alfredo Sánchez-Tójar is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen (Twitter: @ASanchez-Tojar)