Being a postdoc provides you with an extended training period after receiving your PhD. It is the pathway towards becoming an independent scientist; therefore, it is important to undertake your postdoc in a place where career development is enhanced and supported.
Let’s start with a basic yet crucial question: why should I move to another continent? The United States remains the most popular country for junior scientists — particularly those from Asia — in which to seek experience. However, applications for specialist visas, which most foreign scientists need to work in the United States, have fallen by 19% since 2016 . Interestingly, the number of international students in the United States have flattened, while continuing to increase for other countries, including Australia and Canada. Surveys of applicants and institutions suggest significant concerns about future US visa policy and openness to immigrants. Also, the flow of early-career scientists to Europe is currently on the rise. From my experience, postdoc positions are well-established in the United States, and it’s possible for early-career scientists to run independent projects from a relatively young age. Many colleagues, both from the U.S. and Europe, tell you that a postdoc in the U.S. is the “good” standard and that if you do a European postdoc, you’ll have to do another one there. I believe this is arguable, and it certainly depends on the case.
In general, if you have the chance to see a little bit of the world, it’s better for you because you know how to deal with different kinds of cultures, mentalities, and expectations. Officially, search committee members wouldn’t evaluate a candidate based on whether they have international experience — it is a matter of what a candidate has achieved.
Personally, one benefit of going abroad is that it allows you to learn different approaches to doing science. In narrow research fields with only a few active research groups, a move from Europe to US (or vice versa) could be the simplest way to continue working on similar science and, at the same time, expand your expertise in the field. Also, moving to a new continent enables early-career researchers to gain fresh cultural and scientific perspectives. This should not be underestimated. For many non-European Union scientists, a successful research project in Europe can potentially be a springboard to a career in their home country.
On the other hand, one of the attractions of Europe is the chance to gain experience in a multicultural research environment using advanced scientific techniques and state-of-the-art instruments. Europe, of course, has downsides, including language barriers, administrative burdens, a high cost of living in many EU cities and a significant diversity of national and European funding systems. This means that social and professional relationships can also be challenging. Staying in Europe for an extended period — beyond a three-year postdoc position — requires careful planning. Tenured positions are rare and highly sought after, meaning that scientists in Europe face an employment bottleneck.
Despite any possible complications, the best approach to doing a postdoc overseas is to plan as well as you can, and then dive in, head first, and adapt on the way. That approach, combined with the rich experiences, both scientific and personal, can provide new skills and resilience that will be a great benefit for your career.
Assess your own desires and opportunities, and choose wisely. In this case, it is better to be safe than sorry.
References: 1. Kerr, W., 2018. America, don't throw global talent away. Nature, 563(7731), pp.445-446.