Best Places to Work : Postdocs 2009

International postdocs often take on challenges that go beyond the lab. How do this year's top institutions help foreign fellows adjust to their new lives?

By Jennifer Evans

© Amac Garbe /

Only moments after emerging from the plane, exhausted from his 23-hour flight, plant microbiologist Andry Andriankaja was met at the Dallas–Ft. Worth airport by a driver from the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. They traveled two hours to the Ardmore, Oklahoma, campus and to temporary housing set aside for Andriankaja until he found his own apartment.

"I knew Noble Foundation through its publications and...

"I knew Noble Foundation through its publications and research, but I didn't know much about Oklahoma," says Andriankaja. International travel was not new to Andriankaja, who hop-scotched from his native Madagascar to France for graduate school before landing in Oklahoma. But he still recalls his anxiety about what to expect from his latest big move to the Noble Foundation, which placed fourth in The Scientist's seventh annual Best Places to Work—Postdocs survey.

The following day, a Foundation staffer drove Andriankaja around town, helping him set up his bank account and walking him through his first trip to an American grocery store. With "all the basic things [covered], I could move on and get focused on my research," Andriankaja says. By day three, he was off to a conference with his advisor.

Andriankaja is one of many postdocs to make a gutsy move for a new position. A 2005 Sigma Xi survey of 7,600 postdocs working in the United States found that 54% of postdocs hold temporary visas, and of these, more than 76% received their doctorate abroad.

Survey respondents often rank the quality of an institution's facilities and infrastructure as most important, followed by salary and networking opportunities. But for foreign postdocs, navigating complicated immigration laws, mastering a new language, and adjusting to a different culture add to the challenges of attaining career goals. This year's top-ranking institutions recognize that international postdocs need support both in and out of the lab.

Help for new hires

For Boston native Cliff Brangwynne, the high quality of research and the opportunity for vibrant collaborations between top scientists enticed him to complete a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics—ranked number one for institutions outside of the United States. An international postdoc has the opportunity to get feedback from people whose "ways of looking at the world can be so fundamentally different" from his own, he says. (Another attraction was the adventure of living in Dresden, Germany with his wife during a period of historical rebuilding in the city.) Brangwynne says the multicultural environment of his lab was similar to what he experienced during graduate school in the United States, but in Dresden, even the simplest tasks outside the lab became challenging, from mailing a letter at the post office to setting up the internet at home. The international office made things easier by taking care of "all the paperwork related to our work in Germany" and sending someone with him when he needed to register his motorcycle.

To support international postdocs, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, ranked No. 10 among international institutions, holds quarterly day-long seminars for foreign postdocs addressing everything from Swedish healthcare and social insurance to training on effective communication with Swedes. Informal English as a Second Language classes are also held for postdocs and their families at Argonne National Laboratories (ranked No. 13 in the US). At Fred Hutchison Cancer Center, which ranked 14th this year, incoming postdocs are matched with volunteer researchers from their country or region of origin to help with the adjustment.

By far, the greatest issues foreign postdocs face while working in the United States are visa and immigration laws, says Jeremy Spohr, international officer for the National Postdoc Association (NPA). International postdocs need help both in obtaining a visa to enter the country and maintaining their visa status while in the country.

Hatice Bilgic traveled from her native Turkey to complete a postdoc at 10th ranked University of Minnesota on a three-year academic exchange (J1) visa. Nearing the expiration of her first visa, a second advisor at the university paid for the processing of paperwork for Bilgic's professional work visa (H-1B), which lasts up to six years—a service that universities and institutions are not required to provide.

According to Maureen Murphy, a postdoc administrator at 12th-ranked Fox Chase Cancer Center, roughly one-third to one-half of foreign postdocs who come in on the academic exchange visa receive their H-1B visas during their postdocs. Footing the bill is "our institution's way of saying we want this person," says Murphy.

As president of the University of Minnesota's postdoc association last year, Bilgic argued that foreign postdocs need even more support for visa issues. In response, the University of Minnesota started offering a seminar on visa options after postdoc positions end, which more than 200 postdocs attended.

Training for tough times

Regardless of where they come from, postdocs around the world face diminishing academic prospects. As the average ages for first R01 grants and assistant professor positions increase, along with concerns about the economic future, postdocs are "staying in their positions longer than ever before," and looking for non-academic science careers, according to Stacy Gelhaus, Chair of the NPA's board of directors.

A recent survey of postdocs at the University of Pennsylvania found that 41% planned to pursue nonacademic careers. "It's obvious that postdocs are seeing their mentors spending all this time writing grants that aren't being funded, and they are beginning to [question the] reward in academia," says Kryste Ferguson, a postdoc administrator at the University of Pennsylvania who worked on the survey. In response, many top institutions are incorporating programs to help postdocs develop additional skill sets, on top of helping them apply for grants.

A UK effort to help equip postdocs with marketable skills outside of academia led to the hiring of a certified career counselor who teaches seminars in financial and people management, negotiation and marketing at the University of York—ranked fifth internationally. At seventh-place Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) in Seattle, postdocs can apply for one-year fellowships to work as science consultants for an investment group called Accelerator Corp., where they use their expertise to help choose which biotech start-ups to fund. "It's an immersive kind of fellowship where you come in with potentially no [industry] experience and [are] plopped right into the middle of it," Lee Pang, a postdoc at ISB, says. "You essentially learn by high-grade osmosis." To help postdocs without access to the classroom polish their teaching skills, Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, plans to give the option of teaching courses at the University of Montana within the next year.

Of course, for international postdocs, none of that career training is useful without the upfront help they need when adjusting to their new positions. "My friends are jealous," says Andriankaja of the attention and support he receives from Noble. Even now, as Andriankaja plans for a new position in chemical company BASF in Belgium, The Noble Foundation continues to guide him in visa issues. "I'm a lucky guy," he says.

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Correction: In the original version of the Top 40 list of US institutions, No. 6 Novartis in Cambridge MA, incorrectly listed "Networking Opportunities" as both a strength and weakness. Novartis' second strength is its quality of infrastructure and its second weakness is training and mentoring. The Scientist regrets the error.

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