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  • Jasmine Janes

The Lonesome Postdoc - Part I: Moving abroad for a position

Me hanging at Ring 11 (FACE + IR heat)

In 2011 I was in a bad position. My ‘guaranteed’ five-year position fell short when yet another CO2 tank failed on a FACE (climate change) experiment, requiring more unforeseen major repairs. Inevitably chewing through much of the funding that had been awarded. I decided it was a good excuse to apply for postdocs. (I’d spent the past 1.5 years working for government and universities after finishing my PhD). So, the mad search for postdoc positions began.

I think I had a relatively sheltered PhD in medium-sized university in Australia. It was a three-year programme, so no course work, just a ‘get in and get things done’ attitude. I had great supervisors and a great cohort to go through with – many of us stay in contact today. I was one of those weirdos that decided when they first signed up to undergrad that I was going to be a Prof, not really sure why, but the decision stuck. I was also determined to do a postdoc abroad because I thought it would give me some sort of competitive edge, worldly experiences, new collaborators… (insert more fancy aspirations here). However, I was horribly under-prepared for how the rest of the academic world (i.e., outside Australia) worked. My first hurdle was the application process.

Applications in Australia rely on selection criteria (examples). North American applications do not. I very quickly learned to say the appropriate things in the cover letter, and I pestered my supervisors for reference letters even when they didn’t really understand why I would need them at the initial stages of an application. I ended up with three interviews in a reasonably short time. (Thankfully I had published a few papers by this point and didn’t officially graduate until late 2010). One interview in Missouri, one in Hong Kong, and one in Canada.

Tasmania is nowhere near Tanzania!

My first interview was with Missouri. What a disaster! The HR person thought Tasmania was Tanzania and kept insisting that I should be overjoyed with the tropical weather, even after I corrected them! The Prof interviewing me was new… and, unfortunately it showed. I came away from that with the distinct feeling that you should never work for someone that seems less confident than you. I don’t regret that decision. Hong Kong seemed amazing – who wouldn’t want to hunt orchids all day every day?? The pay was pretty low, the hours were pretty long, it wasn’t actually an academic position, but there were ORCHIDS! Canada was intriguing. A massive network of collaborators, genomics, some sort of forest pest. I had a friend who had been living in Canada for a few years and was thoroughly smitten. In addition, one of my supervisors was from Quebec, he talked funny and couldn't pronounce "h" properly, but he was a great guy. So I figured Canada had to be an ok place. I chose Canada.

I held off telling too many people until about two weeks before I left. I told my mum over the phone like it was no big deal. I should stress at this point that I really didn’t know much about my future location. I’d never been there. I knew it got bloody cold, especially in Edmonton, but somehow people survived there. (I know, silly Australian and their love of warm weather!). My supervisor told me with great delight:

“You’re moving to the coldest province, the dirtiest

province, you’ll probably marry a lumberjack”

In spite of that ‘recommendation’ I booked my tickets, got my Working Holiday Visa sorted, said goodbye to friends and jumped on the plane with two suitcases and no real idea what I was doing.

My level of comfort with snow in Tasmania What I imagined snow was like in Edmonton

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