Interview with Daniel Abbott (April 2013)

Categories: Meet the researchers

Daniel Abbott is a PhD Candidate at the Northeastern University in Boston, MA, USA. His first mobility experience was in Prague, Czech Republic where he spent almost two years of his PhD. He would never imagine his stay in Europe to be so crucial for his next research career step.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background: What stage of your career you are in? What is your field of research and home institution?

A: Currently, I am still a graduate student working towards my PhD. I am a chemistry major with a specialization in electrochemistry at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, USA. I am due to graduate in about 4-7 months and I am still unsure about what I want to do and where I want to live afterwards. Currently I am considering post-doc and industrial research positions in both the USA and Europe.

Q: How did you find out about the possibility to move to Europe?

A: I was lucky with the opportunity to move to Europe. My PhD advisor at Northeastern University is very well connected with other scientists in the field. Through him I was able to meet a research scientist in the Czech Republic who was interested in hiring a student on a 1-year contract.

Q: Where did you move (country, host institution) and for how long?

I moved to Prague in the Czech Republic and joined a research group at the Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry. It was only supposed to be a 1-year contract, but I have been here for 1 year and 7 months now with another 1-3 months left before I return to the USA.

Q: Was your stay funded by national, European or international sources?

A: During the majority of my stay I was funded by a Marie Curie fellowship from the EU. After the funding from the EU ended, I continued to receive funding from the Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry and Northeastern University.

Q: Tell us a bit about your experience with the relocation from one country to another. Who helped you? Where did you find useful information? Did you know about EURAXESS?

A: My relocation from the USA to the Czech Republic was difficult at first. I had never studied abroad or traveled to Europe. For the most part I had remained within Massachusetts and never lived far from home, so moving to a foreign country was a big step for me and rather intimidating. When I first moved here I received a lot of help from my advisor in the Czech Republic. He was able to point me in the right direction when I needed help with the essentials, such as finding an apartment, opening a bank account, getting a new cell phone, and where to find items in the grocery store. EURAXESS was also a huge help. The staff was always incredibly friendly and helpful and there were a few times where I made mistakes and the staff went out of their way to help me correct the issue. EURAXESS was able to help me with my visas, attend Czech language courses, and meet other foreign research students. I went on a daytrip arranged by EURAXESS to Cesky Krumlov and that is still one my most memorable trips. It was my first time out of Prague and I made some great friends that I still talk to and travel with today. Since I moved here alone and did not know anyone, the friends I made through EURAXESS really helped me become more comfortable with my stay aboard.

Q: Did you experience culture shock after arriving in the new country?

A: There was absolutely a culture shock when I arrived in the Czech Republic. There are many differences that were so obvious at first but are so subtle now. Of course there are the more obvious things like language, food, architecture, and the general mentality of the people. But then there are the small funny things that I notice, like how they use lever handles instead of doorknobs, or how the electrical sockets are different and learning to think in terms of the metric system and degrees Celsius required some practice. Now, when I return to the USA, I notice that I encounter reverse culture shock: It's strange to hear English everywhere and be able to eavesdrop on other peoples' conversations, or how prices of food and beer change so much, or how laws regarding things such as drinking, nudity, health insurance, etc. differ.

Q: How would you describe your professional and personal experience of living and working in Europe? What are the pros and cons of this kind of mobility?

A: My personal experience of living in Europe has been incredible. I have never traveled so much in my life. Before, I had very few international friends, now I have friends from all over the world that I will continue to be friends with for years to come. I used to be intimidated by traveling, and now I am ready and willing to travel anywhere when I have the opportunity. I feel that living abroad really helped me to grow and to expand the way I think about things. I was raised in the USA and never left, so it was all I ever knew, but after living abroad and being exposed to so many different cultures I feel that I have a much different perspective on life. The friends I've made, the experiences I've had, the places I've been... I can't imagine how redundant my life would be if I had not taken this opportunity. Working in Europe has also been much different. I'm not sure if it's just by chance, but I feel much more relaxed in Europe than I did in the USA. I feel that in the USA, or at least in the Boston area, people put far too much stress on working hard and trying to make money to afford a luxurious lifestyle; people live to work and hope to buy happiness. In Europe I feel that people work hard but they still know how to enjoy themselves and appreciate the important things in life. People in Europe seem to live within their means rather than racking up credit card debt to buy things they don't need and they seem to appreciate their personal time much more.

Q: Do you feel it has helped you grow in your career? Would you recommend it to your fellows?

Yes, I definitely think that is has helped me get ahead in my career. I have the feeling that before, I was very narrow-minded and that I limited my employment options only to the US and to the Boston area, more specifically. After moving here I am now considering post-doc and other research positions throughout Europe. Through my advisor in the Czech Republic I've met many leading scientists in my field and my stay in Europe has opened my eyes to other opportunities that I had never considered before.

Q: Would you consider going to conduct research in Europe again?

A: I was reluctant to consider researching in Europe again, but only because it is so far from my home and my family. But within the last few months I've really grown comfortable here and now I am really reluctant to leave Europe. At this point, I would absolutely consider doing research here again.

Q: What would you say to those researchers that have never been to Europe? Is it worthwhile? Will you be able to use the knowledge gained to further enhance your research career after returning to the US?

A: I would recommend researching in Europe to anyone who hasn't done it. It's an experience that everyone should get. For me, the actual research in the USA and Europe was very similar and there wasn't much of a difference other than the network of people you encounter. In Europe it's very international; although the USA can also be like this if you're in the right research group. But the additional experiences that you get outside of the research are really what matters to me. Living here really taught me a lot about myself and changed me for the better. Since I moved here I've learned to be much more social and independent.

I think my research experience in Prague will help enhance my career for many reasons. I've met many leading scientists in my field throughout my stay, and my advisor is well connected with them as well. This opens up many opportunities for me to secure a post-doc position in Europe or possibly an industrial research position. During my stay here I was also able to travel to Japan to conduct research experiments for a couple weeks. I've also given a presentation at an international conference and I participated in a brief internship in a very reputable company in the UK. All these experiences will help me in seeking a research career after my research stay in Europe.

To conclude, the following sentence says it all: “I would absolutely recommend it to my fellows. It has been an invaluable experience. Since I have been home, my colleagues keep asking me about my experiences and I recommend working abroad to all of them if they have the opportunity.”