How to fit in when you join a lab abroad

Poonam Amrutia grew up in Kenya, where she attended a British school. He then completed a bachelor’s degree in statistics and a master’s degree in epidemiology in the United Kingdom. In both countries, she was accustomed to people being blunt. If teachers didn’t like his work, they would openly talk about it. “They told me, ‘This is bullshit. Go back and do it again,'” she says.

So when Amrita began her PhD in malaria epidemiology in 2014, she did not voice her opinion. During her first month at the University of Florida in Gainesville, her lab met to discuss a paper her supervisor was reviewing. Amrita recalled the newspaper as “nonsense” and said it should not be published.

A US lab mate described the paper’s positive features and mentioned items that could be improved. Amrita’s aides suggest to her that she may be more diplomatic. After the meeting, he tried to calm his directness.

But Amrita also had trouble socializing with her PhD-committee members, partly because she didn’t understand the popular-culture context of America. At a social event, when her colleagues laughed about a popular 1980s TV show, she kept quiet because she was unfamiliar with it. Such incidents made it difficult for her to establish a casual relationship with these faculty members, so she did not feel comfortable seeking advice from them during her doctoral program.

There are plenty of opportunities to study and work abroad. But some early career scientists may face challenges in adapting to different communication styles and different workplace and academic hierarchies. Supervisors and junior researchers can reduce the risk of misunderstandings by actively learning about each other’s cultures and clearly communicating workplace expectations.

It is important both to be sensitive to cultural differences and to avoid unintentional stereotyping. Nanda Dimitrov, director of Western University’s Teaching Support Center in London, Canada, who has written about cross-cultural graduate supervision, says it is important not to make assumptions about students based only on their culture. For example, a wealthy Chinese student from Hong Kong may see things differently than someone coming from a rural area on the mainland, she notes.

And individual perceptions may vary: Amrita says she personally encountered directness more often in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but others may not have experienced it. Dimitrov points out that the relationship between the junior researcher and supervisor is influenced by a number of factors, including personality, past experience, and the workplace culture of the department and discipline.

Going abroad to study or work has become more common, partly due to encouragement from national governments and funding agencies.

According to the UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030, published in 2015 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, the number of students pursuing higher education abroad increased from 1.7 million in 1995 to 4.1 million in 2013. European funders promote the practice through programs such as Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, which provide grants for researchers studying or working outside their home countries.

From 2003 to 2010, the Chinese government increased the number of scholarships to study outside China from less than 3,000 to more than 13,000. According to a UNESCO report, the regions with the highest proportion of students pursuing higher education are Central Asia, the Arab States, Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe.

The most popular destination for all outbound PhD students is the United States, where nearly half of international science and engineering PhD students are enrolled, followed by the United Kingdom, France and Australia.

Many laboratories experience some problems with cultural differences. “Science workplaces are so international,” says Kaisa Kajla, a Finnish plant biologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who has studied or worked in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. “People tend to have a good understanding of different cultures.”

However, when misunderstandings do arise, it is important to address them, as the stakes are often high for international students. If the research takes longer than expected, they may have difficulty getting a visa or paying tuition fees. Principal investigators (PIs) who make invalid assumptions about a student’s intentions may write light letters of recommendation for job applications or decide not to collaborate with that person after graduation.

Behavior expectations can vary across cultures in areas such as leadership, communication, and response styles. Andrew Spencer, director of Rose Window Consulting, says, “While it’s important not to stereotype, if we don’t try and understand how cultures differ.