Career Advice

Investing in International Scientific Experiences: Start Planning Now

Jennifer B. Nielson, Ph.D.

Look no further than the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to see the value of international scientific collaborations. The 2016 prize was awarded to Bernard L. Feringa of the Netherlands, Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France, and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, born in Scotland and a professor in the United States at Northwestern University. These exceptional chem­ists, and many others, collaborate with other international scientists.

International scientific teams bring many resources and approaches to solving scientific problems, from spe­cific research projects to big global challenges such as food production or climate change.

How prepared are you to be part of the global scientific community? Is developing international connections and scientific competencies part of your plan?

Graduate studies and postdoctoral fellowships are op­timal times to pursue international scientific experiences. Attending conferences and participating in international teams can prepare you to be more competitive in the global job market, enhance your research, and widen your scien­tific network contacts. You can gain valuable knowledge and skills in international research experiences.

Understand the Benefits of International Scientific Experience
Evaluating International Research Experiences for Graduate Students, a 2016 workshop report from the Council of Gradu­ate Schools (CGS), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), suggests that graduate students and postdocs with international experience publish more than similar peers, apply more successfully for grants, and conduct better science because of the diversity of the research team. The 2016 CGS–NSF–DFG report argues that the benefit from an international experience is significant enough that early investigators who have had such an experi­ence should receive support to continue international collabo­rations. One reason may be because they make wider scien­tific contacts and connections. Chemists with international experience are often more competitive in global companies that need employees who can work in a variety of conditions with different kinds of people.

ACS International Center (IC)

The ACS actively promotes international programs and partnerships through the Office of International Activities, which hosts the ACS International Center (https://global.acs.org/). You can search the IC by experience level and by country for internships and scholarly exchange programs, including the Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE) and the Fulbright Scholar Program. The IC offers links to international programs from research funding agencies like NSF and from ACS affiliates, which are foreign scientific agencies and sister chemical societies.

The IC publishes a monthly newsletter, ACS Global Chemistry, which highlights global opportunities as well. You will also find the IC invaluable when you are preparing your actual travel plans, because it offers links to country specific visa, travel restriction, and medical information.

Make the Investment
Think ahead to the possibilities for international scientific experiences and, when you find the right options for yourself, prepare to be successful.

international travelers

Begin Planning Now
The best advice from those who have worked internationally is to begin now. Whether planning to attend a conference, join an international research team, or do research abroad, the process can take a while: finding the right opportunities, mak­ing contacts, applying, and finding funding. Position yourself to locate strategic opportunities, present a convincing case for participating, and make the most of your experiences.

As you begin your initial explorations, be sure to consider a wide range of opportunities. Universities sometimes have international exchange programs, and chemical industries have international offices. The American Chemical Society (ACS) hosts the ACS International CenterTM (IC; see sidebar, “ACS International Center”).

Be sure to tap into your network. Your research adviser, labmates, and other colleagues in and alumni of your de­partment have connections. Meet international chemists at seminars and poster sessions you attend, and contact them afterwards about the research that interests you and the pos­sibility of future interactions.

Attending conferences and participating in international teams can prepare you to be more competitive in the global job market, enhance your research, and widen your scientific network contacts.

Pursue Strategic Opportunities

Once you have made your initial explorations, you will need to focus your plans on the options that are most viable and beneficial—for you, your research group, and others involved.

1. Make research the primary motivation. Dr. Judith Kroll and Dr. Gerhard Erker, principal investigators who accept international students in their labs, advise that the research project should drive the international experience, not the other way around.

2. Define the level of commitment and resources needed. This will vary depending on the nature of the experience and area of research.

International research experiences require a substantial investment. Participants in the NSF Partnerships in Interna­tional Research and Education (PIRE) program have suggest­ed that a minimum of six months is necessary in an inter­national research project to make the experience significant. If you are a graduate student, work with your adviser and graduate counselor to determine the best time to go and how to structure the international experience without lengthen­ing the time-to-completion of your graduate work. The 2016 CGS-NSF-DFG report found that international experience did not significantly increase the time required for graduate students to finish their graduate degrees.

To be meaningful and safe, attendance at international conferences and work with international teams also needs ad­equate support, commitment, and planning.

3. Link the experience to your professional and personal development. International scientific experiences can help build a diverse network and a broader set of research skills and perspectives. Consider the competencies you might de­velop. Do you want to build your global awareness, develop cultural understanding, learn a language, or work better in a culturally diverse team? International experiences can lead to deep personal growth and a better sense of how you connect to the world and others. PIRE participants reported increased confidence as a key outcome of their international research experiences.

An Individual Development Plan (IDP) can help you articulate how international scientific experiences will help prepare you for your career. An online tool, ChemIDPTM (cre­ate an account for free at https://chemidp.acs.org/), is designed to guide you through the process of goal setting, self-assessment, career exploration, and skill strengthening.

Prepare Well
Given the importance of your international scientific experi­ences—and the investment being made in them—you will want to maximize their impact. If you are not prepared for the differences in lab resources, approaches, communication, and culture, international scientific experiences can be frustrating and wasted opportunities. The following steps will help you prepare:

1. Start developing your international scientific competencies now. (See sidebar, “Developing International Scientific Com­petencies.”) If this is the first time you have considered the idea of working internationally, these activities can help you explore opportunities. If you aren’t interested in working in an international setting, they will still help you both to have a broader understanding of the chemists and chemistry in your field and to be more successful in your career.

2. Be ready to do things differently. Consider your disposi­tion toward change and adaptability. Prepare to be stretched mentally and emotionally when you are out of your comfort zone in a different country. Practice navigating unfamiliar situations.

3. Pay attention to details. Visit the ACS International Center and other travel sites when making your actual travel plans. Do you need country-specific visas? Will you face travel restrictions? Do you need vaccinations? Make sure you have medical information and insurance. Know the local currency and how to access funds.

Build Lifelong Connections
It takes planning, strategy, and preparation to have meaning­ful international scientific experiences. Whether you pursue opportunities closer to home, attend international confer­ences, or travel abroad to participate in research projects, the effort will be worth it professionally and personally. You will advance your science and your career, learn to appreciate cul­tural differences, and make friendships that can last a lifetime. Make sure international chemistry experiences are part of your world! ■

Adapted from International Scientific Experiences for Chemistry Students, a supplement from the ACS Committee on Professional Training.    

Developing International Scientific Competencies

Global awareness:

  • Attend ACS meeting programming on international chemistry topics.
  • Participate in webinars or other lectures by international chemists.
  • Read important research by international scientists.
  • Attend an international conference or workshop, such as Pacifichem

Cultural understanding:

  • Interview a chemist who has recently returned from an international experience.
  • Participate in the Young Chemists Crossing Borders (YCCB) exchange program.

Language skills:

  • Tutor someone learning English.
  • Learn a new language. Bear in mind that in addition to the normal studies involved, you will probably have to take specific courses in order to learn scientific terms and be able to talk fluently about science.

Working with culturally diverse teams:

  • Become involved with the International Younger Chemist Network (IYCN).
  • Join an organization like Chemists without Borders or Scientists without Borders.
  • Collaborate with an international student or postdoc.