Overseas: the wonder and worries of a marine scientist abroad

With the oceans covering 70% of the planet, it’s inevitable that, as a marine scientist, the opportunity and often necessity for international travel will present itself. Pursuing a career in a highly specialised field may mean leaving your home to work with the brightest and best. Or perhaps your interests are regional: the polar regions, for example, represent some of the most dynamic and urgent areas for oceanographic research in the current climate. A lot of us study science not just for interest in the subject but also for that lifestyle; we get excited by research cruises and dream of seeing both ice caps, the most diverse coral reefs and the unique ecosystems of deep sea hydrothermal vents. This life can be the envy of friends and family members, but is it as simple and easy as that? There are consequences of travelling with a career and even more if you decide to make a long term/permanent move abroad. Whilst my own experience is in a “Briton moving to South Africa” context, I hope the following advice is broadly applicable to anyone. Most people respond with some sort of wide eyed wonder when you discuss how you study in an exotic place far from home. But the truth is, whilst it can sometimes be a dream, at times it is a total nightmare!

Some benefits of studying abroad are obvious: in my case, having the opportunity to climb Table Mountain, sip sauvignon blanc in picturesque vineyards and follow baby elephants across deserts. Beyond the fun, studying abroad equips you with other experiences both academic and personal which can be incredibly valuable for your career. Meeting new people with completely different backgrounds can give invaluable perspective – vital for heading up multi-institutional research collaborations and conducting the kind of interdisciplinary science and stake holder engagement work so crucial in today’s world. I’ve learnt so much about communicating science here: not just with non-specialists, but also with people from an incredibly diverse range of cultures. Moving to a new region to study your chosen subject can teach you much about your subject too: South Africa has one of the most unique oceanographic situations in the world and, for me, provides exciting and contrasting oceanographic regions to study. The Benguela is a fascinating system; a natural laboratory for the phytoplankton scientist, where monospecific blooms with chlorophyll concentrations exceeding 300 mg m3- can be the norm. If you want to understand the bio-optics behind satellite ocean colour measurements, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to do it. South Africa is also one of the few places with good access to the Southern Ocean, arguably the ocean of the moment – with ice melt and ocean carbon uptake around the Antarctic continent the subject of much research. I’m in the perfect situation to compare and contrast not just two globally interesting, but also globally important, oceans. The Rainbow Nation of people has proved to be the Rainbow Nation of the phytoplankton too.

A recent red tide in Hout Bay off the Cape Peninsula.

Me working with our new profiling radiometer in the Benguela.

As a globe-trotting scientist you often get to share your travel and new life experiences with friends and family. It is a heartwarming feeling being able to have your parents come and stay in a darling little cottage you found under a world heritage site; to show them your new life, which is often totally different from anything you had before; and share your adventure with them. I had the chance to bring my mother back to the country she grew up in for the first time in 30 years and to finally see the place my grandparents worked in and told me stories of. It helped me understand what has formed them as people.

This all sounds great. But before you jump on a plane to some faraway place to study or work, I have some tales of caution – those nightmares I was referring too. Not to say that a PhD at home couldn’t cause you some of these problems, but I’ve often felt them exacerbated here without the support network of home and when faced with additional challenges compounded.

There are an enormous, even overwhelming, number of practicalities associated with a PhD, or in fact any period studying/working abroad: visas, bank accounts, phone contracts and a place to live all have to be sorted out. Moving can be difficult: It’s a pain, but not too difficult or pricey, to hire a van to drive 4 hours away from home to a new university; but what do you do when all you have is a 28kg luggage allowance, little disposable savings (if like me you’re straight out of university) and often high levels of debt?

The pressure to pick the right institution, and most importantly the right topic and supervisor, is heightened by the fact that you often can’t meet a potential supervisor or visit an institution; once you’re there you’ve already committed a significant amount of money and time to making this move happen. You often won’t know quite what you’re in store for until you hit the ground with your backpack and maybe a B&B booked! You’ll be used to the way your previous institutions work. Plymouth and Southampton were different universities, but I found most of my needs as a student taken care of: I was given maps; contact details for necessary administrators; and, if I had a problem, I knew who to speak to; money arrived on time in cheque form every 3 months; registration was dealt with through efficient online services; applications went through UCAS or through the department you were applying to. None of this was the case in South Africa: nobody knew the whole picture of where I had to go or what I had to do, even to satisfy the basic requirements of registration and funding access. There was no welcome party; however, I was lucky to have contacts here before I arrived, a place to stay and people to make sure I wasn’t homeless/without cash or advice. Monumental administrative errors meant I had to reapply on arrival. Different institutions work in different ways, not just administratively but academically too. The biggest difference for me was going from two highly interdisciplinary centres to a department where oceanography pretty much meant physics. Initially, despite my physical oceanography background and inability to name a single phytoplankton species, I felt labelled as a biologist. Anyone who works in ocean colour knows it’s mostly physics: it’s all about light! And while obtaining phytoplankton community information from this fantastic resource is the goal of my PhD, I’ll never stop looking at data in terms of physical driving forces.

Here’s some key points of advice to avoid potential problems:

1) Make contacts before you arrive: Ask your supervisor/new head of department to put you in touch with existing students and help you find a place to stay for a while so you can set up bank accounts and look for a place of your own without spending a fortune on B&B’s etc. In a place like Cape Town, which can be intimidating to someone with only a western media view, people on the ground will be invaluable help.

2) Learn the processes: Ask all the questions you can possibly think of. I made the mistake of thinking someone would tell me what I needed to do when I arrived. I’ve since learnt you need to know the systems better than the people you’re dealing with to get things done. This may not be the case worldwide, but you’ll never go wrong if you know what’s going on. What are the admissions requirements? Which forms need to go to faculty/department/university? Are there admissions requirements e.g. health insurance?

3) Check your funding: How much? How long for? When will it be paid? By who?  Will they deduct fees? For someone who is living off their bursary as a sole income, you often cannot afford for it to be delayed or uncertain. For me this really caused huge problems: how can you study when you’re constantly worried about paying your rent? I’ve seen great students leave institutions because of this and without the support I had here, I would have been one of them. It also doesn’t hurt to have your own financial back up. Can you work for 6 months to a year to give yourself that support? Although it shouldn’t be necessary, it will make your life a lot easier if you can. There are hidden costs to a PhD abroad too: visas cost money (it’s a 600 pound repatriation deposit for a study permit in South Africa, plus expensive chest x-rays and police checks), I had to buy health insurance (no NHS here!) and what about going home? That’s another 600 pound without spending money! Living costs? Cars are expensive here, I couldn’t afford one, so I have to share. These are the things you need to consider BEFORE making a judgement about whether you can undertake a PhD project abroad.

4) Lifestyle: I was told during my masters not to pick your PhD by location, but to pick by project/supervisor: very sound advice. Without a good supervisor and a project you enjoy, you’re unlikely to finish. However, I think you’re equally unlikely to finish if you don’t have a life you enjoy outside of work. I have a good work/life balance and living in Cape Town has allowed me to indulge in many new hobbies which help reduce the stress of a bad day with my PhD – in the long run keeping me chilled out and helping me work better. This would become even more crucial if you are considering a long term move abroad.

5) Make extra sure of your project and supervisor: The majority of the problems I see amongst my colleagues result from insufficient project supervision: whether they have developed their project outside of their original supervisor’s expertise, and not found someone else to assist, or the supervisor is not giving them enough help. Not all places in the world send out recruitment for PhD students on a project by project basis as is common in the UK. This can be beneficial, giving you the academic freedom to tailor a project to your strengths and interests. However, making a decision to move half way around the world without at least a basic project outline and knowledge of your supervisors field could be unwise.

6) The emotional cost: I’ve not seen my mum in 6 months now and I left behind my dear pet dog and all my friends. Whilst my parents and friends can visit, it makes me sad all the time that I can only see my grandparents once a year – and that’s with research collaborations in the UK meaning I’m home. It’s not always easy to have visitors either: I’ve loved showing my mum and dad, and their partners, around; but after 3-4 two week visits a year, you’ve already far exceeded what any normal job would allow you to have as holiday. That’s extra pressure on your workload. It’s easy when you can pop around for dinner once a month but when it’s once a year, and someone has spent in excess of 1000 pounds visiting you, you’re compelled to enjoy the time you have together. At a young age people will tell you that you shouldn’t settle down, and a career is most important, but realistically you may face leaving a relationship behind. On the plus side, you’ll meet an amazing array of new people who you will share both ups and downs with; I’ve made friends for life here and have a relationship where the idea of moving around the world isn’t inconceivable. There’s little things you’ll miss regardless (where are my parsnips and why doesn’t South Africa have good cider?!!!?!?!?!), but full blown culture shock is also possible. Maybe you’ll feel isolated away from home? Different cultural norms, languages etc. can add to this. Living behind window bars has been an adjustment for me and dealing with the security fears placed in to my head by the western media proved difficult when I was on my own. South Africa is a fascinating place characterised positively and negatively, still, by a turbulent past. Growing up in an environment where I’ve never had to deal with the hardships endured by people in this country heightens the injustice I feel for many South Africans. Though always compelled to help, knowing how best to do so is not always clear; that can be hard to deal with at times, but can also mean you’re involved in lots of inspirational work.

Teaching on recent Habitable Planet workshop – encouraging a greater capacity for Earth System Science in SA.

Myself and colleagues representing the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth System Science (ACCESS) at COP17.

The take home message is that you can have some of the greatest experiences of your life moving abroad to study/work, and you can learn a lot too. But these things come with costs – often financial but also emotional. Costs you must seriously consider if you can afford and want to pay. If you want to pursue an international move, go for it. People will call you “lucky” if you do, but the reality is that a lot of hard work goes into a move like this: even if the benefits are phenomenal 🙂

Hayley Evers-King is a PhD student at The University of Cape Town. She uses remote sensing and coupled in-situ optical measurements to study phytoplankton community structure and carbon cycling. She has a personal blog called Science, sightseeing and sustenance


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