Beyond Graduate School: A Postdoctoral Study in Sweden

Kim Dougherty, International Correspondent

Originally published February 2007.

When I started at Emory, getting my Ph.D. seemed so far in the future that it did not seem like reality. I had no idea where I would end up – and never would have guessed that I would have ended up doing a postdoc in Sweden.

sulcus53I decided to do a postdoc because I want to stay in academia and, eventually, I want to run a lab at a research university. I started thinking about where I wanted to do a postdoc last November, about a year before I actually moved. I began by coming up with a list of potential labs in consultation with my advisor. Then, I narrowed down the list and spoke to my committee members and other neuroscience faculty members to get their opinions, suggestions, and advice. I interviewed with three labs, where I got to meet everyone, talk about current research interests, and discuss potential future directions. It was a difficult decision for me and, in the end, both the science and the location were the deciding factors in choosing to accept a postdoc position at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

I accepted my new position in April, defended my thesis in August, and stayed at Emory until October. I spent the next six weeks between my defense and the SfN meeting finishing up in the lab, revising my thesis, writing a postdoctoral fellowship, making my SfN poster, taking Swedish lessons, and packing up my apartment. I was glad that SfN was in Atlanta this year because my last few months went by really fast and I ended up with a lot to do in the end.

Transitions are always a mix of anxiety and excitement. Working out all of the logistics of moving (i.e. selling furniture, hiring movers, packing, figuring out what to take overseas in my two suitcases, etc.) is a hassle, but I knew that would all soon fall into place. Initially, I was nervous about moving to a new country where I basically knew no one, didn’t know where to live, didn’t know how to get around, and didn’t even speak the primary language. However, then I remembered doing this all before – and not too long ago! I had the same concerns when I moved to Atlanta before starting in the Neuroscience program. It didn’t take long for me to find my niche, make friends, find my way around Emory and Atlanta, get involved in things that I liked doing, know where I liked to hang out, and even understand the Southern accent! The day I realized this was the day my anxiety about moving to Stockholm turned into excitement.

sulcus54One of the main differences was that I wasn’t moving into an incoming class at the Emory Neuroscience program; I was the only person moving into this lab. However, most of the postdocs and students in my lab, and in the other labs on my floor, are not Swedish. So, basically everyone is in the same boat since most moved to Stockholm not knowing anyone. Everyone has been very friendly, which has helped to make my transition easier. When November seemed like an odd time to be moving to Sweden (just in time for the cold winter!), it actually worked out for the best. I was here in time for all of the Christmas parties that started in early December.

Also, Swedes celebrate St. Lucy’s Day in mid-December. St. Lucy is not Swedish, so I’m not really sure why it’s celebrated in Sweden. I’ve heard several different versions of who St. Lucy was but the only thing the stories have in common is that she survived being burned at the stake. On St. Lucy’s Day, someone dresses as St. Lucy, wearing all white and a wreath of candles on her head. There’s a St. Lucy’s Day “train” which includes other characters, such as Lucy’s maids, star boys, and gingerbread men. All of the new people in the Neuroscience Department were required to be in the St. Lucy’s Day procession. This gave me the opportunity to meet the other new people (my Karolinska Neuroscience incoming class) as we rehearsed Swedish songs for the procession. In the end, I did take Ron Calabrese’s advice and made sure that I didn’t get suckered into to being St. Lucy.

Scientifically, there are transitions as well. By the time I left the Hochman lab, I felt I had a handle on what was going on and always knew what I could or should be doing (especially in the end when I was racing against the clock). Now, it is strange to be the person who knows the least in the lab (again), having to constantly ask others for help, even if it is just to find where the pipet tips are. It has also been interesting to learn new ways of doing things and to hear different perspectives. Experiments have been slow to start up. This was a welcomed change in the beginning but after a few weeks, I was ready to dig in on a project with full force. Now, things with my new projects are beginning to pick up.

I am enjoying exploring a new city, learning new lab techniques, and meeting new people. I also miss all of my friends back at Emory (several of whom have also moved or will soon be moving) and the goings-on of the Neuroscience community there. I’m looking forward to future reunions at meetings, email and newsletter updates, and trips to visit friends – both in Atlanta and in other new places.

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