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Why to look for a postdoc position abroad?

After a young researcher has defended his/her thesis, a critical question is what to do next. For an MD, PhD this is in many cases related to clinical training, whether the researcher already has a clinical speciality or whether he/she should either complete or start his/her clinical training. Another option may be to continue with research in the same research group, to switch to another local research group or to start to look for a postdoc position abroad. The readiness of young Finnish researchers to go abroad for a postdoc period has definitely decreased over the last 20-30 years, although the outlook for financial support for such a step has actually increased with one exception. Previously the universities had the possibility to pay part-time salary to clinical lecturers, who went abroad for a postdoc period provided that the researcher committed to stay as a clinical lecturer for twice the time he/she spent abroad. On the other hand several foundations, including the Pediatric Research Foundation, nowadays have special funds allocated to support foreign postdoc periods. (Read more)

Why has then the motivation for going abroad decreased over the last decades? There may be a series of reasons for that. One argument presented is that the standard of Finnish science has increased and therefore there is not such an urgent need to go abroad to learn new approaches and methods. There may even be that a high-standard research group in a given area can be identified in Finland thereby providing an attractive alternative. The more and more intensive and rapid international exchange of scientific ideas and information has been listed as one of the reasons decreasing the need of foreign postdoc periods. Then we have practical considerations that may play a role. There has been a dramatic change in the gender distribution among young researchers over the last 30-50 years. Currently the overwhelming majority are female. Family plans may interfere with postdoc plans, and to find a meaningful activity for a male spouse during the postdoc period, may be more challenging than for a female spouse.

Are there then still reasons why a young researcher should prepare for a postdoc period in a foreign country? Personally I am definitely in favor of such plans, if the young scientist looks for a long-term research career. Even if the postdoc period should not result in groundbreaking scientific findings, the postdoc experience will definitely give skills and contacts that turn out to be valuable later. I may tell about my own postdoc experience. Around 30 years ago I spent 16 months as a postdoc at the Research Institute, Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. That period was not a great scientific success judged from the publication record. As a matter of fact the period resulted directly in only one paper in a mediocre journal. Indirectly I, however, established scientific collaborative links, which later resulted in a NEJM article and facilitated the initiation of the TRIGR (Trial to Reduce IDDM in the Genetically at Risk) project. TRIGR is a study still going on in 15 different countries to assess whether weaning to an extensively hydrolyzed formula will reduce the cumulative incidence of type 1 diabetes in high-risk children. I have been the Principal Investigator on the TRIGR study for the last 8 years. Briefly stated I would not be in the current phase of my research career without my postdoc period in Toronto. It is important to learn that things can be done differently from the practices at your home university or hospital, and to get influences from a stimulating research setting. You will also learn things that you can benefit from when you later apply for international research funding.

International mobility is considered to be a crucial merit when you are applying for academic positions and research grants. To get a position as an Academy Research Fellow funded by the Academy of Finland requires almost without any exception a postdoc period abroad. The argument is that you need input from more than one research setting to be able to establish an independent and creative research line. My advice to a candidate who has successfully completed his/her dissertation and achieved the doctoral degree is to look for a postdoc position in an international high-standard laboratory or research group, if he/she is interested in an academic career. Practical problems and challenges can usually be solved through creative thinking.


Mikael Knip, MD, PhD

Professor of Pediatrics