If you caught the first flurry of posts on this blog last year, you’ll know I started a Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellowship back in October 2015. After working at Imperial College London, UK for seven years, I was now to be employed at University of Rennes 1 (UR1), France for the next three. The first two of those years would be spent at Columbia University, USA, before returning to work at UR1 for the final year.
In the second post of this series documenting my Fellowship experience I’ll be covering the first six months in the USA: October 2015 to March 2016. For clarity, I’ve split the story up into three different sections: Research, Admin and Personal.
Starting a new research project in a new environment was more challenging than I expected. Firstly, all the institutional processes are different, from running familiar analysis techniques (e.g. NMR, mass spec) to ordering new materials or equipment. For new projects, you are also trying to figure out techniques that you have never encountered before. These have a particularly steep learning curve. For me, one notable hurdle was making the switch between different software that essentially does the same job. I had become competent using MATLAB for data analysis and preparing figures, but the new lab exclusively used Igor. The syntax and overall coding strategy is quite different, so even simple tasks initially proved a real pain. Another thing – though I had worked across multiple labs before, working effectively across two new labs took time (my project involved running both physical chemistry/physics and synthetic chemistry experiments, requiring different equipment). Of course, I was lucky that these were in the same building – some people regularly work across labs in different campuses or in different cities. Altogether, in addition to attending all the relevant safety courses (never a bad thing to get a refresher), my first weeks and months involved figuring out the really interesting questions from ‘Oh, how do you concatenate waves in Igor?’, to ‘Uh…where do you guys keep the 24/40 adaptors’?
The massive upside to all this effort is that you gain new perspectives on how departments, research groups and labs can be run and organized – from the extent of inter-group collaboration(s), to outreach activities, to community building (networking events, seminar series). You can take what works best forward with you in your career, constantly comparing it to your previous experiences. I also quickly became aware of some key differences at the institutional level, for example the PhD viva/defence. In the UK, the candidate is first examined behind closed doors over perhaps 45 min to 2 h, followed by a group celebration (assuming they pass). In the USA, the candidate first gives an open lecture, followed by a closed exam/Q&A, and then the group celebrates. Failing to appreciate this, I missed practically all the first PhD defence from the group (sorry Olgun!), though I did arrive in time for snacks.
Lab work aside I also spent a lot of time at my desk (beyond coding). I was putting together presentations of my previous research to present in group meetings, and reading a lot of literature specific to the new project. As I was based in the USA with collaborators in France, it was initially planned that I would write quarterly reports to keep everyone informed. This turned out to be unnecessarily burdensome, especially given that I was already presenting updates in two different group meetings (one for each lab I worked in). We ultimately switched quarterly update reports to PowerPoint/email updates, which saved a lot of time. During this period, I was also surprised by the sheer amount of work (paper revisions, reviewer rebuttals, etc) carried over from my previous position at Imperial. It required considerable chunks of weekend time over the first 4-5 months. One such weekend was during a massive blizzard that hit New York, even closing the roads in Manhattan. I did get to trudge through/play in it a little, though – and the manuscript(s) were ultimately accepted (win win?!). The biggest single improvement to my working life during this period was when I upgraded to a brand-new laptop (purchased using grant money). Prior to this, some days felt like I was running at ~20% efficiency, at a rate limited by the processing power of my valiant, but struggling, old notebook.
Of course, during this period I also started to gather together the first crop of new results, and first encounter some of the fundamental research challenges that would keep me busy for several months/years (/decades?).
[Aside: I recently made a personal website, so you can keep up to date with my latest research at www.michaelinkpen.com/publications]
Disclaimer: I really hope the following long section does not sound like I am in any way complaining. A lot of the difficulties I ran into could probably have been avoided with a little more forethought. Hopefully my experience can help others navigate the process more effectively.
In the first few months I encountered a few too many cash flow problems and a fair amount of paperwork from various angles. To try and avoid international fees I wanted to use my trusty old My Travel Cash card (apparently now discontinued) until I got my new US bank cards. This had previously worked great for me in several different countries, but in moving from the UK to the USA I had changed all my UK card billing addresses (from my London address to that of my mother’s house). I forgot to change the billing address on my saved UK card in my My Travel Cash account though, so when I next tried to charge up the card (debiting a UK card with an incorrect billing address) the card got blocked. It seemed excessively difficult to unblock it, and so after several emails/phone calls I simply stopped trying. My UK Barclaycard also didn’t seem to work reliably, despite many phone calls to Barclays trying to figure it out. Until my new bank accounts and salary payments were up and working, I survived by periodically withdrawing large amounts of cash using my UK debit card.
Due to the many distractions of the previous months, opening bank accounts in the USA and France was something that I hadn’t paid enough attention to. Boy did I get burned. Whilst living in the USA I was to get paid in Euros from UR1 in France (due to the way my Fellowship was to be administered). I learned 1-2 weeks before I moved that to get paid at all I would need to open a French bank account. Apparently, by French law French employees can only receive salary payments into French bank accounts. After opening said bank account I would need the bank to send UR1 my ‘RIB’ (Relevé d’Identité Bancaire/statement of bank identity). Then I could get paid. After that, I would transfer the Euros to my US bank account in USD and everything would be great.
It was super easy to open a bank account in the USA. I set up a meeting via email, took my Fellowship contract and ID into the branch, and got things going on day 1. Even my first US credit card application was successful – thank you HSBC. It probably helped a lot that I already banked with HSBC in the UK, I assume they have access to your financial records there (e.g. UK credit rating). By contrast, opening a bank account in France whilst living in the USA was super difficult. To open the most basic bank account with HSBC in France I was told I would need to maintain a $30,000 balance (for an ‘Advance’ account – note this sum might have been Euros, but still a lot). Crazy! Thankfully the amazing administrator team at UR1 put me on to Crédit Agricole as a possible option. It turned out that: (a) this was possible; and (b) all I needed to pay was €10 to open the account. Interesting side note: all legal documents in France must be written in French, including my contract with UR1 (helpfully written in double-column format with one side French and one side English). The banking documents from Crédit Agricole were no exception, and sent to me as a pdf. Given that I don’t yet speak French, I ended up converting these to Word documents and translating them into English to make sure everything looked legit. This, as well as all my email correspondence with the Crédit Agricole bank account managers, was translated from French-English/English-French using Google Translate. Google Translate is awesome. It took some more time and additional paperwork to add payees to my Crédit Agricole bank account (enabling me to transfer money into GBP or USD) – but the fact I could handle all of this from the USA was such a relief. I really didn’t want to have to travel to France to try and set up accounts in person. My French and US bank cards eventually arrived at my New York apartment, although I learnt the hard way that a street number entered as ‘304-6’ is converted to ‘3046’ (dash removed) on the HSBC electronic bank entry form. They sent a few cards that never arrived until ‘304-6’ was simplified to ‘304’.
The delays incurred due to the above debacle meant that after arriving in the USA to start my Fellowship on October 1st, I couldn’t access any of my salary in spendable US dollars until November 24th. By this point I had pretty much exhausted most of my savings and overdraft, and had resorted to making cash transfers using my UK credit cards. It was an unusual financial period, with the cost of flights, AirB&Bs, rent, utilities and food bills really starting to add up. I learnt a few things from the experience, though. Number 1: set up bank accounts in advance if possible, they are important! Number 2: you cannot open new credit cards in the UK (e.g. for interest free balance transfers) if you are no longer a resident there. Number 3: TransferWise is awesome. If you haven’t used TransferWise and are still using your bank to transfer money between bank accounts in different currencies, you are probably paying too much. TransferWise will transfer your money at the exact exchange rate for only a small fee (as little as 0.5%), and does it in a timely fashion. I highly recommend them. If you want to check them out, get a free transfer up to $600 and help support this blog by using this affiliate link.
A ridiculous story from this period: I had been able to purchase a US mobile phone using a UK credit card, but after the first month I needed to buy the second month of internet/text/call access. This was November, and my US cards still hadn’t made it into my possession. Like many online systems from US companies, the Cricket Wireless system did not allow me to enter a UK billing address (US state, US zip code required). To circumvent this issue, I bought a Cricket Wireless voucher from Walmart (on their system I could enter a UK billing address) and paid the bill by voucher code.
In addition to banking, I was busy with paperwork at Columbia University. I took a trip downtown to the US Social Security Administration and applied for my social security number. I discovered that by law I had to pay for healthcare/insurance in both France and the USA (there are complicated French ‘social tax’ rules, and strict US VISA requirements). Fortunately, the USA insurance payments were subsidized by my US Prof (thanks!!), so that financial burden was significantly reduced.
An important note for others thinking of, or participating in, a Marie Skłodowska Curie Global Fellowship (and maybe for other funding schemes). All the stated Euro amounts for salary, research and so on, are fixed. There appear to be no provisions/extra Euros to make up for changes in currency exchange rates. You are paid in Euros, so if you live in a foreign country your effective salary changes month-to-month. Just hope the rate varies insignificantly, or swings wildly in a favourable direction.
It was complicated setting up bank accounts in different countries, it took a couple months to get paid my Fellowship salary, TransferWise is awesome (affiliate link), everything worked out ok in the end.
As mentioned last time, I had replied to a few SpareRoom ads whilst at Heathrow airport waiting for my London->NYC flight. One of these came through. I visited the apartment on day 2 of life in NYC, and I moved in at the beginning of November. It was only a 15 min walk to Columbia University and I felt sweet relief in finding it. By all accounts it was quite amazing to get an apartment so quickly and easily in the city. Quite rightly, my housemate asked me to provide a character reference, given that I was ‘fresh off the boat’ and nobody here could vouch for me. One of my old UK Profs helped out, and so all was well. Before moving in, I stayed in three different hostels/AirBnBs around the city. It was kind of exhausting moving house most weekends and I didn’t enjoy living out of a suitcase for so long.
In a new city it takes some time to figure where to get all the standard things from/done that I had taken for granted in the UK – for example, where is best to get groceries, where to get a haircut, where to buy contact lenses. Ultimately I bought a year’s supply of contact lenses in one go (discount, baby!), before finding out that I had forgotten to cancel my contact lenses subscription in the UK. I went from owning zero lenses to having a >14 months stockpile. Nice. In NYC you have to do laundry in a laundromat, rather than in your apartment, which continues to irritate me. Having a dishwasher in my apartment, rather than doing dishes by hand, continues to delight me.
During my first week, I posted on Facebook that I was now living in NYC. It was pleasantly surprising how many friends and old acquaintances got in touch to say that they were also here! One of these was a fellow scientist who I knew through my time as singer/guitarist in a London band (more on playing in a band whilst doing a PhD in a later post) – he remixed several of our songs as ‘Late Night Munchies’. We spent Thanksgiving (Friendsgiving?) together, and have since done a lot of cool stuff in the city.
In addition to Thanksgiving, Halloween is celebrated in a big way here. There are decorations in most stores and several residential building lobbies. I was not used to seeing NYPD officers anywhere except for in films, so when walking around Greenwich Village that weekend I kept thinking they were also in fancy dress, almost invisible to me amongst the thousands of people dressed as zombies, vampires and ghouls. Experiencing the general holiday festivities here was also great fun (shop windows, ice rinks, Christmas trees), but I made my first trip back to the UK for Christmas proper. Here there were a series of catch ups/gatherings with friends and family, and I stayed in many different places (London, Oxfordshire, Bristol, North Wales, Kent and Cambridgeshire) over the ~2 weeks. I also made a quick trip back to Imperial College to finish transferring data/photocopying lab books, and caught a beer with old colleagues. It was a whirlwind. Returning to the USA that January I found the items I had shipped by sea had arrived. Reunited with some home comforts (photo frames, electric guitar, egg cups), I finally started to feel like I was living here, rather than visiting.
Of course, there were still frequent reminders I was an Englishman in New York. The local lingo alone continues to surprise and bemuse. General variations: shop (store), rocket (arugala), coriander (cilantro), rubbish (trash), underground/tube (subway), mok-ah coffee (mow-ka), nursery school (kindergarten), primary school (elementary and middle/junior high school), secondary school (high school). Some chemistry and university specifics: suba-seal (septum), ay-mean (am-ine), PhD student (graduate student), PhD viva (PhD defence), university (college), first year university student (freshmen), second year (sophomore), third year (junior), fourth year (senior). I recently had a confusing conversation about the ‘noughties’ (the decade from 2000-2009). They heard ‘naughties’ and wondered what the hell I was talking about. ‘Nought’ = ‘zero’ = 0.
Other financial tidbits that differ from the UK: there is a $3 charge to withdraw cash from a machine (if it’s not your bank’s cash machine), a preference to pay for things by cheque rather than bank transfer (e.g. monthly rent/bills), a pretty much exclusive pin number verification for debit card and signature verification for credit card system, and not that many places that carry contactless payment technology.
Important announcement: in New York City, you must not eat pizza with a knife and fork.
Next time: conferences, first visit to collaborators in France, writing papers, what happens after my Fellowship…?