Guest blog

ISTAART Blog – The Trials and Tribulations of Doing an Academic Postdoc Abroad

Blog by Dr James Quinn

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In May 2019, the excitement of finally kicking off my biggest career move to date was reaching its peak. It was really happening—I was moving to Boston, Massachusetts. However, this was not what I had originally planned. After finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, I was planning to undertake a postdoc at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden in early 2019. For reasons out of my control, this position never materialized.

Fortunately, I had met my current supervisor Dr. Carlyle at The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in 2018 in Chicago. She was looking for a postdoc. After going through a few virtual interviews, a quick trip over to Boston and a lengthy visa application (which took much longer than expected), I was finally all set and the flights were booked. I packed up my three bags, big coats (recommended by my visa consular officer) and got on a plane from London Heathrow to Boston Logan!

After landing in Boston, I met up with my supervisor, who had arranged for me to rent out her old flat for a few weeks and had provided me with the essentials to get settled (which I greatly appreciated). The next nine months flew by, even with three trips back home for my graduation, Glastonbury Festival, my granddad’s funeral, and Christmas. But like many others, I had no idea what was to come after flying back after Christmas in 2019.

Fortunately, I had built up a good group of friends around me in the US, my fantastic lab-mates and met my wonderful girlfriend, but I know many others that weren’t so lucky.

In March 2020, after our labs all shutdown, I really struggled. It was just me, alone in another country for three months. I tried to be productive, but ended up reading way too much about COVID. I was fortunate to get back into the lab in June 2020 but working masked and in shifts with the constant threat of getting infected loomed over me. Slowly, things started to normalize but my problems felt insignificant in comparison to the societal changes happening around me with the Black Lives Matter protests and vast COVID death toll.

Me and my nanna outside her new care home – unfortunately not able to go inside due to a COVID outbreak in the home!

I’ve been thinking a lot recently as I was fortunately able to fly home for Christmas in 2021, about what I’ve missed by moving to Boston. I’ve missed the birth of a second cousin, my aunt’s funeral, and my nanna going into care. I’m the lucky one—I have called my family each week, I have a great support network and didn’t have any dependents when I flew out to Boston.

Now, I feel like I have two families—the one in the US who has gotten me through these last three years, and mine back in the UK who have always been there for me. This makes my personal sacrifice worthwhile. While science is important, I haven’t talked about that until this sentence. I hope this helps you think about what you can gain and what you will miss out on if you move abroad. For those of you who can’t move abroad for whatever reason, I envy you for being able to see those critical family moments at home. For those about to make that move, I envy you too, as you are about to have an experience of your lifetime despite the trials and tribulations.

Dr James Quinn


Dr James Quinn is a Research Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Neurology and Programme Chair of the ISTAART PIA to Elevate Early Career Researchers. Working on trying to improve the understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms that lead to the different forms of dementia, researching the role of neuropeptides which are extremely important in neuronal signalling, contributing to synapse maintenance, energy balance and neurogenesis. For ISTAART he is responsible for organising events and support activities for early career researchers.





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