I can remember that day like it was yesterday. It was a cold and windy winter afternoon at Vuosaari harbour. I had packed a folded bed, some linen and my clothes in my small car and glazed at the ferry with utter oblivious of what future may bring. I bid my father farewell and started my journey towards Karlsruhe. I had accepted a job offer as a PhD student in an international CERN CLOUD project two months ago. It was never really my plan to do my PhD abroad - I always thought to stay in Helsinki. Had I just bought my first apartment six months ago.
Maybe it was my destiny, maybe just a path I took. At that time I was single and free to do as I pleased. I really just made a decision to leave my comfort zone without really thinking of the consequences.
In Karlsruhe my first night was nothing but pleasant. The reality stroke my face. What had I done. I had left my friends and family and moved to a strange city. I changed my newly bought one-bedroom home to a room in a student apartment. I didn’t even had a real bed to sleep in. The next days I tried to get to know Karlsruhe. Would this be a new home for me? I tried to embrace everything the city had to offer.
Now five years later I am glad that I took that leap. I have grown so much as a scientist but foremost as a person. I have gone from a aerosol researcher to a specialist of ice particle microphysics and optics. I have got the change to do my research at CERN and gathered nearly 50 flight hours with some of the most sophisticated research aircrafts. I have get to know so many new scientists - some that have become my friends. I have many stories to tell.
Not all of it has been easy though. Living in a foreign country takes it toll. I had to learn everything twice. Just as I got used to filing tax reports in my home country I had to learn to do the same in Germany. It’s the little things that you take as granted, like using the public transportation or renting an apartment. I recently talked with my childhood friend, who was living many years in Brussels, how living abroad takes that extra mental energy. It is hard to explain but people living in a foreign country certainly know what I mean. Someone wrote once that as a foreigner you’re not anymore part of your country but your not completely part of the new country. In a way you’re permanently homeless.
But let’s go back to Germany. I’m so blessed to have chosen Germany as my host country. I had studied German in school from kindergarten up to the end of my high school - 13 years but my German was “book German” and using spoken German was really confusing for me at the beginning. Luckily my colleagues who shared my first office did not give up speaking German with me. Thanks Christine and Katharina! It’s a German habit to stick to German even if your discussion partner has difficulties expressing her- or himself. I learned to speak fluent German in just three months. Though I still make a lot of grammatical mistakes when talking or writing, I’m confident and can carry on a discussion. The best compliment is when people place me as an Austrian or north German based on my accent. Also I’m confident to discuss science in German - a skill to keep.
From a political point of view I got the change to get familiar with the German science system. Germany is one of the top Euro spenders in science. A high percentage of the gross domestic product is used to fund research The public sector funds Max Planck, Helmholtz and Fraunhofer societies that provide either fundamental or applied research. A constellation that small countries like Finland can just dream on. Last year, project proposals in natural sciences had nearly 50% success rate by the German Science Foundation. Funding-wise science in Germany is on a healthy basis - though one can always argue the fairness of funding decisions at an individual level. For an early-career (and female) scientist the constellation is magnificent.
To wrap up - my advice to a young scientist: take the leap. I cannot guarantee everyday happiness but personal and professional growth are priceless.