Not my problem

Do American scientists know that doing research in America is a necessary step for many scientists from other parts of the world in order to get a permanent job in academia in their home country?

Once in the US, these researchers face many challenges outside of academia that can significantly affect their survival and well-being, and ultimately, their scientific output. These challenges include health care, visa issues, housing, taxes, the school system, and child care. In America, people can easily fall through the cracks. Many other countries have a safety net that protects you while working at an academic institution. In the US however, offices will not coordinate and fix problems without the affected individuals being involved.

Pssst! The following text is only for postdocs. (I also mean grad students and visiting scholars).

Life as a postdoc with family: jobs start, jobs end, usually at one to three-year intervals. If you are a non-American postdoc in America, you will have to renew your visa every time you start a new appointment. For yourself and for your family. You will have to find housing, I mean a real apartment because with a family, you cannot just crash on a friend/collaborator’s couch or live in a pizza box. And then you’ll have to go through all the proceedings of getting a u.s. post service change of address done. I recommend sleeping in a van. However, this gets a bit tricky if you need a postal address. And it is illegal in certain states. You will have to figure out schools. And, although most states let you freely choose schools, this works on a first-come-first-served basis. You can only be put on a waiting list if you have an address in town. So, even if it is the first thing you do when arriving at a new town, you will be sent to whatever school still has an empty spot. Even if four miles down the road. Now ride a bike every day with a 5-year old on an average-American-town-road. Be prepared for 16-year old high schoolers speeding right beside you and moms in trucks or SUVs not seeing you.

International postdoc families celebrating a Californian tradition

In March you will have to fill your first American tax record. Have fun! Enjoy being treated as an alien. Literally. The first two years as a non-resident alien, to be correct. That means you have to file as single. Say goodbye to 20% of your salary that your family would otherwise be entitled to through legitimate deductions.

Next, health care. Sign up within 31 days after being hired. Wait. Are we hired yet? Oh no. We are still waiting for the visa to be transferred from the other university… Whenever hired, sign up for health care. Be aware, that after signing up you won’t be covered. If you have an emergency, pay out of pocket. However, pay only the amount a health care provider would pay and not the amount the hospital will charge you. Hope they will reimburse you. (They won’t if you are in the wrong town – so only have an emergency in the right town and never out of state!). Next, once you are covered, find out which doctors you are allowed to go to. Set-up an appointment with a doctor in your system (even if you are perfectly healthy). They are only allowed to refer you to a specialist (or urgent care) if they have seen you. So, get a physical as soon as possible. Remember, don’t get in an accident or sick before you have seen your primary care physician. It won’t be covered.

By the way, if you have a dependent (child or partner) with a chronic disease (e.g. diabetes type I). DON’T BRING THEM! Leave them in your home country. You will find out that insulin (for example) is not covered. Then you will call your doctor, the health care provider, the broker between the health care provider and the university to find out that it is covered. They just tried to see if you would pay it yourself. Same for the 4 hours at the emergency room the other night. Expect a $7,000 bill that you need to send back. Don’t pay it.

You got it?

If not, try to follow the advice below and don’t ignore the comments section!

Become active. Join the postdoc union (if there is one at your institution). Find out whether your university offers benefit orientations and attend them. Ask how you can see a doctor, when your insurance coverage will become effective, and get help in advance filling out your tax forms. Organize. Build associations. Babysit for other postdocs in need. Make use of your fellow postdocs or neighbors with a medical doctor degree. Never give up. Always stand up for yourself or your dependents. Get out there. Find out who to talk to and tell them your problem. The system is complicated in this country if you are not familiar with it. Nobody will fix your problems for you. And most of all: Don’t let these things get into your way of doing great science. Because this is why you originally came here.

Facing an uncertain future.

Last but not least, if you become tenured don’t forget this. Look out for your postdocs.

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