Case study: Margaret Harris

A science journalist who made the move from the US to the UK warns of the long-term implications of a move overseas.

Margaret Harris

Age: 32
Role: Reviews and careers editor, Physics World magazine
Employer: IOP Publishing
Qualifications: PhD at Durham University

I grew up in the US and got my undergraduate physics degree there, then moved to the UK for my PhD. I wouldn’t actually recommend this path, though, because of the differences in the US and UK education systems.

Most US universities have a “liberal arts” philosophy towards higher education, which means that even if you choose physics as your major subject, between one third and one half of your classes will be about something unrelated – history, literature or a language, for example. This was great for me as an undergrad because I am interested in lots of things but it meant that I started my PhD with a much less extensive grounding in physics than my UK-educated counterparts.

If I had stayed in the US for my PhD, I would have made up the difference by spending my first year or two taking advanced courses – that’s the way it’s structured over there. But I didn’t, and it turned out to be a huge obstacle.

However, in general, physics is an international field, which helped me to feel accepted in the research community. And my job as a science journalist at Physics World magazine has taken me to scientific conferences and labs all over the US and Europe, which has been great.

The main thing to consider is that even if you only intend to stay in another country for a few years – long enough to get your undergrad degree or PhD, for example – there is a chance that you will end up wanting to live there longer-term, even permanently. Maybe you will meet someone you want to marry. Maybe you will fall in love with the food or the culture or the weather. Maybe you will get a great job opportunity.

All of these things are possible, so you should be aware that the family and legal implications of emigrating permanently are different from the implications of a short stay with a well defined endpoint.

On the legal side, many countries put up significant barriers to getting work permits or permanent residency and, unfortunately, a physics degree is not a “get-into-the-country- free” card – although it does give you skills that employers value, which probably smooths your path somewhat.

On the family side, all I can say is that I came to the UK as a 22-year-old new graduate with essentially no family responsibilities, but 10 years on, things look very different. If I could go back in time, I probably wouldn’t do anything differently, but I wish I’d thought more about the implications of my decision and discussed them with my family.

I looked at physics PhD programmes in the US as well as in the UK, and decided to move to the UK because a) I fancied living abroad for a bit and b) I was offered the chance, at the University of Durham, to build a new physics experiment from scratch. That appealed to me much more than the research projects I would have done at my other possible options.

Being from an English-speaking country reduced my initial cultural shock, and the fact that I arrived as postgraduate student helped me settle in because there were ready-made communities that I could join at my university. The harder thing for me – and my family – has been to adjust to the fact that I’m not planning to move back. That’s something that most emigrants have to deal with eventually.