“It Was Challenging, but We Made It,” Says Couple with a Dual Career at CEITEC

Before joining CEITEC Masaryk University, Panagiotis lived with his wife, Jill, in Philadelphia and worked as a Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on the bioinformatic analysis of High Throughput Sequencing Data for Various RNA Binding Proteins. Willing to move back to his “home” continent of Europe, Panos applied for the position of Bioinformatics Core Facility Head at CEITEC MU with an option to also establish an independent research group. After being offered the job, Panos and Jill decided to move to Brno and accept a dual career offer. Jill was hired as a Policy Officer in the Director’s Office and is now working with indicators and reporting, is responsible for the internal newsletter, and is involved in the Alliance4Life Project 

We already have some couples at CEITEC MU, but you are actually the first couple that was hired together as the result of a “dual career” offer. How important of a factor was it for you in your decision to accept the job offer from CEITEC MU?

Panos:  The dual career offer was crucial in the decision to accept the job offer. It would have been a really hard decision that we would probably not make, if we had to move to a new country without employment for one of us.

Jill: As Panos said, the dual career offer was very important to us and we were very lucky that everything worked out well for us.

Jill, for you personally, following Panos to the Czech Republic, and changing your career path, was it a difficult decision for you?

Jill:  Yes and no. It was difficult to leave my family, friends and a job that I really enjoyed. However, I was also very excited about moving to Europe and working in academia. I applied to work in academia in the US, so this life path worked out well for me. My current position at CEITEC overlaps a bit with my previous job in the US, so it isn’t too much of a change for me.

Did you agree on a decision for the situation in which Jill would not be happy here in Brno? For example, wanting to go back to the US?

Panos: We did not pre-emptively agree on every contingency, but we were both dedicated to trying hard to make the move work smoothly. It would have been a tough situation that I am glad we did not need to decide on, since no solution would be positive for both of us.

Jill: Honestly, we haven’t really talked about it. I wanted to be optimistic about living and working in Brno and we said that we would cross that bridge if and when the time came. We plan to go to the US for the Christmas holidays every year, so that helps with any feelings of homesickness.

Jill, is this your first time working outside of the US? Is it a common occurrence that US citizens move abroad to build their careers? 

Jill: No. I lived in Australia for a year, so I am familiar with setting up my life in a new country. I think it is more common for Americans to move to different states within the US for work than moving abroad.

Can you imagine that one day, you will select a living location based on Jill’s career choices?

Jill: Panos is in a much more competitive field, and I decided not to pursue a career in my field of study (Political Science) after my Master’s degree, so I am much more flexible in my career choices. We hope to continue on a path that will benefit us both. (Panos) As Jill said, my field is much more competitive, so in a situation where conditions would force me to move to a specific location, I would probably find it really hard to get meaningful employment in my field. Jill has focused on a background with more versatility than I have. That said, I would not be opposed to that in principle.

The LIBRA project at CEITEC MU aims to build a good working environment, including the support of a work-life balance and equal opportunities. Do you feel a big difference between the research environment in the US and the Czech Republic? Dr. Fatima Gebauer from CRG, our host speaker in the My Life in Science series, described her experience from the US and said that in the US, nobody really cares about your life outside of the lab. Do you have the same experience?

Panos: I agree with Dr. Gebauer’s assessment as a generalization of US working conditions in a research environment. Although I was personally very lucky with having a supervisor that valued work-life balance, the system is geared towards high competitiveness and fast pace of work. I have seen several peers burning out from working in such environment in the US. In CEITEC, I have experienced a much more balanced environment that allows for more personal time without sacrificing scientific excellence.

Jill: I have had a more atypical work experience in the US (and have not worked in a research environment). I have experience working in non-profit and small businesses, and I was very lucky to work in these environments. These organizations were very family friendly, with flexible work hours and generous vacation time for American organizations (I had at least 3 weeks). However, most companies give 1-2 weeks of vacation, and some are very rigid about work hours. It depends on where you work.

What do you consider to be the biggest difference in work organisation and working culture, when you compare Greece, the US and the Czech Republic?

Panos: The Czech Republic is the fifth country in which I have experience in academia – from undergrad to group leader. I experienced the least work-life balance in Greece where it is habitual to work or be ‘on call’ 24/7 without much consideration for personal life or compensation. There were often no established processes to get things done, and the general culture is negative to innovation, so many obstacles could be encountered in bureaucratic processes or systemic issues that could not be overcome. In stark contrast, in the US I encountered well-established processes and infrastructure thought out to reduce as much as possible the administrative overhead of the researcher. Well-organized institutions staffed with knowledgeable administrative personnel allowed me to focus more in doing research, instead of trying to navigate a convoluted system. I feel the Czech Republic lies somewhere between these two extremes in terms of work organization, and CEITEC appears to be much more highly organized than the average level of the country.

Jill: I have noticed a lot more bureaucracy in the Czech Republic, and a bigger focus on family time. In the US, many businesses will stay open as long as possible to make another dollar, often at the expense of their workers. As I said earlier, I have been lucky and have not worked in organizations like that. Personally, I do not feel much of a difference in my working environment at CEITEC compared to the places I have worked in the US. I have always sought out organizations that provide a healthy work-life balance.

Panos, can you specifically compare a level of bureaucracy, and of administrative support that you encounter at CEITEC MU (e.g., when dealing with grant proposals, budget planning, or HR staff) with your previous experience from the University of Pennsylvania (and others)?  

Panos: I have had a lot of support from CEITEC admin staff in every aspect of my first year here. I think budget and HR were helpful, but I want to focus specifically on the grant proposal help. I have not experienced this level of support in writing and submitting grants anywhere else. The knowledge of opportunities, the help with drafting proposals, access to resources and consulting, and so on. The level of professionalism and efficiency I have experienced in my interactions with the grants office is exceptional worldwide in my opinion. As for the level of bureaucracy, I find myself having to sign many more papers and forms than other places I’ve worked before, but the quantity is not unmanageable.

Jill, how hard is it for a foreigner (non-speaking Czech) to be a part of the CEITEC MU administration team consisting mostly of Czech people? Currently, you are the only non-Czech speaking person in the administration, because the second foreigner can speak Czech. That must be challenging.

Jill: Honestly, it can be a bit of a struggle. I know that the administration is working to make the institute more English-friendly and that having meetings exclusively in English is new for my colleagues as well. I think this is a transition period and that things will get easier over time. I’m very lucky that my colleagues are very friendly and welcoming, so that makes it easier. Panos and I are planning to take Czech lessons, so I hope that will help!

How do you like living in Brno? Would you recommend it to other foreigners for working and living? If you could “sell it,” what do you consider as the best-selling points of Brno?

Panos: For me, Brno is at the perfect balance of having access to most things one could find in a bigger metropolitan area, but not having to deal with all the issues that come with living in a bigger city. I watched the local news (in English!) the other day and noticed that the main issues in the city were some inconvenience due to construction, and a few unattended bike thefts. In contrast, there are on average, four shooting victims and one murder in Philadelphia every single day of the year. In Brno, one can take public transport from one end of the city to the other in a half hour or two, in complete safety even in the middle of the night. The access to major cities with great cultural offerings (Vienna, Prague, Budapest) and the access to the beautiful Czech countryside are big selling points for me personally.

Jill: I really enjoy living and working in Brno. I’m from a big city, so it’s quite different living in Brno than Philadelphia. I like that I run into friends on the street and we spontaneously decide to hang out. My favorite aspect of Brno is the public transit! It’s amazing that the buses run all night! I also like that you can have an “easy” life here. Daily living isn’t stressful, like it can be in some parts of the US.

Was it easy to find friends here? I expect they are mostly from the community of CEITEC? 

Jill: We’re really lucky that we found a great group of friends early on. We have some friends at CEITEC, but we met most of our friends at a board games group in Brno. We have a mixture of Czech friends and expats from all over the world.

I will not ask “if,” but “what” was the biggest cultural shock you experienced from Czech culture and mindset of Czech people?

Panos: The first big ‘cultural shock’ I experienced was the Czech habit of often not wearing shoes indoors. Even in the work environment, people tend to wear different ‘indoor’ shoes, and change into their ‘outdoor’ shoes before leaving the building. I really understand the reasoning behind it, but coming from abroad and being in meetings where half the people wearing ‘slippers’ was a shocking experience. As for the mind-set of Czech people, and especially people from Brno, I will point out the self-depreciation of the city. I have been asked repeatedly and with incredulity about ‘why on Earth did I move here’ from the US. I get the feeling that local people are underestimating how nice this town is in direct contrast to other places, and tend to put their hometown down in every opportunity. This is in stark contrast with my previous experiences, both in Athens and Philly, where people show an unfounded ‘pride’ about even the most minor positive of their city, and many of its negatives as well.

Jill: I was most surprised about the level of bureaucracy and length of time some things take to complete (like construction and delivery times of purchasing furniture or a car). Customer service is also very different than in the US – it is much more relaxed here.

Imagine that you can implement one to three things to improve the work environment and/or support the work-life balance of researchers at CEITEC MU. What would you do?

Panos: For work environment, I would suggest any type of event where people from different parts of CEITEC interact with each other as equals. Jill and I bridge the gap between researchers and admin, but I see this difference very starkly in my everyday life here. I think that breaking down some of these barriers would lead to closer collaboration and better results. As for work life balance, I would suggest an offering of Czech language classes for foreign employees, which would help us integrate better in the local society.

Jill: I suggest organizing some casual events outside of CEITEC MU like bowling or drinks after work. That way, employees can get to know each other and make sure they will take a break from work. “Happy hours” are quite popular in the US. As Panos said, it would be a great way for researchers and administrators to get to know each other. I also agree that Czech language classes would be very helpful for our orientation here.

Is there anything you would like to share with young couples working in R&D? Any recommendations for what works for you in the research environment that expects people to be flexible and mobile, both in space and time?

Panos: The research environment is tough for personal life, due to the mobility, long and erratic schedules, as well as the mental and emotional strain it involves. My suggestion to young couples working in the field would be to try and discuss issues and concerns about work-life balance between you and with co-workers or employers. For example, when negotiating a position, there is no harm in asking if there is a ‘dual career’ scheme available in your new workplace.

Jill: The key to making things work for us has been flexibility and understanding. I think it is important to remember the big picture and your shared goals, as well as maintain a positive mind-set.

Thank you for the interview!

Interviewed by Eliška Handlířová

 

„This interview was prepared within the frame of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 LIBRA project No. 665937.”