Friday, 22 October 2010


Canadians have many strange and bizarre habits. They buy milk in bags, describe a six inch snowfall as 'light' and have a chain of automotive stores that are also the place to go to for alarm clocks and space heaters. Then in the second week of October, they have a holiday devoted entirely to food.

Unlike the USA counterpart which remembers the arrival of the pilgrims in the New World, the Canadian Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest. I should mention I discovered this historical fact through google, since raising the topic at the lunch table merely produced a discussion surrounding plans for family visits and huge quantities of food. In common with their near neighbours, Canadians often travel to visit kin for the long weekend which meant many people were due to be out of town.

The exact count of absentees, however, was smaller than might be suspected due to the number of department members from other countries. The postdoctoral community in particular is very international, with five out of the seven postdocs in Physics & Astronomy coming from outside North America. This phenomenon is not limited to McMaster; while I was at the University of Florida, there was a standard joke that only one postdoc at a time was allowed to be an American.

Postdoctoral positions are short, normally between 1 and 3 years, and are designed to give young researchers experience by working with senior members of their field. Due to the nature of the job (skilled and fixed term), visas are relatively easy, if sometimes tedious, to acquire and therefore many people take the opportunity to work in another country. This is especially true in Astronomy, where the scientific instruments are incredibly expensive and the number of professionals in the field is relatively small (the International Astronomical Union has around 10,000 members). This results in strong collaborations between countries being an essential requirement of the work. Parts of Europe go as far as to expressly discourage their own nationals for applying to postdoctoral positions in their country, desiring them to gain experience abroad. This multicultural mix feeds through to the faculty level professors who, while all now settled in Canada, have their roots from all over the world.

From a personal perspective, this is something I enjoy most about being an Astronomer. Since graduating from my doctorate in 2005, I have worked in New York, Florida, Australia and Japan before starting my post here in Canada last November. The chance to experience life in a different country is truly amazing and something I have wanted to do since being a small child. Of course, there are downsides. Permanent faculty jobs are sparse and highly competitive and potentially moving countries every few years with a partner or family while you try and secure a position can take its toll. I have had several friends who left the field entirely for just this reason.

My immediate problem though, was not the country for my next job but the location for my dinner. It seemed to me that eating a modest meal on my own at Thanksgiving was clearly not embracing the culture. Fortunately, rescue was at hand in the form of Ben Jackel, a graduate student working on the creation of magnetic fields in disks around massive objects with Professor Ethan Vishniac. Ben volunteered his apartment for a Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a large ham. I joined Ben, his wife Margaret and two other graduate students, Tara and Leo, to more food than I could fit on a plate in one go.

Moving was more challenging than galaxy formation for the next 24 hours. I was told this was normal.

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