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At Karolinska Institutet

E. Jardin & C. Schoch

Marion Korach-André has a PhD in biology from the University of Grenoble 1. After two postdocs and unsuccessful applications in France, she was recruited by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

1/ Can you retrace your itinerary between the time you defended your thesis in 2001 and you joined Karolinska Institutet in 2005?
After I finished my thesis, I left to do a postdoc in the United States. Then I traveled a little bit, had two children and did a second postdoc at Karolinska, which was converted into a position of tenured researcher. That's the short story, because between United States and Sweden, I did two recruitment rounds in France. I was invited to go before the board, but wasn't chosen for any of the positions. I admit I was disappointed by research in France. I get the feeling that my experience abroad wasn't really recognized and appreciated.

In any event, after my pregnancy, since I couldn't find work in France and I was starting to get desperate, I plugged in all the keywords of my research field in an Internet search engine and I listed all the research labs that corresponded, essentially in Europe. Then I set out resumes and cover letters to the lab directors. I got positive responses from Great Britain, Northern Europe and Canada, and they asked me for letters of recommendation to complete my application. I got in contact with my former French, Canadian and American supervisors and asked them to write letters. They all agreed. After that, I admit it still took a lot of perseverance.

2/ Why did you choose Sweden?
I was familiar with Great Britain but I couldn't see myself living there, nor could my partner in fact. We had no qualms about turning down the offer. As for Canada, since I'd done my doctorate between Montréal and Grenoble, I also knew the country, but I had to wait for final decisions and then there was the problem of getting papers. For Sweden, the immigration procedures were simpler, and Karolinska has a very high international reputation as a medical Institute.

3/ What mattered most in the decision to hire you? Your scientific skills?
It's hard to say. I've worked in French, Canadian and American labs, and I think the Swedes appreciate versatile researchers who have experience abroad. So the letters of recommendation certainly counted for a lot. It was impressive to have a letter from France, another one from Canada and another one for the United States in my file. The lab director also told me he was impressed by my perseverance and tenacity. You have to realize they get dozens of résumés every day!

4/ What's your work environment like?
Karolinska is a huge medical school that's very well endowed with both private and public funds. Two-thirds of its researchers are foreign. There are a lot of European and Asian PhD students and postdocs.
Here, PhD students have a good standard of living and enjoy job security till the end of their doctoral studies, which takes at least five years. After that, they often go on to do a postdoc with one-year or even six-month contracts. There are tons of postdocs and a number of researchers on short-term contracts that renewed depending on the research contracts that crop up. Tenured positions are rare. I was incredibly lucky to be offered a permanent position. No one could believe it!

5/ What are your working conditions like?
They're excellent, especially compared to the United States. As a researcher with children, I don't think I could've found anything better elsewhere. It’s reflected in the flexibility of my schedule. As long as you get results, you can manage your time rather freely, and family time is very important here. For instance, I can go pick up my children at school at five o'clock.

As for the salary, it's a far cry from the United States! I make about 2000 € per month, and that's enormous for a public research position in Sweden, because the salary scale is very low.

6/ What sort of career perspectives do you have?
At Karolinska, there may be opportunities to get an associate professorship. That means taking training sessions, demonstrating research results, and especially logging a number of teaching hours at the university.

7/ What you think of medical research in Sweden?
It's outstanding for two reasons: the private sector and universities have been working together in research for a long time, and there are considerable material and human resources available.

8/ What are the main state-sponsored research organizations in Sweden?
They're mostly universities. Uppsala University is the oldest in Scandinavia. It has an excellent reputation. Besides that, there are two other big universities in Sweden, in Lund and Göteborg. In Stockholm, there is the Stockholm Universitet and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Since the early 1990s, foundations have been set up with joint public and private funding, which train very good researchers in very well equipped labs.

9/ If a young French PhD wanted to move to Sweden and asked you for advice, what would you say?
Getting your papers is no easy task, because first you have to get a social security number, and without that number you can't do anything in Sweden: you can't open a bank account or enroll your children in school. If you’re a member of the European Union and you have a job contract, you can put in a request for this number with the immigration services. All that takes time.

Actually, the hardest thing is a language. When we arrived in the United States, it was easy for us to read official forms in English. In Sweden, that's impossible, and it turned out to be a huge handicap. Fortunately, I got a lot of help from my colleagues at the lab. As regards oral communication, all the Swedes speak English. They have to to be able to communicate with the rest of the world. There are 10 million Swedes, and only 10 million people speak Swedish in the world. But Swedish isn't that difficult to learn, it's a mixture of German, French and English.

Interview conducted by Evelyne Jardin on February 16, 2007.