Living across Europe
It is awesome when you go out of your comfort zone
Recently I catched-up with Aneesh Chauhan, one of my dearest international recruits. Remembering our good conversations about life and work over a coffee, this meeting turned out to be as valuable as the many talks we shared before.
When did you start dreaming of an international career?
I finished my graduation in computer science and engineering in mid-2001, which was around the period the first dot com boom busted. A lot of Indian computer engineers were coming back home from other countries because of the job losses. For a fresher like me, there were no opportunities in India. Which made me think about education, the reason to leave India was primarily to educate myself more. I went to the University of Exeter in the UK to do my masters. My idea was that after the Masters, I will have better career opportunities.
What made you decide to really go for it?
On one hand, it was the lack of job opportunities in India because of the economic crisis at that stage. I wanted to prepare myself better for the job market, which was the main trigger for me to leave in the end. I had two places in my mind which were the UK and the US and had offers for education from both. I chose the UK for practical reasons, the Masters in the UK was less in computer science and more in autonomous systems, a technology that interested me, making this a very exciting opportunity for me.
Where have you lived and worked so far?
During my Masters, it became clear to me that before moving to a job I wanted to do research. My next target was a PhD and I got this opportunity in Portugal, so I moved from the UK to Portugal. Then for a postdoc after my PhD, I moved to Spain, to Madrid. That's where I got in touch with you. It was an opportune moment because I was looking for opportunities beyond a postdoc researcher, and it was very exciting to think about how it would be to work in an industry, especially a high tech industry like ASML, which led me to move to the Netherlands. And this is where I am right now.
How were your experiences in all the countries you lived in?
The UK was obviously the most exciting. I had never been outside my country and this was the first time. And you have an image sitting in India of a country like the UK, given our common history. Access to news of the UK is very accessible in India. Then when you go there, it just turns out that people are just people. And that's a common theme across all the countries I have been in. Once you get to know people, you start working with them, start to interact with them, human ambitions and human concerns are similar across all countries.
To Portugal, I went at an age when I was still young. In a completely new culture where the language is predominantly not English, except for the younger generation. With the people that I came to know there I have had very good contact, I spent a very nice time there, in addition to my research. I consider Portugal as my second home, it is that close to me.
There are very practical differences over the countries, like the budget available for conducting research. Access to funds in countries like The Netherlands and the UK, is a lot better than if you are in Portugal, Spain for that matter, in India. Food is obviously one of the big concerns. I was a vegetarian when I moved to Europe. In the UK it wasn't such a problem, but in Portugal and Spain, it was a massive fight to find good vegetarian food. And at some moment, I turned from vegetarian to eating everything. And then you realize Mediterranean food is really good, that is something that I definitely miss when I am in The Netherlands.
What do you enjoy about international work and life?
Without a doubt, interaction with other international people. There is a sort of commonality in people that travel beyond their borders into new places and it creates solidarity, it opens you to other people in similar conditions. We all made a huge life changing decision to move away and it makes you very independent, it’s a big bonding topic, a big starting point where you then come to know a lot of different types of people; their interests, what triggers them, what makes them excited, all true human experiences. It is awesome when you go out of your comfort zone.
The other big theme is to interact with the native population of the country. It literally breaks down any stereotypes that you have heard before your move, and has been true for every single country I've been in. It just turns out people are people, the same people like you worry about their career, their home, their family. And that is at the foundation of every single society I've been in.
I do see a stark difference between the north and south of Europe. It is harder to break into the personal space of people in The Netherlands and UK. In Portugal and Spain, maybe it's a societal or cultural aspect, it is much easier to get involved with locals. However, once you do. It all turns out to be very similar.
My approach here in The Netherlands has been persistence and common interests. I must mention I am close to 40 now, when I left India I was closer to 20. The kind of people that you meet at a certain age makes a huge difference. When you are at my current age, or if you move to another country with your family, I recommend to reach out to people in similar circumstances.
What do you dislike or miss living and working internationally?
Without question, access to my family. This is something that I worry about daily for 20 years now. I come from a small family, my sister lives in Canada right now and I am here in the Netherlands while my parents are in India. If I had a large family and there were other siblings nearby, perhaps I would worry less. Maybe it's just personal, though my main sticky point is the family. Because in terms of working conditions, a country like the Netherlands where I am right now, and the other countries I lived in, they offered plenty of opportunities. I never felt left behind because I was an international. I'm happy where I am, except if the family was also around.
How has your international experience boosted your career so far?
I think education obviously played a major part. My Masters, which led to a PhD, which led to a post-doc, which eventually led to where I am now. In all this period, I was primarily in universities and research institutes. Except for one very big difference, which was at ASML. This was a very, very nice break for me. It took away my prejudice about working in the industry, especially working in the high tech industry. And now when I look back at the research that is done across multiple countries, there is a lot that research institutions could learn from the industry, especially high tech industry, and how they process and produce products.
I think there are lessons to be learned from both sides. It was a privilege for me to work in a company like ASML and then come back to research. To make research available as a product, it should not just stop at prototyping, which is what most of the researchers do. You build a prototype, you make a publication and you move on to the next thing. However making the jump from prototype to an actual product that has to work every single day, all days of the year, risking millions of euros when it is breaks down, then you have to make something absolutely soundproof, you have to have processes and knowledge in place to achieve that. That's what was very visible at ASML to me. This is not something that happens in the academy.
I take these lessons back to my current applied research. We work a lot with private industry. But there is a gap of making our prototypes available in a proper process, as it was in ASML, to make it available as products for the private industry.
What is the best advice you can give anybody with an international dream career?
Don't just dream about it! Get in touch, identify locations that suit best to you. If language is an issue, think about countries like The Netherlands, UK and also Scandinavian countries, you'll be very surprised how many people speak English. Language is the first hurdle independent of your knowledge. If you're looking for a career in high tech, inform yourself, there are hotspots within Europe, the US and in Canada so do your study before you make a decision. Then there are multiple ways to approach career opportunities. One of them is to make direct contact with the companies and the other is contact through recruitment consultants. Study both ways because of both open new windows of opportunities.
In the end, it is never an easy decision to make. There are a lot of factors when you make a decision to move abroad. But if you don't try it, you wouldn't know. You miss and you will lose out on a lot of life as well as career experiences that you could have had. So it's always a good choice to get out of your comfort zone and into an international career. If you can make a decision like that, I think you should go for it.
Manuel Teunissen | Co-founder Mundialz | April 2020