Culture Shock – Adjusting to a New Culture, a New City, a New Lab

Image of a globe with flags of different countries around it.In 2013, international fellows came to the NIH from 93 countries; if you just relocated to the NIH from abroad, it can be a challenge to adjust to a new culture, new city, and a new lab.

Many international fellows can experience culture shock, but each person will respond to a new culture differently. Every new trainee at the NIH will experience a transition period to their new environment and some may find they adjust easily; however, others struggle to acclimate. Once the initial luster of being in a new place wears off, individuals can find themselves feeling increasingly irritated by their new setting. Many also report feeling very isolated.

At times, individuals can feel lost or not sure about what to do in various situations. In an article in Science Careers entitled “International Scholars: Suffering in Silence,” one postdoc noted that adjusting to the new cultural norms was the hardest part. For example, it took a year before she felt comfortable calling her PI by her first name; this lack of formality wasn’t commonplace in her home country.

Many trainees, no matter where they are from, hesitate to ask for help adjusting to a new setting. They often feel responsible for figuring things out on their own. If they run into a roadblock, they don’t naturally think of finding a resource which only increases their isolation. Maybe your graduate school did not have many resources to help with career or interpersonal concerns. Fortunately, the NIH has many services to help you:

The NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE)

  • Look for Upcoming Events
    Orientation, Career and Professional Development Workshops and English/Cultural resources are regularly offered. Become active on campus in order to help you not only meet more people but also to become acclimated to the NIH campus culture. https://www.training.nih.gov/events/upcoming
  • Join an OITE Listserv
    Joining and regularly reading these email will make sure you get up-to-date information about training events and career development activities that are taking place. https://www.training.nih.gov/listservs

The Division of International Services

  • The Division of International Services provides immigration-related services to theNational Institutes of Health for visiting foreign scientists and the NIH research community. http://dis.ors.od.nih.gov/index.html

The NIH boasts a very diverse work environment, so remember that you are not alone. Give yourself time to adjust to your new place. In dealing with culture shock, it is important to remember to keep an open mind and try to maintain a positive attitude. Adapting to cultural differences does take time, so be patient during this adjustment; however, it is extremely important to take ownership of this time. It will help immensely if you make an effort to get involved and connect with your new community around you.

International Fellows – What helped you adjust to life in a new place? What resources did you take advantage of to help learn English? Let us know by commenting below!

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