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

March 6, 2015

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.
  • 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.

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.

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!


Understanding the Impact of Change

May 27, 2014

Part One of a Two-Part Series on Transitions

Almost everyone struggles with transitions – even positive changes can create stress. Transitions can really be anything, from needing to make a decision to struggling with a new job, new city, new culture, or adjusting to a new life event like marriage, the birth of a child, divorce, death in the family, etc. Psychologists have developed a theory that shows how we respond to transition follows two main paths but ultimately, each person goes through similar phases when rebounding from the feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy often created from a transition.

In today’s world, people tend to have more jobs over the span of their career, thus more times of transition. While work is only one aspect of a person’s total life experience, it is playing an increasingly primary role because we often work longer hours and technology allows for a greater connectivity to work and the associated stressors.

The model below details the common phases and features of a transition cycle, which accounts for both positive and a negative life events. Click on the image to enlarge.*

Model outlining the cylce of transition theory along a continuum of life events and well-being


Let’s look at this figure in relation to someone who has just made a decision to pursue a non-faculty career path. Usually, they have one of two initial responses:

1. They are excited to choose a path that fits them. Maybe they have met with a career counselor and the new option is exciting and they feel good about their career move.
2. Perhaps this person has realized that a faculty position will not work out, and they feel numbness and disbelief that their intended career path may not be obtainable.

Then as time goes on, both paths coalesce since making the move to a new career path can be uncertain (are you really sure you do not want that faculty job?) and confusing (there are so many career options, how do I choose?) which causes you to lack confidence that you will ever get a position. At some point you may hit a crisis—and the big question is how will you enter the reconstruction and recovery phase (and what support will you need).

With this example in mind, how then can you find a practical application for transition theory in your own life, particularly your career path?

We invite you to take a moment to consider your own transitions within your career development. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you review your career autobiography and the significant experiences, educational programs, jobs, or other events that have impacted your career choices either positively or negatively.

— What have you considered your successes?
— Conversely, what have you viewed as your failures?
— How quickly did you rebound after your perceived failures?
— What factors enabled a successful transition for you?
— What factors inhibited a successful transition?
— Have any of these events been defining moments for you?
— Where would you rate yourself in this moment related to career success, satisfaction, well-being and overall stress level?
— Do you know what kind of support is available to you?

As a follow up, and if you are inclined, sit down to meet with a career counselor to more fully explore your career timeline and what that has meant for your professional and personal development. Taking time to reflect on your past outcomes can give you insight into current issues you may be facing. It can also be helpful for understanding key transition management skills you might need to develop. For those at the NIH, the OITE can be an excellent source of support throughout your transition.



*Reference: Hopson B & Adams J (1976) Transition – Understanding and Managing Personal Change.