In 2003, Stephen, at that time just 25, had almost completed his Ph.D. programme in biotechnology at Queen’s University Belfast. Since writing up a Ph.D. thesis was not challenging enough, Stephen decided that he could take advantage of the flexibility this offered him by also working full time and learning another language. Very brave – but he was not alone.
Since Stephen has always had an affinity for Spain, he registered with EURES to look for a job in the Mediterranean country. ‘I didn’t really have an idea where to start, so I first did some internet research. I soon found out about EURES and quickly spotted a company, Biosensores, that was looking for a specialist in biotechnology,’ recalls Stephen. Since he was convinced he had the skills that were needed for the job Stephen was quick to get in touch with Isabel García Hernández, the responsible EURES Adviser, to find out more about the offer.
‘Isabel was very helpful throughout the whole application process. After I got in touch with her, she forwarded my CV to Biosensores and I was invited for an interview. She gave me a lot of additional information on the job offer. She also gave me lots of advice on how life and work is in Spain and more specifically in the Valencia region, where the company is based.’
It’s also important to be prepared for life abroad to be more challenging – but ultimately immensely more satisfying – than a short-term trip. ‘Isabel made clear to me that Spain is not only a holiday destination, but that one has to be aware of cultural differences. She really helped me to make an educated decision on whether or not I should move to Spain.’
When Stephen arrived in Spain, he certainly got the challenge he had been looking for. Having studied Spanish for six months, he had a basic level of the language. But, since he needed Spanish for his work, he knew he would have to become more proficient – and fast.
On the scientific side of his job, Stephen’s experience was likewise challenging: besides writing scientific articles in English, he also had the opportunity of participating in high-end bioengineering, as he recalls: ‘Thanks to my Ph.D. I can say that I had a good background in biotechnology, but at Biosensores we did highly sophisticated stuff: for example, one of the things we did was modifying bacteria genetically, so that we could use them to detect water pollution.’
Writing up his thesis also became much more challenging in Spain than it may have been back in Belfast; as his colleagues regularly insisted on a couple of ‘cervezas’ after work, Stephen realised that his initial plan of writing up his thesis in his spare time needed modification.
The more Stephen discovered about Spanish culture, the more he fell in love with the country and its people. ‘My colleagues and friends in Spain were great guys. I will never forget being invited to my first Fallas de Valencia, which is a big festival in Valencia stretching over several days. The great thing was that I wasn’t simply a tourist who just got to have a look at the festival – I was actually part of the Fallas. I helped my friends prepare the traditional food and participated in the whole festival from its beginning to its end. I felt as if I was a local myself. It is really worth discovering the Spanish culture in full and not to limit oneself to the impressions one gets as a tourist – it really has a lot to offer.’
When Stephen’s assignment with Biosensores finished, he enjoyed his new life so much that he wanted to stay on in Spain. He moved with his fiancé to Toledo, where he gave English classes. It was only six months later that Stephen followed his fiancé back to Belfast and accepted a position as a lecturer at the Belfast Metropolitan College.
Stephen, now 31, still ‘kept awake at night by the dream of going back’, has been planning to return to Spain for several years now. While lecturing at the Belfast Metropolitan College, Stephen completed a training to qualify as a teacher for secondary schools. He is determined to become a biology teacher in Spain and is back in touch with Isabel to find a job: ‘I can’t say yet when I will find a job in Spain, but I am sure that it is just a matter of time until I get back there!’