The road (back) to Madrid

On Friday last week I signed my contract and started my job as a postdoctoral researcher at the IFT in Madrid.

It feels extremely good to type that.

I have also been waiting a very long time to write this post.

I was offered this job on the 12th of April 2020 — when the pandemic was new in Europe and we were still getting excited about our daily hour of government-mandated exercise. Simpler times. After some discussions with my PhD supervisor and my future bosses, it was decided that I would completely finish my PhD (i.e. pass my viva) before starting the job, to avoid the potential bureaucratic problems that could arise if I tried to start a postdoc without actually having my PhD in hand — apparently that can be difficult in Spain.

This meant submitting my thesis at the beginning of January 2021 (in practice, I had it finished by mid-December) and having my viva in early February, the intention being that I would travel to Madrid and start the job in mid-February this year.

You can see the date that I’m writing this on, so you can already tell that my best-laid plans went more than a bit awry.

The first hurdle to overcome was Brexit. I am fairly certain that I must have been one of the first, if not the first UK citizen to apply for a Spanish working visa after Brexit. The initial problem that I faced was that the Brexit agreement was not finalised quickly enough for me to get ahead of the game with a visa application. So, I only found out which visa I would need about a week before I was originally due to start the job.

We quickly came up with a plan B: I could be employed (or paid a per diem at least) on a visitor contract while applying for the visa, and then convert that to a full contract as soon as I had the visa in hand.

The second, and arguably more troublesome problem then came into play: the pandemic. I needed to travel to Madrid in person to sign the visitor contract, but at the time (early March) the Spanish borders were closed to UK citizens if they didn’t have either a visa or a residency permit. I, of course, had neither.

The Spanish government were well within their rights to control their borders in this way, and the irony is not lost on me that the Brexiteering UK government failed to do the same thing for so long during the pandemic, inevitably worsening the spread due to the non-functional track and trace and quarantine system.

So, it was back to the drawing board for plan C: hurry up and wait for the borders to reopen, or for my visa application to be approved, whichever came first.

And so I did.

It took some time to prepare and submit my visa application. I applied for the national researcher visa. This required an NIE (numero identidad de extranjera or foreigner’s identity number, used for tax purposes. EU citizens get a temporary one which is upgraded after a certain time; third country nationals get a permanent one straight away), Spanish social security number (NAF), work permit authorisation (autorization de residencia inicial para investigacion nacional), UK criminal record certificate (ACRO, £95), translation of the certificate into Spanish (£25), Hague Apostille of the certificate (£35) and of course an application form.

My employer, the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, obtained the NIE, NAF and work permit for me. Everything else I got myself. The ACRO can be ordered online, as can the Hague Apostille (though you need to post the certificate to them; make sure you go direct to the Foreign Office website as there are other agencies which will do it for you but charge a much larger fee). The translation must be done by a Spanish government approved translator (there is a list buried somewhere on the consulate website).

I had all my documents ready by mid-March, and got an appointment to submit my application at the consulate in London on the 9th of April. The final costs associated with this were train travel to get to the consulate (about £35) and the application fee (£305 — non-refundable in case of rejection. I sorely hoped I would not be rejected).

It took about six weeks to get a decision, despite the consular official telling me I’d hear within a week. In the end my application was approved on the 17th of May, and I went to London to collect it on the 24th of May (another £35 train ticket).

I thus finally entered Spain on the 10th of June, and I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t opened my passport to the page with the visa, the border official would not have even checked it. I did get a stamp in my passport though, so it almost felt worth it.

I wrote this post with the intention of being fully transparent about the cost of this process. The costs directly associated with the visa are clear: approximately £500. For someone with about £4000 in the bank in total at the outset, this is a not-insignificant sum of money. Couple this with the fact that I received my final PhD stipend payment in January and was thus unemployed and not earning any money for six months, I would have been in an extremely precarious financial situation if I had been unable to move back in with my parents and thus escape paying rent. My visa costs have just been reimbursed. On top of this, I have had to foot the bill of an international move up-front. Luckily flights are cheap at the moment, and rents in Madrid are somewhat decreased due to lack of demand created by the pandemic, but money has still been weighing on my mind an awful lot.

When we talk about early career researchers being vulnerable and precarious, we don’t tend to mean in a financial sense. If I had started this process with any less of a financial cushion, trying to start this job would have broken me. I would have certainly had to withdraw and find employment outside of academia. I hate to think how many deserving researchers have had to leave academia for exactly this reason.

I really wish academia could do better than this. Relocation costs should be offered as standard with a job, especially if the move is international, and financial difficulties ought to be discussed openly and with the aim of supporting the employee as much as possible.

I was unhappy enough with my situation that I decided to seek external funding. By pure serendipity, I saw an advert for small grants from a financial company called G-research being circulated on a departmental mailing list and decided to apply. I have a fortunate track record with small grants and felt that I had a compelling case to make, both scientifically and from a hardship perspective. Luckily, I was successful, and I’m very grateful to G-research for considering my case with care and attention. That grant is effectively acting as a month’s salary and has given me a little more peace of mind during my move to Spain.

However, I hate that I was in this position in the first place. I saw a Tweet recently that described working in academia as like being self-employed, and I can’t sum up my own feelings any better. Transitioning from PhD to postdoc is stressful and difficult enough, without these additional problems.

Furthermore, to add insult to injury, because of the delay to my start date, my contract is now likely going to be eighteen months, rather than the originally planned two years. In fact, due to some other factors, it could be even shorter than that. Consequently, I will be on the job market again this autumn, despite having only just started this job.

Finally, I will stress that a good deal of the blame for this situation (like that for so many other problems in life…) lies solely at the feet of the UK government, for their inept handling of both Brexit and the pandemic. I would also strongly caution any UK researcher considering working in Spain to think twice — from my own experience, and from hearing about people applying for visas in other countries, the Spanish system is one of the most long-winded and expensive to go through, though I am hopeful that things might improve once the pandemic eases and all the ramifications of Brexit are acclimatised to.

Anyway, now that I’m here in Madrid, things are seeming a little better. It’s thirty degrees, the sun is shining and I’m enjoying being back in a familiar place. I’m feeling reinvigorated by research. One thing that six months of effective unemployment did for me was really dull my interest in cosmology. But I’ve spent today working on my Cosmology from Home talk, and tomorrow I’ll go to the department to see my new office for the first time.

One last thing: I saw a job advert for a data scientist at a start-up the other day.

The advertised salary was £60,000 – £80,000.

That’s going to be on my mind a lot in the coming year.

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