Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What's it like to do a chemistry postdoc in Israel?

A couple weeks back, I mentioned a postdoc opportunity in Israel. GG wrote in with a long and detailed description of life in Israel as a chemist and a postdoc. I've put the bulk of it under the jump -- hope you enjoy. 
"Since the discussion of doing a postdoc in Israel started up from cost, I want to assure you that Israel in not as expensive as you think. The most expensive place is the central Tel Aviv area and just a few kilometers outside the official Tel Aviv limits an apartment will cost less. That said, there are quite a few foreign postdocs from the Technion or Weizmann who prefer to live in Tel Aviv for the 'scene' and will pay a lot more for the apartment and the commute for it. 35-40K is more than enough for a single person to enjoy themselves. The average apartment will run you 400-1000 dollars a month depending on where you are and maybe a bit more for a good apartment in Tel Aviv. Food is more expensive than in the USA, which is frustrating. 
Restaurants are twice as expensive and everything in the supermarket seems to be just a bit more. Fresh fruit however, is a lot cheaper when it is in season. A car is much more expensive, and gas as well. But don't worry about the gas because the country is small and the only reason you'll need a car is if you like hiking or travelling, but chances are another foreign postdoc will have one and you can bum rides is you go to places together. Some universities and institutes have housing for foreign students and postdocs so you can save a lot of money that way.
In terms of science, Israel is one of the top places or so they say, even though there are under ten universities. The Weizmann and the Technion Institutes are tops I suppose, with the former having no undergraduates. But there are some very strong groups in Tel Aviv, Hebrew (Jerusalem) and some in Beer Sheva. I worked for one of the top people in my field in the world, but it always seemed like our labs were old and we were trying to save money. I had no idea why other labs with better facilities were not beating us to these results we were constantly publishing, but those are the breaks. I think it works like that in the big groups in the States too.  
My group was typical of a postdoc experience in the States and I think most groups here are like that. Almost every PI here did a postdoc in North America and doing a research sting abroad seems to be a requirement for a faculty job. This is also why every PI speaks English and you need very good English to get a PhD in Chemistry in Israel. You will not have a problem with the language because you can talk in English to everyone in your department. On average, your coworkers will be more mature and of a slightly older age than their North American counterparts due to army service, growing up during the Second Intifada, and the fact that they get married young and probably have their first child when they are graduate students. So they come to work early, don't waste time, and leave by 5 pm and get lots done. There are always exceptions though. Anyways, there might be something to what they say that this sort of experience forces Israelis to take chances and that's why there is a start-up culture and why academic scientists try any crazy thing and then some of those things work and end up published in Science. 
There is a vibrant start-up culture, so if your boss discovers anything worth to commercialize, it's a good bet that you'll end up on a patent. I can't speak for the particulars of every institute and lab, but there are technology transfer firms and it's a dream of many young Israelis to work for a start-up and then sell out to some rich American company and become a millionaire. That said, most of the stories about that are in internet technology areas and maybe biotech, but not so much chemistry. MIcrosoft, Google and Intel have a huge presence here, but I don't know how many chemists they hire. I heard that there is a problem with chemistry professors complaining they don't get enough grad students. There are start-up pharma companies and one went out of business recently (because I was browsing through their equipment in a warehouse), but the scene is dominated by TEVA ('Nature' in Hebrew) it seems to me. They do have some original drugs, despite being the biggest generics company in the world. Still, Texas Instruments, Applied Materials and a bunch of others are here. BASF people regularly come to campus for 'consultations' so if you work for a famous boss here, you will likely have good contacts and an Israel postdoc will not be a career setback. 
If you have Jewish roots, or manage to marry someone who is Jewish while you are here, then you can immigrate if you feel like it as well. Chances are, it's probably easier to get a science job here doing what you were trained to do than back in your home country, and I'm very sad about that actually. There are a few foreign postdocs that I know who have done just that (Jewish Americans and some Dutch and Germans through marriage). 
Chemicals are usually easy enough to get since Aldrich has a huge warehouse here. However, if it's not available and is something special, like a labelled gas, then it can take half a year to get here by ship and most of the time is spent clearing customs. An average American will have no culture or research shock in adopting to the Israeli research environment. That said however, the country itself is very different. Still, if you're not into exploring different environments, you can live in foreign postdoc housing, spend most of your time in the lab, and go to foreign postdoc parties. You'll never learn a word of Hebrew and you can focus on your research. Definitely most of the Indian postdocs here follow this plan. Though if there are a lot of Indians in one place, they will set up a cricket team (there is one from the Weizmann that played in the Israeli league I believe), and have Holi celebrations on campus, etc... 
In terms of culture, this is the best aspect for me and it will be hard to leave. If you're an average American, once you are here and talk to local students, they will say something to offend you. This will happen 100%. They will not realize it, and will apologize if you insist on it, but also nobody cares if you are offended. Israelis are very in your face and will ask personal questions half an hour after they met you. Again, personal problems are not that important in the main scheme of things here. There will be Arab Muslim and Christian students as well as Jews, and there will probably be a few Druze in your university, but all young Israelis are like this. Just try not to be offended when someone tells you that you were stupid for not taking a year off to travel in South America or something like that. Once you can get past that, Israelis are very sincere and friendly and they make friends easily. 
There are lots of good hikes to do in the desert or in the forests in the north and half the year (or all year if you're from England) you can go to the beach and swim in the Mediterranean. I bought a car and I hike a lot but I'm kind of tired of the beach. Too hot and inactive for me. I prefer swimming in the rivers or in the Sea of Galilee up north. Plus there is no public transit on Saturday so you need a car to get around. I also took my car to the Palestinian Authority areas where you're allowed to go as a foreigner. It's fine and you can buy really cheap groceries there. A lot of the foreign postdocs (especially the Germans of whom there is a ton), go to Octoberfest in Taibeh, a Christian Arab village in the Palestinian Authority, every year. 
There are very many different types of Jews (descendants of refugees from Europe, of refugees from Arab countries, immigrants from the Americas)  here and all types of crazy people in Tel Aviv. Everyone should have an interesting family and/or personal story. There are lots of clubs there and a very good music scene as well. There is Yemeni music that I learned about here that I now listen to all the time, Balkan music, trance music, and some sort of Italian pop revival. The weather is usually good enough to spend the night on the streets after a cheap concert at one of the trend-setter Tel Aviv music bars (the Ozen bar or Barbie). Go to Jerusalem or spend a week in a cave near Jericho without food like in the Byzantine times to experience your religious awakening if you're into that. 
The language is hard to learn and most people give up and don't bother. It's a Semetic language that is close to Arabic and thus very different in structure from English or any other European language. This made it very hard for me to learn despite it seeming easy at first. The roots of the words and the logic between stuff just refused to stick. That said, I put a lot of work in it, and I can now read and speak basic Hebrew and understand medium Hebrew very well. Like in any other culture, knowing a language opens doors where before there was a wall that you felt like you were hitting your head on. I can understand what people say on the street and I don't have to say "Do you know how to speak English?" all the time. The best for me is that I found that the documentary film scene in Israel is second to none and there is a special documentary channel where they show some series that I now love that do not have translations. I loved watching the one about a gay director making a long movie about his life ("On the way home"), the one about "residents of the Tethys sea" (about some really strange everyday people who live in Eilat and how they ended up there), and the latest one I watch all the time is "Families" about five typical Israeli young people and their families, where one of them is an HIV positive man living in London, another is a gay pornstar who wins international awards, an adopted kid, illegitimate son of a famous TV news opinion frontman, etc...  I stopped going out to the music clubs in order to watch TV in Hebrew instead now.... 
The politics in the country and in the disintegrating neighbor countries are also exciting and honestly, I think that's why some of the people come. Some of the German postdocs sounded genuinely excited about the week long rocket war last Fall. The Indians were all horrified. I guess decadent Westerners need to get their kicks somewhere....
Thanks to GG for an excellent write-up of life in Israel.


  1. Is perhaps the problem with working in Israel then that you will be working alongside folks who are sincerely excited when people start getting blown up for some reason...?

    1. No, Israelis ignore stuff like that and go about their daily business. I guess they got used to it during the early 2000s. It's really not a problem actually; the country is a lot safer these days. Recently there was the Independence Day celebration here and the newspaper printed an article, which said that Israelis are in the top 10 of the happiest people in the world, and probably one of the highest happiness ratings for OECD countries. I can actually believe it because there is a lot of optimism here.

      The foreign postdocs do get a bit excited if something does happen on the other hand.

    2. At first I didn't want to write about the security situation or politics, but I soon decided to do that since that is what many foreigners care about. Parents of German postdocs call them everyday for the first few weeks to ask if they are safe or not, and really, you have more of a chance getting shot in any city back in the States than here. Even during a rocket war you're better off being here than in Seattle or DC. You can walk around the bad part of Tel Aviv at night and you're still better off than back in the bad part of Seattle. On the other hand, I didn't want to give a false sense that there is a 0% chance that there won't be a rocket war or something. Still, the chances of it affecting you as a foreign postdoc really are close to 0%. For real.

  2. The country has a learning curve to get used to but there is excellent hospitality. For practical purposes, Israel is very safe. Israelis asked me if I, as a Canadian, was afraid of being attacked by bears. In current geopolitical conditions the chances of either are roughly equal. If you go looking for trouble, you will find it. Just like anywhere else.

  3. Hi, I'm sorry to find this text only now. But never is too late.
    Anyhow, I regret accepting postdoc in Israel instead the position in USA.While science and tech are good, and you dont feel not a slight racism or anything similar on the street, well - remember you are coming to a non-secular country. I came because I loved Israel (not jewish, have family here so I was coming earlier). I hope I will leave soon, while loving Israel much less. When I came here I thought (since noone ever send me any contract, info or similar) that postdoctoral appointment will be more or less similar to Europe or US. Aval (but) no! Health insurance - limited and private, with a little bit of monopoly there (one company is recommended by Uni's and Institutes always). First I didnt know for the first month that i was actually here uninsured. Nothing happened, but if something did - the law protects the Uni. It is your damn problem that you dont know. Among other stuff, you cannot be pregnant here (btw I heard that until 2005 I think, they were deporting non-jewish pregnant student and workers). You can be pregnant, but you cannot insure yourself or your baby during partum-postpartum period. No way. Colleague of mine was pregnant, German, three months calling, fighting, and nothing. She was lucky that the father is Jewish, so they flew to Cyprus to get marry (because here you cannot get married if both of you ar e not belonging to the same religion) so that she can obtain residency and Bituah Leumi (social security/health insurance for Israelis). This girls worked here for four years, btw.
    If you still decide to stay and marry and become Israeli, well if you are Christian woman remember that your kids will always be Christians and in the Jewish country still second graded citizens. However, they will serve Israeli army 2-3 years, and most probably end up in some conflict (like Gaza).
    No thank you.

    1. In addition, no social security, no pension, nothing. Just 6500-10000 NIS a month (less then Europe and USA while life is more expensive), and it is expected that you will work on Shabbat and jewish holidays since you are not Jewish. (for the last, Im aware that it depends on PI, but I was told once to come since it is not my holiday so yes, it was offensive. In USA you don't say someone to come to work on Independence day since he is not American).
      Anyhow, secular country is the only place where I could live, with equal right and opportunities for everyone.

  4. Hi everyone,

    I was working as a postdoc at the Technion. Maybe my experiences are a little special, considfering that in our group 80% or so came from the former Soviet Union, thus, Russian was the common language there. Before I started my job (organic physical cehmistry), I had attended a Hebrew course at my university then. It is true, if you speak the language, you come easier together with the people. Yet in Israel everybody speaks English, I think at first, because Israel was British between 1918 and 1948, at second, because, as a democracy, Israel is the most reliable ally of the US in Asia (/even befor Japan, India and Saudi Arabia). Enough politix...
    Yes, as others wrote, food is more expensive in Israel than in Europe and the US, and so are clothes. Let alone cars... But don 't be deterred, the bus is the main means of transportation 'down there', and it is way cheaper than in the countries mentioned above. Whart' s more, Israelis are quite sporty (even girls make not only a few pull ups...), so don' t be afraid to ride a bike, even though the country is mainly mountainous.
    In Haifa I lived in Neve Sha'anan, where alot of religious Jews have their home. Sometimes I felt as part of a movie set in Russiaor Poland some 200 years ago. As a German, it was interesting, to be understand their Yiddish, a German based language, at least used by elder people of that cultural environment.
    Of course, the night live of Haifa cannot really compared with that of Big Orange (that is, Tel Aviv), but we had a lot of fun, mainly at and around Technion City. Beer is about that expensive as e. g.in the UK, that is, way more expensive than in Germany or Belgium.
    What' s funny is, if a Russian and American group happen to meet, let' s say in the street or at the beach. As soon as they realize where the others come from, they become louder and louder, try to appear cooler and cooler...That again, seem to be a typical Haifa experience.
    Let me say something to the beaches.After all, Israeli beach life is world famous. The beaches are hip, at least most of them. Don' t be afraid of the big jelly fishes, most of them are harmless, only disgusting... But be aware, there are beach sectors, 'occupuied' by Russians, you hear it if you are still far away. Nu chorosho... Other beaches are for religious Jews in particular, there, women and men are separated. Iven if it seems strange, please,please,please, don' t say something derisive or derogative!!! Please remember, without the scientific and technological discoveries, done by Jews, the world would be far less developed. These religious Jews are convinced, without their way of life Judaism would disappear from the world. Maybe they are right...

    Although I finished the political part more at the top of the text, I must come back again to it. For it seems important to me to say not to fear the Middle East conflict. Far more Israelis and Arabs die in road accidents than in military or terror actions. That do not mean to take that issue too ease, keep informed! But never, never, allow it to govern you. If you cannot overcome the fear, Israel might not be 'your' country.
    With that in mind, I am sure, you will enjoy a stay in Israel.

    More to say? Ani lo yode' a.

  5. There is no academic or research freedom... just like a layman... or technician... just to implement their ideas... Even undergraduate students will come to rule over a postdoc... If you feel your dignity, independence, and way of thinking is great, never choose here...