Going abroad to further skills

Going to other countries to widen your professional knowledge and experience can offer a number of benefits, says Miranda Kimberley.

For many people, travelling abroad to some exotic location is the dream they cling to to keep them going through the daily grind of their job. But what if you have chosen another country as your place of work, rather than just a holiday destination?

In this article three people working in botanic gardens overseas tell us their story - covering the challenges of the job, such as speaking another language or coping with cultural differences, to the benefits that come from making the switch.

Canada

Alex Henderson left the UK to travel to Canada, accompanying wife Sue who was returning to her native country. He had worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in an important role supporting the students on the diploma but certainly stepped up the career ladder in Canada when he was appointed curator of a garden with a similar name, the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Ontario.

It is one of the world's largest botanic gardens and a mix of cultivated gardens and natural areas. Relatively young as botanic gardens go, having been founded in 1932, it is an unusual site because it has five geographically separate gardens and includes the geologically unique Niagara Escarpment. This is a biodiversity hot spot, holding 24 per cent of Canada's wild flora.

Part of his job is to integrate his work managing the cultivated gardens with those looking after the natural areas. "The relationship between natural landscape and cultivated garden is viewed very differently in Canada than in Europe. In Europe many botanic gardens, parks or green spaces are in the middle of heavily urbanised areas, providing a green, inner-city oasis and promoting biodiversity. Because the gardens at RBG are linked to natural areas, more emphasis is placed on the natural ecology of the cultivated and wild lands, and the eco-system services provided by these areas."

So in addition to horticulture, science, conservation and education, Henderson must also have a working knowledge of terrestrial and aquatic ecology, habitat restoration and the management of species at risk.

Despite being an English speaker in an English-speaking country, another issue for Henderson is language. "It may seem strange but essentially the difference in language is what has taken me most by surprise. Many of the tools, products and equipment have different names and I have repeatedly made the mistake when asked by colleagues to meet them in the 'shop' of turning up at the gift shop and they will be in the mechanics room."

Another issue that Henderson has had to get used to is southern Ontario's climate. While the area actually lies on the same geographic latitude as Marseille it does not have Mediterranean conditions, but is known as "humid continental". This means the plants have to cope with hot summers and cold winters.

RBG sees around 160 frost-free growing days per year, which Henderson says makes it a much shorter growing season than the UK and "has a drastic effect on the range and type of plant material that can be grown at the garden".

It is clearly a demanding job but Henderson retains his enthusiasm: "I have been given a wonderful opportunity to work with a vast new array of plants and eco-systems and with a diverse set of people with different expertise and backgrounds.

"Working abroad gives you a new perspective on yourself and the person you are, which can be very a valuable and illuminating life experience."

Belgium

Over in Belgium, within the grounds of the national botanic garden, known as Meise, is the Plant Palace, housing one of the largest collections of indoor plants in Europe. As curator of the glasshouse collections Dave Aplin is responsible for 10,000 taxa from around the world.

A garden writer and academic throughout his career, Aplin left the UK after his wife was offered a job in Belgium.

He was initially surprised at the differences between the cultures of the UK and Belgium, despite their proximity. "People in the UK often mix up the European Parliament and Belgium, thinking that Belgium would be highly regulated," he says. "It is not - Britain is much more regulated. For example, health and safety is a big issue in the UK, while in Belgium things are very relaxed - I have never seen a risk assessment form here."

When he first arrived at Meise he realised he was the only non-Belgian out of 200 and that the garden staff was entirely made up of men. He says the tide is turning - there are now several international members of staff, including the first female gardener.

He has great respect for his colleagues because 70 per cent of them are trilingual. The country has three official languages - Dutch, French and German - and all official documents have to be written in French and Dutch. However, meetings are conducted in English (even with no native English speakers present) because there are Dutch- and French-speaking people present.

This had a knock-on effect for Aplin. "I was thrust into international meetings very quickly," he says and sees it as a benefit now. "I managed to maintain my presence there in my own right."

A couple of issues that concern him, however, are funding and the lack of formal horticultural training. It is difficult to obtain funding for Meise because the country operates on a regional level and the garden is a federal institute. Aplin also believes the garden suffers from the lack of a culture of looking for external funding from businesses, as there is in the UK.

A major contrast he sees with gardens in the UK is that older staff in Belgium have few qualifications in horticulture. "Naturally, nothing compares to hands-on experience, but the lack of formal training can mean that (staff) are unable to grasp the bigger picture of their international role."

However, he is beginning to turn the situation around at Meise, supported by the director, by setting up exchanges for the staff in other botanic gardens around the world.

Spain

Silvia Villegas Navarro actually works in the country of her birth, Spain, at the Real Jardin Botanico Madrid - CSIC, but she trained at both the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Kew, from which she graduated last September.

At 200 years old, the Madrid garden is the oldest and most important botanic garden in Spain and covers 8ha. It is divided into three terraces, one of which assistant curator Villegas is responsible for. She directly oversees a plant collection laid out systematically by families and her priority is to increase the number of plants collected from habitats on the Iberian Peninsula and South America.

Villegas says the basic gardening techniques employed at the garden, such as weeding and pruning, are similar to those she used when working in Edinburgh and Kew but obviously growing plants in the Mediterranean climate is a challenge.

"It is extremely difficult to grow plants when the temperature ranges from 40 degsC in summer to -5 degsC in winter. Watering during hot periods has always been a big issue here, while in the UK nobody had had to think about it until a few years ago. In general, it is easier to grow plants in the UK, especially as the experience of growing plants in the UK is longer and better developed than here."

Another challenge that Villegas faces is the low status of the gardening profession in Spain, which gardeners here in the UK may also appreciate.

"In general, gardening in Spain has a long way to go. It's a job that everybody thinks they can do. They do not appreciate your skills or understand that you need to be trained and qualified to become a professional horticulturist."

Villegas particularly appreciated her own training in another country, "especially my three years on the Kew Diploma", she explains. "During the three years, there were many times I was not sure whether the effort and input I was putting in was worth it but now I am convinced it was. All the skills I developed there I can use here - my plant knowledge and how to plan, problem-solve and lead a team."

These skills are particularly useful as the garden is being developed to solve some of its infrastructure problems caused by a severe lack of space. A satellite garden is currently being created 20km south-east of Madrid. Villegas is helping to renovate the propagation unit on the site to accommodate the Iberian Peninsula plant collection.

Arguably she is the most travelled of the three people mentioned here and is particularly admirable for having studied not one but two graduate level courses in a second language, so what is her advice to others?

"I encourage everybody to leave their own country and work somewhere else. Life is too short to get stuck in the same place. I do not think it is healthy for you or the institution to be trained, developed and have your career in the same place. We are lucky to have a passport that allows us to work in other countries. Use it. New experiences are waiting for us."

TOP TIPS

- If you are thinking of moving to a new country to live and work, try, if possible, to visit several times first.

- Choose a country you feel you would be happy to spend time in.

- If you have an EU passport you are able to work in any country within the European Union.

- Embrace opportunities to work in a different country - you will become a much more rounded individual training in one place but then developing your career elsewhere.

- Make contact with the institutions or companies that interest you professionally, either on a visit or from home.

- Set up appointments to visit and introduce yourself.

- Don't wait for jobs to be advertised - meet directors, network and see what might be available.

- Maintain all the relationships you have built once you return to your home country.

- When you are ready to move, be clear with your networks about the logistics and times of your movements.

- In the other country, you may be eligible for help with job-seeking and professional development.

- Be as flexible and positive as possible and be patient.

- Take the plunge into international waters. Your skills and difference will be a valuable asset.

- If you have made all the right connections it won't be long before you have a great job and a new life.


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