Returning home to Croatia after working as a postdoctoral fellow in the United States took preparation and patience. I had enjoyed my three years studying insulin resistance at two prominent US centres. Although I disliked the poor career prospects for postdocs and the lack of professional development, I loved my colleagues' competitive spirit and the generous funding of the laboratory.
I always planned to return home, but the move required preparation because of Croatian hiring practices. Science is state-funded and scientists often stay where they trained, making institutions less open to postdocs from abroad. In an effort to retain professional contacts, I stayed in touch with my former professors via regular e-mails, visits during holidays and Christmas cards. When I started searching for jobs a year ago, I got two offers immediately. But it took ten months to secure a job. Positions first have to be approved by the government, then universities carry out a complicated protocol, followed by more government paperwork.
I now work as a research fellow and instructor. My monthly salary is about US$900 after taxes, the laboratories are well equipped, and state funding is enough for respectable scientific production in terms of equipment, papers and staff. Funding is limited, however. Science was hindered by war for the first 5 of Croatia's 16 years of independence. And academic advancement requires a certain number of published articles, regardless of impact or importance.
There are problems with research logistics that I never encountered in the United States. Getting laboratory animals is mission impossible; on-site animal facilities are troublesome, and materials and equipment are expensive. Importing a $10 rat from Italy costs $200 for its transportation, quarantine and veterinary clearance.
Yet many people at the school have returned from abroad and started successful laboratories. Our new basic-science building is state-of-the-art. Fifteen years ago the school had no papers in respected international journals; now my department alone has two to four annually.
I came back to be an active part of the growth of Croatian science. Returning to a country in transition is both challenging and rewarding - though not recommended for gentle souls expecting a red carpet.