Career in Transition

By Trine Ljungstrøm | Expat Dual Career

Jan 28

More than 12 years ago I left Copenhagen and moved with the family to Doha, Qatar because of my husband’s job. My background is a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology from University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Already as a student I started working in a lab during weekends watering gene-modified plants and handling microorganisms in a big Danish biotech company. After I earned my degree I worked as a research scientist in the medical industry in Denmark for several years. I loved my job and being part of a team.

My biggest fear about quitting my job and follow my husband to the Middle East was that he would lose his respect for me, when I became a housewife instead of a research scientist. My professional identity was of great importance to me – just as it was and still is to my husband.

We met when we were both studying at university, and we both earned a Ph.D. degree after we moved in together in an apartment in Copenhagen. We worked hard and shared the housework and responsibilities of raising a little girl equally. My professional identity was of great importance to me – just as it was and still is to my husband. Therefore, leaving that, my family and friends behind was a big thing for me. I told my husband about my fear of him losing his respect for me, and he promised me, that it would never happen.

He has kept his promise, and he has always been supportive in all the different things I have chosen to do.

Copenhagen, Denmark

We originally left Denmark for a three year-period. I decided to see it as a break from my job - kind of a long vacation. In my mind I was convinced that I was going back to work at some point. The three years have now extended into more than 12 years, and we don’t plan on going home any time soon.

Moving to another country in a different part of the world can be a great opportunity to try something new professionally. To start a fresh - make a new choice for yourself. But what if you actually were happy with the job you already had? And you don’t have any desire to find something new? Or test new sides of yourself? You were passionate about the field of work you did back home. How do you cope with that? I don’t know what will work for you, but I will tell you what I have been through. I have evolved professionally to adapt to the places we have lived, and to fit the needs of my family too. The last 12 years have been like a roller coaster of ups and downs and around different kinds of work.

Doha, Qatar

In 2006 my husband got a great job opportunity in Doha, Qatar. We decided to accept the three-year contract, and I was ready to take a break from work and jump into the role as a spouse taking care of the family for a few years. After nine months in Doha we had a baby, and I really enjoyed having the possibility to be a full time mom for our two children. The first few years as a housewife were like a long vacation for me. I had domestic help to clean the house and do the ironing.

We had a nice pool and I had lots of time with my children. I did some volunteering at our daughter’s school. I was a library and class assistant and homeroom parent for years. I organised the employee school bus service for my husband’s company, and I did a talk about Applied Cell and Molecular Biology for Grade 8 biology students.

After a few years in Doha I felt it was about time to go back to work. I was eager to get back in the lab and to work with other biologists again. Weill Cornel Medical College, New York had built a campus in Doha, and in October 2008 I started as a Post Doc in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. I helped getting the lab started, up and running.

Authoring a Book about Qatar

In the back of my head the idea of authoring a documentary book, about all the things I experienced in Doha, was growing. I had been writing newsletters to our family and friends back home in Denmark. I was hoping that other people would find it interesting and useful to read about the country and its people as well.

There were no books in Danish about Qatar, so I wanted to make a contribution. I started doing some deeper research about the country. I decided to quit my job at Weill Cornell, to go all in working on my book. I wanted to make a Danish book about life in Qatar, religion and culture presented from different perspectives. It was a fantastic experience. People were more than happy to tell me their stories.

All of them were overwhelming and personal, and I felt humbled to be trusted to communicate them to a broader audience. I did it all by myself: the interviews, the photos, the writing, editing, layout, publishing and promoting. It was all new and exciting to me.

After writing my Danish book about Qatar, I was encouraged to translate it into English. “We want to read it too!” people said. I was afraid that my English wasn’t good enough, but I took it as a challenge to improve my English, do more interviews, meet more people, and update my Danish book. So I did it. It was an interesting process that went much more smoothly than I expected. Soon I had done my second documentary book about life in Doha – this time in English. That was quite an accomplishment for me, and I was very proud of my work.
Coaching

I got the opportunity to participate in some “Find your Passion” coaching sessions targeted to expat spouses. It was very inspiring and hard work on a personal level as well, and I acquired some insight about myself, which I could use in my journey to obtain a more fulfilling professional life as a so called trailing spouse.

Some of the catchwords I ended up having to work with were: biology, writing, communication, organising, planning, empathy and caregiving. This process didn’t change my life right away. But I have kept it in mind and used it to work my way through big decisions later on.

Research Project Manager at University of Calgary, Qatar

Based on my newly acquired writing experience I applied for a job where I had to communicate scientific biological information to people of non-academic background. I became part of an investigation about “Factors influence Breast Cancer Screening Practice Amongst Arabic Women Living in the State of Qatar.” I managed to draft a few papers, reports and posters for conferences before my husband got a job in Milan that we couldn’t reject. So I had to leave this job and prepare to move with the family back to Europe.

Milan, Italy

Going back to Europe was more difficult than we had expected. First of all because of the language, I guess. I tried to learn Italian with a one-on-one teacher, but I didn’t succeed. My excuse was that I had three years of Spanish in high school, so every time I tried to make a sentence in Italian, it came out in Spanish. But the truth was that I wasn’t happy in Milan. I was lonely. For three years. In fact, it was the worst years of my life, so I think I was mentally blocked with regards to learning the Italian language. Many Italians don’t speak much English, so communication on a daily basis was quite a struggle for me.

In Italy appearance is very important, but the name of my handbag and my hairdresser is not important to me. I gained weight due to comfort eating, and I am much taller than most people – men included. With my height of 180 cm and feet size 42 I wasn’t able to buy any fashionable designer clothes or shoes in Milan. So I really felt as an outsider most of the time.

Volunteer Scientist

Maybe working in a lab would do the trick I thought. In a big reputable research hospital I found a department headed by a young Danish woman. That’s it – I thought, and I contacted her. I wanted to keep my lab skills up to date, and again I had the desire to get out among fellow scientists. But I felt so misplaced among the Ph.D. students in the lab. They didn’t understand why I would work for free. I was there for academic reasons not for economic reasons. Even though they were mostly young women, who must have worked hard to become Ph.D. students at this prestigious research hospital, it seemed that they were ready to give up their careers right away, if they found a husband who could support them financially. I really didn’t fit in, so I resigned relatively fast, and decided to spend more time volunteering at my children’s school instead.

President of the Parent Teacher Organisation (PTO)

I got elected President of the Parent Teacher Organisation (PTO) at our school. As the liaison between the director of the school, the administration and parents this position gave me a lot of insight in how the school works, and how to navigate among teachers, students and most of all parents from many different languages, cultural and national backgrounds. I coordinated and lead the monthly meetings for parents, where the school director and the principals gave updates; I coordinated the big events and the committees doing the work. I met a lot of nice and helpful people and made some good friends. At times it was very challenging because of cultural misunderstandings and differences, but it gave me a lot of pleasure to see the results of the hard work that all the volunteers did for the school and of course for our children.

In general, I think many European countries are not geared and welcoming to expats. The locals live their lives with family and friends, and don’t need to let expats into their lives. Expats will move on again, and it may seem like a waste of energy to get to know them, when you will have to say goodbye soon anyway.

Some locals feel we take their jobs – at a higher salary. It can be difficult or even impossible to settle in, also because the expat population is relatively small. As opposed to the Middle East, where the countries are dependent on the expat experience and expertise to develop further. There are huge expat communities, where you meet people who are in the same boat and have the same challenges as you.

Big Thoughts and Big Decisions for my Future Job Situation

After more than 10 years abroad and away from my original field of work and passion, my new interest in writing and communication, my coaching sessions, and with the success in the more administrator and communicator PTO President role in Milan, I was thinking a lot about my professional future. I slowly got used to the fact that 10 years away from working in a research lab is a long time. And maybe it was about time for me to accept that I wasn’t going back – ever again.

Many things have happened in biomedicine, and I am not ready to work as much as I think is required to get up to speed again. I have come to enjoy the time I have with my family, and to myself so I have settled with not being in a job role, at the academic and managing level my education and work experience might justify.

As my husband became more and more specialized in his work, I distanced myself more and more from my original field of interest. Going back to Denmark to work didn’t really feel like an option any longer. I became aware of the need to think of other ways to obtain a meaningful life for myself. It was a long process – and it’s still on-going.

I have considered studying to become a psychological therapist online. I am empathic, easy to talk with and generally interested in other people’s lives and wellbeing. Working as a therapist would be possible to do from home, and to the extent I prefer. It would be convenient and interesting, I thought. But the online education also requires attendance and working in groups where you physically meet, and because of my family, it isn’t possible for me to travel for one week per month.

Working as a translator, writer and editor from home are also options I have considered. But I need to get out of my house, to be part of a team and to mingle with colleagues. Staying at home to write is a lonely job.

Abu Dhabi

Health Office Assistant

After three years in Milan we moved to Abu Dhabi, where my husband had started a new job. Now I work as a Health Office Assistant at my son’s school. I feel I make a difference every day for the students who come to see the nurse during school hours. Either by pouring them a cup of water, giving them an icepack for the knee, they hurt on the playground during recess, or a heat pack for their tummy ache. I see the thankfulness in their eyes for me being kind to them and for helping them ease their pain. In addition, I use my IT skills from writing and publishing books and articles, planning and organising skills keeping track of the student’s vaccinations records, sick leave notes and general visits in the office, which is all digitally stored and managed. I really appreciate my new colleagues. Every day we have a good laugh as well as serious conversations. This is so good for my mental health. I work part-time and have all the school holidays off with my son. I have a four-day weekend, so I am able to run The Family Business and do some reading and writing in my free time. It’s all about priorities and ambitions. What is important to you? What do you want? And what are you willing to sacrifice?

The Family Unit

If we had stayed in Denmark, or moved back home after 3-5 years abroad, I am certain that I would have continued working as a biologist in biomedicine.

When I’m feeling blue and homesick I might sense a little regret about leaving my job and career possibilities (and family and friends) to follow my husband pursuing his professional ambitions. A few times we have discussed the option of me moving back to Denmark with the children. It has been when his job situation was insecure or challenged, or if I was very homesick. I have been looking for schools, jobs and accommodation in Denmark from time to time and considered pros and cons about moving home alone with the children. Luckily, I always ended up with the conclusion of staying with my husband and not wanting to split the family.

Long ago I decided to see our family as one unit. Not as two individual adults, who need equal time and space to develop personal careers. If we want to stay together as a family, we have to fight for it, and we have to make some sacrifices. I know this might sound old fashioned in our modern world and to modern women.

But if I hadn’t downsized my professional ambitions and settled with less prestigious work, we couldn’t have lived like we have during the last 12 years. I have been able to explore different kinds of work and jobs, and developed useful skills. The life we have chosen together has given our family so many special experiences, travelling to exotic places, time together, meeting different people and cultures, schooling and education and a Work-Life balance that we would never have had, if we had stayed back home in Denmark with two full time career jobs, the house and life we had more than 12 years ago. You can’t have it all.

You may have to compromise professionally as well as personally and swallow some big camels, when you choose to follow your husband around the world in his pursuit of a great career. It isn’t always a fun and happy journey. Sometimes it is steep uphill and way out of your comfort zone!

On the other hand unexpected opportunities will most likely appear as well. If you have the courage to explore them you might discover new interesting things to do, jobs your never would have dreamt of could be of interest to you, and you will meet people from diverse cultural and professional background, who might broaden your horizon and perspectives on your own life and the world around you.

Trine's homepage: https://trineljungstrom.jimdo.com
Trine's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trine-ljungstrøm-31605313/

About the Author

Trine has been living abroad most of her adult life, and her life as global nomad has brought her from Denmark, to Qatar, Italy and now Abu Dhabi. She has been guest speaking for various events and is also author of an English documentary book: “Living Parallel Lives in Qatar - Stories from Locals and Expats”, and a Danish book: “Medvind i ørkenen - beretninger fra Qatar". Trine is a Research Scientist specialised in molecular and cell biology and experimental target validation. Today Trine is volunteering for LinkFacility as LinkLounge Facilitator providing, supporting and coordinating networking events in Abu Dhabi for talents and business owners in Abu Dhabi who want to join a tribe of global professionals from all over the world for mutual inspiration and sharing of insights.

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