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Career abroad, or family: That was the question

She was an only child and felt the need to return to China after finishing her PhD in Barcelona. But her family urged her to focus on her science.

Wenjie Qian first fell for the field of chemistry when she was a high school student in China.

»My chemistry teacher told the class about gold. He said that a gold nugget the size of the tip of your little finger could be turned into a layer that would cover the whole of the classroom floor. Maybe you wouldn’t be able to see it. But it would be there.«

Wenjie Qian was hooked.

Now, many years later, she is doing an industrial postdoc at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) in collaboration with SP Group. She is working on a project to industrially produce graphene – a substance that consists of a single layer of atoms in two dimensions that scientists think could be applied to a host of new technologies.

Partner to an academic

What is it like being a partner to an international academic that moves to Copenhagen? In this series of articles, the University Post looks at how spouses and couples manage a career with, or without, their global scientist partners.

Other articles in this series include:

‘New country, new identity for partners of academics’
Second time in Copenhagen after hardship and compromise
Of 26 spouses, only two were men. He was one of them
Difficult conversation coming up for long distance couple
Careers split apart, but marriage held

She met the guy who was to become her husband in 2010 while working in a research lab at the Wuhan University of Technology. As a couple, they were lucky to both get a scholarship to do their PhDs at UAB, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain.

It was in 2018, in Barcelona when they were both finishing their PhDs, that they came to a crossroads. They needed to make a decision on how their career, and life together, should be.

»Luckily for us we both have the same background, and our careers have run in parallel,« says Wenjie Qian. »We did not have any major doubts about what we wanted to do. For his part, he wanted to continue his academic career. As for me, I was more uncertain about whether I wanted to continue in academia or to look for a job outside in industry.«

READ ALSO: New country, new identity for partners of academics

»We agreed that because he finished his PhD first, he should apply first, and see what happens.«

Obligation to parents

Wenjie Qian and her husband Changyong did have some concerns about an international career. Like many others in China they have no brothers or sisters, and they felt an obligation to stay close to their parents.

»Both of us were only children. And in the beginning I wanted to go back to China after my PhD because I wanted to stay close to my family. But when I talked about it with my parents, they told me that my career was more important.«

We call my father every day to see how things are going.

Wenjie Qian

So when Changyong was offered a postdoc position at UCPH in 2018, Wenjie Qian followed him to Copenhagen, right after her own PhD defence.

READ ALSO: Second time in Copenhagen after hardship and compromise

Whether it was through skill or just good fortune, Wenjie Qian did not spend a lot of time before she found work here.

»I expanded my network, got help from Dual Career Services at the University of Copenhagen, and applied for a position as an industrial postdoc in my own field. This was my very first interview, and I got it!« she says.

From virus-hit Hubei province

Wenjie Qian is right now on maternity leave. The couple have just had a baby – 6 weeks old when Wenjie was interviewed for this article.

»Even though we have been together for ten years and there are no other grandchildren in both families, we wanted to invest more in work and had no plans to have a child immediately. But we said if a baby comes, a baby comes.«

READ ALSO: Of 26 spouses, only two were men. He was one of them

Her mother came over from China in December to help out as much as possible.

She and her family come from the Hubei province, and their home city Suizhou was on lockdown, like nearby Wuhan, at time of writing after the coronavirus outbreak.

»We call my father every day to see how things are going, as in Hubei province the situation is very serious. It was up to the lunar new year celebrations, and we usually stock up with food at home, so I am not worried about my father’s diet at this moment. But as no other close family members are around, he has been isolated alone at home for many days, and this is a psychological challenge,« she says.

Besides, she does not want to put her mother at risk, and they plan to ask for an extension of her visa to avoid going back immediately to the virus-hit region.

At the point of creation

As for the longer term, and her career plans for the future, Wenjie Qian says that »even though China has developed rapidly in all aspects in recent years, and the treatment of highly educated talent is good, I have not yet made a decision on whether I will go back to China or not.«

Doing the science is what Wenjie Qian is about.

»Most of the daily research can seem boring on the surface. But boring, routine stuff can mean big changes in the chemical reactions. You are actually creating things. And sometimes, maybe! you get the feeling that you were the first person in the world to ever see something!«