The wait for a work permit is just one of the factors to take into account when shipping your family from Auckland to San Francisco

Well, it seemed rude to refuse a career opportunity of a lifetime in Berkeley, California.

Over a year ago, my husband, David O'Sullivan, at the time an Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Auckland, received a tenured job offer from UC Berkeley, one of the top 10 universities in the world and in a lovely part of the US.

This was a new challenge for the whole family. I had moved quite a lot between New Zealand and Australia in my youth and felt it was the making of me, so I was optimistic about how our kids, then 11 and 13, would handle it.

And, we argued, the kids would get to grow up in the Bay Area where the tech revolution was happening right under their noses. Think of the opportunities they would have. As for me, as a freelance journalist, I could work anywhere and a lot of interesting business stories were coming out of this part of the world. Slight hitch, I couldn't work for a year or so, thanks to my H4 visa, but I would have plenty to do with buying a house, getting the kids settled and maybe having a run at some creative writing.


We had lived in the US before, in Pennsylvania - our younger son was born there - so knew what the US work culture was like, but it is more hyped up on the West Coast. There are some serious over-achievers here.

Having said that, the work culture at UC Berkeley is pleasant, the academics allowed to get on with what they do best, research and teach - but there is an expectation that your work will be excellent.

So with new classes to teach and lectures to write for a US student audience, David is working every weekend. The students, especially the graduate students, are very good and keep him on his toes.

David reckons a move like this gets harder as we all get older. "The kids become more embedded and that surge of hard work when you first start a job gets more tiring."

There are rewards though.

"In the academic world, people are more interested in engaging with me at Berkeley than they were at Auckland, partly because of the prestige but also, in practical terms, if you do collaborate, travel is more feasible," he says.

Location does matter, he finds. Good colleagues in David's field are in other universities on the West Coast from UBC in Vancouver to UCLA and international colleagues are more likely to visit here than NZ.

"If you were from the tech world and moved from New Zealand to the Silicon Valley, you would probably feel at the centre of things. This move to UC Berkeley has a lot of these qualities - there is a sense that you are much more in a position to have an impact more widely on your field and it's harder do that from New Zealand. In New Zealand you can be connected and relevant but not necessarily setting agendas," says David.

As for the way things are run at Cal, as UC Berkeley is known here, there are fewer meetings and committees and less corporate spam than there were at the University of Auckland, he says, which he appreciates.

Academics in Auckland and California both work equally hard but New Zealanders are more observant of the weekend, and that happens a bit less here. People don't partition their working time and home time so well in California.

The university, meanwhile, has been good at ushering through our visas. David came here on an H-1B visa, a visa for the highly skilled, which typically goes mostly to the tech sector and universities. The fact that H-1B dependents, like me, on an H4 visa, don't get a work permit, is something the tech sector want dealt with as would we.

One of the most interesting things I did last year was sit on the International Women's Careers Panel held in the Twitter HQ in San Francisco. The audience of young Google and Facebook spouses wanted to get some ideas of what to do with themselves while they were waiting for work permits to come through. Some of these women were lawyers and doctors who will have to re-qualify here if they want to work.

The main advice was to volunteer in areas of interest in order to make some US contacts who might be helpful with finding jobs when we did hit the job market. But we all agreed the situation was far from ideal and our careers were definitely losing momentum for a while.

I have taken my own advice, doing some media releases for New Zealand businesses over here and writing for the local award-winning news website

And now, my husband and I, and our 14-year-old have all just received our Permits to Work - so I can now apply for jobs or freelance work here and I can write for the Herald again when called upon.

The Green Card, meanwhile, should come through in the next few months for the three of us.

As for the kids, a year and a bit on, they seem happy and settled. The public schools seem very good in Berkeley. The kids are getting to see interesting places in San Francisco and are studying anything from Latin to digital art. Their lives have changed in certain areas. They are not as sporty as they were in New Zealand, because they can't play cricket here.

My younger son, especially, is turned off by the over-the-top competitive sporty types here who don't get the understated Kiwi way of being good at sport.

Our 14-year-old is good at art and maths and is thinking of studying architecture or industrial design, and you couldn't be in a better place for the latter with companies like IDEO here.

The 12-year-old gets asked to do accents to entertain his mates. His ocker Aussie is a favourite.

Now we just have to worry about affording American college fees - who knows, we may send the kids back to New Zealand for their undergraduate years. I'm not kidding.