Traveling during your PhD

This guest post is by Dr Eva Alisic, Research Fellow at Monash University who researches and blogs on the topic of trauma recovery in children and adolescents. Eva spent some time at Harvard University while she was studying. In this post she shares some of her tips for getting abroad. You can find Eva as @EvaAlisic on Twitter.

Are you considering travel during your PhD – such as visiting a research group overseas for a few weeks or months? Excellent idea! In my experience an extended visit abroad while you do your degree is very valuable, both to your PhD and your future career.

Going abroad is one way to get inspiration – especially if your interest in your research is flagging. It’s a good way to learn new things and look with fresh eyes at your research environment and PhD. Of course, travel is an excellent way to expand your network, which is vital if you want to continue in academia. My interesting international contacts certainly helped me land my current job.

In this post I’d like to tackle a few of the obstacles to going overseas – or should I say – the excuses?

I say excuses because traveling overseas while you study is not as difficult as you might think. I started out with no funding, no contacts, and no history of international exchanges in my department – just my own enthusiasm and the wish to make it work. And there are many ways to make it work. Even if your consulate decides 2 weeks before departure that Harvard didn’t provide you with the correct papers for a US visa and postpones your visit for 8 months (yes, that happened).

When I told people that I had spent a few months at Harvard Medical School during my PhD, several said “Aren’t your colleagues jealous?” and “Oh, if I had had the chance, that would have been so great”. I usually replied “You had – and still have – the chance” (though in a somewhat more polite form). So let’s have a look at some of these potential obstacles and strategies you might use to achieve your dream:

My supervisor won’t like it

In my view every sensible supervisor should encourage PhD students to go explore what’s happening overseas. It should be viewed as an essential part of the learning process. So test your assumption about your supervisor before you assume they will not be in favour. I think the best way is to present a plan which pre-empts potential objections. For example, figure out how you can accommodate your deadlines and/or teaching requirements; couple this with a persuasive argument as to the benefits.

If you are among the unfortunate few whose supervisor doesn’t like it I would recommend you still pursue your plan. When I made mine, I was pretty confident that my supervisors would be happy for me to go ahead, but I made sure to be independent of their approval. I was ready to go during my holidays and on my personal budget. Obviously, that would have been a sacrifice, but it shows that you don’t need your supervisor’s approval if you deem such a trip is important for your personal development (although I would consider changing supervisors if they are against it, it’s not a good sign…).

I don’t know where to go

In your first year it’s likely you will be exploring the literature, designing your projects, and just settling in in general. But after a while, especially if you have attended one or more international conferences, you will start having an idea of the people and research groups you like. Which academics do you cite more than once in your writing? If you have enthusiastic and internationally oriented supervisors, do they have recommendations and contacts?

Don’t underestimate yourself. Sometimes I have heard students say “That’s such a fantastic place, I’ll never get in”. You may not realise it, but pro-active international students are attractive to supervisors in other countries (trauma psychology students, do get in touch with me!).  I didn’t know that I would end up going to Harvard when I started looking for a place. I had a number of interesting research groups in mind, and in addition, I asked some senior people at a conference for suggestions. They recommended getting in touch with someone at Harvard, who in turn advised me to contact one of her colleagues, which worked out very well. If it hadn’t worked out, I would have followed up on the other positive contacts I had established via formal emails with my CV.

I don’t have funding

This is the reason I hear most often. It can be tough for PhD students to stay above the poverty line in many places – travel can seem way out of reach. There are several ways around the funding problem. Start by finding out what your university offers by way of support; you may need to plan in advance if there are conditions you need to meet (for example, RMIT University has a scholarship program to help students attend international conferences but you need to have passed your confirmation first). Try outside your university for other grant money which might be targeted at researchers with special interests, such as the Jason Database.

Your supervisor may be able to organize you some funds which can supplement any money you get from the uni and don’t forget that your host supervisor may have funds for a visitor. The most likely way to get there is to combine all these opportunities: if you are going to a conference in the US anyway, incorporate it at either end of your visit and save travel costs. If you go for a few months, you may also be able to arrange to sublet your own place or even do a house swap – did you know there is a service, “Sabbatical Homes”, just for academics?!

I don’t have the time.

If you would really like to go, you do have the time. There is always a way to fit it in. Maybe you decide that your PhD will take a little longer, maybe you swap part of your annual leave for an international visit, or maybe you split your visit in two to be home for that important event you have to attend. I know these may seem sacrifices in the first instance (they are!), but I think the above mentioned advantages and the fun of going abroad outweigh the drawbacks.

Have you traveled while you study? Do you have any tips to offer those who are contemplating a trip? Tell us in the comments or join in #phdchat on Twitter this Wednesday night, 7pm Melbourne time (note time shift this month) where Dr Eva Alisic and @thesiswhisperer will be co-hosting an online discussion on the topic of travel during PhD study.

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20 thoughts on “Traveling during your PhD

  1. Thank you for the reminders. I am torn between teaching responsibilities and rationalizing fieldwork placement (more so to myself I think than my supervisor or Dean) — and I really needed to read that section on “I don’t have time” esp. on sacrifices.. I realize that I just need to get on that horse and get it done! Thanks again for the timely advise!

  2. I did a 6 month visit overseas during my PhD – it was excellent. It broadens your networks and exposes you to new ideas.

    We are offering funds to support travel by PhD students and young academics (<5 years post-PhD) from outside Australia to work with researchers at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (http://ceed.edu.au/work-with-us/scholarships/). We offer up to $12,000 to support travel and accommodation (no salary). Applications close at the end of March 2012. See http://ceed.edu.au/work-with-us/scholarships/ or http://qaeco.com/2012/03/05/arc-ceed-early-career-researching-visiting-fellowships-9/

    Cheers,

    Mick

  3. Thanks for this post. It came just in a perfect time for me. Last year I went to an international conference in Italy and met fantastic researchers, because of that I got an offer to do a summer school in Moscow next July. But guess what? I have no funding. I have applied for a grant at my uni, and today I got an email saying that I was not eligible for a number of reasons that do not matter on this comment. This piece of news made me think if I should forget about the idea, and just focus on writing my thesis in quiet Canberra. But you know what? Nope, Ihave just made a decision. will try to get some funding somewhere else, or use some of my personal savings and I;ll go to Moscow in July.

    • Wow, fantastic! Best of luck with organising and have a great time (from quiet Canberra to busy Moscow…that will quite a change).

      Same applies to Cresfran above and Pleagle Trainer; go for it!

  4. I travelled a lot during my PhD because I had to, my material was mostly in Italy (hard times I know), all up I probably spent well over 12 months in Italy. I’m not sure exactly what advice to give as my travel was necessary (I spent about 6 months of my first year solidly applying for travel funding).
    It taught me a lot of resilience working in a country where I could speak the language but not with the fluency I wanted to be able to and where often the use of collections and museums made NO sense. This always made me resolve to be more confident and more adventurous at home where I was more comfortable and gave me a real empathy for my ugrad students and colleagues who had come to Australia to study from elsewhere.
    In terms of funding it my advice is to search far and wide for funding, there is a lot out there and while it is mostly competitive if you apply for enough you should get something. Don’t feel like you have to get it all the funding for your trip from one source and also investigate funding available from not only your own institution but also from the places you want to go. As well as Jason – gradfellowships (US based) mailing list is good, as is the jobs.ac.uk site and for humanities the h-net lists advertise a lot of opportunities.
    Also check out accommodation options available for academics/students. There are research institutions which offer cheaper accommodation to students and you can also often stay in colleges cheaply (I know you can in the UK) out of semester.

  5. The biggest obstacle for me is, as a biological science PhD, the most important resource is my unique knock out mice. There is no way I could travel overseas as I can’t take them with me, and without the mice I have no project.

    • Is that really true that you wouldn’t have a project?

      What about a collaborative systematic review on ‘something related to’ mice? Or learning about the management of a different lab? Or about other types of mice, or even completely different animals? Challenging you to think more broadly :-)

  6. when i applied to phd programs, i said i specifically wanted to do an international comparison for my dissertation. at this point, that doesn’t look realistic (if i wanna get outta here before i’m 80), but i still want to at least go visit some sites & see what they’re doing. i’ve totally thought about summer or winter break, but money has definitely been a concern. i dunno what resources are available in the US, but my school only pays travel expenses up to $300 for those of us presenting at conferences. i know the foundation center has some stuff… i thought about fulbright, but since they only allow one country, i decided against it.

    it’d be great to hear what other US students are doing!

  7. My advice is simple: Do It!

    I know when I look back on my PhD experience 10 years from now, it is not going to be the endless days sitting at my desk typing that I remember most fondly. It will be my 3 weeks in Port Moresby cramming in interviews. It will be visiting Chinese project sites in rural Fiji in a torrential downpour. It will be moving to Beijing not knowing a soul and negotiating the challenges of working in a Chinese Government organisation.

    Yes, getting funding is hard. Yes, travelling overseas will probably push out your completion date. And yes, it is absolutely worth it :)

    • Oh wow, visiting Chinese sites in Fiji sounds amazing despite the rain. My PhD is in the area of Chinese-Australian history and I am trying to find a way to get funding to go to the month-long Summer School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong as I specifically want to learn Cantonese and it seems to be about the only course that will give me a proper jump start. Currently I only speak (not write/read) conversational Hokkien. It is not essential to completing my thesis as most Chinese-Australian sources are in English and my interview participants all speak fluent English, however, I think it would be useful long-term both in terms of career prospects, ‘credibility’ within certain parts of the community and later research projects. Do you have any knowledge of potential sources of funding for such an activity (i.e. just language upskilling related to, but not essential to, the thesis, and not involving formal research)?

  8. I spent five weeks at an overseas institution during my second year of my PhD. Not only did it broaden my experience and understanding of the way that academia works on an international scale, but I also made some invaluable contacts – and friends. The institution I visited provided me with library access and desk space if I wanted.
    Doing this can also lead to joint collaborations and possibly publications too. Not to mention, the fact that I knew relatively few people meant that there was far fewer excuses not to work. I read more intensely, and using a different university library meant I came into contact with a new realm of literature on my topic.
    I can’t recommend it more highly – it totally changed my thesis for the better!

  9. I am planning to do some field work outside Australia, thrice during my PhD. In this case, I have access to funds from my faculty to cover the travel for one out of the three trips. But by scheduling the field work related travel with a couple of conference paticipations, I’ve been able to access conference travel related funds at my University for the other trips.

    In general, the universities (atleast in Aus) tend to provide support, if there are multiple reasons for and multiple outcomes from the travel(s). I am happy to be proven wrong, if anyone has had a different experience.

  10. Pingback: The post fieldwork blues « The Thesis Whisperer

  11. Pingback: The post fieldwork blues | Top of Academia

  12. Pingback: Why you should create your own thesis writing retreat (or reasons to travel) « The Thesis Whisperer

  13. I have a question: is it more important to go to a prestigious university overseas or just keep in touch with a particular professor who might work for a minor university but it is relevant for your study???

  14. I happened to land in your blog with a google search “travel after phd” and your blog was on the top of google hits. I just set out my PhD journey and am planning to mix it with travels abroad for research that also allows me to tour new places. After my 3rd year Bachelors I spent 2 months of my summer vacation in an Italian lab at Novara between Milan and Turin. During my Masters research project I spent 3 months in a lab at Brisbane, Australia. Sometimes we need a break from the routine at our workplace and getting out to a new place abroad helps to free ourselves. Guess being single helps to jet out anytime to anyplace and ofcourse we need to convince our supervisor and get the funds.

    In my case I had to bear the travel cost but the total living expenses were borne by the Italian and the Australian professors who offered me the position. I wrote many emails probably more than 200 during my 3rd year Bachelors to do summer project during my vacation then I landed in Italy which did not require any permission from my college as it was in my vacation. I lost my first 2 weeks of the college nevertheless my faculty appreciated me for the fruitful trip.

    During my first year Masters I again sent hundreds of emails to do my Masters thesis during my 2nd year and during a conference that was hosted by my university gave me a good chance to be a volunteer which eventually led me to meet my Australian professor when I led him from the hotel to the venue for the evening entertainment. We had a long casual chat and finally had an offer to work in his lab. He said its easier to assess students when met directly like in conferences rather than by emails with a CV.

    Now again back to academics set out with my PhD I shall look out to see possible researcher options outside my workplace for at least 2-6 months to enhance my expertise in my area of research which is treating gastrointestinal diseases. Regarding my supervisor I am sure it will not be a hassle as long as I do my work in the best manner and convince that my work abroad will help the lab in a bigger manner. I hope to secure the funds in time by applying in Australia and international funding agencies, possibly the host country govt funds, finally saving my income. I am sure the learning experiences in different places will broaden and deepen our research.

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