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.