PhDs: Leave your zone of comfort !

In 2014 I went to a conference and saw a number of very interesting presentation in my field. They work was right down my alley. I decided to check out their department and asked the professor if I could visit. After some planning, a lot of logistics, and even more paper work, I began my 1 year position as a visiting scholar at Northwestern University. I’m now 6 month into this, and here are my lessons:

Disclaimer: I’m in a Dutch PhD system. We don’t do courses, but start designing and executing studies from day 1. If you are in the US system, your planning might look different.

1. Decide why you want to do it

There are several reasons you might want to spent some time in a different place:

  • To collect data
  • To follow courses not offered at your university (check out about credit transfer)
  • To write without the distraction of your normal life (that is a common reason to go abroad)
  • To get your foot in the door for your future

Depending on what you want to do, one place might be better suited than another

2. Plan early

I started to plan my trip in 2014, by then I was 3/4 through my PhD. I recommend that you decide in year 1 if you want to spent some time at a different university, and why (see the point 1). For me, the main reason was networking. Well, I wanted to collect data but none of my grants were accepted. No money, no data. If you want to collect data, you need to go in year 2 – 4. If you need funding for this, start looking as soon as possible.

3. Do your research

Make sure that you know the expertise of the lab and the professor. They need to provide you with something you can not get at home. If you have the chance, talk with PhDs and post-docs at your place of interest. Ask questions about the working culture. You are going to be embedded in this culture and you need to be able to deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

4. Be emotionally supported

If you have a partner or children, make sure your partner is ok with it. I would have never done it if my husband wouldn’t be 100 % behind me. At one point, I didn’t wanted to go but it is thanks to him that I’m here. Most members of my family were (and are) against it, but my husband supports me and that is THE most important thing for me. Of course it was absolutely amazing to get a call from my Grand-mother telling me that she supports our decision.

5. Do it

If you are going to stay in academia, it will never be that easy to just go somewhere else for a couple of months or a year. You are at a moment where you plan your career, you need to build your network. Your current PhD peers are your future co-authors and co-PI’s. You need to diversify your connection, create links to places and people no one else in your department has. This is going to be your competitive advantage on the labour market.

Conclusion

I learned many things during these 6 months. A lot is about the working of academia and the differences between countries (and cultures). I learned a lot about social network analysis, the method I’m using. I learned also to be intentional about my network, reaching out to other people and asking for help or just a chat. I learned to work in a work culture that – in some way – is diametrically opposed to what I’m used.

Doing a PhD is more than working towards a title and knowing a lot about a tiny-winzy subject, it’s becoming a trained researcher. Being exposed to variety is only gonna help you find out better what you want to do in your life.

If you went abroad for your PhD, and you want to share your tips and insights, feel free to contact me.

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