A visit to an overseas institute can be a great opportunity to expand your network and experience life in a different country. It might even help to reduce your carbon footprint. Emily gives some tips on how and why to organise one, and how to handle it when you’re there.
This summer, I decided to work in a research institution in Germany for two weeks, at the Mercator Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC). I wasn’t involved in any particular project or colleague there; I simply realised that I’ve worked in the UK my entire life, and therefore it was time to broaden my horizons. This post is about why I’m so pleased I did, and why PhD students and Early Career Researchers should consider doing the same.
I chose Germany because I had a holiday booked in Prague, three weeks before a conference in Potsdam. So why did I decide to stay in Berlin instead of going home to my family? Well, let me briefly talk about flying, because academics have notoriously high carbon footprints. We know just how damaging every flight is for the climate, yet we tend to think nothing of jetting to multiple conferences every year, even though there’s very little relationship between flying and academic success. Thus when confronted with a choice between flying or spending an extra 30 hours on the train, the only reasonable option seemed to be to stay put. And as it turned out, it was the best decision I could have made.
Most of my research is on Negative Emission Technologies (NETs), techniques for removing CO2 from the atmosphere to help curb climate change. MCC has one of the best interdisciplinary NETs teams in the world, so I went to their website and e-mailed a few individuals asking if I could work in their office for a couple of weeks. I was lucky to come across an old colleague who very kindly offered to set up my visit; this is crucial because someone needs to ensure there’s office space, get you Wi-Fi access, and introduce you to everyone when you arrive. You don’t necessarily need to know them already though; if your research is similar, often a complete stranger may step up.
I was seriously nervous before my first day, with silly concerns such as “what should I wear? Does everyone in Germany wear a suit to work?” (As it turns out, I was rather overdressed for my first day in 35° heat!) I was aware that it’s rather unusual to have a visitor unconnected to a particular project, and was worried about feeling out of place. But for me, nervousness is generally a positive sign that I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. There was a presentation organised for my first morning, and several people came up afterwards to arrange meetings to discuss my work (working lunches are big in Berlin apparently). It was a great way of introducing myself and finding common interests, therefore I’d always recommend starting with a presentation if possible.
Most importantly, everyone was so lovely and welcoming, and there were endless impromptu conversations in the kitchen. Two weeks gave me time to settle into the rhythms of the institution, to find time with all the academics I wanted to meet, and to learn a little about the education system and political system in Germany. It also afforded the time to experience life in an incredible city, and to briefly live ‘like a local’; after all, what could be more local than grumbling about the metro with the other commuters in the morning? I know now that if an overseas job opportunity comes up in future, I’ll consider it with far more confidence and enthusiasm.
Of course, there is a major caveat to all this: you need funding because the host institution is unlikely to pay for your visit. Travel grants exist, but the deadlines are usually very far in advance, and in my experience, they tend to be targeted at longer visits or at those needing to use specialised equipment. The funding constraint means that an overseas visit may be out of reach for some, and my sincere apologies if this applies to you. (There could be another Brexit-shaped caveat on the horizon, but for now, I’ll just continue pretending that it’s all a bad dream…). Overall though, if you can get the funding, a short visit to an overseas institute is a fantastic way of meeting new collaborators, disseminating your research, and experiencing life in a different country. It broadens your network and your horizons, and might even help to prevent some extra flights. And all it really takes is an e-mail!
Have you had any research visits? Are there any tips you would like to share? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Emily Cox is a research associate in the Understanding Risk Group at Cardiff University. Her research investigates the psychology of climate change and CO2 removal. She also has a background in policy studies and climate activism. Her life is loads better since quitting social media, but you can contact her on e-mail: email@example.com.