Why You Should Spend Some Time Abroad During Your PhD If You Can
I’ve been living in the US for only three weeks, but I already know that this research stay abroad will have a huge impact on my research. Why is that?
I’m still not sure whether I’ll keep up with my schedule, but I’m confident that being in a new academic environment will significantly contribute to my project.
You might think that doing a research stay abroad requires money, time, and energy, and that you don’t have at least the first two. Well, I get that (and being able to go abroad for a research stay definitely has its own sets of problems in terms of balancing family and career, health, etc.). But the financial part may not be the trickiest one (there are a lot of programs). As far as the time factor is concerned, organizing a five-month research stay is extremely time-consuming. Since I’m still at the very beginning of my stay, I won’t tell you how much I have already learned. Rather, I want to share some reasons that make a research stay abroad extremely valuable – even before you’re away. And all that, independently of the sources you might have to collect somewhere else (libraries, archives, interviews, etc.).
Applying for a research stay in another institution abroad enables you to reflect on your research goals.
When you’re working on your PhD, it’s easy to lose sight of what your research is actually about. If it’s been a few years, your colleagues probably (roughly) know what you’re doing and you don’t spend your time explaining all over again what your research question is. Of course, you go to conferences from time to time, and then you have to sum up your main arguments for a new audience. But often, you present only a part of your research: the chapter you’re currently writing, a new data set you want to test, or the last findings you’re going to submit for a journal. You don’t have to reflect on the what, how, and why of your research every day.
When you apply for a research stay, you suddenly have to make sense of this ‘everything’: Why am I using this theoretical framework? Why do I cite these authors? What is my hypothesis? What I am actually trying to demonstrate? Why is my project worth it? Once your proposal has been approved and your PhD project has taken off on the 3-year journey, these are questions that you could easily take for granted. In the last three years, I’ve applied for three different institutions or grants (Berlin, Oxford, Albany), and having to rewrite and recapture the essence of my PhD project every time has really helped me to keep in touch with the bigger picture.
The application processes have forced me to regularly update my CV, to translate my research project in different languages, and finally to reconceptualize my research questions. You always have to tailor your research proposal for the specific institution you’re applying for – and while this can be exhausting, this is exactly what has been very helpful. It’s not the same to present your project in 5, 10, or 15 pages. It is not the same to apply for a 2-month or a 5-month research stay. And it is not the same to do it in French, English, or German.
When you apply for funding, you again have to convince the selection committees that your research needs to be done, and this is something that you can easily forget when you’re in the middle of it – you just do it. You suddenly have to prove, again, why you’re doing what you do, and how much time you will need for it (applications often involve providing a schedule on what you’re going to do abroad, almost week after week). In short, you have to take a step aside and ask yourself: how much time do I still need? Has my project evolved? What is the new ‘here and now’ of my research? Applying for research stays basically enables you to split the long-term PhD project into achievable short-term goals (a few months).
In my view, the application process itself is already extremely valuable. This is easy to say when it’s been only a few, I know. Please do not read between the lines: I am not saying that the fact that research is nowadays more and more project-based and thus requires a huge amount of applications all the time is a positive evolution as such. But, within the system as it is, I think that applications have helped me to structure my research along the way. They’ve helped me to regularly reconceptualize what I’m trying to do, and, last but not least, they’ve given me the occasion to be peer-reviewed at many stages of my PhD.
Preparing a research stay abroad enables you to have an ongoing project on a daily basis.
It’s been fifteen months from the time I began the application process until my departure. Fifteen months during which I had several tasks to do – submitting the written part of the application, then going to the interview, waiting for the results, applying for the visa, looking for accommodation, arranging various technicalities with the international office of my host university etc. During this time, I had something else to think about, something concrete, tangible, but related to my PhD – something that didn’t make me feel like I was procrastinating but at the same time, allowed me to breathe and do something else than reading and writing academic texts only. It is really nice to have some concrete actions to undertake every day.
It might sound cliché to say that a PhD takes many years of your life and can be very hard to focus on a daily basis. Preparing a research stay abroad requires a lot of little steps that can help you stay (or be more) organized. You have so many things to think about – and at the same time, you still have to move forward with your PhD, right? During the last month before my departure, I devoted one hour per day to paperwork as preparation of my research stay. Apart from the visa, the flights, and the accommodation, you should contact a few people (faculty members or PhD fellows) that you might want to see once you’re there, ask to be added to mailing lists, schedule appointments with the administration and future colleagues, etc. I had a to-do-list, and things were actually getting done – I felt like I was moving towards something, and I can tell that you do not feel that every day when you’re writing your PhD.
The research stay approaching, I also felt pressure – I want to have read this before I go, and I want to have written this to present when I arrive. I am aware that highly organized and motivated people manage to do this without having a departure date, but as far as I am concerned, having to organize all this really made me more productive.
Knowing that you’re going abroad gives you a perspective.
Finally, I want to conclude on a more personal note. While writing a PhD can sometimes seem extremely repetitive, knowing that you’re going on an adventure can give you this ‘little kick’ that helps you begin the day full of energy. It will not be the same library, the same coffee breaks, the same subway for a couple of months. It will not be the same faces, the same seminars, the same invitations. Knowing that I would be away for a few months, I had coffee with some colleagues, but also with some friends that I had not seen in the last couple of weeks. I felt the urge to say goodbye – and to already announce when I would come back. In sum, it gave me a perspective, a concrete time frame during which I would mostly work on my dissertation project with new scholars.
This research stay abroad symbolizes the time I’m offering to myself to think clearly, without the same daily preoccupations that I usually have as part of my casual routine. I begin this new semester knowing that I will meet new people every day, get familiar with a new academic system, discover a new lifestyle and culture. Routine can admittedly help you focus on your writing, but for me, it can become slightly depressing – especially during wintertime in Berlin. The sole perspective of going to the US felt different. There is this wonderful word in German that expresses exactly what I mean: Vorfreude – the joy (Freude) that comes before (Vor-), i.e. in anticipation of something nice.
Going for a research stay abroad is a challenge, but if you see an opportunity, seize it! I’ve heard from many colleagues having permanent positions in France or Germany that asking for a research semester proves to be very hard, especially because you’re supposed to teach every semester and have to deal with a lot of administrative responsibilities. While being a PhD student brings its own doubts and feelings of insecurity (what’s next?), it also means that you have more time and freedom to organize your time. So, ready to jump in?