Just over a year ago I did something that was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done: I got on a plane and set out to spend three months in another country to continue my PhD research and improve my foreign language skills. This was the longest I’ve ever spent abroad by myself, and I was shocked (and surprised) by how much I learned about myself while out there, and the personal challenges I faced. I thought that in this post I’d share some of those experiences to try and help any other research students out there looking to do some research abroad.
How to Get There
Possibly the most important thing on the list is to get where you want to go. This is a bit more complicated than just hopping on a plane; you’ll need to select a host institution, find a colleague to work with, and try to get any funding to cover your travel costs. This is actually a lot like choosing a PhD supervisor and institution, but with the added advantage that you’ll probably know more about your project at this stage (and you’re not burdened with your choice for the next three years).
I narrowed it down to two institutions, and decided on Munich in the end. This city has produced a bunch of Martial scholars who’ve heavily influenced the field, and the option to meet these people was too good to miss. The person I contacted at Munich also got back to me very quickly and although she couldn’t supervise me due to her being on sabbatical she put me in contact with a late PhD student of hers who was hugely helpful. The other institution… was less helpful, and the scholar I would have worked with was very busy. I went with my gut.
For funding I was lucky enough to have a fund specifically designed for AHRC students to travel with, but there are numerous institutions like the DAAD which regularly advertise this kind of travel scholarship. My advice would be to get everything sorted out a long time before you travel as deadlines can be quite tight (I didn’t apply to the DAAD in the end because of this). It might be worth considering waiting until the next funding round to get everything sorted in time. The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität also helped source my accommodation for me (which was a godsend), but there are loads of good websites out there to help you out. Make sure to ask your local contact(s) for advice and support.
What to Do When You’re There (Academic)
The number 1 priority for me was to improve my reading and conversational German, but it’s also worth experiencing life and study in another country, as well as seeing what you can while you’re there.
I found improving my conversational German very difficult when I was in Munich because Germans tend to try and practice their (irritatingly good) English on you. If you discover that people find it easier to communicate with you in English I’d suggest finding a couple of people who are exceedingly patient to practice on (elderly landladies are perfect for this). I’d also recommend doing what I didn’t and joining an intensive language programme. They can be expensive, but the results speak volumes. The proudest moment of my stay was going grocery shopping for my landlady and managing the whole trip in German (the frozen red cabbage was particularly hard!). After nearly a month and a half feeling like I couldn’t express myself it was moments like this that really boosted my confidence. My spoken German is still not perfect, but I’m so much faster than when I started, and my reading abilities have sky-rocketed. It’s worth being honest with the levels you can achieve while you’re there as well. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
You should also check out the institution while you’re there. Find out how their research culture works, how their undergraduates learn, and how they socialise. I found it a bit odd that there was a much sharper distinction between work time and free time (lots of very serious German faces 9-5, for instance), but the sense of community was stronger too. The more you can see and do the better. I also gave a research talk (in English) and got to meet several colleagues at this and other events (including those scholars I mentioned earlier). Make sure to make the most of the time you have, too – going over and chatting to some big-shot professor because you may never get another chance is a good idea, and you might well be the most interesting person in the room at this point too so knock yourself out. If all else fails you won’t be there long, anyway.
What to Do When You’re There (Non-Academic)
Don’t forget that this is still a trip. Travel! See the world! What’s the point of going hundreds of miles to simply sit in another dark room reading books and articles? The chances are you’ll have far too much spare time in a strange, new place anyway so you can always catch up on work in the quiet hours. The worst thing to do is just sit around feeling sorry for yourself – force yourself out of the front door and see the local sights, walk the block. See, feel, smell, hear, and taste the novelty. If you don’t when’s your next chance? What stories will you tell your envious friends at home when you get back?
I guarantee that travelling for part of your PhD can be one of the hardest parts of the doctorate, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding for me. I’ve met so many exciting new people, seen and experienced new things, and got to travel a bit more of Europe in the process. This is the most free you’ll ever be in your academic life, so go out there and, as a wise philosopher once put it, just do it.