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A stay abroad: researching in a new environment on MANTEL secondments


By: ANA I. AYALA (MANTEL Project 5) and JORRIT MESMAN (MANTEL Project 8), early-stage researchers (ESRs).


MANTEL is a European Joint Doctorate (EJD), and one important aim is to promote international collaboration. Secondments or research stays in foreign institutes (whether involved in awarding a joint degree or not) provide an excellent way of experiencing a new research environment and collaborating with other researchers. As two of the 12 MANTEL Early Stage Researchers (ESRs), we are now between 1.5 and 2 years into our PhDs and have each experienced two long research stays abroad. Jorrit has had his first secondment in Uppsala, Sweden, for three months, and a research stay for one month in France; Ana has been in Lancaster, UK, for one and a half month, and has just started her first secondment in Geneva, Switzerland, which will last three months. Time to consider what are the benefits and any downsides of these international experiences!


Jorrit and Ana after their pre-doctoral exams at University of Geneva in June 2019.

Advantages

Research stays as part of the MANTEL EJD are with a co-supervisor or a senior researcher with expertise on your topic, or with an industrial partner that works on a similar topic. Your contact will likely have skills and knowledge that are not available in your main institute, and since you can work intensively with this person for a prolonged period of time, you can add these aspects to your PhD. This way, you gain skills that you would not have gotten without the research stay. In our experience, and we are sure this feeling is shared by many others, it is so much more productive to work with someone face-to-face rather than to communicate over the internet. Even for our projects, which are mostly computer-based, being able to walk into someone’s office with a question is a great benefit.


While your period abroad might have the main goal of working together with a senior researcher, the MANTEL secondments are planned such that you are often in the same place as another ESR. This has been the case for all our secondments. We would say that this has proven to be at least as valuable as working with a senior researcher. All MANTEL ESRs work on the topic of extreme events, so we can often help each other out. Additionally, we tend to have more time for each other than a senior researcher might have, who has (many) other obligations as well. In many cases, ESRs are even working on joint projects, and we can use the secondments to make good progress on these projects, which would have been much harder if we were in separate places.


Aside from contacts within the MANTEL project, we also meet people in the research group, and learn what they are working on. In a different institute, you have access to other courses, or research facilities that are not available in your host institute, for example certain lab equipment. And let’s not forget the other, non-scientific advantages of time in a foreign country, such as having new landscapes and cities to explore, meeting new people, and experiencing a new culture!


Disadvantages

Switching working environment, even for a short while, takes a lot of time and effort as well. In particular, finding new housing and checking regulations on permits and insurance coverage can be a challenge and keep you busy for a while (and increasingly worried over time). Moving your belongings, and getting introduced to the new working place takes time that could have been spent on writing up your paper. And while the language in the university environment is English, in the streets you might face another language altogether, which can require some adaptation as well. So on first glance it might not seem time-efficient to go on a trip abroad.


At least for some people, a stay abroad might also mean moving away from your comfort zone. Everything is new around you, and you need time to find back the security, certainty, and tranquillity you felt at home. This is a disadvantage on the short term, but it prepares you as well for events later in your career, and it might open up new possibilities for future career paths abroad. Additionally, although we did not have this reality ourselves, for ESRs with young children, moving around can be a lot more troublesome, and you might have to face difficult choices (does the whole family move, or will I not be able to see my children for several months?) in an already tough situation of undertaking a PhD. See Truls Hansson's blog post on parenting during a PhD.


Our experience

We definitely consider our stays abroad as positive experiences. Our research has moved forward faster than would have been possible without the secondments and we feel that working in another research institute has enriched our PhD studies. There was definitely some stress and time spent on finding housing and arranging all the paperwork, but these are one-time costs, while the benefits increase with the length of the exchange. So overall, we think the net benefit of a secondment increases if it lasts multiple months.


But maybe most importantly, positive experiences are also created by how you are received by the other institute and your co-supervisors. If you feel welcome, your supervisors are actively involved, and the institute provides access to a working space and research facilities, the chances of your secondment becoming a success increase dramatically. This has been the case for us, but if you were to be obstructed from performing your research and finishing your PhD slowed down, a stay abroad might be more problematic.

Between the writing and model simulations, we have also found time to explore our new surroundings a bit. Hiking trails through the impressive Swiss landscape, fishing in lakes and rivers in the amazing nature of Sweden, trying the delicious Swiss chocolate or immersing yourself in the Swedish culture of Fika… While the scientific advantages of a research stay abroad are very important, these additional benefits should not be forgotten!


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