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Three ways that an international research trip can benefit your PhD

Last month, I had the privilege of taking part in a research and knowledge exchange visit to Osaka University in Japan. I feel as if the experience was incredibly beneficial in relation to my PhD journey, but also in terms of being able to understand and navigate academic life through an alternative lens.

I’ve had this post sitting in draft for the last month, adding to it as I reflect more on things since we returned. Additionally, over the last few days I’ve been catching up on the Edx MOOC designed by Dr Inger Mewburn (aka @thesiswhisperer) on “how to survive your PhD.” I’m also at the start of another 2.5 days of writing at retreat – the first of eight sessions over the next academic year.

In true form, nothing warms you up faster than a quick blog post.

So, here we go, 3 reasons why taking part in an international research exchange trip can benefit you as a PhD student and/or early career academic…

1) Presenting to a new audience challenges you to contextual, articulate and clarity your terms;

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As part of the trip, we had to arrange a time in which to present an aspect of our work to an audience at the University that was hosting us – in my case, it was Osaka University where we were based for the 9 days. I’d presented within international contexts before, however, I had not done anything since I took a gap in my PhD studies between 2012-2014. This time I felt that much more confident, and far more prepared than I had been in previous situations, however, it did take me nearly 2 days working solidly to prepare my slides for the presentation and to rehearse and discuss it with colleagues.

This did not include a trial run at my home institution as part of research group (occurring a month before) and also having to articulate the value of my work within a Japanese context, where I had to make sure that I wasn’t making cultural and social assumptions about digital literacies, online platforms and tools and developing an abstract that could be used to market the seminar across the University.

I found this valuable as although I’m used to delivering seminars, workshops and talks, my confidence within my academic work had been damaged in the past and I’d avoided a lot of the preliminary discussions because I was nervous about the style of feedback associated with academic presentations. However, the mentoring and peer-support, as well as spending months considering the position and clarity of what was to be presented – and being able to articulate it in an environment where English is not the dominant language, meant that I could get closer to my work in ways that often only full time study can afford.

The slides I developed as available here if you are interest:

2) A fresh atmosphere + spending dedicated time with colleagues + immersion in a different university culture & context = idea generation and collaboration 

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I know certainly as a part-time PhD student, working multiple contracts and freelancing, the luxury of being on a university campus, discussing your work whilst surrounded by people who were also working on a PhD and/or in a university was certainly conducive to my productivity. It reminded me of when I was at Leicester University completing my MA, living in halls and practically living on campus – it was really nice to feel like a ‘proper’ PhD student but also be around people who were keen to find ways to work together.

Travelling with colleagues helps also. As you can imagine, Japan isn’t the easiest place to get to from Glasgow. Ironically the night before I was on a small plane back from Cardiff to Edinburgh (which was hell, but I was just exhausted from all the travelling I’d done that week), returning just in time to pack for the much larger and longer flight to Osaka via Dubai.

It was the first time I’ve flown for that distance – but it was made easier travelling with people you work with. From when we arrived at Glasgow airport until we arrived at our hotel, we were constantly bouncing off ideas and thoughts about different projects and how we were tackle particular situations.

This continued throughout the trip – we’d got off the plane, had dinner and a few beers, short sleep then back up again for a weekend writing retreat. No time to stop and consider jet lag. We were there for 10 days (inc. travel) and within that time I’d written 5000 words, prepared a presentation, delivered a seminar, visited 4 cities in Japan and all the in-between time was spend discussing PhD, papers, ideas and ways we could work together, building on our learning from being in Japan.

Since getting back, I’ve managed to secure some seed funding to develop one of the ideas that we’d discussed into a pilot project (starting in Feb 2016), that hopefully will grow into a CPD product in its own accord, that I intend to bring back to Japan in a future visit (seeing that the idea was born there first). I’ll write about this at a later date whilst I finalise the details over the next week.

3) The holistic benefits of travelling 

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I’ve always wanted to visit to Japan. I knew that the only way that I’d get to see these places is if I do things in my work that allow me to travel and to make it relevant to the other things I have going on in my life. I think what was really important was to get out of the Scottish context for a little while – and being 8 hours ahead of home certainly launches you out and away from all that you know, on social media & in the day to day life of participating in domestic, not tourist Japan i.e. shopping for food, wandering about campus, travelling on trains, visiting a Japanese home.

Within about 2 days, I’d totally settled into the flow of Osaka. I thought it would take me much longer. At the same time (because it was exactly a year since the independence referendum in Scotland) I was getting those “Facebook memories” of what I was doing a year ago to the day.

Meh.

Anyway, it was a tad surreal. Nevertheless, although I love Glasgow, I’d needed the space away from the Glasgowness of things, and although Scotland, being away from it on the anniversary of the indyref, the physical distance especially, provided the holistic scissors required to cut away some of the inward thinking that comes with being wrapped up in things for so long. This also relates to the Commonwealth Games – a project I’d been working on for 2 years, with a distinctively Scottish focus (obviously) – not being in Scotland for a while meant I could come back from a fresher perspective on things that I might have been too close to see at the time. Thanks Facebook.

Anyway, my point is that if we don’t experience these different places, spaces and realities, it can be difficult to see all the many ways in which something can be experienced. And this is the sort of stuff I’m trying to grapple with in my PhD write up. For instance, I’m redrafting my methodology chapter, trying to nail down epistemological arguments, often getting caught up in the feelings like I’ve done it all backwards due to the nature of how my PhD experience panned out and reminding myself that I’ve done enough for a PhD, I just need to get it finished now.

It has involved a certain degree of shifting mindsets, and having to move on from previous narratives around the whole topic. Spending time elsewhere certainly gives you a different headspace to look at a topic through – hey, Tokyo are one of the next cities in line to get an Olympic Games, it was strange being back in that “pre-Games” host city environment – once you see Olympic preparation in place, you can’t unsee it. It was certainly useful to get the chance to immerse myself in it again. Cue me running around taking photos of signs, billboard and casual links to the Olympics from people who were not official sponsors.

Concluding thoughts

I think the point I wanted to make from this post is that not all the benefits of participating in an ‘internationalisation’ agenda are not all hard fact KPIs that can be measured by a university or an employer and I think visiting as a PhD student, not as a member of staff with particular goals allowed me to experience the trip how I’d imagine a student might experience a trip. I think where possible, graduate students should take the opportunity (when it exists) to take advantage of an international trip – and if you are a supervisor, look at ways to encourage students to consider these options.

I remember my mum telling me that when she started working with a computer company back in the eighties and nineties, she saw her workplace as the window to the world – even though the plant was only 10 minutes from where we lived. Later on, she got to travel to the states and other parts of the world as part of her job – not bad when you can work in the town you live in and not have to make a mega-commute to a city . For me, this trip reminds me of her stories from those days. My PhD is at the university that is based in the town I was born in, and it has allowed me to begin to see and work in a world that is not just restricted to one local authority or one country. I’m just relieved that I managed to get this opportunity to do it this time around.