A Graduate Student Guide to Pursuing Research Abroad

A lot happened in 1984. Apple introduced the Macintosh computer. Vanessa Williams became the first person to surrender the Miss America crown. The Soviet Union boycotted the summer Olympics. Oh, yes: There was a Soviet Union.

Having great hair and a cool car is nice…but neither will help you when it comes to pursuing research abroad.

The year also saw the release of “Oxford Blues starring Rob Lowe. In the film, Nick De Angelo (Lowe) abandons his Las Vegas home, moves to England, and, once there, he joins the Oxford University crew team—all so he can win the heart of Lady Victoria Wingate, the woman for whom he pines.

Much like Nick De Angelo, many graduate students feel the pull to leave America. But these departures have nothing to do with courting royalty—they are all about the research. And in this post, Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) alumni and students, and students from the graduate programs in the School of Engineering share what to do (and what not to do) when pursuing research outside the United States or another country.

Get Connected

When planning to conduct research outside your home country, it’s a good bet that someone in your network is familiar with where you are going. Reaching out to these colleagues—or someone in their networks—early can make the immersion process that much easier.

Your social network can be invaluable when pursuing research outside your home country. Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

“I spoke with people who had lived in the area and with friends who had worked at CERN,” said Philip Mallon, a mechanical engineering graduate student who has been in Switzerland since January 2012 researching the characterization of Nb3Sn superconducting wires for use in accelerator magnets. “But, perhaps most important I made contact with friends of friends who were willing to play the part of a ‘welcome wagon.’”

Adds civil and environmental engineering graduate student James Kaklamanos, who conducted research on seismic hazard analysis inNew Zealand.

“Talk to as many people as you can about your plans. I was fortunate to get advice from friends and colleagues who had been to New Zealand, and I was also able to connect with some friends of friends in Christchurch.”

You Won’t Be in Kansas Anymore

It’s fairly easy to have a plan and stick with it when you’re conducting research at “home.” It can be a different story when you’re “on the road.”

“It’s important to be flexible with your schedule,” said Carolyn Bauer, a GSAS biology student who spent time in Chile researching the stress physiology of the degu, a wild rodent native to the country. “Always plan for things to take twice as long as you expect. Try to have multiple projects going on, so if one of them fails you have a back up plan.”

James Kaklamanos adds,

Skype is just one way to keep in touch with your colleagues when you're abroad on a research trip. Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

“As a graduate student, I had developed a specific routine for my research. But being nearly 10,000 miles away I clearly had to make some adjustments. For example, I could no longer walk down the hall and knock on my adviser’s door with a question.”

How can this issue of access be resolved? Having a good internet connection is a start.

“I chat via Skype with my adviser twice a week,” said Philip Mallon. “I summarize, in a weekly memo, the progress I have made and the new directions I plan to pursue.”

Like Mallon, Carolyn Bauer recommends sharing research-related information regularly.

“Enter data from your field notebook onto your computer every chance you get. If you lose your notebook, you may be toast. Also, pack a portable, external hard drive and try to email your data documents to your advisers or collaborators regularly; this will assure that you have multiple copies of your data in a safe place.”

Get Your Project Started (If You Can) Before You Leave

While it is a good idea to be flexible with research, it helps to have a plan when abroad. It’s even better to start the work, if possible, prior to departing.

“It was very helpful to formulate a general plan of action before leaving,” said Philip Mallon. “I spoke with my adviser about the work I would be doing, and I actually began working on it before I left.”

Dot Your Is and Cross Your Ts

Conducting research abroad is no, um, vacation, so approach your trip accordingly. with Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Traveling outside the United States or another country for research is different than your typical vacation or trip to see the family; graduate students need to know everything from how to transport research samples to ways to get to and from research sites.

“Bringing biological samples back and forth is tricky. Make sure you have the proper paperwork well ahead of time so your samples are handled correctly,” said GSAS biology alumna Randi Rotjan, G07, an associate scientist at the New England Aquarium who has pursued research in Belize and in other areas of the Caribbean. “Also, apply for permits early, follow all TSA rules, and know the contact info for the United States Embassy wherever you are.”

Carolyn Bauer suggests getting familiar with local transportation.

“One challenge I faced was lack of access to a vehicle. So I had a friend show me how to use the public bus and subway system so I could travel to my field site when I didn’t have a ride.”

Adds Philip Mallon,

“For about a week after I arrived, I traveled around the area, settled my housing, and got to know the transit system. Taking the time to become comfortable with the area made a big difference.”

Be Like Ferris

Heed the words of Ferris Bueller. You won't regret it.

Modern day philosopher Ferris Bueller had it right when he said that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

While the primary objective of a research trip abroad is, indeed, research, it’s a good idea to “stop and look around” when you have a chance; the opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture might not come again.

“Make sure to sightsee and take in the culture around you. Your experience will be much richer if you do.” said James Kaklamanos, noting that he met people with whom he hopes to remain in touch with “for years to come” and that the places he visited  will “remain a part of [him].”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

Do you have any tips for pursuing research abroad? Are you heading on a research trip and have some questions? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below!

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9 Responses to A Graduate Student Guide to Pursuing Research Abroad

  1. Don’t forget that the library’s electronic resources are available around the clock from anywhere with an internet connection. Like, say, Internet cafés in Croatia (real example). If you start from a link on our site or the library catalog you’ll be prompted to log in with your Tufts username/password, and then you’re good to go. We’re available to answer questions by phone, email, or IM. And in some cases we can arrange for interlibrary loan…but what’s possible varies quite a bit based on where you are. I’m with Tisch, but this is generally true for all the Tufts libraries.

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