Have you ever considered doing research abroad? Did you hesitate because you thought it would be too expensive, the language barrier too steep, or perhaps that there were no opportunities in your field of interest? Perhaps it’s time to rethink that.
According to Dr. Mather L’Huillier, a postgraduate student research and admissions manager at the University of Edinburgh, PhD graduates that have experience conducting research outside of their home country are more attractive to their potential employers both in academia and industry. This makes sense in view of the challenges posed by modern society for several reasons. First of all, students that choose to do a part or all of their studies abroad return to their home countries with knowledge and skills that they may not have acquired by completing their degrees at home. Furthermore, research abroad is usually conducted in a defined time frame and, in some cases, with restricted resources, which forces students to plan their work far in advance, honing their time management skills. Working in unfamiliar settings also fosters communication skills which are crucial for establishing good working relationships with local staff. Not to mention that working abroad enhances an individual’s cultural and global awareness and sharpens one’s proficiency with a foreign language. Perhaps most importantly, students working abroad become a part of international professional networks which expand their career horizons and help determine their life long goals. Not surprisingly, these students are often viewed as more mature and experienced by their peers and mentors alike.
Due to the immense benefits that student mobility provides to both individual students and their home countries, many governments have introduced centralized scholarship programs at both graduate and undergraduate levels to fund research abroad. Despite the barriers that Canadian students may encounter on their way to working abroad, opportunities are out there for those who are interested. Two well-known examples of such programs are the Erasmus (European Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) and the Fullbright US student program. Somewhat surprisingly, Canada does not share the same level of excitement as the US or Europe about sending their students abroad. In effect, the funding provided in Canada in support of global mobility is scarce and largely administered through institution-based programs. At the University of Toronto, for example, there are the Summer Abroad and Centre for International Experience (CIE) Programs. While the former is primarily oriented towards facilitating short-term exchange for undergraduate students, CIE offers graduate students the opportunity to conduct their research at one of the foreign partner universities. According to UNESCO, the majority of Canadian students abroad (both graduate and undergraduate) prefer to remain within the boundaries of North America, or choose to pursue their studies in culturally and linguistically familiar countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia.
Despite the barriers that Canadian students may encounter prior to working abroad, opportunities are out there for those who are interested. Last month IMMpress conducted a mini-survey within the Department of Immunology on the graduate student experience with respect to research abroad. We received responses from seven students, who, at one point of their academic career, had performed research at a foreign university. While the majority of respondents spent a relatively short term overseas, two of the students worked abroad for longer than six months and for two of the students, their research abroad led to at least one scientific publication. The funding sources for these students were diverse: the University of Toronto, Canadian government, international organizations and/or the private sector. To gain further insight into their experience abroad, we asked the respondents to recall the challenges they encountered.
Angela Li (1st year MSc) did research in Taiwan as part of the UofT Summer/Science Abroad program. Angela’s bilingualism in Taiwanese and Mandarin helped her bypass language barriers and she enjoyed her first real exposure to scientific research. She recalls, “Before going abroad I was not sure about doing research, but having my own project and living on my own gave me a taste of what doing research full-time would be like – and I liked it! I did choose to go to grad school because of how much I liked doing research in Taiwan.”
Jerry Zhou (2nd year MSc) participated in a summer training course on Pandemic Influenza and Emerging infectious diseases in Shantou, China. His stay abroad was funded by the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto, University Health Network and the International Institute of Infection and Immunity at Shantou University Medical School. Jerry recalls the main challenge for him was the “local culture and communication – especially in smaller cities where foreigners don’t generally visit.”
Darrin Gao (3rd year PhD) did a summer internship at the University of Oxford, UK which was funded by Victoria College, U of T, and the laboratory at the University of Oxford. Darrin explains, “The most difficult part was trying to integrate into the lab, not only scientifically, but socially as well. They have rather interesting traditions, like 11 o’clock tea. Given that I was there for only 10 weeks, I had to adapt to a lot of new changes in a rather short period of time. All in all it was a great, eye-opening experience.”
Nichole Escalante (3rd year PhD) received a Research Internship in Science and Engineering scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Nichole recalls the language barrier as the most challenging part of her time in Germany, mentioning that, “When I arrived all I could say in German was hello and goodbye.” She adds, “This was not a problem in the lab as everyone there spoke nearly perfect English but I had some difficulty at the bank and getting a cell phone. Luckily I had a wonderful supervisor who helped me settle in.” When asked whether her research work abroad played a role in shaping her career goals, Nichole responds, “This internship, along with my co-op experience in both academic and industrial labs, really solidified my interest in pursuing academic research. I was really excited about the international scientific community and decided that I wanted to be a part of it.”
Vineet Joag (3rd year PhD) is currently working on a project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research being conducted at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Vineet recalls several challenges he has encountered working in Africa: “The work culture is quite different. While equipment is generally up-to-date and accessible, the human resources available to maintain them are not optimal.” Vineet adds, “My experience abroad has connected me with researchers in different fields and given me the opportunity to use my lab skills to test questions that have implications for public health and HIV vaccines. This is definitely a great learning experience and is preparing me for a career in translational infectious disease research.”
Notably, the majority of our interviewees did research abroad within the transition period from undergraduate to graduate studies and as part of an exchange program. This is clearly different from working as part of an international research collaboration on a longer term project leading to a graduate thesis, which typically requires stronger commitment and may involve logistical issues affecting work advancement. Overall, the responses we received clearly point out two things. First, that working abroad helped each of the students consolidate their long-term research goals and learn new personal and professional skills. And second, that despite the financial, cultural and linguistic barriers for overseas work, the international and collaborative nature of scientific research can afford such opportunities through University and research grant initiatives, thus making these adventures possible.
Junor, Sean, and Usher, Alex. Student Mobility and Credit Transfer: a National and Global Survey. Educational Policy Institute: 2008.
Mather-LíHuillier, Nathalie. Why do your PhD abroad? Accessed 17 February 2014. http://www.findaphd.com/study-abroad/why-phd-abroad.aspx
Summer Abroad Program – University of Toronto
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