In-between Places: How to work and travel during your PhD

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett

Originally, I was convinced that doing a PhD means to sit in a dusty, dark office corner at the end of a long echoing corridor of a university. And that may still hold true for some PhD candidates, frankly, I don’t know. Studying one topic in-depth for 3 to possibly many more years, turning that one coin over and over again, that does not exactly sound like a roller-coaster ride. It sounds like a long sweaty marathon when the skies are grey, everyone else is running in front of you, and the cheerleaders have gone home. But that is not it.

Embarking on a PhD journey may seem like a black box at first. Luckily, in my case, this does not describe my office situation. The black box is rather the many things that you figure out along the journey and that uncover over time and that includes the research output as well as the steps to get there. Against assumptions, two years into the journey, the ride continues to be exciting and somewhat mysterious. The times I spent sitting at a desk are finely interwoven with another trip to book, another chance to mingle and learn, another part of the chain to get to the next step.

The requirement of the EINST4INE program to move into another country was what drew me to it. I moved from Berlin to Barcelona in less than 2 months (the time frame is not my personal recommendation, but it worked out in the end!). Ever since, I get to enjoy an environment that was new to me, I am learning a new language and a new way of living—la vida loca. Aside from finding a new place to call home, the consortium also gets together on a regular basis, be it in Denmark, Italy, recently the United Kingdom – or soon in Stuttgart in southwestern Germany. And, of course, conferences, workshops and similar events are vital for joining the academic community, finding like-minded peers, and exchanging on the most recent findings.

While last year I was able to spend 4 months on an industry secondment in southern Norway, I kicked off this year with a joyful 3-months stay in Melbourne at RMIT. And here are some things that I learnt during my trips away thus far:

  1. Leaving your comfort zone is never easy, but can be very rewarding when you keep an open mind to experiencing something new everyday
  2. Planning early on and ahead of time can help to get adjusted more easily and prepare for the new setting (and safe money of your budget for another trip instead)
  3. Networking and getting to know new people are often the highlights of spending time abroad, especially if you can find people to discuss your topic with and get new ideas for your work, you may even make new friends for life
  4. Balancing to try new things and maintain regular habits (e.g., workout, sleep schedule, etc.) can be helpful to challenge yourself and expand your horizon while also keeping connected with your “home base self” for when your trip ends
  5. Exploring a new city and what it has to offer such as restaurants, museums, sights, and nature will provide many opportunities for experience and insight that can sometimes provide new angles on existing thoughts (especially for your research)—go explore and sleep when you are back home 😉

Looking back on every conference, every seminar, every dinner networking I thus far attended, each event provides such a unique value, adding to the pages of the PhD diary. Finally, my favorite saying goes like this: Don’t wait to be sure—move, move, move!


© phdcomics by Jorge Cham

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