How travelling can help prepare you for a successful research career

As science becomes more inter-disciplinary, scientists increasingly need to travel to promote their work and build collaborations. Whilst it’s common for professors to travel frequently, graduate students or post-docs may not be aware of the importance of travelling in building a career. Here’s how travelling has helped me — and how it might help you.

Establish connections with international experts

As a graduate student or post-doc, it can be frightening (but worthwhile) to engage well-known professors in formal settings, especially in big conferences. And the time you might have will be limited at a conference. Unless you initiate future communications, any impression you’ve left might be scant. In my experience, things can be completely turned around if you’re able to travel to visit a lab in person.

While attending a course in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), I met a friend from France and mentioned that I would be heading to Germany for a summer internship. To my surprise, she suggested that I present to her lab members. This was an excellent networking opportunity — her professor, a big name in my field, is someone I’ve always wanted to interact with.

Three months later, I met a potential post-doc supervisor at a conference. It transpired they’d previously worked with my friend’s supervisor. They had even communicated about my presentation and the technology I developed! Had I not travelled to CSHL and France, I might not have established the connection that landed me a post-doc interview and subsequent job offer so smoothly. As most of us are probably researching in a specialised (and maybe small) field, it is helpful to travel to establish professional and personal relationships with other individuals.

Develop cultural and social awareness

Travel can also provide you with opportunities to interact with individuals from different backgrounds and learn about their cultures. This could be very useful when you sell yourself as someone who is aware of social differences and can work well with lab members from diverse nations. This is an attractive selling point for a post-doc candidate/faculty position, as many recognised research labs and institutions are likely to be highly international.

As an undergraduate, I met a professor in Singapore who translates his research into Mandarin when he presents in China. This displays ‘cheng yi’ (sincerity) to his Chinese counterparts.

I adopted his advice and, before a research presentation in France, learnt to introduce myself and part of my research in French. My French counterparts appreciated the gesture (as of yet I’ve had no feedback on the accent).

Travel also helped me to understand how researchers in different countries ask questions and provide comments during meetings. In Germany, people tend to be more direct when they have questions about research, whilst in the US people tend to sugarcoat their criticisms. In my experience, Germans place great value on honesty to correct and improve their work. Americans may value courtesy more and think it is culturally inappropriate to hurt anyone’s pride. This awareness helped me to provide constructive feedback in a culturally-sensitive manner to presenters during international meetings.

Evaluate the compatibility of lifestyles

The success of your research career depends more than just joining an established lab. External factors such as compatibility of your lifestyle with the pace of life in a new place can also heavily influence your motivation for personal development and career planning. Your travel can help to inform you about lifestyles elsewhere in the world, and whether you’ll fit in.

Having lived in major cities like Singapore and Los Angeles, I faced problems adapting when I moved to Bayreuth for my summer 2016 internship. The pace of life in Bayreuth was slow and the city wasn’t as well-connected as other major German hubs like Munich or Berlin — limiting my social life. Although Europe offers great work-life balance, I realised I prefer big, busy cities — from 24-hour stores that are open on Sundays to more exciting restaurants. This experience has definitely influenced my decisions about the next phase of my research and personal life.

Resources

Finances are often the issue for graduate students and post-docs who want to travel. It can be useful to ask your department if they have any unrestricted funds that can support your academic travel for conferences or school visits. You can then make use of these trips to explore different cities and even arrange to visit labs in those cities. In return, offer to share your experience so other members in the department can also learn from your trip.

There are also external fellowships that you can consider applying to. The Australian government provides Endeavour Research Fellowships, for example, to support a four-to-six-month long research program in Australia. A similar program is also available through the European Molecular Biology Organization for three-month research internship in Europe. Neuroscientists might be interested in the International Brain Research Organization, which also provides multiple funding opportunities for students to attend various international courses and meetings.

You should recognise, though, that travel can be a double-edged sword. Excessive travel can be very disruptive to a research career — make sure you have quality results that you can share confidently with international scientists, and that you get something out of every trip you take.