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BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Studying Abroad in Graduate School

Author: Adile Nexha

Grad school comes with many unique opportunities and challenges. One of the greatest skills required for a student is adaptability. It allows you to be a sort of jack-of-all-trades in academia, where you learn hard, soft, and other transferable skills. One of the most important aspects of graduate school is collaboration. Levels of collaboration range widely, with some involving just student-supervisor, while some extend to other lab members, and some to external research teams. If your lab happens to collaborate with researchers in a different city or country, there may be opportunities for you to work with them in-person. This way, you can gain perspective of what it is like to work in a different lab environment and, at the same time, how it would feel to live in an entirely different city while still continuing the same work you have been doing.

I have taken the liberty to gather information from three graduate students (including myself) on the process and experience of doing graduate research abroad. This article will cover the driving forces behind why the students decided to do this research, how this changed their professional trajectory, the technical aspects of the process (e.g., routes of applications and necessary documents), as well as the students’ personal views on the journey and advice they have for those who are considering studying abroad.

The Who

First, a brief introduction of the students interviewed for this article. My name is Adile Nexha and I am a 4th year PhD student studying subjective perception of rhythmicity in mood-related symptoms and behaviours and its relation to mental health. Many of my projects are in collaboration with researchers in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre, which is where I am currently carrying out my research term abroad. I interviewed Mario Simjanoski, a PhD student in his final year, who is studying the importance of lifestyle behaviours for improving clinical outcomes in mood disorders and anxiety. He completed his research term abroad at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. I also interviewed Dr. Jee Su Suh, a recent PhD graduate and alumnus of the neuroscience program, whose thesis was on structural neuroimaging biomarkers of antidepressant response. She also researched in Paris, France, with researchers at the NeuroSpin Facility and INSERM. 

The Why

I was first interested in why students decide to do research abroad and how this has the potential to change their research trajectory. For all interviewees, one of the most appealing aspects  of doing research in another country was the opportunity to explore another place and become immersed in their culture, which is possible due to the long-term nature of these placements. This allows us to work in a completely different environment and learn new skills and working habits, which we can then take with us as we reintegrate back into our home country. In my case, for over 2 years, I had been developing a collaborative relationship with researchers in Brazil and the desire to meet them in person grew strongly, serving as a great driving force for the decision to travel. Travelling abroad enabled Jee Su to work with experts in her field of neuroimaging and receive specialized training that would not be possible anywhere else. Mario traveled during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, right before the vaccine rollout began, and this trip served as a way to become unstuck from the monotonous routine that the pandemic put us all through. The benefits of this drastic change of environment were apparent after just a few weeks, akin to having a “fresh start”. We can become so buried in our research for months or years that we do not realize the zoomed-in perspective we have until we are forced to widen our lens. 

Though the interviewees agreed that the content of their research projects did not change much, their approach to research certainly did. Since I was heavily involved in collaborations with this research team before traveling, my projects remained the same in their technical aspects, but grew in terms of understanding their application. I was able to exchange ideas about current and future projects with the team over coffee, in a relaxed and casual environment, which is (arguably) essential for instigating inspiration. In a similar manner, Mario’s approach to his project changed as he became more efficient: the increased excitement of being in Paris paired with greater focus as he adapted to the Parisian way of working resulted in increased productivity in his new and old projects. Jee Su was able to receive targeted training by software engineers in the neuroimaging and machine learning fields, which influenced her approach to future projects and opened doors to collaborate with neuroimagers, specifically. 
The How

There are multiple routes to earn funding for a research term abroad, but they all require a collaborative relationship between your lab and another lab, either existing or newly-formed through the grant. My lab has had a longstanding collaboration with the research team in Brazil. I applied for the Mitacs Globalink Research Award, which exists to support research collaborations between Canada and select countries. The application process involved writing a research proposal for a new project that would begin once I arrived, with special emphasis on how this project would contribute to research in Canada. I had the option to decide on a period of 3-6 months and received a stipend of $6000 for my stay. Jee Su applied for the Foreign Study Supplement, available if you are awarded the CGS-M scholarship (also available for CGS-D and Vanier winners). Similar to Mitacs, this application requires a research proposal and offers a 3-6 month stay with a $6000 stipend. In Mario’s case, there was an existing grant for his lab that supported the foreign exchange of researchers between Canada and France.
Much preparation is necessary before you can travel. In most cases, you will require a Student/Work Visa, which itself requires much preparation. It is best if you begin the Visa process well before you plan to travel as this process is arduous and may take months. Make sure to gather all of the items required by the Visa application: travel and health insurance, proof of travel and living arrangements, proof of (lack of) criminal record, and copies of multiple other records. Travel and living arrangements are also very important to take care of – you will require great financial literacy and planning to ensure that your expenses fit within your budget, including and external to your stipend. We advise that you explore the area you will be living in beforehand: locate hospitals and emergency centers, pharmacies, grocery stores, points of public transport, local cafes, how to get a phone plan, where to get internet access, if you require a VPN, etc. Be as familiar with the area as you can before arriving, so you will not feel too disoriented once you’re there. In general, we recommend being as on top of your paperwork and deadlines as you can. It is helpful to have a list of documents that are required, in process, and on hold so you can plan ahead. Don't forget to 'request to be full time off campus' and complete the request paperwork (found on the SGS website) 1-2 months before you plan to travel.
The Lessons and Takeaways 

Unanimously for all interviewees, the language was the most challenging aspect of researching abroad. Though I learned some Portuguese with Duolingo, having an actual conversation with a native speaker is a completely different experience. However, I found that people were extremely nice and understanding, some even taking the opportunity to practice their English with me! Another challenge is the culture shock and homesickness, which starts to set in after a few weeks, for friends, family, and familiar places and routines that you leave behind in Canada. It is a bittersweet feeling because you know that this journey will soon end, forming a concoction of homesickness and gratitude for the current moment. Depending on where you travel, the locals can both be enthusiastic to help you integrate into the culture or more rejecting of you as a foreigner. There is the possibility of racism and discrimination as well, especially for those who have low exposure to people of different ethnicities and places of residence. 

Nevertheless, being immersed in a different culture was described as the best part of the experience for all interviewees. You get the opportunity to travel, see landmarks, visit local markets, try different foods, watch live festivals, attend events and parties, and meet many new people, some who become lifelong friends. In Europe, especially, you have the chance to visit different countries that are just a short train ride away. This increased autonomy and sense of independence while traveling alone gives rise to an unprecedented degree of freedom that is only achievable under these circumstances. Our research was positively impacted, as well. My perspective has broadened immensely and I more able to think about how my research is applicable to people in other parts of the world that live under different circumstances. Mario had the chance to experience a vastly different work-life balance that is normal in France but less normal in Canada, which includes longer breaks and vacations that allow for a greater capacity to explore creativity. 
We all agree that researching abroad is an invaluable experience that you should take full advantage of if you have the opportunity. Here is some advice that we have compiled for you, should you choose to explore this path: 

1) Have an open mind. You will experience ups and downs, but they will all be new experiences that require you to be flexible with outcomes. Allow yourself to be swept away by the journey and be surprised by what it has to offer while transmuting those experiences into lifelong lessons.

2) Don’t pressure yourself to have a “perfect experience” because you will be disappointed – it is important to remember that this is not the same as a vacation. Adjust your expectations as you navigate the experience and allow yourself to make mistakes.

3) Don’t take your fears too seriously. You will be forced to adapt to circumstances that you cannot always foresee. This is normal and expected when trying anything new, so accept that you will be nervous and afraid. You will be better off for it after facing your fears, as they always lead to expansion and growth of character.

4) Be as prepared as you can before you leave, so you don’t get too overwhelmed once you arrive. Research the area and have all your documents in order before leaving. Know where you are living and the surrounding area, how you will have access to the internet, and what to do or who to contact in case of emergencies.

5) Lastly, express gratitude. This is a very unique opportunity, and you will likely never be in this situation again in your lifetime. Allow yourself to explore with wonder and feel thankful for being in the position to have this wonderful experience.