Take a board but keep the brolly

January 20, 2006

If drizzly old Blighty is getting you down, get networking and do your homework on research hot spots. But don't plan for a one-way overseas trip - you may want to come home, says Harriet Swain

Feeling a bit cold? Tempted by the idea that a couple of years in a sunnier clime may mean extra CV points? There's more to finding a placement abroad than reading the weather reports, you know.

David Dye, a lecturer in the department of materials at Imperial College London, spent time at National Research Council Canada's neutron beam laboratory in Chalk River, Ontario, early in his career. He says that the quality of the research environment is the most important consideration.

By the end of your PhD, Dye says, you should know which institutions are doing the cutting-edge work in your area - and which institutions you should be targeting. He advises consulting colleagues and asking supervisors and mentors for advice a year or so before you plan to make the move.

It is also worth looking at league tables, says Jonathan Adams, whose company, Evidence Ltd, helps to compile The Times Higher World University Rankings. "If you are going to travel you are looking for a significant gain from doing it," Adams says. "If the institution is academically strong then it will have a significant research base." But he adds that you also need to find out what is happening in more detail at departmental level - how stable the department's funding is, for example. For this, he advises using the rumour mill.

Howard Green, chairman of the UK Council for Graduate Education, says that using peers and contact networks is a better way than any written documentation, such as league tables, to find out who is doing the best work in your discipline. He also suggests contacting your subject association and consulting websites.

He and Adams both share Dye's top tip of keeping a close eye on journals to find out who is publishing in the field. This should help generate a list of people to e-mail or approach at conferences about opportunities.

When Molly Stevens, reader in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology at Imperial, chose her placement at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral researcher, she says that she was single-minded about where she wanted to work. "It is a very bad idea to block e-mail people because, if you aren't targeting your queries properly, then people will see straight through it," she warns.

She says that conferences are key as they give you an insight into not only how good the research is in a department, but also what sort of people are working there.

Dye strongly advises visiting departments that interest you so you can establish what the facilities are like and whether you will be able to get on with your colleagues.

As someone who now selects people from abroad who apply for placements at Imperial, Dr Stevens says that she looks for people who have clearly researched the work Imperial is doing, who have read all the papers and who can show why they are interested in the research. Good academic credentials, combined with enthusiasm, are key, she says.

Dye says that he will ignore e-mails unless the sender comes from an institution with a good reputation and they look suitable for a project for which he has the funding.

Adams warns that the reputation of an institution can be misleading - it is subject to time-lags and often it is the less well-established institutions that are doing the best work in newer subjects. However, Stevens says that it is very often the case that the best academics and research departments will be in top-tier universities.

Adams says that the US remains a top choice of destination "but people really ought to look at opportunities around Europe". Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, he suggests, are all good places to go, and the Asia-Pacific region is also worth a closer look, particularly on the technology side.

Green says that it is important to think about life after your placement.

It may be better to take one or two years' leave rather than cut ties with a UK institution completely.

He says that you will need to look carefully at the contract the institution abroad is offering and whether it offers any guarantees that you could stay on once the placement has finished.

Contracts differ considerably from country to country, although there have been moves within the European Union towards standardisation.

You also need to consider practical questions, such as how easy it will be to get back for job interviews. "It is far easier to apply and get a job within a country than it is from the other side of the world," he says.

Tim Short, a lecturer in design at Durham University's School of Engieneering, who spent a month at the Tim Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management in Rwanda, advises leaving enough time as part of your placement or when you get back for writing up the work you have been doing there.

"It is very tempting if you are at an institution to make use of absolutely all your time there for research, but it is no good if you never write up your research," he says.

And Dye concedes that you should not ignore the non-research aspects of your trip entirely. "You should take up a post abroad because it is somewhere you want to live, he says.

"If you aren't keen on the place, you probably won't have a productive time."

Further information

The Times Higher World University Rankings: www.thes.co.uk/worldrankings UK Council for Graduate Education: www.ukcge.ac.uk


Read league tables, but treat them with care

Network at conferences

Be up to speed on all the literature in your field

Consult colleagues

Think about life after the placement

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