Working away from work and making work home


Guest post by Rosie Burdon, a PhD student at Uppsala University in Amy Parachnowitsch’s lab. She is studying interactions between Penstemon digitalis and its pollinator Bombus impatiens in eastern USA. Here she shares her experiences of spanning multiple countries for a PhD and the benefits and challenges of having the USA as your long distance fieldsite. You can find her on Twitter at @RealRBurdon.

I love my job, it’s a 4-year contract asking questions about nature and ultimately answering some. Yes, it is a real job mum. Specifically, I get paid to ask questions about what plant volatiles and nectar rewards mean to bees/plant reproduction. I don’t do this in the country that employs me, or even the country I was born in. I moved from the UK to Sweden to work (where I spend most of my time) but I do my fieldwork in the US or else dwell in university of Salzburg labs.

I started this PhD having never visited Sweden, or Uppsala or having met my supervisor. I had two days to decide whether I wanted it and so far it’s been a non-stop rollercoaster ever since. I cannot recommend doing a PhD in a Scandinavian country more. The pay is better (than the UK), the facilities are excellent and you get a pension. The downside is if you fall in love with the country without become fluent in the language; it is unlikely you will stay after (unless you get another position in academia/ marry a native).

Although I took a course leaning basic Swedish, my skills remain poor as most people/places speak excellent English. Google translate has become a regular website though as university emails and forms are in Swedish. This can be frustrating and often I miss logistical details. Additionally, new country = new health care rules, and learning where when and how requires you to actively search. I find these are minor details in the grand scale of things though as they have not stopped me from engaging in academic and social life. The food culture here is different to. At first things can be strange but the new becomes old and before you know it you’ve adapted and it becomes perfectly normal to have lunch before 12, cake most days and have dill flavoured crisps.

One of the reasons I wanted to do a PhD was for the opportunity to travel by either conducting research at collaborating universities or networking at conferences. Now in my 3rd year, I am certainly experienced at working at host universities and the logistical details that entail. Mostly, you are independent with the only control being on what you are doing out in the field (planned in detail in advance). It can be a steep learning curve but invaluable experience.

My fieldwork is not the typical tropical adventure one might imagine. It is often based in a college/student town, accessible by car or foot with locals not too far away. This provides a unique set of challenges different from working in a tropical rainforest or on a mountain. Often this means more administration and developed world issues like access issues on weekends and university identification. Here, I share some experiences from planning and conducting field/lab work abroad that I hope will be helpful.

In most scenarios, having successfully applied for and received grant money for your travel and research, the real fun begins…

  1. Entering the country with restricted baggage/equipment allowance and American customs. This is always interesting. Best experience so far was explaining at the border that I am a plant ecologist, the officer pausing for a bit then asking “so you like marijuana then?” They also always have issues with microscope slides in hand luggage. So far, sealed slides are ok. Additionally it’s always questionable what you should declare or not. For example, working with scent I use solvents and dubious absorbing powders. Also with nectar experiments I often have bags of sugar in my luggage. These are just asking for the wrong impression. Once stage one is complete, it’s time to find your feet as a guest researcher at the foreign university.
  1. Finding affordable and safe accommodation for a few months at a time. I’ve found this easiest out of the host universities term time. Often this can let you sublet from an absent student. You don’t get to check the place often before committing/ paying a deposit but it’s an adventure. Sometimes plans don’t work out but you adapt. I’ve slept in a car, a tent, an RV, a mouldy place with kitchen mushrooms, but most importantly I have met some brilliant people. As long as you can have an independent space to store your things and huddle up in after a long day you can recharge. Try to Skype with potential flat mates and ask your host about areas to avoid and you should be ok.
  1. Planning the practical aspects. For example, working out flight times in relation to your plants phenology, car insurance (often not covered by the university) and transporting/ordering equipment (additional expenses here when ordering from the same company, but different location to the funds).

Nature is unpredictable, which is why it’s so interesting to study but can make the most easy field site in theory, unreliable to study. Having a field site in a different country is also a mixed blessing. For example, you have no idea how your field site is doing whilst you’re away from it, whether there are plants to study, or whether they are 1. growing and 2. where you think you left them. Three field seasons down and so far I’ve had my fields mowed (prevented since then), deer herbivory at the fruiting stage, which stopped me seeing effects of experiments I have done and most recently, unusually high herbivory from caterpillars before your flowers even bloom. If I were to advise anyone else who was going to work in the field abroad, then I would say always have a back up experiment, in the field, in a lab, and maybe something else you can do at home too. It’s unpredictable and a little more pressured when you are working away from home.

Beyond the fieldwork, being associated with another university has its own challenges. You need to establish a new network of people to converse with, learn new ways a lab functions, which person uses what, and when, and then there is access issues. If you are not paid by the host university and so lack an official ID, it can be really tricky to have access to your work on weekends and afterhours. Really, how many PhD’s work 9-5? Usually I borrow keys from professors who don’t need to be there or schedule meetings to be let in buildings. It usually takes a couple of weeks to establish oneself in a new lab, with new surroundings and people. Often you are relying on altruism, as someone has to take time out of their work to show you the ropes etc. Be social, let people know who you are and engage with them, this doesn’t mean you are not serious about your work. Often a drink with colleagues will help things go smoother, or at least give that impression.

At the end of the day, if I have networked, learnt new skills and techniques, and have hopefully have data for a paper, I know I’ve done a good job. Often that’s what it comes down to. Collaboration, networking and after many, many steps…publishing. After numerous times of doing this, in hindsight, would I have taken this PhD? Yeah, I would. Learning new cultures and seeing different ways universities function has been a really good experience. It ultimately lets me know there is a diversity of survival strategies as a working group and as an independent scientist.

My experience has taught me that as long as you find your subject and the people working in it inspiring, and you can push yourself now and again outside your comfort zone by saying ‘yes’ more than ‘no’, you will have a utility belt of skills beyond academia and a great amount of stories to tell.

Best wishes and good luck,

Rosie Burdon

3 thoughts on “Working away from work and making work home

  1. Thank you for writing! I’m in a master’s, but it’s an international master’s and I’m working in a different country than the one my institution is in. I also found that managing that has been difficult. On strange sleeping arrangements: I also ended up in a place that was moldy enough to be considered a health hazard for a time.

    You mention working at host Universities. How many places have you worked and how many times have you had to move?

  2. Also are there situations that have worked out better than others? Or is it more of a process that you just get better at over time?

  3. Nice write up. I think I am still getting rid of all the salt I built up from eating Swedish food last time I was there😉.

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