Benefits of Abroad Opportunities

A tip written by: Molly Cain, Indiana University

As society has become more connected worldwide, it is not surprising that science has become an increasingly global profession. Despite this, undergraduate students in STEM are often discouraged from studying abroad due to demanding curricula and strict course timelines. Graduate school is a great time to become integrated into the international scientific community, with life-long career benefits and numerous opportunities for financial assistance through travel grants and fellowships. Here are a few ways conducting research abroad can benefit you as a geoscientist:

1) Learn technical skills from experts
Scientific leaders with expertise on niche topics live all over the world, and research abroad provides a unique opportunity to learn from them. Studying in the Netherlands, I was affiliated with one of the leading water resources research universities in the world and benefited from being surrounded by people working on diverse areas of water research. Studying abroad also provides opportunities to be exposed to topics unique to that location. For example, what better place to learn about polders and flood control than the Netherlands? What better place to learn about the management of protected areas than in the national parks of South Africa?

2) Makes you a better scientist (soft skills)
In addition to gaining technical skills through working with experts in the field, conducting research abroad helps you to gain valuable soft skills. Journal articles are often written by a handful of authors based in multiple countries. Conducting research abroad enhances global awareness and cross-cultural communication skills necessary for successfully collaborating with diverse groups from all over the world. Studying abroad also cultivated my critical thinking skills and helped me to feel more comfortable coping with unexpected issues that arose during field research while adjusting to a new environment. When constrained by an international travel schedule, you may also have a limited amount of time to complete a project. These experiences hone planning and time management skills. My experiences working in new environments have made me a more confident and independent researcher.

3) Exposure to new landscapes
While conducting research abroad is beneficial in nearly all disciplines, it is uniquely valuable as a geoscientist. Like many who enter environmental fields, experiencing the outdoor world piqued my curiosity about the natural phenomena that lead to different landscapes. Extending to upper-level geoscience curriculum, hands-on field experiences and field trips were some of the best opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of how processes vary in different settings. Experiencing new landscapes, particularly while learning from colleagues who have a deep understanding of how the particular system functions, has continued to inform my ideas as a researcher and inspire scientific insight that I can apply to my field sites. Furthermore, a field site abroad may have the optimal combination of landscape type, infrastructure, and expertise of personnel to support your particular research question.

4) Broadens perspective
Incorporating different perspectives, whether through a multi-disciplinary scientific approach or by working with colleagues who have had unique training and educational experiences, can help to solve problems that cannot be solved with a limited view. We are each biased based on our education and scientific background. While abroad, I interacted with fellow scientists who, although hydrologists like myself, had trained in different educational systems, by different leaders in the field, and even held different paradigms within the discipline. This became apparent during a particularly competitive water-themed trivia night with colleagues in which the team that took the prize was also the most internationally diverse. I often draw upon the different perspectives I was exposed to when conducting my own research. Furthermore, international experiences give you a unique viewpoint that helps you to break the mold, boosting the potential for innovation and scientific discovery.

5) Get paid to travel—grant opportunities
The international and collaborative nature of scientific research affords opportunities through grant initiatives. There are many opportunities for graduate students to get funding to go abroad. I participated in the Fulbright program, the U.S. flagship international education exchange program, which covered round-trip transportation, health coverage, and a monthly cost of living stipend. Several of my colleagues have received the CUAHSI Pathfinder Fellowship, which provides travel funds to graduate students in water science to add a field site for comparative research. I have also received international travel grants through my university. Visit your university’s fellowship office to learn more about funding opportunities.

6) Increases your network
Building an international professional network expands your career horizons - and doing so as an early career scientist comes with added benefit. Establishing relationships with other scientists allows you to connect with experts in different fields, and these connections can lead to future career opportunities and collaborations. As an added benefit, studying abroad inevitably builds personal relationships. Due to the collaborative and social nature of science, there is overlap between professional and personal networks for many researchers. For example, I consider many of my colleagues to be my personal friends. During conferences and travel, I spend time with researchers/friends that I made abroad, not only because we have stimulating scientific discussions, but because I enjoy interacting with them socially. Researching abroad as an early graduate student provided me with an invaluable opportunity to integrate into the community, both scientifically and socially.

Molly Cain is a PhD student studying watershed hydrology. She conducted undergraduate research in South Africa and Jamaica. Through a Fulbright Fellowship, she completed graduate research and coursework in the Netherlands.