Hockey player

A photo I took during the first days of my PhD stay abroad (Montreal, 2010)


I remember when my supervisor told me “Do you want to go abroad during your PhD? But…you are *already* abroad!?!”

We were discussing me spending some time doing research at a foreign institution during the PhD project. In his mind, since I had moved from Italy to Denmark for this project, I didn’t need to go anywhere else…

But, that argument didn’t really prevent me to pack my stuff and spend three months kindly hosted by Cecile Bulle & the LCA group of CIRAIG. During the freaking peak of the Canadian winter.

But I like winter! They don’t make it anymore in these days of global warming, and anyway according to the locals that was a very warm one, only minus 27 degrees Celsius.

That was ten years ago and yes, this is a nostalgic blog post about research stays abroad.

It is partly inspired by the recent visit of my former host in Montreal, and former CIRAIG PhD student, now Professeur agrégé, Dr. Ing. Ph.D. Ben Amor who has joined our LCA group in Aalborg for about a week.

Check the twitter thread of his guest lecture showing off some of his recent LCA projects at the LIRIDE lab.


Get out

There is a sort of unwritten rule - or perhaps it is actually written somewhere, but I haven’t checked - in Danish academia that PhD students should spend a period abroad during their three-year project.

The purpose is twofold: strengthen their research network and experience a different research environment than the one they are used to. Because, well, there is not only one way of doing research and one might actually learn something from others…

Recently I had the chance to discuss how to find a good place for a research stay. These are my recommendations. I’ll use some very random names for some of the following examples.

  • Complementarity. One option is to find a place where you can get something that your university and supervisor does not provide. Knowledge, data, models. For example, you know that prof. W. White at University X is working with a new method that you don’t know how to use but you think it would be really great for your next paper. Or, you have developed an amazing new model and want to try it out on a specific problem, and you don’t have the data, but prof. W. White has collected them. Get in touch with Walter, sorry I mean with dr. White, and propose him to work on a joint study at his lab. This is a particularly good option if your research is interdisciplinary.

  • Synergy. Another option is to find a research group that does similar things as your home group. You have been working on topic X and you know that Flint C. et al. have been working on X too overseas, and there is the chance to join forces and do something revolutionary on X. Get in touch with Flint and his crew to get this collaboration sailing. This is a good option if you plan to stay in your current field of research in the future and want to start or build a long-term collaboration between groups. And who knows, perhaps it could be a good place for your postdoc?

  • Homework.Check throughly the profiles of those you are going to collaborate with. Do they have a good publication record? And does their publication record matche the expertise that you are looking for? Then I must say, although it is tempting to be hosted by the famous Professor White or Flint, these guys are often really busy with their own projects. So another thing to check is whether the hosting person/group will actually have the time to follow you during the stay. A preliminary talk about mutual expectations regarding supervision can help in this sense - and I would warmly recommend it before agreeing on the collaboration. Make sure your supervisor is also oriented about the whole thing…

  • Win-win. What’s White’s share? What’s in it for Flint? People kindly hosting a PhD at their premises let the student use their data, models, machinery, etc. Provide office space, do paperwork to ensure visa, lab access, software licences, etc. And provide supervision. This is work. Free work most of the times. They should probably get something in return and the classic way of doing this is to work on a co-authored publication as output.

Get in

I also receive often requests from PhD students to join our group for a period, for example to work on a specific LCA topic like consequential LCA. Over time, I have elaborated my personal three ‘rules’ to host PhD students.

  1. We work on a topic of common interest. For example, on a topic that I find interesting but I haven’t had the chance to work on yet, or something I have tried in the past but would like to do more of. Or something I am working on -just right now- and can be expanded in some way or direction.

  2. The duration of the stay is minimum three months. One does not get enough work done in less than this - with me at least. Ideally, the PhD student does some preliminary work before arriving (e.g. collect and organise relevant data), then during the period spent at our premises the students focuses on setting up a model and analysing results, and once returned home we collaborate remotely on the draft of a paper until submission. Three months is a good minimum also in order to get to know the people at our premises and the country etc. I mean, there is life beyond work…

  3. The outcome of the collaboration is to write, together, a co-authored paper. However, this must not be the first paper that the PhD student writes in his/her life. Writing the first paper is generally very tough for PhD students, and requires substantial supervision and feedback. I believe the main supervisor should be the one taking care of this, not me.

This could be the a good spot to write something slightly stereotypical like As a good Italian I am quite flexible about rules…, which is actually not completely wrong, but the truth is that I am flexible about many things in terms of hosting people, but breaking the ‘rules’ above becomes very counterproductive for me, so I try to stick to them.

We can also call them best practices and voilá, problem solved.

Get somewhere

Due to practical reasons like lack of office space and time it is not always possible to host PhD students. Sometimes collaborations are extremely fruitful, some other times they don’t work as well as one would expect.

For me it typically worked well and ended up in a joint publication, so spending time abroad during the PhD period is something I strongly recommend - of course assuming one’s resources allow for it.

Yet, even if one doesn’t actually get this damn paper published, the time spent within another research environment can be a good basis for critical reflections on how research is done in another context compared to the context one is familiar with, which is a valuable insight and learning to bring home anyway.

As valuable as a barrel of dollars or a chest of gold.

First update

This post is dedicated to Jakob Løvstad Funder, a good friend. Just a few days after the publication of this post he died in tragic circumstances. I had not seen him in many years and we weren’t very close anymore, but we had a lot of fun together back in the Montreal days. Partying like there’s no tomorrow. We were both doing a PhD stay abroad at the time, and he was my “Danish connection” there. He introduced me to a lot of crazy places, people, and…to Dirty Martini cocktails. I had been thinking to him a lot while writing this post. Nostalgia. He truly will be missed.

Second update

Destiny, sometimes. A couple of weeks after this post the COVID-19 pandemic happened. The university offices closed and we were sent home to work from there, doing research and teaching remotely. Danish borders closed too, together with those of many other countries. Travel plans were abandoned. This was a post about international relationships, but it was exactly these relationships that were mostly affected by the Corona crisis. One of the PhD students I supervise had to cancel her trip to US, that took months to plan: visas, letters, grants, tickets, collaboration agreements, etc. At present, I don’t know whether she will be able to take this trip during her PhD. Another PhD student was supposed to visit us for some months from Thailand. Again tickets, visas, letters, all wasted. Our LCA PhD course - 25 international participants, planned since the autumn - was also affected. We are going to hold this remotely in some days, but it’s a pity not to get to know these PhD students in person, and I am sure they were looking forward to spend some time together in Aalborg too. Then workshops, international projects, funding, employment of new international staff…all delayed, postponed, or cancelled. Such a big mess! But anyway, we’ll survive of course, these are first world problems after all. Lesson learned? Not sure, but we should probably be happy to have such an international job, and international research mobility is something we are so accustom to that we take it almost for granted, but can be actually be quite fragile.