From West to East and Back Again: What I’ve learned about setting up research away from McGill

Travel Stamps I’ve spent almost two years in China researching tuberculosis control. Along the way, I’ve garnered a lot of experience in setting up research abroad. Here, I lay out ten points of advice for Grad Life readers that are on the road to do research away from McGill:



One- Start preparing early: Expecting the unexpected is difficult under any circumstance; trying to mitigate the headaches that will certainly arise at home while you are away is a whole other can of worms. Make a list starting a couple of months before you leave detailing your responsibilities and obligations in Montreal, such as bills you normally pay (e.g., hydro, phone, rent, internet, McGill tuition), regular University and other requirements (e.g., yearly reports, setting up electronic signatures), and who will notice your absence (e.g., committee members, administrative staff, the government of Canada for international students, banks and credit cards, insurance companies). The everyday logistics of living in Montreal are not always apparent! Further, I suggest allowing at least a full week of buffer after all departmental and University requirements are expected to be met and your departure- there will always be things you can fill the time with!

Two- Treat your friends well: What happens if your debit card suddenly stops working because your bank forgot to inform you they were upgrading their security system? What about if you need to submit that funding application that came up while you were away? Or how about getting keys to your new subletter? Yes, your friends are your lifeline to staying sane and getting things done back home. A small packet with important documents and sundries (e.g., visa information, important id numbers, telephone, signed cheques, extra keys) is helpful. Have several friend-point-people to better  distribute the headaches and avoid complications in case one is busy.

Three- Money matters: Being away from McGill means that you can focus on research and life beyond academia. Unfortunately, in leaving, regular sources of income (e.g., RA and TA-ships) become extremely limited. Funding takes a lot of work, but it relieves you of having to work later or the stress of bankrolling yourself while away. Consider it your job to work on research funding applications. Besides the large grants, applying for small pots of money that more clearly align with your research can be a great way of securing funding.

–While Away–

Four- Stay as long as possible: Montreal is great; making the most of your time away can always benefit from additional time, though.

Five- Stay in the moment: Yet being away can be tiresome, isolating, and down-right difficult. While time-outs, such as a movie night or prolonged Skype call with friends and family back home, can help in re-motivating yourself while away, staying in the moment by NOT turning away from difficulties encountered can lead to the unexpected, beautiful, and best stories. It’s the uncomfortable, unplanned moments that render the most powerful experiences!

Six- Document your experience: Much happens between what you are researching and what actually happens in the field. Capturing these moments in emails, photographs, videos, art can produce lasting documents of your experiences and thoughts.


Seven- Reverse cultural shock: Leaving yourself open to experiences while away can profoundly change the way you think and act. Upon returning, you may find that your perspective on life back home has completely changed, leading to alienation from friends, work, and life in general. For myself, I’ve found the most difficult part has been in translating my experiences into meaningful interactions with people back home. After all, they did not live what I did, and life has not stopped because I was away. I have found hosting a small event, like a brunch or dinner, to be helpful in getting over this hurdle, providing a nice venue to share experience, give gifts away, and generally reconnect with friends.

Eight- Come back to something familiar: While it’s always great to reunite with friends and colleagues, for myself,  I need a lot of time to myself in order to process returning, tie up loose ends, and readjust to life in  Montreal. Having a small list of tasks can be helpful so your don’t fall behind with your obligations—checking in with the department, updated bank information, etc- but don’t overload yourself with too many targets that might lead to a burn out.

Nine- Don’t forget your time away: It can be easy to have time spent away quickly escape to the corners of one’s mind. Stay in touch be watching movies about that place, listening to music, editing and printing photos, writing up experiences, preparing your favorite foods- again, this can also be a great way of sharing your experiences with the people around you.

Ten- DO IT!: Whether for a couple of weeks or a more extended research period, being away from McGill enlivens the graduate experience through expanding professional networks, exposure to different research methods and perspectives, and experiences beyond what can be expected and prepared for.

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