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I hope to enter a PhD program in economics in the next few years, ideally at a top US school (Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, Harvard, etc.) Are there usually opportunities to study abroad during such a program? For example, if I attended Berkeley intending to focus on macroeconomics, would it be possible to study abroad with some of the macro theorists at Cambridge or U of Edinburgh?

This would not be an opportunity to "experience the local culture," which many undergraduate study abroad experiences focus on, but more a chance to gain multiple perspectives from academics in different countries. In my opinion the rigors of a top PhD program rule out the former.

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I don't quite know about PhD. but CMU has a Masters program in collaboration with a University in Portugal where you spend one year in CMU and one year in Portugal learning and doing Projects at both the places. –  Naresh Dec 14 '12 at 6:53
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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I don't think what you're describing is all that common, and I've never heard of any sort of systematic program, but it does happen. I ended up spending two months abroad during grad school to participate in a once off trimester program in my area of specialty. There weren't any standard arrangements in place, though: my home university (very generously) moved things around so I could do it. I think I've heard of other cases, all similarly involving unique circumstances like faculty moving around or particular personal connections.

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Same here. My advisor moved from the US to Germany two years into my PhD; I followed him for one semester. –  JeffE Dec 14 '12 at 2:22
Pretty much this: there are no standard programs. Everything has to be agreed upon and arranged by the institutions involved. However, I think there is a lot to be gained by doing some sort of stint away from your "home" group. I had to do a three-month internship as a condition of my fellowship; it was hugely influential for me, as it led me to consider a whole different career path (government research) that I would never have imagined pursuing beforehand. –  aeismail Dec 16 '12 at 12:21
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In the mathematics milieu, there'd be little motivation to do this, and several motivations to not do it. E.g., if one is in a top-ranked program, contact and connections with the faculty there, e.g., one's thesis advisor, are critical, not only to eventually generate letters of recommendation but, presumably, to be exposed to their ideas, their ways of thinking, and many intangibles.

A scenario in which I could imagine "travel abroad" would be professionally useful would be in which one found oneself in a "second tier" program, but somehow had the opportunity to "visit" a "first tier" program for a substantial bit of time. Then the point would be to pay attention to the ideas and viewpoints of the faculty there... obviously... and eventually elicit letters, maybe?

Otherwise, merely dislocating oneself from one's base is pointless.

Edit: quite apparently (in light of JeffE's comments and whoever's downvotes and such) there are varying viewpoints on the benefits-or-not of "study abroad". Presumably this is related to one's mental model for what happens in grad school, especially the role of the advisor, but also the "maturity/responsibility" of grad students. Also, while "travel is broadening", depending on one's model "broadening" may not be the goal of grad school. Sure, the extent to which "travel" makes provincial prejudices harder to maintain, one might hope that being at one of the best places avoids that already. If one's model views advisor/student as master/apprentice, disconnection seems undesirable. If the model views the advisor as merely an older colleague who's been successful, then very different actions seem reasonable. The latter sort of model-feature is arguably a corollary of the "grad student as independent thinker" principle. (My preferred tweaking of this is to "critical thinker".)

To my mind, the bottom line is that some of the most interesting projects/issues have enormous and informative backstories very badly documented in the formal literature, so that even a very good grad student has tremendous difficulty assimilating things. Optimistically/ideally, one can get different perspectives on these issues by talking to different "top experts", hence motivating "travel". However, a key bottleneck is that it may take a few years of full-time attention to catch on to a mature expert viewpoint. If there were a unique, objective such, then one could get variations on it from various experts. However, it is not at all clear to me that there is such a unique, objective unifying "story".

In fact, the variations on what might have been "the standard story" appear to often be fairly critical, and the variations and nuances thereof take a long time to get a grip on. Thus my raising the "apprenticeship" model.

As hinted at, if grad school does take "several years", maybe there is more room to fit in residence elsewhere, but some of the elite programs like people to finish in three or at-most-four years, and then it's harder to see how this would work out.

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I strongly disagree. Taking a semester away from one first-tier program to visit a first-tier program in another country is a win for everyone. The several years in the home department are more than enough to osmose ideas and generate good letters, especially if the time away leads to good research. Staying at home can easily lead to tunnel-vision, even in the best departments. –  JeffE Dec 14 '12 at 2:07
Apparently you think that the time away is a "break" from the PhD. That ain't necessarily so; if anything, especially in mathematics, the opposite is more likely. I made enormous progress toward my PhD dissertation during my semester abroad (one semester out of eight). –  JeffE Dec 14 '12 at 14:51
what replaces weekly one-on-one face time with one's advisor? — Weekly one-on-one face time with someone else, obviously. And I've observed "tunnel vision" from people coming from even the strongest departments (Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, ....) –  JeffE Dec 14 '12 at 17:38
Well, presumably you speak from experience, but my experience (math, not CS) is quite different, both my own experience and observations of students at various places. If anything, even good students seem inclined to under-utilize the faculty wherever they are. And if one's advisor has a really unusual/good research program, which is desirable, it may easily happen that there's nothing like it happening elsewhere, so "travel" amounts to cutting off from that enterprise. If that's desirable, then why not make the move "permanent"? Apparently the CS world is very different from math. –  paul garrett Dec 14 '12 at 19:08
I'm a bit taken aback by the categoric nature of Paul's advice. As a Europe-based mathematician, I spent three months at a good research institute in another country during my PhD and found the experience beneficial; several of my office mates went to other countries and seemed to find the experience fruitful. It seems to me that travel is an inherent part of academic life. Why not travel as a postgraduate student? The idea that all the best people and worthwhile activity are in your own back yard is liable to foster an unduly insular outlook, in my humble opinion. –  Shane O Rourke Dec 18 '13 at 23:41
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It is possible but very rare. Professors think, if you want to work with us in your dissertation why could you possibly want to go abroad? Some people do internships abroad during the summer while they are studying. Others begin to work with a professor who then moves to a university abroad and the student follows the professor to the new school. That usually implies that the student ends up graduating from the second school and it is a major move. Finally, some students get a scholarship which sustains them for a year or two to study with a researcher at a top school. At Penn some professors received European students on a regular basis for a year or two, to work on papers together and the students then went back and graduated from their school having done their paper and network at Penn. But if you wanted to go from there to Princeton or MIT, good luck.

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It seems like you are talking more about economics in your question, but in fields closer to engineering, doing internships at company research labs seems almost mandatory for excellent PhD students. Visiting other universities is less common, but certainly not unheard of. As such, I would not agree with the general tone of most answers here. I would say, for engineering, spending significant time outside of "your" lab is both common and beneficial to your further career.

I even know of (some) formal exchange programmes that are established to send students abroad. For instance, in Singapore, programmes exist for both incoming and outgoing visiting PhD students. These exchanges can last between 3 months and 2 years, as far as I know, and are supported by government grants. The government of Austria (my country of residence) also has multiple funding programmes running that scholars in various career stages can apply to for funding research visits.

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