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I've started a PhD recently and seen a few students from other universities visit our lab for a few days or maybe few weeks. The other university pays all expenses which many times amount to thousands of dollars. Most of the time, the visiting student gets a place, brings her/his own laptop and does research the way he does it at his university.

What's the point of this? Couldn't the visiting student just stay at his university and discuss his research with our lab on Skype?

One explanation I thought of is face to face networking but the cost seems to high for that. Or it may be an excuse to travel and see the world, but that's quite ridiculous. I also asked the visiting students, but they told me they didn't know.

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I also asked the visiting students, but they told me they didn't know. OMG –  seteropere Feb 26 '13 at 20:25
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Note to self: Do not visit biszo09's department. –  JeffE Feb 26 '13 at 22:52
    
Also see this post: dealing with irresponsiveness of remote scientists. I think working in the same lab is always better than cooperating via skype. –  CherryQu Feb 27 '13 at 3:40
    
@CherryQu that's true but if a collaboration project lasts 3 years, what do you get by working in the same lab for 1 week? –  siamii Feb 27 '13 at 9:25
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I'm with Dilbert on this one. I do actually prefer mailing lists to skype. This lets you read faster or slower depending on interest or involvement on the topic, the minutes are already written, no need to plan or schedule (I could even read it while commuting) and I don't need seeing faces or hearing voices, luckily I can read and type. IMHO, this is more efficient and better, but I know I'm a minority here. So, yeah, think about conferences... –  Trylks Jan 23 at 13:50
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4 Answers

The main goal, from my experience, is the facetime with many different people. Skype is nice, but it's primarily intended for conversations with very few people. A visit allows students to to talk to many professors and students face-to-face in a short timespan, get to know the place, interact with students in a lab, and get a sense for what the place is like, something which is impossible over the 'net.

Also, this gives the university a good chance to see what the student is like. It's easy to look good on paper and can put on a clean shirt (pants optional) for a skype interview. It's a lot harder to keep up a fake act in front of dozens of faculty and students over a one-or-two day period.

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I think that a brilliant researchers with Tourette syndrome should not punished for their condition. I think the best way to know how people are like at a professional level is to look at their work, which can travel pretty well through the Internet, because it uses to be information. –  Trylks Jan 23 at 13:54
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Getting to know people's work is best done through their work. Getting to know people as professional colleagues is best done face-to-face. Researchers are apes; we do apey things. –  JeffE Jan 23 at 14:12
    
Thank you so much for pointing at that!, I started to think about this kind of things with the non-verbal language reference of @ZevChonoles. I'm not sure I do/can speak that language, but I guess there is a big point there. As much as I cannot see it, I cannot really tell how big it is or how much money/time it's worth, so I'll assume people are doing right. I'm afraid I cannot really support the apey activities as much as I consider myself a transhumanist, but certainly that clarifies quite a lot about research, society, life, culture, etc. I'll try to keep that in mind. Thank you again. –  Trylks Jan 23 at 17:15
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For me, one of the main goals of visiting the grad schools I was interested in was to figure out whether the location was somewhere I'd want to live for the next 5+ years. If the research is a good fit at a given school, but you'll be mugged, or miles away from civilization, or miles away from the nearest Thai restaurant, or whatever else that'd make you miserable, that's something you'll at least want to know when making your decision, and I think spending a few days at each of the places you're (seriously) considering is helpful in that regard.

Also, I think you're underestimating the value of face-to-face networking. Walking around the department, chatting with the grad students, professors, etc. you bump into is much easier than scheduling a Skype session with everyone you might conceivably talk to, and yes, there are certain non-verbal cues that you'll miss when video chatting. And the general atmosphere is something to take into account too; do the grad students seem to get along, hang out together, help one another? Does no one come to their office because the building is too depressing?

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I see why it is useful for the student, but what does the university that pays for it get in return? –  siamii Feb 27 '13 at 9:20
    
It's not in the program's interest to portray themselves as being perfect for everyone and trying to convince as many admitted students as possible to come; it's worth it for a program to have grad students who are happy and are a good fit. Additionally, I think it's at least partially cultural inertia, i.e., "the other schools are offering visits, if we don't then people will have less information about us than other programs and we will lose out on students who will otherwise have known they'd be a good fit here and come here instead". –  Zev Chonoles Feb 28 '13 at 7:54
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In my experience (both sides: visiting and being where other students visit), the purpose can range all the way

  • from very narrowly defined purposes, such as learning a particular technique/method
    (I'm chemist. You will not learn phyico- or bio-chemical lab techniques efficiently via skype sessions)
  • to "exploratory" purposes like finding out whether a collaboration is feasible and brainstorming topics.
    Of course this implies that it may turn out during the stay that for some reason the initial idea is not or not yet feasible.
  • Or even just networking.

Most of the time, the visiting student gets a place, brings her/his own laptop and does research the way he does it at his university.

In my experience this happens when

  • collaboration as intended turns out to be impossible early during the stay: then the best option for the student may be to use the time away from the home lab to catch up with that pile of things-to-be-done. Depending on how far away the host institute is, getting an earlier flight home plus possibly the hassle of finding some place to stay because you sublet your room and the discussion whether you will be reimbursed for a room that you leave earlier but don't get refunded for that may be out of question.
  • External constraints and/or bad planning lead to the visit being just in the wrong time: I once had the option to do a visit but that was possible only during holiday time at the host institution - not that I didn't meet the people I wanted to meet, but the meetings were spread over a longer time. (I did get quite some work done off the todo list in the meantime - but I certainly was a bit "homeless" at the host institution for some of the time)
  • Bad planning of the type that some supervisors decide who (student) is to visit whom (student) and when, and one or both of the directly affected people don't really have the time.

Side note: Consider the cost of

  • further up the career path, people travel thousands of km for a visit of few hours.
  • I had a scholarship where I was expected to put in a full day's travel to have a 1 h meeting with my mentor or give a 10 min presentation. Likewise, the mentor put in almost a full day's travel in order to have a few hours visit to my lab.

As for what the guest's institution gets out of that:

  • Besides the obvious chance to successful collaboration or training on certain methods if the research stay is successful,
  • it can be seen as part of the student's training (that applies particularly if e.g. a scholarship pays for the visit)
    • In a way, you have to learn how to do a research stay before becoming really efficient at that,
      just like your home institution is probably not going to get that much out of your first conference visit, but without a fist, there will never be the efficient 5th conference visit.
    • Even just "living" in the hosting group will add experience how other groups handle their research life.
  • Possibly, they wouldn't have gotten the student without: e.g. when I negotiated for the PhD student position, my prof threw into the deal that he would put me in contact to some other groups so I could do a research stay abroad (we did work, though, and I was paid by the hosting institution, not by my home institution)
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The other answers cover your question from the student's and general research point of view pretty well. But if your question is why do universities encourage visiting students and student exchange, I can think of 2 reasons:

  • Publicity and improvement of their international reputation
  • Gaining a few more points in the university rankings (example: Times Higher Education has criteria named 'International Outlook')

On a less utilitarian note: international collaboration is, on the long haul, generally beneficial to research (even though there are a lot of exchanges that bring much less to science than to the local nightlife sector).

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